This page introduces the basics of the ancient astronomy of the Sun and Moon. It is extracted from the book Power Points in Time - ancient festivals, lunar phases, planetary line-ups and historic moments, by Palden Jenkins, Penwith Press, 2015.
On this page: The Cycle of the Sun ~ Lunar Cycles (Sidereal and Synodic) - Hemicycles - Lunar Energy - Eclipses - Lunar Maxima and Minima - Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross Quarter Days - Transformations
The Cycle of the Sun
The solar year is temporally anchored in the solstices and equinoxes, the axes of the four seasons – and the seasons matter a lot as far as earthly life is concerned. They are brought into being because Earth, with her poles leaning 23.5° from perpendicular to the ecliptic, exposes her north pole to the Sun for half of the year, and her south pole for the other half, as she orbits annually around the Sun.
The inclination of the Earth’s poles to the ecliptic
and to the Sun brings about Earth’s seasons,
as it orbits around the Sun
Looking at the horizon from any point in the northern hemisphere, the Sun rises north of east in summer and south of east in winter. This becomes more emphasised, the further one moves from the equator. This changing orientation of the rising and setting points of the Sun was the means by which ancient peoples set their calendars.
The cycles of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and its polar leaning are slightly out of sync by around one minute of time each year, and this creates precession of the equinoxes: as history moves on, spring equinox takes place at the same point in the Earth’s seasons, while the backdrop of stars slowly changes.
In the northern hemisphere, the summer-solsticial signs, Gemini and Cancer, ride high in the sky and the winter-solsticial signs, Sagittarius and Capricorn, ride low. This means that if the Moon or any other planet is in a summer-solsticial sign (Gemini or Cancer) it will ride high in the sky, and if in a winter-solsticial sign (Sagittarius-Capricorn), it will ride low.
Rising points of the Sun at different times of the year in upper-middle latitudes such as Britain, looking eastwards, as if from a stone circle. The ecliptic oscillates daily back and forth as successive signs rise – regardless of where the Sun is located in the zodiac at the time. At summer solstice the Sun rises in the NE, at the equinoxes due E, and at winter solstice it rises in the SE. This variation in rising points increases as one draws closer to the Earth’s poles, until it goes bananas at the polar circle at 66.5°N or S.
Thus, if Sun, Moon or a planet is in a winter sign it will rise in the SE and set in the SW, and if it is in a summer sign, it will rise in the NE and set in the NW. If it is in one of the equinoctial signs (Pisces-Aries or Virgo-Libra) it will rise eastwards and set westwards.
About fullmoons. In summer, when the Sun is high in the sky, fullmoons will be low, since the fullmoon will be in a winter sign – Sun and Moon are opposite each other at fullmoon, as seen from Earth. In winter, when the Sun is low, fullmoons will be high, being in the summer signs. So, the fullmoon is most prominent – high in the sky – on a winter’s night.
The ancients made their zodiacal and calendrical measurements by keeping track of the rising and setting points of Sun and Moon on the horizon, as seen from carefully-located and designed places such as stone circles, standing stones or mounds, aligned with sight-lines to the rising and setting points at critical or chosen times of year.
Summer solstice sunset from Trencrom Hill
Some of these sight-lines are quite dramatic. From Trencrom Hill, a 5,000 year old ancient hilltop settlement in West Cornwall, the summer solstice sun rises straight over a hill twenty miles away northeast called St Agnes Beacon (Agnes being the goddess of fire).
At winter solstice it rises between two conspicuous hills some miles away, Tregonning Hill and Godolphin Hill south-eastwards.
Then, to crown it all, the summer solstice sun sets behind a Trink Hill north-westwards, with a slice of the sun following the slope of the hill for some distance until it disappears in a nick between the hill and Rosewall Hill behind it (on the right in the photo above). However, I have not yet found a landmark south-westwards to mark the winter solstice setting sun – it is somewhere in the direction of the Merry Maidens.
Trencrom must have been a wonderful hill to live on 4,000 years ago, probably mostly in summertime – in those days looking over a landscape of extensive forest.
The Lunar Cycle
Earth and Moon are a twin planet, co-orbiting around each other. The barycentre, or centre of gravity of both together, is not at the centre of the Earth, though it still lies inside it, about 1,060 miles or 1,700km below the surface, and 2,940 miles, 4,700km from Earth’s centre.
So the Earth wobbles slightly, pulled around on a lunar-monthly basis by the gravitational pull of the Moon.
Moon moves around the zodiac and constellations in 27 days 8 hours on average. She is by far the fastest-moving heavenly body in our sky. She moves through a zodiac sign roughly every 2⅓ days, depending on her speed at the time. Her speed is dependent on her closeness to or distance from Earth – another cyclic motion, lasting 27 days 12 hours.
When the Moon is close to Earth it is in perigee, and 10% bigger, and when furthest it is in apogee, and marginally smaller. These cycles coincide once every 14 lunations or cycles of phases of the Moon, once every 13½ months.
Lunar Sidereal Cycles
The Moon’s cycle of motion around the zodiac is one thing, and that of its phases is another. The first is the sidereal cycle of the Moon (sidus is the Latin for ‘star’). Using a clock as an analogy, this is the cycle of movement of a hand of the clock from a particular point on the clock and back to the same point.
The second cycle concerns the Moon’s motions in relation to the Sun, a body that is itself in motion in our sky, though it moves more slowly. This is the lunation or synodic cycle of the Moon (from the Greek sunodikos, meaning ‘meeting’).
An analogy is the cycle of two hands on the clock in relation to each other. Starting at 12 o’clock, they will subsequently meet, or conjunct, around 1.05, 2.10, 3.15 and so on, since the slow hand moves forward an hour and the fast hand must catch up with it by doing a whole round of a clock plus an extra bit.
The sidereal cycle is shorter than the synodic. The sidereal cycle is around 27 days and 8 hours and the synodic cycle is around 29 days and 12 hours.
Because the Moon swings slightly closer to and further from Earth during its cycle too, it sometimes moves marginally faster, sometimes slightly slower, through the signs. For this reason, a fullmoon can sometimes look larger, being nearer the Earth, sometimes smaller, being further away.
Synodic Cycles - Phases of the Moon
This is the Moon's synodic or lunation cycle. These phases are not the Moon’s business alone: they derive from the interrelationship of Moon, Sun and Earth – Earth being our moving observation platform. Earth orbits around the Sun, and the Moon orbits around the Earth.
More correctly, Earth and Moon are a twin planet co-orbiting the Sun together. But from Earth, where we live, it looks as if the Sun and Moon orbit around the Earth and, in our daily reality they do. Not only this but, amazingly, Sun and Moon look the same size as seen from Earth.
The Sun provides the light that the Moon changingly reflects, and the Moon’s position relative to the Sun and Earth dictates the phase the Moon shows us at any time. Viewed from our earthly viewing-platform, Moon and Sun behave similarly to the minute and hour hands of a clock, both of them being in motion but at different speeds.
In northern climes, at spring equinox in late March the Sun climbs higher in the sky and the season changes, generally getting warmer. Often the actual critical shifts in the emergence of springtime happen around fullmoons and newmoons near the equinox – this shift often happens on one specific day, or over just a few days. Suddenly the flowers come out, the weather changes, migrating birds arrive and, if the weather is nice, you strip off a layer with a sigh of relief. That’s an example of the way the Moon triggers trends that otherwise were developing more slowly and gradually.
The Sun is the giver of life on Earth, through its warmth and energy. It's the yang force, energising things. Earth symbolises the physical body we live in as well as the planet we live on, and it also concerns our body’s experience-gathering senses, the interface through which worldly experience comes to our awareness. Through our responses to this experience we act upon the objective situationality of our life and its circumstances.
Lunar energy affects the states and moods influencing the relationship between these, and the way that we interact with, interpret and respond to situations as they arise, on an hourly and daily basis.
The lunation cycle is an interactive cycle in which intentions and purposes, conscious and unconscious, meet up with evolving realities, particularly through the agency of our habitual and learned responses to life. When driving from A to B (pursuing an intent), you meet a herd of cows blocking the road (an objective fact), and your reactions to this situation might vary and present choices to you. It could be treated as a comical quirk of fate, a minor annoyance, a good opportunity to pause and relax, a boring experience, an outrageous imposition or even cause for a heart attack. The cows were simply there, and our power to handle that fact presents us with choices.
The lunation cycle (the cycle of phases) lasts 29 days and around 12 hours. Each cycle begins at newmoon when the Moon is invisible, in the same place as the Sun in the sky. Its sunlit side is facing away from us and also, being up in the sky in daytime, it’s invisible. Occasionally, the Moon’s and Sun’s positions are so accurately aligned that the Moon passes in front of the Sun, causing a solar eclipse.
The lunation cycle reaches a climax at fullmoon, half-way through the cycle, when the Moon has moved to the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. At this time, when the Sun sets, the Moon will rise – but only at fullmoon. If the alignment of Sun, Earth and Moon is exact, we see an eclipse of the Moon in which the Earth’s shadow passes over the Moon.
Each lunation cycle, of which there are 12-13 in a year and about 125 in a decade, has its own story to tell, its own issues that are featured and explored. If a year is a chapter of life, then the lunations in a year mark the subheadings and sections of the chapter.
During each cycle of lunar phases, all sorts of ins and outs are there to be investigated – they constitute oscillations and wobbles around an emergent life-question or theme that underlyingly occupies the whole lunar cycle. It is as if we were circumambulating the question at hand, seeing it from differing viewpoints, problematic one day, pleasant and hopeful the next, as a future potential and then as an established past fact, dull then colourful, rough and then smooth.
The four quarter phases of the Moon (newmoon, halfmoons and fullmoon) particularly test our fundamental sense of okayness with life-as-it-is: they are crisis points, marked in most diaries, and they are worth watching. Watching them, we can observe ourselves and gain insights into how to reduce all this rather exhausting internal rhetoric, chatter and turbulence that we plague ourselves with on a daily basis.
A lunation has two main halves or hemicycles.
In the first or waxing hemicycle, when the Moon moves from new and dark toward full and bright, the future is being opened up and potentials are being explored – something new is growing.
In the waning hemicycle after fullmoon, where the Moon grows thinner and eventually disappears, the consequences are being worked on and we consolidate and integrate the outcomes of whatever was achieved, or not achieved, around fullmoon.
As the cycle closes, the seeds of the next cycle lie under the surface waiting or germinating, hatching at the newmoon or after it.
When the Moon waxes, new possibilities, scenarios, life-tracks and situations emerge. When it wanes, already-established forms and arrangements have to be lived with, utilised, made to work and consigned to posterity.
The Moon waxes after the newmoon and up to the fullmoon, moving ahead of the Sun in the sky – that is, to the left of the Sun when seen in the northern hemisphere, looking south. It starts as a crescent, growing to a halfmoon, then to a gibbous (fat) moon and finally becoming full, moving further away from the Sun each day.
Since the Moon is about ½° wide, it moves about 25ish Moon-widths leftwards each day. This leads to a star-gazer’s trick: look at the Moon and stick up your finger to compare their widths, and then you can roughly measure the positions of other planets or stars in the sky, using your finger.
At fullmoon the Moon fully reflects the Sun’s light. Its influence involves subtle energy as well as visible moonlight. You can feel this on fullmoons, particularly on the one-two days before exact fullmoon, especially when it is rising. The atmosphere is different on successive fullmoons, but there is an intensity and poignancy to fullmoons that is easy for anyone to perceive.
Moon wanes after fullmoon, rising later each night, gradually catching up with the Sun by the time of newmoon. In the meantime, while the Moon has moved all the way round the zodiac, the Sun will have moved through nearly one sign. The Moon moves approximately thirteen signs to catch the Sun.
The Sun has an annual cycle with twelve main shades to it, shown by its movement through the signs, each lasting roughly 30 days. However, this relates to today’s twelvefold zodiac, derived from ancient Mesopotamia. The indigenous British had a sixteenfold zodiac or subdivision of the circle of the ecliptic – the path of the Sun, Moon and planets across the Earth’s sky.
But what unites them is that they are anchored in the solstices and equinoxes – it’s just that the subdivision of the circle of 360° is reckoned differently. In the modern zodiac, each quarter of the year is divided in three, and in the ancient British system it is divided in four.
The Moon has its own zodiac cycle of 27⅓ days. Moon acts as an independent-but-related factor in bringing these two cycles together in the cycle of phases.
In ancient times the Moon’s light, nowadays outshone by street lights, played a big role in people’s lives. It was easier to do things at night outdoors under a fullmoon, so people’s real-life activity-patterns would change with the Moon. In fact, many indigenous peoples don’t think so much in terms of the waxing and waning Moon, but more in terms of the Bright Moon and the Dark Moon, between the halfmoons.
It’s not just an environmental influence the Moon exerts, in terms of light: it’s an energy influence too, and you can feel it when out under the Moon. Moonlight affects hormonal and psycho-emotional issues to a much greater extent than modern society and its purveyors of official wisdom would accept.
The Bright Moon was a time for activity and productivity and the Dark Moon was a time for cogitation and introspection – and it still is. It has simply become less conscious in modern times.
For women, awareness of lunations is important. There is a theory that, once upon a time, menstrual and lunation cycles were synchronised – women ovulated at fullmoons and menstruated at newmoons. Whether or not this was true or generally the case, it’s certainly true that, when women live closely together over time, their menstrual cycles tend to harmonise.
This lunar periodicity reflected a power amongst women to attune to their bodies, their hormones and psyches in a wavelike way which men do not experience. Women were in bygone days more in tune with the natural, instinctual secrets of their beings than many women are today, also asserting a stronger influence in the life of the family and tribe. The laws and customs of the British iron age Celts were quite gender-egalitarian, and we can assume that this was the case further back too. We will see a major world transformation when womankind regains this harmony within herself and in society, and this historic process is now happening, in its early stages.
Only sometimes is an eclipse visible in the sky because it might be taking place under the Earth, or it is not exact enough to be visible as an eclipse, or the weather doesn’t oblige. In a longish lifetime you might see but 3-5 total eclipses of the Sun and perhaps twentyish total eclipses of the Moon, though you’ll see many more partial eclipses. That is, if you look.
Even if you don’t see them you can sense them – there’s a powerful stillness, sometimes eerie and rather magical, to an eclipse. Time warps and funny thoughts or situations can arise – sometimes rather oracular and significant. It’s a time to treat specially, to pause for.
The Moon is eclipsed only at fullmoons (when Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon, lasting up to 1 hour and 20 minutes). The Sun is eclipsed only at newmoon (when the Moon passes in front of the Sun, lasting up to 8 minutes, and throwing a dark shadow on certain parts of the Earth but not all of it).
A solar eclipse is a rarer occurrence than a lunar eclipse because, to be total or even noticeable, the positioning of Sun, Moon and Earth need to be more exact than is the case with a lunar eclipse. The shadow of the Earth on the Moon, which causes a lunar eclipse, is wider than the diameter of the Moon. Not least because Earth, casting its shadow, is bigger than the Moon.
When you’re watching a total lunar eclipse, you’re watching the progression of a complete cycle of lunar phases in just over one hour, starting and ending at fullmoon. That is, a bite is taken out of the fullmoon which eventually covers it and makes it go dark. Eventually a crescent appears, turning gradually to full again. It’s very moving to watch and feel.
It takes only a short time but often it feels far longer. It’s a moment when time expands, and whatever thoughts or experiences you have at that time can be significant and oracular, suggesting the way things truly are, or how they could be.
Only sometimes are eclipses exact or ‘total’ – it depends where on Earth you’re standing, whether it’s total where you are. This matters particularly with solar eclipses. If they are ‘partial’ or less exact, you might see a bite taken out of the Sun on a solar eclipse or out of the Moon on a lunar eclipse, but it doesn’t go completely dark.
With some partial eclipses of the Moon, the Moon just reddens or dims without going dark, because only the Earth’s penumbra, or side-shadow, is covering it because the alignment is not exact. Then there are ‘annular’ eclipses, where the Moon is far from the Earth (at apogee) and thus smaller than the Sun, never fully covering it in a solar eclipse. Also, the Earth is closest to the Sun in January and furthest in July - this slightly affects the size of the Sun.
Eclipses are extraordinary newmoons or fullmoons that can prove to be major turning-points. Around the time of an eclipse, a pensive, lurking, becalmed quality pervades the airwaves, as if everything is waiting for something. Birds return to their nests. Water surfaces or ocean waves can go still – or if they don’t, an uncanny timelessness can still make it very atmospheric.
In one early-morning solar eclipse in 2014, the dewdrops were enormous and crystalline. An eerie quietness pervades, even amidst chaos or activity. There’s a kind of empty feeling, or one of noticeable peace. It’s not exactly the Moon or Sun doing this directly: it’s the way they affect the resonance-field of the Earth, within which we live and have our being. The energy-field of the Earth goes through a spasm.
Eclipses take place when the Moon and Sun conjunct or oppose one another close to what are called the Moon’s Nodes. These are theoretical points out in space where the Moon’s plane of orbit around the Earth intersects the Earth’s plane of orbit around the Sun – these planes are 5° different in inclination, intersecting at the axis of the nodes. The nodes are a nexus-point connecting the Sun and Moon.
At one end of the nodal axis is the north node, where the Moon’s plane of motion is moving north across the ecliptic, and at the other end is the south node where it is moving south – and the two nodes are exactly opposite one another. They are traditionally known as the Dragon’s Head (north node) or the Dragon’s Tail (south node).
The nodes move slowly backwards (retrograde) through the zodiac, making a complete cycle every 18.6 years. This is called a draconic cycle, which the ancients regarded as very significant, to the extent that they built stone circles and other edifices to calculate, mark and predict them, or to emulate them.
Many stone circles in Britain have 19 stones, reflecting this. This concerns the Metonic cycle. The Metonic period of 6,939.6 days, almost exactly 19 years, is equivalent to:
- 19 solar years,
- 20 eclipse years (cycles of eclipse positions),
- 235 synodic months (cycles of lunar phases),
- 254 sidereal months (lunar orbits),
- and 255 draconic months (lunar conjunctions with its north node - eclipse-related).
The metonic cycle was a time-period spanning one human generation, in a time when mothers frequently gave birth in their mid-to-late teenage years. People who felt that the souls of the ancestors lived on through the living, and who had a strong sense of longterm timing spanning generations or incarnations, counted the draconic cycle carefully.
In August 1999 I participated in an outdoor camp under an exact solar eclipse in Cornwall, UK. There were various earth-energy dowsers present and they conducted an experiment, mapping out the energy lines in the vicinity before the eclipse. Then when it happened – it was surprising how quickly the light went down as the Moon’s shadow fell over us – they found that these lines literally rolled up and disappeared temporarily, restoring themselves when the light came back.
It was as if the earth-energy system of the Earth in that locality was re-booting itself. It’s possible that this happens to an extent globally, though perhaps less than in the locality where the eclipse exactly falls. We could not track that, of course.
Eclipses take place at two opposite periods of the year when newmoons or fullmoons are near the nodes, wherever the nodes are at the time. Most of these eclipses are partial and inexact, but some are total, and usually there will be a newmoon solar and a fullmoon lunar eclipse, two weeks apart – though on some occasions there might be three, the middle one being total or close to it. The position of eclipses moves slowly backwards with the nodal axis on its 18.6 year cycle.
When an eclipse occurs within a degree or two of one of the two nodes, it will be a total or near-total eclipse, somewhere in the world. Most eclipses are partial or annular eclipses, some of them hardly visible and inexact – they occur several degrees away from the nodal axis.
If the node is at 15° Aquarius and a newmoon is at 2° Aquarius, it will be a hardly-visible partial eclipse. If the node is at 15° and the newmoon at 14° it’s pretty exact and total or almost so – it might have a narrow, bright band of sunlight at one side rather than going total. And it depends on where in the world you’re observing it from.
There is an eclipse period, between these eclipses, two weeks apart. This can be a period of two weeks or, occasionally, one lunar month, where things go critical and funny things can happen – it’s a rather weird period when life’s roulette-wheel spins a bit crazily. It can be visible in world events, or in our personal lives or those of people around us. It can be a slightly creepy, unusual and pattern-setting, rather decisive period.
Try to observe the 'energy-weather' at eclipses. They are awe-inspiring times when it can be auspicious to get clear on intents, perspectives and deep choices. It can be timely to cross watersheds or make a significant shift. It’s a propitious and ominous time. These are excellent times for ceremonies and meditations, or for pausing and dwelling on matters that lie outside time and circumstance.
Lunar Maxima and Minima
Returning to the metonic or nodal cycle, we come to the major and minor standstills of the Moon, or the lunar maxima and minima. These are important in stone circles and ancient sites: many alignments of stones and alignments with more distant landscape features point to the rising or setting points of the Moon at its major or minor standstill.
The major standstill or lunar maximum takes place when the north node is at the spring equinox point or 0° Aries, and the minor standstill or lunar minimum takes place nine years later when the north node is at the autumn equinox point, or 0° Libra. Current lunar maxima are in June 2006, January 2025 and August 2043, and minima are in November 2015, June 2034 and December 2052.
The significance of this is that, at the major standstill, when the Moon is around the summer solstice point in the zodiac, at 0° Cancer, it is 5° higher in the sky than the highest point that the Sun reaches in the sky at summer solstice.
When at 0° Capricorn, on the other side of the zodiac, it is 5° lower than the Sun at its lowest point in the sky at winter solstice. At the minor standstill this emphasis and variation of height in the sky is minimal.
At times of the major standstill the Moon’s influences are far more extreme than at the minor standstill, and the ancients considered this to be significant.
So much so that there are two major stone circles in Scotland, one at Callanish on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, and the other at the Ring of Brogar in the Orkney Isles. What’s special here? Well, when the Moon is at its major standstill – highest in the sky – it is seen to skim the northern horizon without setting. This is a sea horizon, so it’s impressive.
It’s rather like the midnight sun further north, except that this pertains to the Moon. The midnight sun happens at latitudes over 66°N, but at lunar maximum the non-setting Moon can be seen from 60°N, the latitude of Callanish and Brogar.
This is particularly marked when the fullmoon is at the end of Gemini or in early Cancer, around winter solstice at the time of the lunar maximum. This makes for super-solstices where you get a solstice close to a fullmoon at lunar maximum – and they can be quite momentous. In ancient times that called for a major gathering of the clans.
To add an extra twist to the saga of the Moon, whenever the Moon (or Sun) is on the horizon, a quirk of refraction or bending of light across the surface of the Earth makes them look larger than they actually are – they’re magnified as they rise or set, often turning rather sideways-ovoid. This will be emphasised when the Moon is in perigee, larger and closer than usual.
There’s another twist too: when the Sun or Moon have their lower side touching the horizon, they are actually already just below the horizon, because of the bending of light. So at the specific time of the lunar maximum and fullmoon at winter solstice, the Moon is large when on the horizon, and it skims the northern horizon at these two stone circles, showing itself at super-large size – and this happens only once every 18.6 years, in the Orkneys, Shetlands and the Isle of Lewis.
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 often been found to be aligned very slightly off exact, to the point four days before and after the solstice when the Sun can first be seen to have moved very slightly each day when rising or setting. This allowed a tighter read-off of the Sun’s position and more accurate calendrical counting. It also marked out a six-day solstice period, celebrated by gatherings, ceremonies and feasts.
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 - they would be reborn.
Some people went underground to die consciously, since this would attune them to the subtle landscape of the afterlife, away from the relative jangle and fuss of the living world. 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, the constraining effects of the natural environment is strongly felt – in northern climes it’s cold, the nights are long and growth in nature is dormant, 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.
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 manifest 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.
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: ‘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 or almanac.
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.
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 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).
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 in the solar calendar.
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.
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 who used to have to walk everywhere, 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 at these festivals. 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.
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.
Transformation has two faces: death at Samhain in autumn and growth at Beltane in spring. Beingness takes on two faces too: consolidation at Candlemas in winter and creative self-expression at Lammas in summer.
The solstices and equinoxes mark points in time when things are started, the cross-quarters mark points where their stages of unfoldment are fulfilled, and in the period preceding the next solstice or equinox is a time of assimilation.
Candlemas is a time for gently cultivating light and energy, transitioning from stability toward change, invoking the life-force and a rebirth of its potency. Beltane is a time for bringing forth life and breaking free, onward-bound in a fullsome burst of growth, extension, variation and expansion. Lammas is a time of climax, peaking growth, ripening and the beginning of collecting and harvesting. Samhain is a time of in-drawing, uncovering the inner secrets of life as its outer forms die off.
Fires were lit at these times to represent different facets of the life-force and its capacity to transform and enliven at different times of year. Thus the symbolism of the seasons was played out in a naturally spiritual, ritualised form.
Mathematical and geometric patterns in many stone circles and ancient sites in Britain and elsewhere show that the ancients set great store by this eightfold subdivision of time. They did so because spiritual participation in manifest form was a vital socio-economic process for them – and society, economics and religion were not as separate from one another as we Westerners now experience.
Alignments at many ancient megalithic remains also suggest a sixteenfold subdivision of the annual cycle, demonstrated by alignments of stones or other features to the rising and setting points of the Sun at sixteen points of the year.
Regularity of incidences in stone alignments to the rising and setting points of the Sun and Moon
as found by Prof Alexander Thom amongst 300 ancient sites in Scotland.