At the mouth of a river that mirrors the Milky Way, Ireland's first people built a stone chamber aligned to allow a single sunbeam to penetrate the darkness on the morning of the Winter Solstice, filling the chamber with light.
Alongside the passage leading to the chamber, they buried their dead with beads carved from bone.
We cannot know (by ordinary means) precisely how these ancient people marked the Solstice. Likely, like other Indigenous people throughout the Northern hemisphere, they held vigil through the night, singing and praying until the sun returned.
We live now in a time of rising waters, when the sun is obscured by the smoke of burning forests.
We stand vigil, uncertain if the sun will return.
We place lights on evergreen trees to bring brightness and the memory of life, marking a festival that carries echoes of the tales of a Winter-Born King, a bright light born of the darkest night, harbinger of hope.
We stand vigil, not knowing what light will emerge from this darkness to guide us.
There have always been Kings.
Anthropologists, David Graber and Marshall Sollins write:
"Human societies are hierarchically encompassed—typically above, below, and on earth—in a cosmic polity populated by beings of human attributes and metahuman powers who govern the people’s fate. In the form of gods, ancestors, ghosts, demons, species-masters, and the animistic beings embodied in the creatures and features of nature, these metapersons are endowed with far-reaching powers of human life and death, which, together with their control of the conditions of the cosmos, make them the all-round arbiters of human welfare and illfare. Even many loosely structured hunting and gathering peoples are thus subordinated to beings on the order of gods ruling over great territorial domains and the whole of the human population. There are kingly beings in heaven even where there are no chiefs on earth."
The great Feri Shaman, Victor Anderson said that the sun is the god of this solar system.
The sun is the center of gravity around which the Earth orbits. It is arose from the great darkness, and filled that darkness with light and heat.
The chieftain or the king is the center of gravity that holds together the community, and the light that guides it.
The first kings were shamans who mediated between the human and the wild, the living and the dead, Earth and starry heaven. They wore animal skins -- and antlers. The dead buried at Newgrange likely included such chieftains.
In the forests and fields above Lough Lean, in the shadow of the castle where the Taoiseach (chieftains) of my clan lived in the years before Cromwell, the last Red Deer in Ireland roam, final remnant of the great creatures of the last Ice Age.
In Autumn, the Red Deer Stags gather branches and lichen and moss to crown their antlers -- in the time of rutting, and in the time of the Deer hunt, they engage in ritual combat. The Stag who emerges victorious becomes the locus of power within the herd, its protector.
In the weeks before the rutting season began, I traveled to the remnant forest those herds call home, seeking to understand the ways of my ancestors. I prayed beneath an Oak at the edge of a field, and then rounded the bend to a thicket, where a Stag came out to meet me -- barrel chested with antlers as wide as my arm span. He raised his head high and cantered across the field -- first showing his power, then trying to lead me away from the herd, then circling it to mark a protective boundary.
I sat still and soon he did too, resting beneath a tree while the does and the younger bucks grazed.
I understood then that it was the Stag who taught us what a chieftain was... not the other way around.
Because the bodies of the Deer gave life to the people in winter, the chieftain who gave life to the people was the mirror image of the Stag.
Robert Cochrane spoke of the cipher of the Roebuck in the Thicket, the Red Deer Stag, who at once represents the hunter, the hunted, and the hunt.
In the skies above, the constellation we now call Orion, shining bright in Midwinter, was his counterpart.
The Otherworld King of the Midwinter Sky led the Wild Hunt, the procession of the dead departing this world.
The earthly King brought his people life... and hope.
In the old stories, the King is wedded to the land, and his sovereignty is a gift the land bestows and withdraws at will. When the King acts with love and devotion to the land and the people, the land and the people thrive. When the King becomes corrupt or inept, the land becomes a Wasteland.
Civilization brought the corruption of Kings -- the Sacred King who served the oracular function of speaking the Will of the living land and guiding the people into alignment with that Will was replaced by the monarch who imposed his personal will onto the land and the people.
In the West, the era of the monarch came to a bloody end with the execution of Louis XVI. In the collective imagination, sovereignty was transferred from the person of the King to the body politic of the nation-state. But true sovereignty had long ago been lost, when Kings ceased to be truly wedded to the land, and so the sovereignty claimed by the nation state was an empty one. The mob developed its own forms of authoritarianism just as brutal as that practiced by the monarch they beheaded, an authoritarianism whose mantle was taken up by the state.
Liberalism and libertarianism sought to reinvest sovereignty in the individual -- a noble effort and intention, but one which failed to recognize that true sovereignty can arise only in communion with the living world. They arose within a worldview born of the trauma of the violent displacement of people from the land they had tended in common. Theirs was and is the cult of the individual rational actor, severed from relationship with ecologies, human and wild, insulated from the human and ecological consequences of their choices.
If there is hope to be found in this dark season of burning forests and rising seas, it is in the rebirth and reclaiming of true sovereignty, invested this time not in a monarch or a government or a corporation or in atomized individuals, but in a new form of sovereign personhood born of wedding ourselves to the world and living our lives like Sacred Kings, as gifts to the land and the people.
The Irish animist philosopher, John Moriarty, said that the people dream the King onto the road to sovereignty. We have dreamed ourselves and each other onto the wrong road. But the night is not over, and there is time to dream anew, to dream each other Winter-Born Sovereigns, who come in the darkest hour to restore the wasteland with our wild love.
When we step into true Sovereignty, the bright stars we are shine brightly, illuminating the path.
Seán has recorded an hour long talk about plants and fungi that can help bring healing, insight, and joy in winter.
Seán is also available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.