Holidays, India

Goddesses, Mothers, Gods, and Kings of Winter Solstice

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!

If you like learning about folklore and magic, sign up for my newsletter for more blogs and workshops!

Sources

Books

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. 

Websites

https://www.britannica.com

https://www.learnreligions.com

India

Ganesh: remover of obstacles

Ganesh (also Ganesha or Ganapati) is a very important God in the Hindu Religion. He is the patron of intellectuals, students and authors, as well as travelers, bankers, and anyone starting a new project or adventure. You can ask Ganesh to remove obstacles on your path that are not serving your highest good.

Gansh with Shiva and Parvati

There are many different stories about Ganesh, here is a little taste of what I’ve learned. We will start with the God Shiva, and his wife, the Goddess Parvati. Shiva had a devoted follower, a bull called Nandi. When Parvati went to take a bath one day, she asked Nandi to guard the door and not to let anyone in, especially her husband Shiva, who had a habit of barging in on her.

But, when Shiva came to call, Nandi let him right in because he was so devoted to Shiva. Parvati wanted a companion that was loyal to her above Shiva, so she decided to make one. While bathing, she used tumeric to clean her skin. She used the tumeric paste from her body to mold a baby boy, and she breathed life into the boy. She had the boy stand guard for her. When Shiva returned home for the day, he was surprised to find a boy he never met before, claiming to be Parvati’s son and refusing to let him in! He gets pretty upset about this, and he cuts the boy’s head off.

Well, Parvati was pretty outraged when she found out, and she cried to Shiva, demanding he make this right. Shiva basically replaces the head with an elephant’s head and breathes life into the boy again. There’s a bit more to it than that, but you get the idea.

You’ll see Ganesh depicted with one broken tusk, and there are many stories as to how his tusk was damaged. Some say it was cut off when Shiva chopped off the elephant head. Another says he broke it off himself to use it as a writing instrument. He has a fondness for sweets; he’s often shown using his trunk to eat a hand full of modak, creamy sweet dumplings. This is why he has a bit of a belly.

Ganesh is very special. He has dominion over all classes of beings, ranging from insects, animals and humans to the subtle and celestial beings. During my tour of India, our teacher led us in a Ganesh gayatri mantra every morning on the bus. I pictured Ganesh’s big trunk moving traffic and obstacles out of our path as we drove along.

Ganesh Gayatri

Here’s a good rendition of the mantra on youtube!

It goes:

  • Om Ekdantaya Vidmahe
  • Vakratundaya Dheemahi
  • Tanno Dantih Prachodayat

It means:

  • We pray to the one with the single-tusked elephant tooth who is omnipresent. 
  • We meditate upon and pray for greater intellect to the Lord with the curved, elephant-shaped trunk. 
  • We bow before the one with the single-tusked elephant tooth to illuminate our minds with wisdom.

Traveling through India, Ganesh is everywhere you look! I picked up a small trinket of his to put on the dashboard of my car, so he can clear my way as I drive around little Rhode Island. If you want to learn more about Ganesh, I shared some sources below that you can check out. May Ganesh bring you inner peace and wisdom!

Sources:

Encyclopedia Britannica: Ganesha

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Ganesha

India Today: 4 Stories About Lord Ganesha you Probably Didn’t Know

Lord Ganesha: his birth story, symbolism meaning and practice

Amma: Lord Ganesha: his birth story, symbolism meaning and practice

Ganesh Gayatri Mantra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkVlpm1mKFI