As we have just had the shortest day, the day of the Winter Solstice, here is a tale to read after leaping over the smouldering Yule log, sitting by the fire, sipping a glass of warm and spiced mulled wine....
The Time of Ice
(A Meditation for the Solstice)
Come in, and sit down, as the fire burns brightly. Close the door, and keep the draughts at bay. For this indeed is a tale told by the fireside, a tale for fire, but also a tale when there is ice outside, and the cold fingers of the Northerly wind rake their frosty hands upon the window pane.
It is said, and was told to me, that long ago, the days were mild and temperate, and the sun shone brightly throughout the year. The trees blossomed with fruit all year long, and rivers irrigated the land. This was the golden age of the world, and happy indeed were those who lived in those glorious days.
But one day, there was a change, as a breeze sprang up, and the breeze became a strong wind, and then a gale, coming from the North, and the land grew colder, and the days grew ever shorter. The sun lost its strength. The crops failed, the land grew cold and barren, leaves turned brown and began to fall from trees, and there was hunger in the land.
There was a blight on the land, and the tribe felt the darkening of the days, the cold that chilled to the bones. They were full of a deep foreboding, a deepening gloom, a malaise that only the sun could shake off, but little by little, the days drew in, and the cold, dark night came, and brought only despair and melancholy.
It was a cold walk to the cottage where the wise woman lived, so the leaders of the tribe, an old man and a young maiden, set off in search of an answer to the blight that had afflicted their lands. And she welcomed them in, and soon they stood warming themselves before her fire. They asked her for help, and she gazed into the fire, as if falling into a trance, and spoke softly:
Branches dancing wildly through a stormy night
Sea foaming, waves churning against sea walls
As if an elemental force was loose, an evil wight
With destruction in its wake, as darkness falls
Seek the wisdom in the sacred fire, heart of gold
The sparks from where the shattered vessels fell
And fight against the darkness rising, be so bold
And venture forth into the lands where shadows dwell
And in those days, there was also a wise man, the keeper of the sacred flame. This was surely were wisdom was to come from. So they went to the wise man.
Now the wise man kept the flame upon the high places, set among the stones of the ancestors, and it burned as a beacon to guide sailors by night, and also a place where the tribe made the offerings to the gods of wheat and barley, of the first fruits, and of young lamb, when they sang of the blessings of the land, and gave a measure to the gods in thanksgiving.
The keeper of the flame told them that the seasons were out of balance, and the strange weather days were the result of an evil come upon the world, and he would strive to find the cause, and return to the tribe the heat of the sun. But the days grew ever dark and cold, and it seemed that the land would become a land of night, beset by wolves and bears, where no crops would grow, and all hope would die.
And so he set forth, and they kept the flame alight, in faith that he would return, and never gave up hope, even when the children cried with hunger pains, and their parents sought firewood with, venturing out with fingers chilled to the bone, and hurting in the cold winds that tore through this once pleasant land.
But when all hope had almost gone, he returned, after forty days, from the wilderness, and sat down by the fire, and told us his tale; the tale that I tell you now.
The keeper of the sacred flame had ventured far into the north, along the narrow mountain paths, and passed down through deep gullies, and the snow was thick upon this land. At last he came upon a mountain. This mountain was taller than any he had seen.
On the mountain's peak, lightening struck the land, with powerful energies, while all around a thunderous boom echoed across the valley. And on its summit stood a fortress, wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, with a gate of cold steel, and above those cruel pinnacles, a great tower of black stone.
Upon that tower, the keeper saw a dark shape around which the firestorm blazed out, and yet sucked in the heat and light, and remained in shadow. He held a staff high in his hand, summoning the elements, and crying out an ancient spell:
Cold and blackness on the land
The void consumes the light
Gather darkness, reach out hand
And bring forth endless night
Tenebrae, O Tenebrae!
Et Ite Nunc!
And as he spoke, a colder wind spring up, and flakes of snow began to fall.
The keeper knew that this was the Ice Lord, and he had taken our fire and bound it to his will, stealing the light and warmth from our sun, drawing it to his mountain realm, and causing the days to weaken, and the tribe to feel despair, as all light and joy was stolen from them.
The keeper raised his own staff, and chanted an incantation of light:
We celebrate the sun returning
Growing light, early dawning
The sun brings life and growth
Rain and sun bring fruits both
As the light of the sun grows
Passion for life it now bestows.
Love is as powerful as death
Passion for life in each breath
Bursting into strongest flame
Let us rejoice, now proclaim
Burning heat like raging fire
Tongues of flame to inspire
So it was that the keeper of the sacred flame battled the Ice Lord, and great was their struggle. Bolts of fire rained down, setting fir trees on fire, and a storm raged around the mountain peak. But the Ice Lord was held at bay, and weakened, and his fortress crumbled, and the dark tower fell. The rocks of the mountain themselves slid, and all came crashing down.
Then the keeper bound the Ice Lord, and chained him with many binding spells, and with his baneful power gone, the days began to grow longer once more, and the warmth and light of the sun began its slow return.
The keeper of the sacred flame was weary from his struggle, but victorious, and gradually, he retraced his steps, returning to our village. But it can cost him dear; he lost all his powers in that fight, and died soon afterwards.
Now all that took place many years ago, and the tale was forgotten, almost lost, except among those who passed it down the years, telling it to each other.
And it is said that every year, the Ice Lord breaks his chains, and casts an evil enchantment, binding the sun to him, summoning warmth from the land, and robbing the earth of life, and the people of joy. Then the winter storms bring a dying year, and a fading sun, and despair casts a shadow on the land.
But also every year, we rekindle a portion of the sacred flame, when we take the Yule log and burn it anew
And as we do so, it is said that the spirit of the keeper of the flame returns to keep us safe, as he awakens from his deep sleep within the trees. Then he ventures forth once more to battle against the dying light, and at the shortest day, he holds the darkness at bay, and the days begin their slow march back to light, growing longer and longer once more.
As the trees burned brightly when the battle fought, so we keep a remnant of the burning fires ourselves, and light the Yule log, for hope, for the renewal of the sun at the turning point of the year, and as we leap over the smouldering wood, we too cross the threshold from darkness into light and are reborn.
Pass through fire, be not burned
Such is promise now discerned.
André Maurois knew the problem - Maurois was a quotable French author of the early 20th century. One quote of his that came very much to mind on a couple of occassions last week is (in...
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