Equinox experiment

When I think of Stonehenge, one of the first things that comes to mind is that it’s aligned with the sun at the solstices. It’s thousands of years old, it’s associated with burials, there’s so much we don’t know about its history…but it’s the alignments that caught my interest. I was always a bit disappointed as a kid that this only seemed to be a feature of ancient monuments—ancient monuments that were far away so I couldn’t visit them and watch the sun rise or set in a special way.

For several years now, though, I’ve been wondering if a few modern buildings are also oriented towards the sun—specifically, the Cathedral of Saint Paul. It took me a while, but I’ve noticed that around the equinoxes, the sun rises closer and closer to the east doors. Once the thought occurred to me, then I wanted to see if it was true: would the sun shine straight onto the doors on the morning of either the spring or the fall equinox? But checking this out proved to be trickier than expected. Quite often, I’d forget until a few days after the equinox, and by the time I waited six months until the next one, I’d forget again. Sometimes I’d remember, but it would be a cloudy morning or I wouldn’t be able to be at the Cathedral.

This year, it all came together. Sunny weather, still a decent temperature to be outside taking pictures, and this year I remembered in time! Et voilà:

Cathedral of Saint Paul

And…inconclusive. That shadow covering half the building is cast by a skyscraper in downtown St. Paul that obviously wasn’t there when the Cathedral was completed in 1915. I suppose I could contact people at the Cathedral and ask if it was meant to face the equinox sunrise, but where’s the fun in that? (And how disappointed would I be if they said it wasn’t?) But now it’s got me thinking: if one building may have been oriented to the equinoxes, maybe it’s not the only one in town. And does anyone do this with modern modern buildings?

Doesn’t hurt to ask

So here I was, saying that I’d read Thomas Moore’s latest book, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, and that while I enjoyed it, I wished it had been more of a guide. And then I found this article in the Huffington Post by Moore. A bit general, but it’s a guide!

U is for the unconscious

Surely there is some irony in this situation: writing consciously about the unconscious. But even though I decided some time ago that this was going to be my U post, my own unconscious hasn’t shown much interest in it—no nifty sentences have popped into my mind, guaranteed to explain it all to you—so my conscious mind must make do.

Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.
Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.

Most of my various Pagan and alternative interests deal with the unconscious, although it’s often not called that. When I was taking my first Pagan baby steps, I read The Spiral Dance. This was my introduction to the idea of the unconscious mind’s role in ritual and magic. I remember (accurately or not) Starhawk’s naming the unconscious “Younger Self,” and her explanation that ritual needed to involve all our senses because that’s what interested Younger Self, not wordy speeches. Presumably it’s the conscious mind—Starhawk’s “Middle Self”—that prefers the latter. The contrast between Pagan ritual and the low church Protestant services I was familiar with—complete with 20-minute sermons—could hardly be higher.

The unconscious showed up in my astrological studies in a different manner. I’ve been intrigued reading transcripts of seminars in which Howard Sasportas and Liz Greene discussed subpersonalities. As the name suggests, these are multiple selves within oneself, many of which seem alien and “other” to the ego/conscious mind (surprise!). I’m sure other people came up with the original idea; Greene and Sasportas’ work stuck with me because they suggested that the natal chart could be used to identify the subpersonalities, which sounded a lot more efficient than trying to work out from scratch what they might be.

Practicing tarot and other forms of divination was another way to access the unconscious mind. I figured that that flash of intuition that let me make sense of a reading was the unconscious at work. It took me a while longer than that to realize that beyond just having a reading, this might be a way to deliberately communicate with the unconscious. Since I was already leaning towards seeing the gods as archetypes, after a while, divination became like prayer. The way to communicate with the gods and the way to communicate with the unconscious were the same.

The unconscious mind is constantly influencing the conscious mind, which scientists are just now really researching. Reading Free Will (Sam Harris), Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Leonard Mlodinow), and other books along those lines has taught me various fascinating things about how the brain works and wondering how much independence the conscious mind really has. If your unconscious mind is truly in the driver’s seat and it’s part of you even if it’s, well, unconscious, do you have free will?

Although I’ve found all these viewpoints on the unconscious to be fascinating to think about, more than once I’ve hit an attitude I can best describe as “unconscious good, conscious bad.” The dichotomy seemed a mite harsh. So I was relieved and supported to run into this in Inner Work (Robert A. Johnson): “Just as the ego needs to balance its viewpoints by going to the unconscious, so also does the unconscious need to be balanced by the attitudes of the conscious mind.” I thought this makes sense, since my unconscious mind is the same age as my conscious mind, and surely it hasn’t attained perfection yet any more than my conscious mind has. I (whoever “I” is in this case) continue to try to keep my two minds (several subpersonalities?) communicating as well as possible in the hopes that this will lead to growth, learning, and/or really keen divination skills someday.

Timing Saturnalia

This post involves research that went no deeper than Wikipedia. Consider yourself warned.

It may be Saturnalia today. I was reminded of this when two (non-Pagan) Facebook friends wished everyone a happy Saturnalia and linked to the Wikipedia article about the holiday. In a mood to be distracted, I clicked through and started reading. I thought I’d get some ideas on how to observe Saturnalia, but I got caught up simply in trying to figure out when it is. Okay, Saturnalia falls on December 17, but according to the article, that’s December 17 in the Julian calendar. By now, there’s a 13-day discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, so perhaps my friends should have waited until December 30 to post their Saturnalia greetings. Except I doubt anyone is going to want to wait that long—that late in December, everyone is getting burned out on festivities and is ready for that last hurrah on New Year’s Eve. December 30 does have one point in its favor, though: the sun is well into Capricorn by then. It just doesn’t feel right to be honoring Saturn while the sun is still in the Jupiter-ruled sign of Sagittarius.

Capricorn came up again as I continued to wade through the timing information in the Wikipedia article. When I came upon the statement that the first day of Capricorn* was December 17 and that it was significant that this date was close to that of the winter solstice, I was both intrigued and bewildered. See, in all the astrology I’ve ever learned, the sun goes into Capricorn at the moment of the winter solstice, not several days earlier. This did make December 17 make more sense as a date for Saturnalia: if the sun was in Capricorn and not Sagittarius, then at least it was taking place at an astrologically appropriate time. Maybe the ancients who stated that December 17 was the first day of Capricorn were using the sidereal zodiac (based on the constellations themselves) rather than the tropical zodiac (based on the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes) often used today. Nowadays, the first day of sidereal Capricorn is roughly January 13, which didn’t seem to work. But then I remembered the first day of Capricorn will have moved noticeably over 2,000 years or so. Pull up the astrological software, start testing ancient dates, and…yes: around 300 BCE, the sun entered sidereal Capricorn on December 17!

Having learned all this, I’m leaning towards celebrating Saturnalia on the winter solstice, matching the zodiac I’ve known since childhood. This would at least be symbolically significant to me. It might strain historical accuracy, but in all honesty, it’s not like that many people would know if I was “off” by a few days in my Saturnalia greetings. Actually I’m amazed I know anyone who wishes people a happy Saturnalia in the first place!


*That is, the day the sun enters Capricorn.

Samhain what-if

I was reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, when I came upon this:

Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three—sometimes one season in two—so that it could recover its ability to produce healthy crops. This meant that in any given year at least one-third of the nation’s farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.

Bryson explains that it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that English farmers learned about crop rotation: planting crops like clover or turnips in those fallow furlongs that would both replenish the soil and provide winter fodder for animals. More surviving livestock in turn resulted in more manure, which improved the soil in its own right. This agricultural revolution made both the quality and the quantity of English harvests far more reliable.

So, if the English had begun practicing crop rotation centuries earlier, would Samhain be part of the modern Wiccan calendar?

New years

Today we head into a new year by a quasi-secular calendar. One of the fun things about the multicultural world we’re living in is that there are lots and lots of new years to celebrate, and unlike some religious beliefs and practices, new year celebrations seem to be able to get along with each other relatively peacefully. You don’t have to think of someone else’s new year as your new year to be able to enjoy it. As they spread themselves across the calendar, there’s usually a stretch of time in which someone’s new year celebration is likely to come up. Just off the top of my head, the following occurred to me (2011 dates):

  • New Year’s Day: January 1
  • Chinese New Year: February 3
  • Hmong New Year: date unknown
  • beginning of the astrological year: March 20
  • beginning of the U.S. school year: early September
  • Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year): September 29
  • Samhain: October 31
  • Muharram (Islamic New Year): November 26

And on a personal level:

  • Your birthday

The human race looks quite willing to start a new year at any time of the year, although high summer in the northern hemisphere doesn’t seem to be as popular. (As the lunar Islamic calendar moves backward against the solar Gregorian calendar, its first day passes through the summer months for a number of years.) There are all sorts of reasons for starting a new year at a particular time. The Gregorian year begins on January 1 because it inherited that date from the Julian calendar, which in turn began a new year based on a date when Roman consuls took up office. The Chinese New Year is determined astronomically: usually on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The astrological year begins when the Sun moves into Aries, and Samhain more or less falls on the halfway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

For all that many witches consider Samhain our New Year’s Day, I’ve never been able to see it that way. The days are getting shorter, the temperature is dropping along with the few remaining leaves—none of this says “new” to me. But putting that together along with Samhain’s general death theme, I can see Samhain as a sort of New Year’s Eve. I’m more of a Yule-as-New-Year’s-Day person. If one must begin somewhere, the start of the return of sunlight works for me. Where I live, December 22 was two seconds longer than December 21. I treasured each of those seconds.

While we say we celebrate New Year’s Day and January 1 is the official date for government holidays, we put most of our energy into New Year’s Eve celebrations. After the clock strikes 12:00 AM, there’s not much left to do but make a few toasts, find your coat, and head home. New Year’s Day itself tends to be a quiet day. By now, many people are probably partied out. It makes for a fine day for changing calendars, listing out resolutions, and catching up on our blogging.

And on that note, Happy New Year!