For most of my life I dreaded both the approach of winter and winter itself. Having grown up in the semi-tropics of New Orleans I had little tolerance for the cold. Living further north as an adult, the shortening days seemed to contradict the joy I found during the blooming of spring and the abundance of summer. Though I certainly appreciated the crisp, clear, golden days of fall they also caused feelings of trepidation as the days continued to shorten.
Over the past few years my feelings at this time of year have changed completely. Now I feel joy as the days begin to shorten, the shadows begin to lengthen and the sky takes on the blue grey colors of winter. I relish the quiet time the long nights provide.
A friend recently asked me why my feelings have changed. I think that part of it is just the nature of maturity which allows for greater acceptance of what is. Or maybe now that I’ve spent more of my life where there are four real seasons than the years of my youth in the hot climate of New Orleans the cold has become the norm. Yet I believe that another part, perhaps even the largest part, is the study and research I have done and continue to do into the myths and culture of the ancient Celts which has created a profound and mysterious shift in my psyche – a greater opening to the potential for healing and growth in and through the darkness.
Add to this my discovery of the Reindeer Goddess honored by the ancient Lithuanian, Latvian, Slavic and Sami people of Northern Europe. These people believed that this goddess in the form or a reindeer or in a chariot pulled through the sky by reindeer flew over the land on the Winter Solstice bestowing gifts on the folks below. How exciting to discover that the quintessential modern symbol of Christmas, Santa Claus, has its origins in the Reindeer Goddess – a deity who brought the people hope as they passed through the dark time.
The longest night was called “Mother Night” as it was during this time that the Goddess worked her magic to nurture the seeds laying dormant in the dark womb of earth so that new life could emerge in spring. It is a time to celebrate the sacredness of the darkness and the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Our culture honors the busy, doing, expanding days of spring and summer. We place great value on logic, on accomplishments, on success. The pursuit of wealth and comfort dominate our world view.
The Celtic world view was very different from ours. The Celts recognized and appreciated the unfathomable mystery of life – the deeper, numinous realm just beyond the reach of logic; beyond the reach of our mind’s ability to understand. In their view all physical life emerges from this unknowable mystery. And this mystery was best understood in the darkness.
Time was always cyclical to the ancient mind. In the dark of the year they celebrated the darkness – the cold and dark which allowed for a time of introspection and spiritual growth. In the light of the year they celebrated the light – the warmth and the brightness which allowed for physical abundance and growth. And so the cycle would continue though out the changes of human life.
Within that eternal circle of dark to light the Celts relished the darkness in a way that is foreign to us today – giving it primary importance over the light half of the year. Every day and every festival began at dusk not dawn. Even their New Year began as the world turned toward the dark with the Samhain celebrations on October 31. The harvest was in, thanks were given, and nature was moving into its period of death.
Winter was a sacred time and a time of peace as the Fianna, the warrior caste, suspended all war until Beltane.
The Cailleach who existed in the British Isles long before the the Celts arrived was the embodiment of winter. She was one with the land, creating hills and valleys with single leaps and dropped rocks. She wielded power over the weather – using the slachdan to unleash powerful and cleansing storms. Her reign was ushered in at Samhain, lasting through the dark of the year until February 2 when Brigid, ancient Goddess of Healing, Smithcraft and Inspiration took over for the light half of the year.
The Cailleach translates as “the Veiled One” which perfectly describes her reign over the quiet, dark of winter, the hidden worlds, and our dreams and inner realities. My image of the Cailleach stays on my altar during the winter months as a reminder to myself to honor the dark.
Though intellectually I understood that winter is a time of dormant possibility and germination I still resisted it. Now I relish the long winter nights from a place of love for this season of great richness and potentiality. It is during this time that beliefs and conditioning can be put aside and released more easily, allowing inspiration and an open heart to lead; allowing the new seeds of vision and perception to take hold. May you be warm and cozy on these long winter nights while remaining open to the possibilities found in the dark and cold where the seeds of new life and new ways germinate.
Sources: Living Myths,
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck on Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations, which are found everywhere in the natural world.. In recent years Judith became very interested in the Goddesses of her own ancestors, the Celts, resulting in her deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle cards. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Spirit Guides. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.
17 thoughts on “Embracing the Darkness by Judith Shaw”
Thank you for the stories of the Celtic seasons and your beautiful pictures, Judith. I have felt for some time that we damage our bodies and minds with lifestyles that ignore nature. In the fall, when we should be winding down to rest and rejuvenate, we start new school years or join clubs and exercise programs to keep us busy and active, taking away our time to reflect.
Some role models aren’t even that distant. Once I asked my father, born on a prairie homestead in 1917, if they used a kerosene lamp in the winter evenings. He told me that it was too expensive and was only used if his mother had to write a letter. Otherwise they did a little work by the light of the fire and then went to bed. In contrast, they worked long days in the summer light.
My own childhood experience was of magic nights. When we finished doing the evening chores the barn lights were switched off and we walked to the house in darkness. We had electricity then, but the lights were small and light pollution wasn’t happening. Many nights the entire dome of the sky sparkled with millions of stars, snow crunched underfoot, and I wished the walk to the house would go on longer.
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What a beautiful childhood memory you have of the winter night sky filled with star jewels. I remember the time I lived on the Greek island of Lesvos in the village Molivos in the late 80’s. There was very little electricity in the town at that time and the night sky was so amazing.
I agree so much with your thoughts on how we need to change our lifestyle with the seasons. We’re moved into a very crazy do, do , do kind of existence that leaves little time for dreaming and rejuvenating. Eating seasonally is also something that we have left behind in this “on-demand” world when every kind of food is available at all times.
Beautiful art! (As usual.) I like it that you explained about the reindeer and that it’s female who pull Santa’s sleigh and that people who live in the north honor the Reindeer Goddess. I don’t remember when I first learned that, but it’s really good to read it again. Thanks! And may the blessings of the dark flow over and into us all.
Barbara, I feel the same way. There is something really empowering in the stories of the Reindeer Goddess that has now become an important part of my feelings at this time of year.
All indigenous traditions that I am aware of honor the dark months through ritual and storytelling, don’t you think? Westerners, seem to have a horror of the dark that baffles me – everything focused forever on light. Unlike you I have always loved winter but not the way I do now – to me this is the sacred time of the year – I feel so in tune with all of it… perhaps it is age – I don’t know.
The fact that good ol santa was pulled by reindeer seems to indicate that there was more going on there than we knew! Even as a kid I loved the reindeer – not so with santa – I was afraid of him. The Reindeer Goddess as we know preceded patriarchal santa and may S/he live on!
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Most likely Sara though I personally have not delved deeply into that many indigenous views of the dark months. I really appreciated learning about the Navajo ritual of healing through the darkness you shared with us. I also feel that this is a sacred time and an important time for quiet and reflection.
Many, many things about our Western worldview baffles me. It seems that there is a big fear around facing the dark side of things. I remember my mother who was a wonderful loving mother but could never face her or anyone else’s dark moments. She always viewed everything as “lovely” until the time when the repression of feelings finally burst forth into a years long period of extreme depression.
Yes – long live the Reindeer Goddess!!
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Everything about the western world baffles me – I can’t relate to anything. I think this fear westerners have of the dark is about not being able to face their own darkness – and look at our political insanity. And people like your mother are everywhere. Everything is “lovely”, has a “silver lining” etc etc until the person collapses or turns cold or mean. I know so many women and men who cannot face dark moments and are unable to be present for others that can in any meaningful way, creating a deep loneliness in their wake. Often they say things like they are too sensitive – this is denial in my book.
Long live the Reindeer! I forgot to say the obvious – I love that painting.
Exactly Sara, I think Jung was the one who said that until we can face our own darkness, war and terror will always resurface as we project that shadow onto others. Technology certainly gives us many wonderful things but its ongoing advance separates us more and more from the natural world, which always has both the dark and the light.
Jung – yes – he got it. Technology is no longer a tool it has birthed “virtual” reality, a place where many people live out their lives and control their reality – frightening truth.
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So beautiful, Judith. I shall listen for the hooves of the reindeer goddess in the long nights!
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As shall I Elizabeth!
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Thank you for this post, Judith. It says so much of what I feel this time of the year.
I loved winter as a child and then for some reason began to detest it as I grew up. But in the last ten years or so I have begun to love it once again and for the same reasons that you sight. I have embraced the Norther European concept of hygge filling my days and nights with comfort in its many incarnations turning the darkness into a warm velvet blanket of peace and calm.
I’d forgotten about the Reindeer Goddess. My 10 year old grand-daughter and a few of her friends have been obsessed with reindeer this holiday season, painting the tips of their noses black and wearing antler headbands to school. They have each taken on the name of one of the famous reindeer. We’ve talked about weather the reindeer are male or female. Today I will share the story of the Reindeer Goddess with her and that all the reindeer are most likely female. She will be very happy about that.
A blessed Yuletide to you!
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I love your words – “turning the darkness into a warm velvet blanket of peace and calm.” – expresses the feelings so well!
That’s so cool about your grand-daughter and her friends. I’m sure they will be happy to learn about the Reindeer Goddess. As reindeer are the only species of deer in which the females grow antlers and the male reindeer shed their antlers in the fall any reindeer with antlers seen flying or otherwise at the winter solstice would have to be female who keeps them through the winter. The males grow theirs back in the spring.
A blessed Yuletide to you also!
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How about writing or working with someone to write a children’s book on the girl reindeer. How about with the Girl God or do it yourself!
Interesting you say that Carol as I have already started that project though it’s currently in very, very, rough beginning stages. Oh – and Happy Birthday to you – hope you’re having a great day!!
I love your images!!