The winter solstice translates to, “the sun stands still;” it is the longest night of the year. From this point forward, the light returns as days grow longer into Spring. Learning about ancient beliefs and archetypes makes me feel more connected to the season, and it can help us understand where some of our long-standing traditions come from. Did you ever wonder why we kiss under the mistletoe or why there are twelve days of Christmas? The answers are in our ties to ancient Roman, Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythology.
Setting the stage – Yule and the Winter Solstice
Yule descends from the Old English word geól and may refer to Christmas Day or Christmas tide. It is also connected to the Norse word jól, a heathen fast lasting twelve days, while Odin and his ghostly hunters swept through the dark forest. Since the mid-1800s, the word is widely used as an informal term for all Christmas festivities meaning joy or jolly.
The Romans recognized Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, the Solar God Mithras. In the 4th century, the Church, in an attempt to promote Christianity, substituted the birth of the sun with the birth of the son. Some believe this to be the reason that we celebrate the birth of Jesus in December, even though he was more likely born in the Spring.
Goddesses, Mothers, Kings, and Gods of Winter Solstice
The solstice is a very maternal time of year, referred to as “The Mother Night” in some cultures. Women are often credited with the birth and death of the sun, the changing of the seasons, and the balance of life itself. Men are shown as heroes, battling adversity or ensuring that proper cycles continue, so life can be sustained. They sometimes represent the sun itself.
Celtic Goddess Cailleach
Cailleach translates to “the veiled one.” She is the crone, the old one, the Queen of Winter. She is part of the triple goddess symbol of the child, the maiden and the crone. The maiden, Brighid, rules from Beltane in the Spring, until Samhain in the Fall, but Cailleach rules the Winter months.
There was a tradition in Ireland and Scotland, where farmers competed to bring in their crops. The first farmer to harvest his fields would create a corn dolly to represent Cailleach, and he would toss it into the unharvested field of another farmer. As each farmer finished, the dolly would be found and passed along, until the last farmer to finish the harvest would have to look after Cailleach for the Winter. The dolly would be burned on Beltane to release the Crone and welcome the Maiden. It was a heated competition, no one wanted to get stuck with the Crone in their home for the Winter.
Greek Goddess Demeter
Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and sacred law. She presides over the cycle of life and death. She is a mother goddess. Her daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades and tricked into staying in the underworld with him for six months out of the year. Demeter’s grief causes the earth to die for those months until Persephone returns in the Spring. She controls the balance of the harvest, which was the source of life for people at the time.
Norse Goddess Frigg and God Beltur
Frigg is the Norse Goddess of Winter. It is believed that on the longest night of the year, she labored the birth of the sun into the world. This was called “The Mother Night.” Frigg is Odin’s wife, also associated with marriage and fertility. Friday is named after Frigg. She gave birth to two sons, Beltur, and his blind twin Holdr.
Frigg asked all of nature not to harm her sons, but in her haste, she forgot about mistletoe. Loki, a trickster God, fooled Holdr into shooting Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe. He was later brought back to life, and Frigg was so delighted that she declared mistletoe as a symbol of love and vowed to kiss anyone beneath it. It is poisonous though, so don’t let anyone eat it!
The Oak King and the Holly King
In Celtic tradition, the day of the Winter solstice is the day when the Oak King wins the battle against the Holly King. It is the battle of light and dark, of life and death, of Winter and Summer. And cycle that must continue for life to endure. The Oak King will win and the nights will grow shorter until the Summer Solstice when the Holly Kings wins his battle and brings us back to Winter. People would burn fires through the night and sing at dawn to midwife the birth of the sun and celebrate the victory of the Oak King.
Greek God Apollo
In the 10th century BCE, the Roman Emperor Augustus installed Apollo as the reigning version of the solar god. Games and festivities were held in his honor around the winter solstice. He was later superseded by the Persian deity Mithras. Mithras’ birthday just so happened to be December 25th, but scholars seem to agree that there is no connection to Christianity and the cult of Mithras.
Saturnalia and a personal reflection
Another connection to winter gods is the Roman festival Saturnalia, in honor of the agricultural god Saturn, from December 17-23. It was a time of feasting, gift-giving, offering sacrifices, and a special dinner where masters served their slaves.
In late December and early January of this year, I was at the Temple of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, India. The entire village is dedicated to the Hindu God of Saturn. They go to temple and make offerings every day. No one in the village locks the doors on their homes because they trust that they are protected and no one will do each other harm.
The village was humble, and the people were so friendly. I had the best cup of chai of the entire trip and I picked up an ornament there, which I was excited to place on my Yule altar this season. The extra excitement is over the rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn today (12/21/20201) as I write this on the Winter solstice. Check out my astrologer friend, Carter’s blog about this! Learn more about the Christmas Star.
My year started and ended with Saturn, the sun, incredible magic, new experiences, and new friends. I am filled with gratitude.
I hope this brief introduction to some archetypes associated with this time of year inspires you to learn more! If you feel drawn to any of these characters, I encourage you to research them and honor them with your yule decorations. This is a good time to clean and organize, to reflect and learn lessons from the past year, and to envision your new future. As the sun is reborn, you can start fresh too. Blessed be!
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Moura, Ann. Grimoire for the Green Witch: a Complete Book of Shadows. Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2018.
Pesznecker, Susan. Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.