The Red and the White of the Solstice Fire

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“If you forget the very roots of belief, if you forget the Earth and its laws, you are lost.”

A BBC Broadcast: Winter Solstice, December 21, 1985

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I had originally heard this broadcast on a podcast roughly one year ago.  When I initially listened to it, I could barely make out what was being said given the low quality of the broadcast’s audio. Yet despite not understanding the entirety of the words spoken, I felt a very strong and profound sense to the tone, style, and material being discussed.  I immediately set off to transcribe the radio work in order to better understand the program, and, over the course of the past month, finally finished up my transcription.

Written and compiled by British author Alison McLeay, Solstice was originally featured on BBC Radio Scotland on December 21, 1985. More information regarding the author can be found here.

A replication of the radio program can be found here; I have listened to it countless times when attempting to decipher the recording, and I am continuously awed at the beauty and concepts of the passages spoken on the recording.  Whether that awe is inspired by my Irish/Norwegian/German ancestry, or my slow but steady grasp on the concept of ancient Solar Worship, I can’t say. At the very least, I hope you too enjoy the program for future reference, scholarship, and appreciation of the Winter Solstice.

The Cast:

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The Shaman: The Shaman was deemed responsible for seeing to the return of the Sun at Midwinter.  When the Winter Solstice appeared and the Sun dipped below the horizon, it was the Shaman that used the language of the elements to guarantee its rebirth.

The Shaman of the North, who appears to be the broadcast’s character’s archetype, is a holy man who consumes plant entheogens to trigger a hallucinogenic, out of body type experience.  In the majority of cases, it appears the plant of interest was a mushroom (in this case, the red and white Agaric mushroom).  The Shaman was believed to enter the house providing for a forthcoming ritual through the house’s roof, carrying with him a bag of dried mushrooms.  Through this ritual, the Shaman was responsible for overseeing the birth of the new born Sun.

The Red Deer: Liminal creatures, symbolic of belonging to both the wilderness and the settled world. The red deer is also considered to be representative of the newly born Sun at Midwinter

 The Raven: A symbol of existence before creation.  It exists outside the parameters of time and has been suggested, in some cultures, as being a symbol of the theft of the Sun.  In other cultures, the raven is suggested as being unclean and is associated to the constructs of death, loss, and war.

The Wolf: A valiant, courageous warrior who could also be ferocious, greedy, cunning, and cruel.  In Nordic tradition, the wolf is representative of chaos in the form of Fenris, and is thought to be responsible for swallowing the Sun at end of the world. As an extension of Norse tradition, the wolf, as chaos, is required to be imprisoned; the ordered universe can only exist with the chaotic and destructive elements inherent to the cosmos bound in captivity.

The Bear: Representative of a “brutal primitive force,” or a deity of war and strength.  It is also referred to as being a Lunar and resurrection symbol, given the bear’s life cycle dependent upon hibernation.

 The Solstice Evergreen: A symbol representative of everlasting life; proof that despite the death of the Sun, life continues to exist in the form of the evergreen tree.

So with cast in place, please enjoy the transcription below.  I’d go so far as to recommend listening to the original broadcast here while reading through the below dialogues.  Not only will you be able to make some hoped sense of the deeply buried/accented words, but you can correct any of my likely, wonderful mistakes.  So.. please enjoy…and most importantly, I wish all a very, very, wonderful, Winter Solstice today.

 A Wonderful Solstice Dialogue

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Shaman: Stretch out your hand.

Stretch our your hand.

Don’t you have a greeting for me?

Today, of all days?

Ending and beginning day?

The day of death and new birth?

 Merry Solstice!

Or, Solstice Greetings!

You have forgotten me, haven’t you?

Shaman: Your children tell sweet tales of me, and you laugh behind their backs. But I tell you, your children are wiser than you…

You still don’t remember me, do you?  Think back…think back to the very beginnings…back to a time when the long darkness brought hunger to your fireside…a black stranger to live with you…the dull pain of famine.

Think back…think back to the times of the pounding heart, the ache of the chase, the madness of the kill, the smell of blood hot on the snow, the Red and the White.  Red and White.  When a dulling eye and the ebb of breath meant an easing of hunger…for a while.

Do you remember me now?

Your children draw pictures of me, an old man in a red suit with a white beard squeezing down the chimney with all they want most in the world. Lord of the reindeer, keeper of the game, as old as mankind.  I am the shaman, the magician, the priest.  When your heart beats fast in the dead of night, I am there.  When you whistle or sing in the face of danger, I call the tune.  I am your ancestor and your child.  I am your guest tonight.  And you will be mine.

Here is my invitation to your house: a green tree from the northern forests.  See?  Some things you still remember. An evergreen tree hung with lights and mirrors, sparkling gold like the glimmer of Solstice Fire through the forests branches. Red and White, blood on the snow.  And today, the day of endings and beginnings, of death and rebirth.  The birth of the sun. The Solstice.

Come with me…back to the beginnings…stretch out your hand to me.  Stretch out over a thousand generations. Come and understand once more.

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The Holly and the Ivy

Shaman: The running of the deer.  The rising of the sun. The song and praise of the woods, and the forests, the beasts, and the seasons.

And then one day the Christ people came, turning their backs on what is, and demanding what should be, as if they were laws of it all.  They took that song, and made it theirs, just as they took my Solstice festival for their own.

The sun.

The birth of a sun, as it always was, for as long as mankind has gaped at the sky and questioned the light and the darkness.  Birth of our sun…

Birth of a boy child….

Their festival is trick of words, a fashion of the last few seconds of the history of man.

But while they try to drive me back into the shadows before their new born godling, the Christ people still feared me.  For the shaman was their ancestor too.  The blood on the snow…

So, they tried to tame me, contain me, cage me, turn me into a tale for little children.  A bringer of gifts, a driver of reindeer, an old man from the North with a white beard and a little magic.  But their children were wiser than they…in their turn, they remember the Solstice Fire.

O Day-Spring, brightness of light, everlasting and Sun of Righteousness.  Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death. Lighten the load and cast out the darkness of the spirit.

Do you remember now?  Are the old memories stirring?

Pass as the Shaman passes, as thought in the dream.  Pass with me to the edge of the pitching forest, the edge of the wind scoured plain…back to the very beginning, when hungry ice drew back, the bare earth swelled and the Hunter strode over it to the North.

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Shaman: Smell the chill on the wind!  Black winter is here too.  The Red and White ridge is ahead; agaric, the shaman’s mushroom, the crossing to the spirit world.

Eat. Soon you will see the magician’s reindeer fly again, skimming the snow, speckled the air, riding the Northern winds, pulling a sleigh with an old man in a red coat, bringing gifts.

I tell you, your children are wiser than you.

The dark forest presses on each side.  The ice casts an iron band around your chest, snatching breath.  But there ahead is fire. Solstice Fire.

Woman: Red cat upon the hearth, striped with gold, spitting and twisting, could eat the whole house if you let her.

Shaman: Now do you see how you are favored? Midwinter blesses you, with a festival of over eating.

But look beyond the fire to the shadows. Do you see the old people, near ghosts, sitting, waiting for the cold to take them?  This is the real Midwinter; a time of hunger, when the old set themselves to die, to lighten the load on the rest.

Hunter: In the summer, fattening time.  The reindeer moved in herds on the plain, and we hunters followed, killing for our people.  Food in our bellies.  That was a fine time.  Sun hot grasslands, and the grouse, so plump and slow…they could hardly rise away from our arrows.

But winter is never far away.  It soon blew down from the mountain tops, bringing the night spirits to live with us.  If you listen, you’ll hear the long dead, howling in the forests.

Woman: One legged seamstress has needles but can’t sew.  Wears the same green gown each day, and a white overcoat in winter…

Hunter: Kindle the fire, heat to heat, light to light!. Give back fire to the Sun, at Midwinter!  Bring new fire to each home, a burning log from the forest.  Fire to ease the birth pangs of the Sun.

Shaman: Stones of the Earth remember a time when the Sun did not return to them from the Darkness.  Then, ravenous ice engulfed the land, bringing nothing but stark, white silence.  The very mountains were split and milled to sand.

What chance had the hunters and their people?  For this reason, they made a gift of flame to the Sun at Midwinter, so it will return to them.  Red flame to White ash..Red and White..Solstice Fire.

Woman: Whither, whither black flowering night! May your dark juices bleed, burn up like a pool on the summer plain, shrivel like a stain upon sand, dwindle to a basalt pebble, tiny as a slow worm’s eye is.  Vanish to nothing.

Shaman: A red deer comes over the hill… shoot your arrows as you will.  The deer will stand there still.

Hunter: The sun rises, as a deer on a hill.  Let the Shaman draw on a rock with white chalk and red ochre, and the let the likeness live.  The raven, the reindeer, the bear, and the leaping salmon… let all those we have killed bring their gift.

Brother reindeer, I’m in your debt.  You give me your brown autumn hide to wrap me, my buckskin shoes, my summer tent, and sleeping bag…my skin boat, which slips across the lake.  Your sinews are my thread; your bones are my needles.  My family eat your tongue, your bone marrow, your unborn fawns.  From the birth of this new Sun to its death next winter, give me all these again.  Follow the paths I know, from fawn birth to rut, across the river where an arrow with my mark on it can bring you down in the red water.

My gift to you in return, is never to kill you without need, and then only to take flesh, bone, and hide, to leave your spirit free on the plain.  Come to the Fire.

Shaman: And the Shaman’s magic will make it so.  That is his task, to climb down through the smoke hole of the hut, with a wooden reindeer painted in red ochre, and so make toys of its wild brothers.

Woman: And you, black soul of ravens, you who share our killing, you are our kin; you eat our meat and watch our camps.  Bran, the trickster, your feathers hang from our flag sticks driving the deer into our traps, deceiving them, making them afraid of feathers, when arrows lie ahead.

But Brother Raven, do not deceive us like that.  You know the Sun must be born again tonight, without its light you will not find food.  Without its light your feathers will not dry and your young will die of cold.

Hunter: Brother Bear, welcome…shadow of death in the forest.  Your claws split open the hunter from head to belly, and yet your flesh dries on a string in the summer heat outside the hut of the fortunate hunter.

Shaman : All this the Shaman will promise.  As priest, keeper of the game, magician, and midwife to the Sun.

Wolf: Don’t forget me…we are one, you and I.  Hunter and hunted.  My gifts to you are the leap swifter than thought, and the strength to run all day without slackening until the heart is run out of your prey.  I wish you the comfort of the pack about you and the wisdom which knows caution but not fear.

Hunter: Come to the fire, night brother. But not too near….

Shaman: Brothers of the natural world and you others, silent watchers from the shadow world, long dead and unborn.  It is the Night of Longest Darkness, the time of greatest danger.  The Solstice Fire burns as a sign to the Sun that it must return or we shall be left in the ice of eternal blackness.  None here, oh Sun, have forgotten our debt to your warmth and light.

 The crackle of the Raven

Shaman: Someone here has failed the trust.  There is a law breaker here who has forgotten the custom.

Scattered sounds and images from the distant future:

  • Happy Christmas to one all…
  • Season greetings from everyone here…
  • Merry Christmas
  • White Christmas
  • Noel…Noel…
  • Welcome to our store today, our special Christmas offerings…
  • ….then why not give mother nature a helping hand, with…
  • A full Christmas dinner served daily from November 20th
  • A cracker and a novelty hat..
  • …keep the needles on the tree and give the whole house a lovely, lively smell…
  • Or manicure set for your dog or rubber booties
  • Or plastic reindeer with noses painted fluorescent red…look how they glow in the dark
  • Small, medium, and large…two for the price of one..now as a trainset, and a bicycle, noel, noel, season’s greetings, season’s greetings…merry….merry….merry…merry…merry…merry…

Wolf: This is a trick!  These things cannot be…this is the world upside down, like the image in the lake on a still day.

Bran the Raven: You are wrong, Wolf. I have seen it.

Hunter: Who speaks?

Bran the Raven: It is I, Bran, the Raven.

Hunter: How can you possibly know?

Bran the Raven: Hunter, your feet are on the ground.  Your nose is pressed to the blood trail. I fly high above your head, high enough to see what’s to come.  And I tell you, the world will be turned on its head.

Wolf: Raven, you are a liar…just as always.  How could anyone who lives under the Sun forget the Solstice, and the old laws?

Shaman : Are you going to tell them?  How to live off the Earth, and not in it?  How to become its master?

Raven: I tell you, where they have passed, the grass is scorched away and the trees die as if withered by a brush fire, except that no green shoots follow.  They destroy faster than they can grow.  The cycles of seed and harvest are no longer something to live by, but something to be altered. The animals are no longer brothers but slaves.

Hunter: How could they have forgotten?

Raven: Knowledge has made them stupid.  Seeing too much has made them blind.  One thing they are sure of, that anything simple is a tale for little children.

Hunter: And so the children are the keepers of the truth?

 Shaman: And your children are wiser than you.

Perhaps they can tell you why every year you set up an evergreen tree from the forest like those about you now.

Do you think it is simply to please them that you hang shining Sun images upon it? Or it it because in the beginnings of time, your forefathers hung dead sacrifices on the living timber as gifts to the reborn Sun?

And still you utter the words “Yule Log” without remembering the burning branch from the forest which brought the Solstice Fire to the heart.

Shaman: If you forget the very roots of belief, if you forget the Earth and its laws, you are lost.

9 thoughts on “The Red and the White of the Solstice Fire

  1. Wren

    A wonderful reminder of our kinship with Earth and our fellow creatures. Tomorrow night the constellation of the Virgin will rise at midnight from the eastern horizon, along with Arcturus the shepherd and the other animals of the zodiac to await the birth of the Sun and its return to the north regions. Thank you for all you do, JA! Your various “translations” are a work of love and much appreciated!

    Like

  2. The version you linked to seems to have a chunk missing from the end. Here is a link to the full version and here is the remaining text to it:

    Time is short. The Solstice is almost upon us. Your own world is calling you back.
    HUNTER: Shaman, will the sun be reborn?
    SHAMAN: This time, this time. But if the trees are killed, and the seas are poisoned, who knows? When clouds can bring death and not life, who knows?
    HUNTER: Shaman, you must help them. You are the bringer of gifts. The magician.
    SHAMAN: What will you have? Remember, I cannot guarantee the future. One day a time may come when you wait for a dawn that fails to happen. And you too will grope and shiver in the dark, as your ancestors once did. What I can give you is your own heritage which you have forgotten. Feel the load on your back. It is the weight of vanished worlds. A gift and a burden from a thousand generations past. You cannot lay it down until the last breath eases from your shoulders and it passes to your children. You cannot refuse this gift. Thoughts, once formed, cannot be unthought. Experience cannot be unlearnt. But I promise you, the Shaman will always be by your side to help you carry it.
    WOLF: His magic is in your dreams. Inescapable.
    PRIESTESS: Oh, Littleblood! Hiding from the mountains in the mountains. Wounded by stars and leaking shadow. Eating the medical earth. Oh Littleblood! Little boneless, little skinless. Ploughing with a linnet’s carcass, reaping the wild wind and threshing the stones. Oh Littleblood! Plumbing in a cow’s skull. Dancing with gnat’s feet. With an elephants nose, with a crocodile’s tail. Grown so wise, so terrible. Sucking death’s mouldy tits. Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, Oh Littleblood!
    SHAMAN: Go now. Back to your own world. But never again will you forget me. I am the Shaman. The priest. The keeper of the game, whom some choose to call Father Christmas. Whenever you see an old man with a white beard wearing a red suit and riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, the chains which bind you to your past will tighten, and you will feel again the pounding heart, the ache of the chase, the smell of blood warm on the snow. Red and white, blood on the snow.
    Come to me, and you shall see the rebirth of the sun. The glorious Solstice. I am the Shaman. Remember. Whom some call Father Christmas. To me.

    Liked by 1 person

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