Avanyu – Photo Iren Schio
Last night’s smoky sunset
Smoky blue gray rose tipped dawn
This morning I awakened to the same smoky blue gray clouds that brought in twilight last night, clouds that bled black ink into a fiery sky. The air was mild, 30 degrees, as I stepped outside to witness with wonder the dawn breaking – that moment when time ceases and the earth holds her breath. As I scattered seed for the birds a solitary robin sang from the cottonwood, the first spring song I’ve heard him sing this year. Was he heralding the birth of First Light? Suddenly a cacophony overhead: a gaggle of geese flew so low I could see dark wings and white bellies, and as they soared they too were honking with the greatest enthusiasm, a collective song sung with one voice. It was impossible to escape the sense that my avian friends know that today is a special day, a day when the whole earth celebrates the return of the light.
When the sun broke over the horizon, a golden orb shining through the trees the smoke was already fading into a deep blue sky. I stood at the gate overlooking Avanyu’s river, (the Pueblo Serpent, whose horned watery undulating image is pecked into so many stones on the highest rubbly mesas). For a moment I felt a sharp pang of grief that the water was so low, but the shimmering serpent seemed intent upon reflecting the beauty of the sky above, and no more.
Ancient peoples noted the return of the light and celebrated, each in their own way. Some of us have not forgotten the old ways and live them still. I will always be filled with gratitude for the women’s spirituality movement which developed out of a feminist perspective in the 80’s, because it helped women and men to dive into the multi-cultural meanings behind these cyclic turnings of the wheel resacralizing the earth and her seasonal shifts for many. These turnings that were once considered holy by all peoples…
In Celtic lore it is Brigid’s Fire and Light that we honor today. Brigid is goddess of the forge, she works with fire and metal and is a transformer herself; she is also a poet and writer, a great source of artistic inspiration. In my “First Light” ritual (my name for this turning) I always light a “crown” of candles on this day – this circle of light embodies the wholeness that I associate with the sanctity of the earth in darkness as well as light.
Groundhog Day is the only vestige of the ancient ritual practice associated with the She Bear, “Mother of All” that remains part of American tradition. On February 2nd, today, the bear (who shapeshifted into a groundhog in the United States) first emerged from his den to determine when spring would come. If the bear saw his shadow spring was still six weeks away and the bear returned to his den to sleep. In actuality wild bears sometimes stir, and males often emerge briefly on the first warm, sunlit, late winter days, so this cultural story has a basis in the habits of real wild bears.
What fascinates me about this myth is the shadow element that is associated with the return of the light of the sun. The brighter the light, the darker its shadow… it is easy to forget that light always brings shadow along as its doppelganger…
It is important to be mindful of this truth.
I think about the custom of the European Shrovetide Bear who was chained and led from house, forced to dance on hot coals to bless the fields for the coming year. This wild animal – a real bear (probably a grizzly) – was tortured for reasons that remain unclear to me unless I consider that the bear has been forced to carry our human shadow element for millennium, and was used as a stand in for containment of the dark side of humanity – as an animal scapegoat. Remember, the bear was chained. (Perhaps we need to re-visit this idea of containing the dark side of humanity, which seems to be out of control as we continue to destroy life on this planet). For me, this coming of the light has a shadow aspect that I can feel in my body as a kind of uncomfortable buzz. As a bear researcher I experience raw fear for all the hibernating wild bears who are still snug and safe in their winter dens. From the time these animals first emerge in the spring they will be mercilessly hunted down by men – men who continue to project their dark destructive impulses onto these animals and slaughter them.
So this coming of the light is not just about the return of light and the greening of the earth, but reflects the reality of human darkness and the cruelty inherent in the human condition. This knife edge is important to acknowledge as we move into the spring of the year because it is too easy to forget that light and dark are always part of one whole, and to experience one side is to be opened to the other.