Nina MacLaughlin’s newest column, Winter Solstice, will run for four weeks, finishing on the solstice on December 21.
December and Demeter is grieving again.
Hades cracked the earth and snatched her daughter Persephone, tugged her down to the underworld to be his unconsenting bride. In response, Demeter ceased growth. Wilt, starvation, cold. No warmth, no fruit, no fat goats whose throats to slit in sacrifice. So Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back. But Ascalaphus, Hades’s orchard minder, saw what Persephone had done, and told, rotten tattler. If you eat the food of the dead, you stay, and Persephone had swallowed six pomegranate seeds. The gardener held the fruit in his hand and the juice slipped down the private part of his wrist. Each seed, one month in Hades. She’s down there now. And we’re up here, buttoning our coats, eating carbohydrates, trying to remember to unclench our jaws.
There’s something seductive about the below, the magnetic tug of the dark. Aren’t you curious? To see how dark it gets, to see what’s down here, a little lower, a little deeper, something might get revealed, something singular, something special, I’m getting close to something true. It’s risky. I have a friend who likes to press a knife blade to his wrist. “It makes me shiver,” he says, “I feel it in all my tips.” I wouldn’t call him crazy. He’s interested in the edge. “The descent to the Underworld is easy,” Virgil cautions in The Aeneid. “Night and day the gates of shadowy Death stand open wide, / but to retrace your steps, to climb back to the upper air— / there the struggle, there the labor lies.” Sinking down is easy. But to return? No guarantees.
In Ireland, thirty miles north of Dublin near the river Boyne, there’s a mound of earth with an opening. You can enter. A tight passageway leads to a deep chamber; a tomb at one time: human bones were found there, and long-gone chiselers carved triskelion, those ancient-art triple spirals, into certain stones. The passageway extends sixty feet, almost the length of two telephone poles, and at sunrise on the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight enters through a window above the opening you’ve entered through; the beam travels down the passageway and penetrates into the chamber, spraying light into the deep dim basin. The place is called Newgrange and it was built in 3200 B.C. It is older, by hundreds of years, than Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza.
I entered a long time ago. It wasn’t on the solstice, but they shine a light that mimics the way the sunbeam seeks the chamber on the darkest day of the year. The hush was total, we were all the way within, and the shaft slid past our bodies and lit the deepest part of the tomb, the womb, the undermound, otherworld, and the megalithic spirals revolved across millennia. If you are someone who feels ghosts, or time, or the presence of deep-dead stone movers, peat farmers, priestesses, priests, bog queens, salmon kings, ubiquitous shape-shifters, souls who touched the stones you stand under, souls who tracked the sun and made a mound for it to enter, to join with, to bring the sunlight back to the earth, you might feel them here, as you witness the silent coupling of sun god and earth goddess. Let’s urge sun and earth to mate so that light is born on earth again. They knew the angles, five thousand years ago.
This whole earth spins tilted on its axis at 23.5 degrees. On the winter solstice, the sun at noon is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. Capricorn, that stomping, large-horned sea goat. Is there an earthier beast than the goat? They dance on rock faces, their cloven hooves leave ash prints on soft earth, they grunt, hum, holler with the voice of man, and I felt a funny mix of alarm and delight the first time I looked one in the eye and saw its pupils were rectangular. At a farm on a hill in south-central Connecticut, buy a pack of stale wafers for a quarter to feed the three goats penned to the left. I pressed the wafer through the fence, the goat took it on its tongue, and I saw what I had not seen before. Goats with right-angled bands across the globes of their ice- or amber-colored eyes.
In Central Europe, a folklore lives in the figure of Krampus, a stomping satyr-like creature, furred animal from the waist down, furred man-goat from the waist up, with a pointed lashing long tongue and sharp fangs and great goat horns. The smell of woods and soot about him, dead-leaf tang of dark dens, half-intoxicating half-repugnant ungulate musk. I haven’t touched his fur, but maybe it’s not a thick-matted hay-coarse mess, but angel-hair lush, cashmere-y. He emerges this time of year as the dark twin to the twinkle-eyed benevolence of old Saint Nick. His night, Krampusnacht, was this past weekend, on December 5. He carries a birch switch to whip the misbehavers, and the sack or basket slung over his shoulder bears no gifts: it’s to stuff bad children in. He knots the sack and drops them into a river like a squirming litter of unwanted kittens. That, or he eats them.
It’s a way to motivate children to behave, sure. You better watch out, you better not pout, et cetera. Stop tugging your sister’s pigtails or Krampus will take you. Stop chasing the chickens or you’ll get jammed in Kramp’s sack. Be good, be right, behave, or Krampus will whisk you away forever. Motivation, and also, maybe, secret wish? A fantasy? Or perhaps this goat-horned punisher is the creatured embodiment of winter’s danger. It’s not just a chubby chuckling red-suited do-gooder in a flying sleigh who giveth but a furred fanged earthbound mischief-maker who taketh away. Here we are, back to forces of dark and light.
Fleshing the shadows is one way to know the shadows better. When fears get faced and named, aren’t they easier to encounter? When they come creeping, slithering, spidering in, as they always inevitably will, it’s better, no, to see a familiar silhouette, a recognizable cut of the jaw, that same tongue, that same staticky charge, those wild underworldly eyes, you again, we’ve met before. Still unpleasant, still frightening, but at least it slots into a taxonomy of the monstrous. It’s the formless unfamiliar, the shadow that lives below shadow, the one we sense but have not named or cannot yet name, there’s where real terror lives. And so we name our monsters. Perhaps the pull of the dark is the urge to introduce ourselves to the shadows below the shadows. Come in, come in, let me know you better, let me look upon you, I have never seen the like of you before. Maybe they all have something to offer. After all, wouldn’t we all like to live deliciously?
Saturn rules Capricorn, and Saturnalia was the ancient Roman festival honoring him. He was a child-eater himself, a scythe-holding god of the agricultural cycles. The festival took place over seven days around the winter solstice. Feasts, gifts, mischief, the rules gave way, the chains of discipline were lifted. In this kind of boundary-dissolving extendo-fest, “we throw down our burdens of time and reason,” writes Octavio Paz. Time dissolves; roles reverse; people drop into a simultaneous backward and forward. Reason gives way to something more bodily, blood-level, in a “sudden immersion in the formless, in pure being.” Ecstasy, in other words. Kerry Howley writes of “ecstatic spectacle.” History is full of it:
If you were a fourteenth-century Latvian looking to leave yourself, you might mask up and dance through the streets reveling in Rabelaisian wonder … were you a nineteenth-century Paiute Indian in the American West, you might try your hand at ritual millenarian dance … or an ancient maenad, join the other womenfolk in ripping apart a live goat in the Greek countryside.
What opportunity for ecstasy do we have right now? These twin searches: for dissolving the boundaries and exiting time; and for home, grounding, safety, the source. In rare moments we dissolve, formless, passing through the membrane into a shimmering of raw perception, into union with the All. A temporary death—an end to the limits of the self—and an emergence from it in the form of rebirth, a waking up.
And maybe that’s what the ancient farmers were up to in building Newgrange, a way of pulling the sun back from darkness, to wake it up and return it to earth. It’s long ago, and it’s right now. It’s earth and sun, and the wheel of the year spins on, like the triskelion on stones, the evergreen wreaths on doors. Mistletoe, the evergreen white-berried vine, living as it does off the ground in trees, was seen as link between earth and air, a fertility symbol, athrob with life force, its milky jewel berries full of sticky white juice. So come, kiss. Kiss. It might take you somewhere. As Sibyl tells Aeneas before his journey to the underworld: “No one / may pass below the secret places of earth before / he plucks the fruit” of the famous golden bough, “as mistletoe in the dead of winter’s icy forests / leafs with life on a tree that never gave it birth.” It’s his ticket in. It’s his ticket under.
Underworlds, otherworlds, so many passageways on this earth to elsewheres, especially during these weeks of the year. Slip out of the light and know something older. Slip into something elemental. It’s on offer, these weeks more than ever. I liked the way I felt inside the mound of earth at Newgrange. The way I felt there I have only felt there. Not underworld exactly but touched by—turned into—light and darkness, light and time. Not for long. Ten seconds of my life, likely less. I returned to the surface with the others, fat sheep made small clouds against green hills, river had sky on it, I couldn’t speak for a while. What was there to say?
The year is fading. Light is fading. Solstice means sun-stilled. We light candles and raise toasts, we smooch in doorways under strung-up plants, we hang lights along the roofline peaks, give gifts, make wishes, laugh and pray and fear. We bring the light into the earth and try to harness the great forces. It’s a wild sort of stilling, a thrashing frenzied sort of stilling, a stopping of time, a de-metering, a holding of the breath as the tension builds, as the dark expands, until it cracks and light drives in. That’s the hope. The far-off tinkling of bells you hear could be the harness of the reindeer or the bells around the neck of a goat. Hoofbeats on the roof, hoofbeats thudding in the warm and living hollow of your chest. Here in the wild quiet, something in the shadows whispers and you can’t tell if it means you good or ill. Pomegranate, holly branch, birch switch, mistletoe. We’ll leaf with life and pass below the secret places of this earth.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice.