Spring Equinox: Bran and the Cauldron of Resurrection

The sap is rising, bulbs are emerging, blossom is exploding into life and buds forming at this time of balance between the light and the dark. As the days continue to lengthen, it is the light that has the upper hand but the power of darkness is still strong, urging us to integrate and acknowledge that part of our shadow that is holding us in stillness, even nourishing us like the moist and fecund Earth holds the seed. Dandelion starts to push through the loomy soil, along with burdock, borage, chickweed and violet, all packed full of nutrients and cleansing potential to prepare our systems for the energy of summer. And in the night sky the Spring Triangle is visible, comprised of Arcturus in Bootes, Spica in Virgo, and Regulus in Leo.

Sheelah’s Day is celebrated around Equinox in honour of Sheelah-Na-Gig, the goddess of fertility and sexuality, of green wildness and powerful life force. In the Celtic tree alphabet (f for Fearn), this time is ruled by alder, the tree of Brân. Said to have fought on the front line in the Battle of the Trees, this mother-of-all-trees is also closely associated with the goddess Sovereignty, who in her capacity as the regenerative and destructive power of Nature and ruler of the Equinox and Solstices, ultimately births, marries and lays out in death all sacred kings of which Brân was but one.

Brân was known as one of the three blessed kings of Britain and has an ancient pedigree preserved in several of the tales collated in the Mabinogion. Though written down in the Middle Ages, the tales were based on an ancient oral tradition where Brân was known as the Celtic god of regeneration, and has the illustrious pedigree of descending from both the house of Llyr (god of the sea) and Belenos (the sun god). The legends tell us that Brân possessed a magical cauldron with the power to bring dead warriors to life, but without restoring their speech. He received this cauldron from giants, or otherworldly beings, in return for his kindness, and it was so huge that it needed to be carried by wheeled vehicles such as chariots.

In a story related in the tale of ‘Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr,’ Brân gifted this cauldron to the Irish king Matholwch after he married his sister Branwen, but was dishonoured by another brother who had not been involved in the decision making process. Brân hoped to ward off war between the two kingdoms with his peace offering, but the Irish king refused to accept the cauldron as a gift in kind, reduced Queen Branwen’s position to that of a servant, and waged war anyway. Brân himself was poisoned by an arrow in the devastating battle that resulted and died. On his deathbed he instructed his followers to cut off his head, which was still able to talk even after removal. They solemnly and carefully carried the head back home with them, which was said to speak all the while.

This Cauldron of Resurrection was one of the sacred objects of the Celts and features later in Arthurian legend when King Arthur sets out on a quest to retrieve it. Indeed, in ancient times it was considered to be a gift of the goddess Sovereignty herself, the goddess of the land who bestowed plenty and abundance and presided over the magical gift of rebirth. In medieval times, the story of Branwen’s dishonouring by the Irish king is told in terms of her brothers, and her status is also reduced to that of a kitchen maid in the tale, symbolic of the withdrawal of powers by the goddess Sovereignty.  It is poignant that an object as magical as a Cauldron of Rebirth could no longer prevent petty wars between kingdoms as a result.

This theme is one that weaves through Celtic mythology, though in later times it is often edited out or watered down: the gifted abundance of the land is dependent on mutual respect between the land, the goddess of Sovereignty, and the people and mediated through the marriage between the land and the king who swore to uphold and protect her. When this sacred trust is broken, the gifts of the land and the Otherworld are withdrawn.

There is a powerful message here for our times. Alder rules from 18 March to 14th April, at time of writing, the period of lockdown in many countries due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic worldwide. The entire world is in the grip of the Wasteland, resulting in no uncertain terms from our abuse of the Earth and failure to take heed of the dire consequences of our actions and choices. Alder, like the cauldron of Brân is also known as the tree of resurrection through its association with the growing power of the sun, and its apparent ability to survive in, and therefore ‘conquer’ water. This year, Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection in the Christian church, falls on the 12 April, right at the end of the lockdown period imposed.

Brân was also associated with another magical symbol, that of the singing head removed from his body after he died in the futile battle with the Irish king. There are many legends surrounding this oracular head, but one of them says that it was buried on the hill where the Tower of London now stands, facing out towards France to ‘protect from invasion.’ Brân’s sacred bird was the raven, and to this day six of these birds are resident in the grounds of the Tower to protect ‘the Crown and the Tower,’ and superstition holds that if the ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. During this time of resurrection, we are being given an opportunity to examine the collective actions that have brought us to this current Wasteland. The old stories are very clear in their warnings. We ignore them this time at our peril.

Callanish: lunar standstills and an Equinox solar eclipse

The Spring Equinox is the time of balance between light and darkness, heralding the promise of warmer weather and longer days. The daily rhythm of the rising and setting Sun is one that we cannot fail to notice; even in our electrically powered world we are aware that the Sun, Moon and Earth are somehow bound together in orbital cycles that give rise to day and night, the seasons, and the waxing and waning of the full and dark Moon. But these intricate relationships also give rise to some less well understood phenomena, including solar eclipses and lunar standstills, and there is plenty of evidence from Neolithic stone circles that are ancestors knew about them. Therefore, when I heard that a solar eclipse at the Equinox would have 98% coverage on the Isle of Lewis, location of the famous Callanish stone circles, I jumped at the opportunity to find out more.

The main site at Callanish was built between 2900 and 2600 BCE and is centred round a circle of 13 gneiss stones, from which radiate four avenues towards the cardinal points, roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross. Alexander Thom mapped the site in detail and suggested that the southern stone avenue points to where the midsummer full Moon sets behind the Clisham Hills. [1] There are also theories that the large monolith in the centre of the circle lines up with the avenues to create an accurate north-south meridian, or pole, around which the stars appear to revolve. Given its position in the far north and the availability of some of the most beautiful (and ancient) rocks on the planet, the Lewisian gneiss, it is no wonder that this site is one of the foremost in prehistory.

I joined the other throngs of people at the Stones early on the morning of the Equinox and watched with baited breath as the clouds thinned and patches of blue sky became visible. We were in luck! Though thick cloud cover would have prevented us from seeing anything, intermittent clouds could even enhance the effect of the eclipse through the interplay of the light and the shadow.

It was amazing to see one of Nature’s most admired, and feared, phenomena over Callanish. At the Equinox, the light and the shadow provided by the Sun’s orbital journey are in balance and during a solar eclipse a complementary relationship between the Sun and the Moon is at play. Though the Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, it also happens to be 400 times further away. So, when the Moon’s orbit comes passes in front of the Sun, it has the effect of blocking out the light for a short period of time, it is eclipsed. The coverage here was not quite total, but nevertheless, the light of the Sun was eclipsed for long enough to witness overshadowing and some interesting light effects. I knew that Callanish was used to observe cycles of the Moon, but had it also been used as an eclipse predicter? I wanted to know about the relationship between the Sun and the Moon so I sought out resident Callanish expert and researcher, Margaret Curtis, to find out more.

Generally speaking, the cycles of the Moon as viewed from Earth are the opposite to those of the Sun. In the midwinter, when the Sun is at its lowest and weakest, the full Moon is at its highest and  brightest. Then at midsummer, with the Sun at its zenith, the Moon is at its weakest. However, over a period of around 19 years, the position of the full Moon around the solstices appears to oscillate and this is due to something called the Moon’s declination. The Moon’s orbit is not in the plane of the Earth’s Equator but inclined to it by approximately 5 degrees.  Additionally, as the Earth is inclined at 23.4 degrees to the plane of the Ecliptic (i.e. its tilt angle), this means that the Moon can change altitude in the sky ranging from 28.5 degrees (5.1 + 23.4) and 18.5 degrees (23.4 – 5.1). When at its greatest altitude, the full Moon will rise at its most northerly position in relation to the horizon, appear to hover, then retrace its steps. Two weeks later it will set at its most southerly extreme. Though lunar standstill happen to a degree every lunar cycle, a major lunar standstill (and the opposite, a minor lunar standstill) occcurs only once every 18.6 years, the timespan of the Moon’s precessional orbit.

Alexander Thom first coined the term ‘lunar standstill’ in 1971 after studying the alignments of many Neolithic stone circles in NW Europe, but in particular Callanish. He put forward evidence that Neolithic stone circle builders were not only aware of this phenomenon but used alignments between strategically placed stones and objects on the horizon to map and calculate them. Though his work is widely debated, researchers Ron and Margaret Curtis have continued over many years to investigate the alignments at Callanish.[2] During the most southerly stage of the major lunar standstill, the Moon when seen from the viewpoint of the Stones, rises over a range of hills known as the Old Woman of the Moors (bearing a resemblance to a reclined pregnant woman), skims the horizon and appears to touch the tips of certain stones, before setting, then magically reappearing between strategically placed stones in the central circle. The Moon appears very large and close during this time, and the effect is entirely magical (there are some good videos on U-tube).

Could an understanding of the geodesic relationships between lunar standstills and solstices be used to map and predict lunar and solar eclipses? It could be. In some ways, the standstills are polar opposites to eclipses, but both are linked through the Moon’s nodal cycle. Twice a year, the Moon will cross the Ecliptic, the path taken by the Sun across the sky. When it crosses in front of the Sun, a solar eclipse will happen. During eclipses the Moon is right on the nodes, at standstills, the Moon is at right angles to them.[3] As the builders of Callanish had an understanding of the 18.6 Metonic cycle as referenced in the lunar standstill alignments, could they also have applied this to predict eclipses? This area is certainly worthy of future research.

In March 2014, the Sun and Moon were aligned both to each other, and to the Celestial Equator and the Ecliptic, giving rise to an Equinox solar eclipse. It is fascinating to consider that as the Moon continued on its descending orbital path after this event, it would reach minimum declination over the autumn Equinox (2015), resulting in a minor lunar standstill the following year. Though we can begin to understand these events through science, the full magic of them only comes to life when we experience them. Something our ancestors did over the course of many thousands of years at places like Callanish.

[1] http://www.ancient-wisdom.com

[2] Ron and Margaret Curtis ‘Callanish: Stones, Moon and Sacred Landscape’

[3] ‘The Lunar Standstill Season’ by Jean Elliott at http://www.skyscript.co.uk