Chapter 1 - Home is Where the Earth Is
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The Solar Observances
It seems that the 'problem' of urban vs. rural is almost as old as the idea of city itself. We can see many of these issues rise out the rural observances, and their city counterparts. In this section, we are going to look at the BIG picture, the reality of our absolute connection to the planet, to the sun and, strange to some, to the moon as well. Each of these observances have been celebrated both in cities and out, individually and as groups, in ancient and modern times. They have been adopted by virtually every religion around the world. It seems that for tens of thousands of years, humanity has recognized, at some level, it's complete dependence on the gift of life that is born in the solar rays as they wax and wane year over year.
The Solar events, the solstices and equinoxes, are the most easily recognizable events of all of the festivals. That they simply mark events
“When learned, Stoicism is a philosophy. When practiced, it is a religion.”
Edwin Arnold, Roman Stoicism, 1911 (paraphrased)
A note about Stoic Rituals:
The eight Stoic Great Celebrations are a thoroughly modern invention. They have been created to fill a perceived need in the human psyche for ritual and recognition, to mark the passage of time and the changes we each undergo in our lives. At the same time, they are meant to honour the cultures which birthed Stoicism, the cultures we live in, and the realities of the natural cycles that we are inextricably tied to.
Each of the Stoic Great Celebrations embodies a key Stoic practice. These practices are regular activities, some of them daily, which are employed by Stoics as they seek to remember and recognize the importance of attentiveness and incremental growth in the Stoic Art of Living. Despite its overuse in modern ‘wish-fulfilment’ philosophies, the Stoic concept of intentionality is central to almost every Stoic practice, and this is what the Great Celebrations are set to reinforce. They are public and communal celebrations because Stoics are first and foremost members of a community, who depend on them, and upon whom they depend.
Stoic Great Celebrations are deliberately and unashamedly aligned with many of the most popular celebrations embedded in contemporary cultures. Stoics are not trying to rewrite history, but to rewrite themselves, so to speak. The Great Celebrations also attempt to honour the roots of Stoicism by adopting the form and language of some of the ancient Greek and Romans rituals that the Stoic School was originally surrounded by. The celebrations also borrow liberally from the traditions handed down by previous generations, as well as from more modern practices that have arisen from our own cultures.
That being said, there are no sacred directives to perform certain rituals on specific days, rather the Stoic Great Celebrations seek to embody the best in existing cultural habits and give additional depth by the inclusion of reminders of the Stoic Art of Living.
What follows is a first attempt at creating a modern Stoic Great Celebration using elements of ancient rituals, modern celebrations, natural cycles and Stoic teachings and practices.
Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.
from 'Winter-Time' by R. L. Stevenson
I recently spotted a tongue-in-cheek t-shirt, sporting a wonky red and green globe, and framed in holly below it, a caption reads "Axial tilt is the reason for the season." Besides the playful dig at the religious establishment, this message does hold a deeper truth.
To those of us living between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle, the annual Hibernal solstice is simply a fact of life, independent of any spiritual or cultural significance we may ascirbe to it. From our relative position, the Sun (sol) appears to stand still in the sky (sistere) in its declination. It no longer appears to be falling daily towards the horizon. The accompanying climactic changes, especially for those of us above the 45th parallel (half way to the north pole!), make this time of year a significant transition period.
The solstice has been observed by the ancients, if not celebrated, at least since neolithic times, as witnessed by the silent sentinels at Stonehenge and New Grange. With the passing of midwinter, most northern cultures would now face the famine months, and the work of the previous year would decide their winter survival. The midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Cattle were often slaughtered at this time to avoid having to feed and shelter them over the harsh winter, and at the same time providing fresh meat for the coming hard times. Wine and beer made during the year was now ready for consumption. The availability of fresh food and drink made it a natural time for gatherings and celebrations.
The reduction in daylight at this time of year may have prompted physiological reasons for some of the celebrations. People living in northern climates would be subject to an increased melatonin secretion in the body, which in turn would disrupt their circadian rhythm due to longer sleep. This along with the increased, and often intense, cold, weariness, and reduction of useful activities would likely lead to boredom and depression.
The sight and scent of the fresh cut evergreens, a feature of mid-winter celebrations from time immemorial, along with the roaring fires, general camaraderie and communal feasting, in addition to dancing, singing and general merry-making, would have served as a rustic, yet extremely effective, form of curative therapy. These reminders of life, of growth, of an eventual end to the cold would strengthen the resolve of a people locked in the grips of ice and snow. This great celebration would help to 'recharge' the gathered folk in preparation for the harsh, and often bleak, winter ahead.
The most significant sign of the occasion, however, was in fact the of the waning of the days and waxing of the nights, and the apparent reversal, or resurrection, of the Sun which followed the solstice. The interpretation of this event, and it's association with the wintry death and eventual rebirth of the plants and animals of the surrounding countryside, make for a natural connection to the ideas of personal death and rebirth. So it follows that these themes would eventually find their way into the legends, myths and tales that surround this time of year.
As with many observances that have their roots in the practicalities of daily life, they eventually grow through habit, to ritual, to religious expression. The evolution from a general time for feasting to a time of religious celebration and a gathering of the faithful is easy to see. The association of the solar cycle with metaphysical thoughts of death and rebirth give an additional depth of meaning as well. Some deities whose functions and responsibilities included birth and death became associated with this time of year, and celebrations came to be included in their cults.
And while many of us, especially in urban centers, may have lost the sense of dread for the coming winter, the celebrations surrounding these darkest of days has remained. We still experience the physiological changes associated with the change in climate. Cultures around the globe still recognize the significance of this time, and most of them do so with gifts and food and celebrations of family and community, as in ancient days.
In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice, and Hades was permitted on Mount Olympus. Also reversal is another usual theme as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.
[As the aim of this series of essays is also to establish a Stoic approach to the received cycle of celebrations, each will in turn present a practice that will seek to honour both the historicity of the celebration, as well as emphasizing a specific Stoic practice. Alignments with current societal practices, such as Yule, Christmas and New Year (for westernized societies) are actually deliberate. The goal here is not to invent new holidays or traditions, but to add meaning, but not necessarily change, the habits and rituals that are already in place. The following is a suggestion only, and not intended to be a declaration of consensus of belief or practice.]
The occasion of the winter solstice, with it's twin themes of birth and death, are for Stoics a clear reminder of our own mortality. Despite our modern society's obsession with youth and vitality, it is a stark fact that we all must die. The Stoic accepts this, and more, embraces it as a truth, like all others, that is neither good nor evil, but merely factual. For 'death shall have no dominion' over the Stoic, to whom death is a final, natural culmination and release.
Modern Stoics practice daily and weekly resignation, the release of the cares of the present into the hands of fate, or the Gods, or back into time. The winter solstice is thus the Grand Release, the ultimate Memento Mori (which roughly translates as 'Remember that you will die').
In the weeks approaching the solstice, the Stoic will finalize his or her preparations to depart this life. All small debts will be cleared, if possible. Arrangements for larger debts will made, and Stoic will ensure that all legal obligations and burdens are taken care of, such as the updates to will, testaments, insurances, funeral plans etc.
This is also the time to recognize, honour and celebrate the friendships and relationships that he or she may have. Holiday gatherings, celebrations and the preparation of gifts of gratitude are already part of many cultures' routines for this time of year. The Stoic is glad to participate with them, and understands the depth of meaning that these occasions can hold.
The grand fire, a feature of so many early pagan and neo-pagan winter solstice practices, and echoed in the roaring open fires of some modern traditions, is for the Stoic the funeral pyre, the symbol of the final peaceful release. The Stoic does not, however, call into being the new sun, through sympathetic magic or other rite or ritual. The rising and setting of the sun, and indeed all universal cycles, are part of the logos, the perfect natural symphonic rhythm of which we all are but a single line of melody.
Should the cycle restart the next day (as it usually does, but we will acknowledge that it might not), then the Stoic has cause to celebrate his or her re-birth. Since all arrangements are already made for their departure, it is with complete freedom that the Stoic is able to join in festivities and joyous gatherings, as in days of old. This is also a time for reflection on the value of his or her life, and the contributions that can be made in the coming year.
With the coming of the new year, and the return to the regular routines of life, the Stoic is prepared to make new commitments, renewing responsibilities from the past year if there is work still to be done. Bearing in mind that all plans are tentative at best (which is seen the practice of Reservation that receives special recognition at the February Cross-Quarter), the Stoic begins the new year with solemn commitments to improve his or her life, and to make real positive change in the world.
Our family comes from a mixed background of various religions. As a result, we continue to keep Christmas, tree, ornaments, and traditional manger scene and all. I guess for us, on that one day, they are the 'deities of the occasion' if I can be permitted to borrow the phrase. The house is decorated, usually in early December, with lights and boughs. The tree and other decorations are put up inside the house on the first convenient weekend, though we are not 'religious' about the timing.
The celebrations themselves actually typically begin at Yule, the winter solstice. Our family has for years recognized the longest night of the year by giving new night clothes to all members of the family, including those who are family of the heart who happen to be present. Everyone changes into their PJs and we usually sit around, drinking hot chocolate, playing games or watching a seasonal movie, such as Holiday Inn, White Christmas, or It's a Wonderful Life.
On this night, we bring out Old Man Winter, a small doll of a Father Christmas, dressed in a long brown cloak and hood, and carrying fuel wood and gifts. He remains on the mantle until the Spring Equinox.
The celebrations and gatherings continue into the new year.
As Stoics interested in integrating our philosophy into our religious life and practice, we are also starting to add, adapt and sometimes invent rituals and observances. So as the years progress, we will continue to evolve our practice.
Spring Equinox - The Great Fast
Summer Solstice - The Great Reflection
"The longest day of the year marks the Great Reflection. When the light is brightest, shinning down on us, illuminating every spot, we examine our own lives in this light, to honestly examine where have we failed to meet our own expectations, and to shine a light on our own potential for greatness. We celebrate this time of joy and friendship with the community, coming together to share a meal. Vesta, the goddess of the Eternal Creative Fire, is the patroness of this festival."
On June 7, the ancient Romans began the 8 day celebration of the Vestalia. Vesta, was the goddess of the hearth (associated with the Greek goddess of the hearth, Hestia) and Romans worshipped her privately in their homes and publicly in state festivals like the Vestalia. Interestingly enough, Romans did not portray Vesta, at her altar, in statuary. The flame of the hearth, instead, symbolized her presence, although they did portray both Vesta and Vestals elsewhere (e.g., a row of statues outside the House of the Vestals). At home, the Roman family gathered once a day to offer Vesta a sacrifice.
In order to celebrate the Vestalia in June, the Vestals, a special female priesthood comprised of virgins who had dedicated 30 years to the service of Vesta, made mola salsa (holy cake). To do this they walked to a sacred spring to fetch water. They carried the water in special jugs with a base designed to tip the jug over if it was set down. The water for the mola salsa could never come in contact with the earth. The salt used to make the mola salsa was also prepared in a ritual fashion. Brine was pounded then baked in a jar until it formed a rock so hard that the Vestals had to use an iron saw to cut it. The grain used for the cakes came from ears of spelt gathered on the 7th, 9th and 11th of May. From these ingredients the Vestals made the mola salsa. The hard-baked cakes were then cut into slices and offered to Vesta.
Vesta only had one temple in Rome, the circular Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum. Inside the round temple burnt the eternal fire, the symbolic hearth of Rome and all the Roman people. If the fire was extinguished it would have grave consequences for the Romans. During the eight days of the Vestalia, only women were permitted to enter Vesta's temple for worship. When they arrived, they removed their shoes and made offerings to the goddess.
The Vestalia continued for 8 days, during which women could also enter the temple to worship. They appear to have dressed simply and to take off their shoes before they entered it. The offerings they brought to Vesta were probably platters of ordinary (i.e., not fancy) food.
On June 15th, the Vestal Virgins ceremoniously cleaned their house. They swept the floors clean and the dust was carried to the Tiber where it was dumped. They then closed the doors of the temple and it became lawful to again transact public business. According to Ovid, this day became a holiday for bakers and millers. They hung garlands of violets and small loves of bread from their millstones and the asses that turned them.
The Stoic View
Ancient Roman religion was by and large orthopraxic. That is to say that what really mattered was HOW one worshipped the Gods, not what one believed about them. To that end the Stoics provided their own understanding of the Gods, while continuing the practices of the normal Roman celebrations.
Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic School, considered Hestia to be the hearth at the centre of the universe. Nevertheless Cornutus, a Roman Stoic who taught hundreds of years later, said that Hestia is the first and last because "there dissolves in her all that developed out of her." She is, in fact, the Great Creative Fire, the 'ever-living' fire of the universe that both creates and destroys. “From her comes the universe,” he said, “and to her it returns.” Cornutus himself learned these things from the writings of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic School.
Summer Solstice and Midsummer Celebrations
The lore surrounding the Summer solstice is, not at all surprisingly, pretty universal, globally speaking. The Summer Solstice is simply an astronomical point that marks the longest day of the year for most people. What this means agriculturally depends largely on where one is on the planet. However, regardless of whether it is the height of the growing season, or the depth of the dry season, there is one constant focus: the light of the sun on the longest day. Early civilization depended heavily on the light of the sun for everything from the mundane tasks of daily working to live, to the success of crops and herds. Cultures around the globe have, since time immemorial, recognized this day as one in which fire was recognized as a life giving force. This was acknowledged by the orientation of everything from pyramids to stone circles and the practice of the lighting of bonfires than span the planet.
Midsummer celebrations around the globe vary somewhat, but most seem to have a central theme. Fire. Huge bonfires are lit on the eve of the Midsummer, or thereabouts, which is also known as St. John's Eve. Flowers and herbs are featured in many celebrations, decorating the houses and people as they attended bonfire parties, some which last throughout the night. The ancient celebrants often believed that the light of the bonfire, and the lanterns they would carry about with them, would serve to illumine the darkness and drive away evil spirits.
Light itself has become a watchword for honesty and trust. Evil was done ‘in the dark of the night.’ To this day, crimes committed ‘in broad daylight’ are seen as being especially bold and heinous. The light of the sun not only heals and grows, it reveals and shows.
The Practice of Reflection
“The Unexamined Life is not worth living.” Socrates.
A key stoic practice, the first to be learned by students of Stoicism, is the daily practice of reflection. This is the method that Stoic students use for living an examined life, as Socrates would have called it. They are encouraged to keep a daily journal of their thoughts, reactions and activities with regards to their daily practice of the Stoic Art of Living. We all have a tendency to skew our own memories, especially when time becomes a factor. Seneca reminds us that "[The mind] should be summoned to give an account of itself every day."
In addition to writing down their daily thoughts and encounters, modern Stoic students can add an additional practice, the Weekly Review. At the end of the week, students are instructed to go back and re-read each of the Journal entries for that week. This is the key to their Journal. The daily view is too close for us to see our own progress. When we look back over the week, we can see how patterns are repeated, lessons are being internalized and revelations are slowly being gained.
The Great Reflection is the ultimate review. Like the weekly review, this is modern innovation. During a quiet meditation period, we look back at our own lives, to honestly examined where have we failed to meet our own expectations, and to acknowledge our own potential for greatness. It is an honest evaluation, and a strengthening affirmation.
The Great Reflection
Stoicism did not rise out up of a philosophical desert. When it was founded by Zeno of Citium in 300 BCE, Athens was the hub of philosophical inquiry for the western world. Zeno, and his successors, liberally borrowed from other schools, religions and practices, seeking out what they felt was the best of their time.
In the same spirit, the Great Reflection Ritual wraps the Stoic practice in the symbolism of the ancient Roman Vestalia, the observances of the Summer Solstice and the celebrations of Midsummer in modern times.
Autumn Equinox - The Great Feast
Life on Earth
These observations have more to do with our interactions with the earth, and our utter dependence on her.
November 1st - The Final Harvest
The Stoic Seneca once said that “Life, if you know how to live it, is long.” Nevertheless, all Stoics, including Seneca, acknowledge that our lives are finite. This is not seen as a good thing or a bad thing, but rather a natural thing. The Stoics are well known contemplating their own deaths, and accepting it as a part of their lifecycle. While the Stoics allowed for all views of the afterlife, their focus remained firmly in this one. It is in this life that we do good, it is here and now that we are permitted the opportunity to improve our own lives and the lives of those around us. However, as Seneca remind us, we do not seem to care about how nobly, courageously or generously we live, but only about how long. This is strange because it is within the reach of every one of us to live nobly, but none of us can decide for how long we will live.
The same approach holds true for the deaths of others. We are aware that, whatever the cause, the death of our loved ones is inevitable. Those closest to the dead grieve their departure, as is natural, mourn for lives cut short. However, it seems that more time is spent bemoaning the death, than celebrating the life of the departed. While the initial focus on the departed loved one is intense, over time we lose the edge of the pain, but also the memory of the person itself seems to fade. This should not be so. We are, as the Stoic teachers and many others have taught, social beings, and we owe who we are in part to the people who have surrounded us in this life.
The roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, spent an entire book (Book I) going over each of the people who had an impact in his life. For each paragraph, he lists all of the ways that he was blessed by their presence in his life, and all of the lessons he learned from them. This ‘Journal of Gratitude’ is an exercise in reflection, in acknowledging the mutual interdependence that upholds each of us.
At this time of year, a time associated in many western societies with the dead, the modern Stoic may take the opportunity to revisit some of the dead, some of the ancestors recent and distant, who have graced his or her life. The following exercise is an example of this practice of acknowledging our dependence and connection to those around us, especially those who presence has ceased, but whose impact continues.
The following exercise may be intensely emotional for Stoics early in their training. If you suspect that you will be upset by this focus of departed loved once, prepare yourself for it. Place tissues at hand, give yourself more time than is suggested. Explain to anyone who is nearby and who may be tempted to intervene what you are planning to do, and that will need this time alone to traverse this path. Go over in your mind what weeping will feel like, and how it will be when you stop. Think about the sadness, and the relief that comes afterwards. This is the Stoic practice of forecasting, of exploring our own possible reactions to situations, and seeing them through. This practice removes some of the fear of the unexpected, and helps us to prepare as best we can.
Most important is honesty. All who have touched us have taught us and changed us. How we now choose to react to those actions and those memories is what forms our character. There are some people whose impact was so damaging, so violent, that there is nothing to be learned except that they were so full of pain and violence that they spread it like a disease to others. This is not an exercise in forgiveness, nor in forgetfulness, but rather in acknowledgement.
To prepare to begin your own Journal of Gratitude, select one ancestor to start with (you can do others at later times). Allow for about one hour, and be sure that you will not be disturbed. Try to have a picture with you or something that reminds you of them. Perhaps you can have their full names written carefully on a piece of paper in front of you. You will need a pen and your journal, perhaps a special journal reserved for this purpose.
Here is an example of the kind of thing that Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“From my father, I learned mildness, and an unshakable adherence to decisions deliberately come to; and no empty vanity in respect to so-called honours; and a love of work and thoroughness; and a readiness to hear any suggestions for the common good; and an inflexible determination to give every man his due; and to know by experience when is the time to insist and when to desist.” (The Meditations, Book 1, 16)
Then with a pen and your journal, begin by writing.
"This is my expression of gratitude for the life of .... From him/her I learned [then write the first thing that comes to your mind.]
Explain how you felt, try to remember watching how they behaved with other people, how they interacted with you. How did the treat the things in their life. Even from their negative behaviour you can learn something.
For example: From Aunt June, I learned that a sharp and criticising tongue causes hidden pain to those who hear it, and they sometimes will not even show it. I learned that pain is not only caused by blows, but by the words that are said.
After each 'lesson' say something like, "And I am grateful, for I now know that to sew X is to reap y, and I will/will not sow x." Or, “And because of this I have learned to…”
When you have written as much as you can, go back over the pages you have filled, and create a single paragraph that lists or highlights the things that you have learned. You may have to re-write the paragraph a few times. When you have completed it, copy it into a special booklet or page reserved for the purpose. If you keep an ancestor shrine or place of recognition, whether formal or informal, you may want to add your summary to this, so that when you visit it, you may be reminded of this exercise.
You may then repeat the exercise as often as you wish.
February First - The Suffering - Helping those who suffer.
Masks, the lenaia?! Hiding those who suffer from our sight, hiding our own suffering.
May First - The Sages - Honouring those who planted the seeds of learning and hope in our lives.
August 1st - The Living - Rejoicing in the interconnectedness of all of it.
Community-Nature awareness etc. Oikeiosis. Citizen of the world
15-16: Synoikia -- A celebration of the Synoecism, the combining of Attika into one community. Every other year, it was celebrated for two days instead of one. On the second day, a sacrifice was made to Zeus Phratrios, god of the tribal brotherhoods (like clans). A sacrifice was also made to Athene in a formal manner. Eirene, goddess of peace, was also worshipped on this day.
The Moon is Our Midwife