Yule and the Cycle of Life
Yule, which is also known as the winter solstice, has two sides - one light and one dark. It is positioned at the crossroad between life and death because with it ends the dark period of the Pagan year, and the light period begins. Yule, among other things, signifies the lengthening of the day. However, the winter solstice also marks the darkest night of the whole year and reminds us of the difficulties of winter; the time of year when trees are bare, the earth cold, when the wind blows stronger than usual and rain and snow shower the earth. It seems as though the earth is asleep during this time of year.
Yule marks the beginning of winter and the coldest period of the year when endurance is needed to survive to the first inkling of spring which appears only at Imbolc (February 2). So this is a time when it is necessary to take a good look at the depths of one's soul and nurture one's inner flame, be it real or metaphorical, right until the coming of spring when the fear of winter tempests extinguishing our inner flames finally dies down.
Winter insures the survival of the fittest and a few days ago, right before Yule, I lost another family member. At Ostara my grandfather died, and this time my grandmother passed away. Her passing prompted me to once again think about the cycle of life and death in nature. She was weak and with the coming of colder days, she found it all the more difficult to live. Finally, her weakness prevailed and she died almost asleep.
Her eternal slumber marked the beginning of winter for me this year. It seems it will be more difficult than usual. Yule, just like Christmas, is a time when (my) family gathers, celebrates, bakes cakes together, laughs for the happy moments and cries for the sad ones and share gifts and love. This year, my family is one family member short. And this is not just any person. My grandmother was the one that practically brought Christmas every year with her little traditions. She will no longer be able to make her traditional gnocchi, or make everyone smile with her beautiful smile, or sneakily give out sweets.
But that's the cycle of life. The wheel of the year turns, and life inevitably follows it.
Above all, Yule celebrates the rebirth of the young God. However, the central figure from a Pagan point of view is the Goddess that gives birth to him. In the mythological sense, the Goddess is rejuvenated at Yule just as the God is reborn. She is transformed from her Crone aspect (which is predominant at the moment when I'm writing this) into a beautiful young Maiden and begins the new year in full bloom. Of course, birth is the central theme here. But birth does not exist without death. In Pagan mythology, but also in the mythology of numerous other cultures and faiths, a god has to die in order to be born once again. At some point (which is albeit less precisely defined in Paganism), the Goddess also has to die in order to move from her Crone aspect to her Maiden aspect.
I return to the dualistic nature of this holiday which has its gentle side (birth), but also its cruel side (death, coldness, winter).
During this time of year, cultures throughout the world celebrate mother goddesses and fertility goddesses such as Frigg, Holda, Bona Dea, Koliada and so on. However, they also celebrated darker goddesses such as the Celtic Cailleah, or the Slavic Baba Yaga. Both are often depicted as crones, and more often than not caricaturized to represent death and embody winter and darkness.
I believe I could focus a bit more on the figure of Baba Yaga in this context who is, in my humble opinion, an excellent embodiment of both aspects of this holiday. Depending on the tale and its source, she can be malevolent, or even very benevolent. Most stories about her suggest that she lives in a lonely cottage in the least accessible part of a forest. According to some, this cabin stood on chicken legs, while others claim that it was supported by a spinning wheel which emphasizes Baba Yaga's role as the spinner of the thread of life and death. As such, she has the power to give or take away life, both from the earth and from people. In mythology, her chthonic characteristics are often emphasized and it is believed that in the underworld, she is the one that decides which souls will go to a newborn child (which emphasizes her benevolent aspect and the motif of birth) and which ones will stay in the underworld (which emphasizes her malevolent aspect and the motif of death). She is believed to be the guardian of the fountain, which the water of Life and Death springs from. Her omnipresence and mysteriousness are emphasized by a tale which says that she does not ride throughout the night sky on a broomstick, which is a stereotypical image, but rather in a mortar. She propels herself using a pestle and she erases every trace of her passage in the sky and people's lives using a broom. The mortar and pestle in this case symbolize the creative and destructive forces because they are used to both grind grains (destructive) which are later used to prepare food, but also flax which is later used for spinning. Using her broom, she can create and nurture life, but she can also erase it from the face of the Earth with just one sweep. The bottom line of all this is that with every death comes a birth and that something has to be given/invested in order to get something else.
Baba Yaga is not exactly connected to Yule, but this association just seemed to impose itself to me this year. Year in, year out, I understand how all of these Pagan holidays I celebrate are actually very layered and complex and how one holiday does not represent just that one thing but rather a whole plexus of ideas. Each has its own unbelievably deep roots which can be studied for years. But this is wherein beauty lies.
This year, I think of Yule in a considerably different way and I don't see it as just another celebration of life, but also as an acknowledgement of death as an equally valuable part of life. Each year has to come to an end, and so does every life. Such is the natural cycle. This is why I will spend this period in quiet meditation on this topic. Nevertheless, I urge you to explore what this Sabbat means to you and celebrate it in accordance with this.
But not to finish on such a sad note, I want to wish you all a merry and blessed Yule. And to those of you who have decided to celebrate the winter solstice in its full glory (which, by the way, falls on December 22 this year), I wish it to be filled with happiness, love, celebration, feasts and holiday cheer.
Until next time.