From Chapter 4 on the Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross-Quarters:
The Four and the Eight
The solstices are the two exact points in the year when the days are longest and shortest – that is, when the poles of Earth are maximally inclined toward the Sun, or when Sun is directly above the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Strictly speaking, the solstices are a six-day period (three days each side of the exact solstice), during which time the Sun does not change its height in the sky or its rising point on the horizon.
These rising points were marked by the megalith-builders by aligning stones to the rising and setting points of the Sun at the solstices. Stone alignments have been found to be aligned very slightly off exact, to the point four days before and after solstice when the Sun can first be seen to have moved very slightly each day when rising or setting. This allowed more accurate calendrical counting. It also marked out a six-day solstice period, celebrated by gatherings, ceremonies and feasts.
Energywise, the solstices are times of pause or stasis in which the movement of change from one light/energy condition to the other – long days or long nights – stops and reverses. It is like the turning of the tides in the sea, during which nothing much visibly happens, though it can be sensed, and it’s important. There’s a pregnant potency to it.
These processes of light/energy change can nevertheless be felt underground in caves, fogous and catacombs where light and the seasons are not physically seen or felt. This is one reason why ancient people and trainee lamas and shamans often closed themselves away for retreats in such places, to attune to subtle energies by depriving themselves of light and sensory input, thus becoming more sensitive to subtle energies. Once they had mastered this they could emerge into daylight again.
Some people went underground to die consciously too, since this would attune them to the subtle landscape of the afterlife, away from the relative jangle and fuss of the living world – but this was but one part of an ongoing spiritual process throughout life, for those who chose it. One mistake archaeologists make is that they frequently interpret ‘chambered tombs’ to be tombs, when they were primarily not so – just as churches with graveyards were not built solely for burying the dead. Chambered mounds were built for initiatory and spiritual purposes, to help trainees attune to the subtle timeless energy behind and within all manifest forms.
Following winter solstice, initially the constraining effects of the natural environment is strongly felt in temperate climes – it’s cold, the nights are long and growth in nature is dormant and held back. An evolutionary process of growth, development and variegation gathers steam by spring equinox, encouraged by the increasingly favourable conditions of spring – though often a newmoon or fullmoon triggers the manifest change. Plants, animals and people grow, extending into their available space, establishing and expressing their individual potential.
When the light decreases between summer and winter solstice, it’s time to give something back in the way of seeds, fruits and compost, shelter, participation and integration. This process accelerates as summer bears its harvest and fruit. After autumn equinox, as winter approaches, there’s a die-back in nature and, for humans, a sense of reintegration with society and the greater wholeness. Animals flock together to migrate or bed down in their wintertime hideaways.
You can observe this annual process: it’s about stepping out and rising up in summer and returning home and hunkering down in winter, both in terms of life-activities and the inner life. By incorporating the energy-year into our plans and actions, we move more in tune with the planet’s energy-fields. Things work better. Winter solstice is a good time for thinking things through, spring equinox is a good time for executing them, summer solstice is a great time for realising projects, and autumn equinox is a good time for reaping the benefits.
The solstices are characterised by a feeling of stillness, a timely contrast to the rushing changes happening around the equinoxes preceding them three months earlier. The solstices give us a chance to stop and take stock, to assimilate all that has happened and just be with that. The equinoxes represent a state of becoming, moving toward something else, while the solstices represent a state of being, of existentiality. The solstices are gateways or turning-points in the cycle of the year while the equinoxes are milestones or transition-points in the middle of change.
At summer solstice, all beings experience the fullness of life, rising to whatever is their potential this time around, while at winter solstice they experience their involvement, belongingness and interrelatedness to each other and the whole. Summer solstice is about potentiality and winter solstice is about background and roots. There is always something of the opposite within each of these states, since opposites in a polarity always exist in contrast to each other.
As a gateway of consciousness, winter solstice represents a pause to perceive the inherent seeds of future growth hiding within latency and death, to gather intent and a sense of possibility and to make goals or resolutions for the future. New Year’s resolutions are a modern leftover of this. At the other end of the year, summer solstice marks a pause in the midst of the vivid life-process, a break for re-gathering and reassessing where we’ve got to, having reached this far. It’s an intermission between springtime and harvest activities.
Since winter solstice is relatively lifeless in the northern hemisphere, it symbolises all that is relatively changeless, formless, concealed, and lying between completed and impending. In northern climes, candle and fire rituals (such as yule logs and the lighting of Advent candles) represent the quiet survival of the light in the midst of darkness and cold.
Since summer solstice buzzes with life and activity, it symbolises all that is living, transient, productive, actual and vibrant. Light within in winter and light without in summer: these two contrasting aspects of the annual cycle of life-force are vital to an understanding of natural faiths and the movement of life. At these points we come to accept what is, and we live with it, as it stands.
If you seek to move into inner harmony with the underlying motion of energy within the year, observe the solstices, marking them with a tone of respect and perception, and you will find yourself opening up more consciously to a fundamental energy-undertow that lies within the pattern of the year.
The equinoxes are midpoints between the solstices, when the length of the days and nights is changing fastest and yet they are equal in length. The further you move from the equator, the more that day-length changes each day around equinox.
Equinoxes are times of becoming and transition where change properly gets into gear. At spring equinox the restraining influences of winter give way and plants, animals and people go forward pursuing their goals, mutating and growing each as best they can, staking out their space and making the best of circumstances while there is opportunity.
While the solstices mark pauses, the equinoxes mark midpoints in the process of becoming something else – they’re transitional highpoints in the progression of change, mid-course realignments where a shift occurs from buildup to breakthrough, following paths already chosen. It’s time for releasing past ways to make space for what is to come.
Things can be busy at the equinoxes, making the folk gatherings seen at the solstices not so easy at equinox. Hence that, in many traditions, there are often bigger festivals around the solstices. Yet all of the quarterpoints are magical times well worth noting: look at what goes on for you at these times, and ‘listen more closely to things than to people’. The most potent time for observance of the atmosphere and character of these festivals is the two or so days before their exact timing. The exact timing can be found in an ephemeris.
In recent decades many people have begun instinctively to observe these festivals again. A surge of interest took place when the planet Neptune hovered around the winter solstice point in 1984, and then in 1988 Uranus did the same – these planets drew attention to the solstice points at the time by upstepping their potency. Around this time the celebration of the quarter and cross-quarter points in modern times really lifted off, and it has grown ever since.
The Fire Festivals or Cross-Quarters
It takes time for solar energy to filter through into nature and actuality. The quarter points mark the inception of each of the seasons, but mainly in principle. As with everything, there’s a difference between setting out to do something and actually seeing it happen. In nature there is a 45ish-day time-lag between the quarter days and the cross-quarters, when the season in question is really in full swing, in visible, manifest terms.
Thus, the hottest part of summer is not necessarily at summer solstice but later, around the beginning of August at Lammas or Lughnasa, when the heat has gathered momentum. Likewise, the coldest, crispest part of winter can be in early-to-mid February, about six weeks after winter solstice at Candlemas or Imbolc. Autumn really does its business in early November and spring really blossoms in early May – give or take the vagaries of weather and climate, which can vary annually and from place to place.
This is where the cross-quarters or fire festivals come in: as the midpoints between the quarter-points, they mark the times when nature and actuality respond concretely to the energy-changes initiated at the quarter points.
The zodiac is measured in terms of 360 degrees (°). The Sun moves more or less 1° per day. The quarter points are 90° from each other, and the cross-quarter points are 45° from the quarter-points (and also 90° from each other). The ancients, at least in Europe, where the seasonal changes of light and dark matter a lot, marked these cross-quarters as important festivals, celebrating and participating in the power of nature and her manifest expressions.
Historical quirks have shifted these festivals away from their original auspicious times (just as Yule has been shifted to Christmas, 3-4 days after winter solstice). The cross-quarters occur when the Sun reaches 15° (the middle) of one of the four so-called fixed signs – Aquarius, Taurus, Leo and Scorpio. The astrologically-true cross-quarter points thus take place around 2nd-7th May, August, November and February.
Tradition places these festivals a few days earlier – such as Beltane or Workers’ Day on 1st May, Candlemas or Imbolc on 2nd February, Lammas or Lughnasa at the beginning of August and All Souls or Hallowe’en at the very end of October (or Samhain on 1st November). This said, the ancients were not as calendrically-fixated as we, and they often shifted the festivals around a little each year to coincide with a new or full moon, or any other energy-blip that was hovering around at the time, on that year.
A remnant of this remains at Easter, which occurs on the fullmoon following spring equinox (nowadays on the Sunday following that fullmoon). Only later on, with the coming of the institutional church and calendrical dating systems, were such dates nailed down at regular, fixed dates.
Outwardly, there are visible seasonal changes at the four cross-quarters, and inwardly there is a quality of very real engagement in the life-process, a feeling of breakthrough in relation to the theme being explored underlyingly in each season.
The cross-quarters used to be known as Witches’ Sabbaths, when the inner intents (or spells) of witches would work through and become reality. A ‘witch’ is a person with natural, herbal, oracular and magical knowledge and training, often practising midwifery, healing, rites of passage and death rites, who acted as an adviser and spiritual friend to the people around them. By the 1500s across Europe they were often misunderstood, demonised and accused of heinous crimes, particularly by the church.
The sabbaths are times of coming-to-pass, stages of manifestation and transition. The times for clarifying intent are the solstices, and those for adjusting or reaffirming intent are the equinoxes. At the cross-quarters, it is necessary to actualise those intents, or stages of them, and give thanks too. Things actually happen at the cross-quarters.
Conscious energy-working is a process of bringing things from the stage of visualisation into manifest reality, intertwining our attention, intelligence, will and activity with the natural flow of subtle energy. This is the true meaning of the Sanskrit word tantra, or interweaving (of self with universe), which is the essence of magical-spiritual work. In so doing, we engage with and enhance the natural energy-flows of the world and are supported by them. We harmonise our lives with the energy-weather, with the deeper realms and with the karmic threads interlacing all events and developments. Nowadays, this isn’t witchcraft so much as a sense of ‘deep ecology’, the spiritual aspect of respect for nature, or perhaps even ‘magical politics’, a deeper aspect of working for social change and justice.
In ancient times, people would gather together at the quarters and cross-quarters to celebrate life and focus their collective spirit, keeping the human family moving in tune with the times – especially since, with sparse populations, people, families and clans didn’t actually cross paths with each other very much. They’d have meetings, markets, negotiations, flirting, marriages and rites of passage too.
Today, people are doing this again – not for the romantic purpose of fantasising about the ancients (though this happens) but because they sense that it is auspicious and necessary in our time. It’s a form of para-politics, voting with our feet, spiritually, and communicating with the subtle worlds to say that at least some of us do care.
Tuning into these eight points of the year, the quarters and cross-quarters, we move into greater harmony with the energy-cycle of the solar year. It puts us into gear with natural cycles. Thereby are our lives enriched. Try it. It sheds new light on the seasons and the underlying learning process within them.
To repeat, there is a distinction between the quarters and the cross-quarters. The quarters represent change-points in energy-patterning, in terms of light. The cross-quarters represent change-points in manifest energy, in terms of visible seasonal changes. The peaks of the four seasons show themselves at the cross-quarters.