Monday, 11 December 2017
J. M. W. Turner. Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. 1842
A cold rain starting
And no hat -
- Matsuo Bashō
As we approach midwinter, and in this part of the world the nights grow longer and colder, it is not hard to imagine why ancient cultures celebrated the darkest time of the year, and the turn towards spring. Surviving the depths of winter is something to celebrate, it is true. But might we not be missing something of importance, by preferring summer to winter, light to darkness, warmth to cold, and life to death?
For midwinter has its own charms, “its own season (…) suspended in time, between pole and tropic, when the short day is brightest, with frost and fire …”.1
There is light in the heart of darkness. And the sun’s winter light - although brief and distant on its low arc in the southern sky - often seems more illumining than the glare of high summer. At the very point of disappearing forever, the sun appears to stop, poised for a moment in suspension, before returning to its spiral climb. It is also at this time of the year that the moon, as if gently consoling the earth for the loss of the sun, marks her longest track across the heavens.
This displacement of light and darkness is echoed in other mythologies. As far as weather is concerned, while it is true that winter temperatures can be the coldest, the other seasons have their fair share of destructive forces. Summer storms can be as bad as, or worse than, those of winter. Indeed, long ago in Greece it was noticed that midwinter regularly enjoys a brief span of mild and calm weather, which gives us our expression ‘halcyon days’. The Greeks expressed this natural phenomenon through myth:
Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of wind. She married Ceyx, the son of Eosphorus, the morning star. Although they lived happily together for many years, they somehow angered Zeus, the king of heaven, who caused Ceyx to be lost in a shipwreck. On hearing of this, the grief-stricken Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. However, the other gods took pity on the lovers, and transformed them into a pair of ‘halcyon’ birds. They also granted them a period of quiet weather in which to nest at sea: seven days either side of midwinter.
It was their metamorphosis into birds that inspired Ovid to include this particular myth in his most famous work.²
The irenic calm of midwinter is also expressed in our own festival of Christmas, with the Christian emphasis on peace and light perhaps replacing an earlier tradition of something quite similar. Many of our megalithic monuments and stone circles in Britain are aligned to mark the midwinter solstice: and instead of thinking of them as monuments to the dead, we should perhaps see them as harbingers of light, and as calendrical markers of an ever-enduring cycle of existence.
As the icy north wind begins to blow, often bringing with it discomfort and disruption, one is reminded of a tale by the 19th century Scottish writer, George MacDonald: At the Back of the North Wind. A young boy named Diamond is befriended by the North Wind, who takes the form of a great and beautiful woman. Sharing her secrets with him, she reveals that although she may appear to be terrible and cruel, her real purpose is to disrupt the lives of some people so that they change for the better. Eventually, she carries Diamond to her place of origin, the icy north. Here she allows him to pass through her, and he finds not snow and ice, but an eternal, temperate land of light, beauty, and calm.³
In ancient Vedic tradition, the supreme deity is divided into three: the gods of creation, sustenance, and transformation. Whilst present in all three, it is said to be through the god Vishnu, or the sustaining aspect of peace and goodness, that the Supreme Being can be most surely known. The material world is likened to a forest. In this forest, the traveller can lose her way. Two of the forest’s three guardians, passion and ignorance, may take him further in, but the third will lead her safely out. 4
Yet apparently, the current ‘age of ignorance’ also provides a unique opportunity to approach the divine through accepting and transforming ignorance.5
Although Ruskin could say that in Nature, for him and for artists, there was "no such thing as bad weather, but only different kinds of pleasant weather – some indeed inferring the exercise of a little courage and patience; but all, in every hour of it, exactly what [is] fitting and best … ” it is natural, too, that most of the time we should prefer our notion of ‘good’ weather to ‘bad’.6 But, as with halcyon days, it would seem that good weather can also occur in the most unexpected times and places, just as peace and goodness are often discovered in the seemingly dark moments of life, and in the humblest of people.
This simple truth of nature and life is also expressed in another myth: the myth of Christmas. The god does not take birth as a rich or powerful man, in Imperial Rome, or even Italy, but is born to a poor couple, in a stable at night, at a lonely spot in a remote province on the margins of empire. Light in darkness.⁷
The strange thing is that this myth may be true.
There is more to myth than meets the modern eye, and as Plato knew, our notion of reality is not necessarily correct. He thought that the most difficult thing for an actor to imitate is a wise and calm temperament; and that the invisible, ideal world is somehow closer and more real than its material counterpart.⁸
Perhaps the two - mythos and logos - may be reconciled somehow.
Then the universe, like good and bad weather, may appear to us as it did to Julian of Norwich, in its true reality:
(…) all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. ⁹
1. T. S. Elliot, “Little Gidding” in: Collected Poems 1909-62.
At the Back of the North Wind.George MacDonald,
Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva: the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of worlds.
We are, according to these accounts, currently in the ‘Kali-Yuga’: the age of Kali, goddess of ignorance and its transformation.
Modern Painters, Ruskin championed the work of J. M. W. Turner, whose landscapes reveal the sublime beauty of Nature, even in Her terrible aspects.John Ruskin. In
As noted by René Girard.
9. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love. The phrase is quoted throughout Elliot’s poem Little Gidding (see note 1).
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