DAY – Starting at noon, light achieved on the sun’s climb to the daily zenith begins to descend. It continues to descend until, eventually, the sun reddens on the horizon and sets. The world then darkens into night as its light grows more distant, until, at midnight—maximum darkness—light starts its return. Morning sunrise then brings new day, which grows bright as each day before.
Day and night are among life’s most immediate rhythms. Throughout the universe, every planet and moon that rotates has a night and day. In the same way there are exceptional non-rotating planets and moons, valid and valuable stories and structures exist beyond this frame. This meditation, however, is focused on the narrative rhythms from which we come.
Plants open and close their flowers with the daily sun. One of my favorites is the Golden Lotus of the Nile. In the evening, like the sun, it descends beneath the water, and closes. And in the morning, with the sun, it rises and shines. One of the most unique qualities of the flower is that it has layers and layers of petals. Each day, the blossom is entirely new.
Every plant dances with the sun in a unique but recognizable way, beginning with photosynthesis itself—the cornerstone of our food chain. One might also see the coming and going of the sun as a sort of heartbeat in that it’s what causes the movement of fluids within each plant: evaporation and absorption.
Animals—including humans—are attuned to light cycles by the pineal gland (or parietal eyes). One of the key functions of the pineal gland is to turn serotonin into melatonin. When it gets dark, melatonin is released. This makes us sleepy and helps us sleep. One might suggest a light bulb driven revolt against the sun’s pineal hold, but we know it’s not true. Maybe someday.
Beyond the chemical alignment of individual plants and animals with the solar day, this rhythm is also responsible for their interactions. It’s when the flower opens that the bee comes. Birds hunt when worms are out—early. Day jobs are primarily during the day.
This is to say, the earth’s cyclical relationship with the sun is programmed into the rhythms of our chemistry, social realities and work lives. This is true for most animals and, on some levels, most plants.
THE MYTHIC DAY
What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?
This is the riddle asked to Oedipus by the Sphinx in perhaps the world’s most infamous play, Oedipus Rex. He answers correctly, humans, who crawl on four legs as babies, stride on two feet as adults, and age with a cane. Aristotle articulates the same alignment of mortality with the solar cycle in Poetics, the first canonical text on storytelling. “Old age is to life as evening is to day; accordingly, the poet will speak of evening as ‘the old age of day’ and of old age as the ‘evening of life’ or (as Empedocles puts it) ‘the sunset of life” (Aristotle, Poetics, 25).
Before writing his treatise on storytelling, Aristotle would have seen Oedipus Rex, which transmutes the alignment of life and day into Oedipus’ story. As it goes, he is abandoned as an infant and grows into an adult, before, as prophesied by Tiresias, “groping the ground… with a stick” (Sophocles, 560).
The riddle is quite astounding. Not only does it demonstrate an ancient religious alignment of life and day; but insofar as the riddle occurs within one of the greatest plays of all time, and insofar as the answer defines the structure of its protagonist’s arc, it also demonstrates the transmutation of solar-life cycles into its character arc and narrative structure. At the same time, its tripartite structure can be seen as a forerunner to Aristotle’s emphasis on the value of beginnings, middles and ends.
This story was written during the Golden Age of Athens—often seen as the starting place of Western Civilization. Greek myths were older—as were their influences in Egypt, the Black Sea and elsewhere.
What you’re seeing here is an overlay of the human cycle on the daily cycle that becomes his character arc and narrative structure.
Campbell expands on this perspective when he talks about how Freud was focused on the rise of life to noon, and how Jung was concerned with life after its zenith. In his words,
Sigmund Freud stresses in his writings and passages the difficulties of the first half of the human cycle of life—those of our infancy and adolescence, when our sun is mounting toward its zenith. C. G. Jung, on the other hand, has emphasized the crises of the second portion-when, in order to advance, the shining sphere must submit to descend and disappear, at last, into the night-womb of the grave. The normal symbols of our desires and fears become converted, in this afternoon of the biography, into their opposites; for it is then no longer life but death that is the challenge… And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization” (Campbell 123).
This is what’s captured in the riddle of the sphinx—a standard series of human metamorphosis. And as Campbell conveys, such processes of metamorphosis can be aligned with the sun and embedded in myth.
The solar day isn’t only projected on human life. The solar day is also conflated with the life cycle of vegetation. For example, the association of sunset with old age parallels an association of sunset with ripe fruit. The Golden Apples of Greek and Arthurian mythology are found in the Western islands at the sunset. Golden fruit is ripe—as is golden grain. The ripe sun is the red sun nearing the sunset. To connect ripe fruit of the sunset with the fall and harvest would be getting ahead of ourselves. Structurally, I shouldn’t even point out the connection between ripe fruit and “ripe old age.” I should wait until the section on life cycles, but pointing out the connection between ripe fruit, ripe and the ripe sun will help set up a larger perspective ahead.
Returning to Oedipus, the foreign country to which he’ll depart is where the sun goes at night—where souls go when dead—beyond the western shores. The journey of the dead to where the Sun goes is a motif that can be found from the Chumash in Southern California to the myth of Osiris, who I’ve decided to put forward as the most central and recurring mythological example—not unlike how Vogler uses, The Wizard of Oz.
Osiris’ journey is a synthesis of countless natural cycles. The first and most obvious is that of the sun. Osiris literally travels with the sun, on a solar barque (boat). His journey to and from the Duat (underworld) is bookended by sunset and sunrise. The Duat is described as night, and as we’ll see, it’s also described as the place of death, dream and the heavens. After Ra, the father sun god, had passed his leadership to Osiris, Osiris made love with Nepthys, a goddess of death and sunset.
Her husband, Set, plotted to kill Osiris. In the myth, Set trapped him in a coffin and set him to sea, where a fish swallowed his penis. This aligns him with countless whale-fish myths about swallowed humans who escape; and as Frobenius points out, these myths are particularly adorned with solar motifs. According to him, the swallowing is associated with sunset, and the journey of the fish is conflated with the night journey of the sun. Between point A and point B, fire is lit or stolen in the belly—as seen in Pinocchio, for example, or when Hercules’ burns off his hair. This symbolizes new light, which is returned at sunrise, at which point the hero “slips out.” We’ll return to this motif when we reach a more extended history of mythic story structure, but in starting with the sun, Frobenius deserves his day.
Myths are often exoteric, meaning they’re made for everyone. However, they’re often based on an esoteric narrative, which is only meant for wisdom keepers. For example, the myth of Persephone is an exoteric expression of the mysteries at Eleusis, which were esoteric. They give us the broad strokes and core wisdom, but they don’t detail the real mysteries. This is also the case with Osiris’ myth, which is an exoteric version of an underworld journey. This journey is called the Amduat, or Book of the Dead, and it’s written in The Pyramid Texts.
Where the mythic journey of Osiris begins when he’s shut in the coffin and sent out to sea, in the esoteric narrative, the coffin is a solar barque—a boat for carrying souls. And the sea through which it travels is on the other side of sunset—the starry waters of death. For the Egyptians, the world of common day was separated from the Duat by a world encircling snake, Apophis, which meant that, to enter the Duat, Apophis was confronted. This was Set’s job. Every night, he cut their way through the serpent. The red sunset we see is bloodshed at the threshold. The same battle occurs at sunrise.
The Greeks also believed in a world encircling snake, and the serpent battle at sunset and sunrise can be seen in the respective battles for the golden apples and golden fleece. But we have to cut off the amplifications somewhere. I’m committed to writing a short book, and the point has been sufficiently made: it’s common for major myths to be informed by day and night—From Oedipus and Osiris to Hercules and Jason.
And so we see, the cycles of day and night inform the cycles of life and myth.
Lunar Month – Starting with the full moon, the story begins when it starts to wane. A sliver of darkness cuts into its round. The sliver grows and grows until the moon is half empty. It continues to darken, and darken, and darken until the last light is gone. The moon grows fully dark, until, its first sliver of light. This sliver grows, and grows and grows, until, the moon is half full. And it continues to grow, and grow and grow, until there’s as much light as there’s ever been.
The waxing and waning gravitational force of the lunar month gives rhythm to earthly waters—from oceanic tides to ovulation. Evolution on this planet has always taken place within the narrative conditioning of lunar months. Lunar tides similarly exist across the cosmos.
We share the experience of tides with any life from a rotating world that has oceans and a moon. Though on one hand this might mean a planet in outer space, on the other, it can mean another culture on earth. The fishers’ experience of lunar tides has informed their patterns of thought and communication.
The common experience of lunar tides creates a shared identity and empathetic bridge between fishers around the world (if not the universe).
The problem with the notion of universals is the reductivity. The intention to commonality, however, is the bridge to relationships.
The association of Osiris’ journey with the moon is both more ancient and more recent than the solar emphasis. Long before Osiris arrived in Egypt, Seth and Horus were already fighting over light and dark. When Set steals the eye of Horus, whose eyes are Sun and Moon, it’s associated with lunar darkening. With the moon’s return comes the new eye.
Here we see the Apis bull with the lunar crescent in place of his horns. Such conflation of the bull’s horns with the lunar crescent can be seen around the world and across time. Similarly, the bull’s death—especially through decapitation—is conflated with lunar death. The extinguishing of the last sliver of moon and the decapitation of the bull, with its crescent horns, are inseparable.
The conflation of the axe with the lunar crescent and decapitation is also pervasive. In these cases, however, the axe is typically “double-headed.” Where one side of the axe represents the last sliver of moon, the other represents the first. This is why the last sliver of moon is associated with death, and the first sliver of moon is associated with life-giving elixir. And so where the bull’s decapitation aligns with the new moon as a symbol of death, to drink from bull horns or bull-heads was sacred and life-giving.
The silver dish (and spoon) is associated with the moon. Heads on a silver platter carry the expression of both death and new potential. Similarly, insofar as John the Baptist’s head on a silver dish represents resurrection, it points to the lunar inflections of Christ’s rebirth, which, according to Easter Tradition, is celebrated on a full moon.
The full moon is similarly associated with the redemption of Horus, whose lunar eye is restored (to fullness) in conjunction with Osiris’ rebirth. Osiris, who is himself associated with the (lunar) Apis bull, is cut into fourteen pieces. The disassembly and reassembly of these fourteen pieces is associated with the fourteen waning and waxing days of a month. By now, I hope any vision of Osiris’ journey as reductively solar has begun to dissolve. Cyclical qualities of the sun AND moon can be seen in his journey. And the same can be said of Horus, whose defeat and victory are sunset and sunrise.
As we’ll eventually discuss, myths aren’t about the sun and moon, rather, the sun and moon provide visual metaphors for what myths are really about. This isn’t to say myths don’t carry seasonal or practical knowledge. It’s to say that their ultimate concern is, as Campbell argued, spiritual training. And as Tolkien points out, the mythopoeic perspective is one that recognizes the metaphors of nature as wisdom of divinity. I can’t believe that the drive of early myth-makers was mere renown, or sales. That the techniques they cultivated empower renown and sales is true—very true—but to me, this is just a worm of wish-fulfillment. The ship from which it comes is concerned with something else: the conscripting of storytellers to the timeless task of cultivating their culture’s inner reality, which requires the authentic nurturing of their own. Nature is but a palette with which to paint inner truths.
Lunar symbolism and narrative structure is still active in popular movies. I have particular admiration for the use of labyrinths and bulls by the Nolans in Inception and West World. The Death Star is of course a moon of mortality. And I’m very curious about whether or not the Wachowskis saw lunar slivers in the white wires framing Morpheus’ face when Neo makes his choice. How visual is midnight symbolism? It’s hard to show without a clock. The same can be said of the Winter Solstice. For this reason, the lunar crescents are left as essential representatives of light’s transition—from the final loss of light to its initial return.
This most momentous of turns is continuously addressed in the book, but while we’re with the moon, I want to highlight The Nightmare Before Christmas. After establishing the conflation of Jack with the moon—especially his head—his biggest decision and turning point is framed by crescents. This is the decision to go home and be himself, which propels the final act. The imagery we’re given during this contemplation and decision is specific: his lunar head is framed by two crescents as he sits between two halves of a book (past and future). This imagery is consistent with timeless and pervasive imagery that conveys passing from some past life into a new one—from one moon, month (or page) to the next.
And for the movie with a moon-faced cover and protagonist, is it a surprise that the biggest turning point mimes the moon’s? It’s no more surprising than the discovery that men of steel share narrative moments with the steel making process. For example, as Superman was found in a meteor’s crater, so was early steel. The attentiveness of a story to something particular—be it iron or the moon—increases the likelihood that its narrative structure will be informed by its particular process.
Again, what we have seen is that the celestial rhythm of the moon has informed the biological rhythms of animals and humans, all of which have informed the narrative structures of myths and films.
Year – Starting at the Summer Solstice—the days begin to shorten. By the time of the fall Equinox they’re as short as they are long, and after this, it just gets darker, and darker, and darker—until, on the darkest/shortest day of the year, light begins to return. The days lengthen, and they lengthen—until, finally, there’s as much light as there is darkness. And darkness continues to give way until, finally, the days are as long as they’ve ever been.
Any planet with a tilted axis has seasons specific to northern and southern hemispheres. These are defined by hot long days on one extreme (summer) and short cold days on the other (winter). Any life on any planet with a tilted axis—including ours—has been, for billions of years, conditioned by annual cycles. Any life on any planet with a tilted axis—including ours—has experienced the winter solstice: a mythopoeic moment in which the descent into cold and darkness gives way to brightening warmth.
On Earth, there are plants that grow in the winter; but the overwhelming tide of life, the seasons, follow an annual journey. Leaves die in the Fall and return in the Spring. Bears sleep like the forest in Winter, which has often been a time of reduced activity for humans as well. It’s for this reason that Winter has been an especially nurturing season for folklore and fairytales.
From The Goddess of Spring to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, Disney has been especially attentive to fairytales with seasonal motifs. The Goddess of Spring is loosely based on Persephone, whose abduction to the underworld brings Winter, and whose return brings Spring. This myth was of the utmost centrality to Ancient Greek religion. Dressed as women, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle participated in the mysteries of Eleusis.
From Persephone to Snow White, Disney continued with the theme of the nature maiden. As Persephone’s abduction and return mimes seasonal death, so does Snow White’s hibernation. The same can be said of Sleeping Beauty. In both stories, the lifelessness of winter is aligned with a curse. Beauty and the Beast follows a similar pattern of abduction and return (like Persephone). And the arc of Beast is curse and redemption (like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty). All are inflected with a journey through winter.
Returning to an emphasis on the winter solstice, the moment is of central mythopoetic significance. It represents the changing of direction from darkening to brightening, from chilling to warming, freezing to flowing, and—by extension of the seasons and earthly life—from death of the old to birth of the new. Around the world, from Stonehenge to Karnak, great monuments have been aligned with the solstice. In Southern California, the Chumash carved holes above caves for the sun, on the winter solstice, to pour through. This was a crucial time. People stayed indoors. As Coyote and Eagle played dice with the world, great shaman danced in the caves. Like others around the world, they recognized the Winter Solstice as a pivotal moment.
In the Christian tradition, Christ brings new light three days after the solstice—at Christmas. It’s possible that the three-day delay relates to both the three days Christ lay in the tomb and the delay between Winter Solstice and light’s perceptible increase. Why is Christmas around the Solstice? Is it because December 25th is roughly nine months after Mary’s traditional conception date? Is it because it was a crucial holiday for Mithras, who Christ displaced for the Roman army? Or is it because the Winter Solstice is when light returns to the world, which is mimetic with the light Jesus brings.
This book is not taking on the question of why—only that. Christmas is in close proximity to the Winter Solstice, and so is the New Year, and so is Hanukah—all of which feature the miracle of light. When the ball drops on New Year, it mimes the extinguishing of last year’s last light. My favorite New Year’s spectacle was at a Ski Slope, in which a tradition from the Alps was practiced. After light-bearing skiers descended the slopes, fireworks shot upwards. Old light went down. Beat. Darkness. New light went up.
During Christmas, not only does the child represent new light, so too does the new star. Part of the reason so many New Year’s motifs can be seen in Christmas is because it was celebrated as such by the Anglo Saxons, who integrated the tradition of “Yule Time” and the Yule Log, which symbolized the sun’s return. In Arthurian legend, the Green Knight cuts off his head on New Year’s Christmas. This can be seen in Sword of the Valiant, with Sean Connery. The Green Knight then establishes that he will respond in kind a year later, when his axe will strike Gawain. This motif of annual decapitation refers to the annual cycle of nature, most of which fruits each year. On the Green Knight’s head can be seen antlers, which similarly fall and return with winter and spring.
Whether or not there is a direct connection between the Green Knight and the Green Man is debated, but either way, they both personify the death and resurrection of nature in a way meant to mime Christ’s journey. This connection between the Green Man, Christmas and the renewal of life can be seen in A Christmas Carol, in which Dickens stylizes the living-head of the dead Marley as a Green Man. As foliage grows from the Green Man’s mouth, the knocker hangs from the green head of Marley. The threat is that Scrooge—like Gawain—is next.
As the journey of Scrooge is synchronized with night, so too is New Years Eve, which we celebrate at midnight. This aligns the solar cycles of day and year, but what of the axe that decapitated the Green Knight and its association with moon? What about the possibility that Christ’s dark nights in the tomb pertain to the dark nights of New Moon? This is where we’re going next. Mythologists have long sought to align myths with natural cycles, and long have they faced major conflicts. The problem is typically their reductive approach. Just because you can see lunar motifs in a hero’s journey doesn’t mean it’s a lunar hero, or a solar hero, or an agricultural hero. A key point I’d like to make is that the appearance of lunar motifs has less to do with an effort to emulate or personify the moon than the capacity of moon to reflect human journeys—of life, soul and so on. A story can use any visual metaphors that reinforce its meaning, and insofar as stories about the greater narratives of human existence can be projected into both solar and lunar motifs, their alignment with myths can overlap.
Midnight Solstice New Moon – Once we’ve used the shared frame of light to align the cycles day, month and year, we start to understand why there are so many metaphorical connections between the cycles. One of the easiest ways to think about it is to ask what the darkest possible hour could be? It would be midnight on the winter solstice under a new (dark) moon.
When I say, midsummer sun, do you not imagine it at the height of the sky? At noon? New Years is a midnight celebration—not unlike Christian services. Easter Service brings sunrise into relation with the equinox. And when you think of Fall days, do you first think of morning? Noon? Night? Or do you see an afternoon—when the golden sun lights golden grain and golden leaves? Harvest feasts and fall celebrations don’t just tend to be in autumn, they tend to take place between the afternoon and early evening. The most familiar examples for a majority of readers will be Thanksgiving and Halloween (including its roots in Samhain).
The alignment of the solar day and solar year is strait forward—noon summer, midnight winter, spring morning and fall afternoon. In the same way the daily cycle can sustain the projection of life, so too can the seasons. We see youth in spring, adulthood in summer and old age in the fall. Abstracted, we align the growing and raising light with the raising of a growing child, and we associate the descent and departure of light as aging and death. Day and year serve as particular incarnations of the more general metaphor: light.
Mimetic metaphors are easy to see between the cycles of sun and moon, which wanes and waxes from maximum to minimum. In the abstract, the alignment of the new moon with midnight and winter solstice is apparent. These are the darkest moments in the cycles, when light has faded to minimum and before its return begins. We can certainly see myths that align life cycles with sun and moon—this is old news. The question is if myths have ever simultaneously used the death and resurrections of sun and moon to frame the same story?
Again, we find it with Osiris. That his journey through the night has already been discussed. The first is an image of what happens at the very bottom of the underworld. This is when new life comes into the corpse of Osiris for the first time. During the parallel moment in the myth, this is when Isis conceives of Horus. Both images depict the winged Isis above Osiris. Besides the exoteric myth and esoteric journey through the Duat, there is also a fairytale, perhaps the world’s oldest, which also tells the story. The names and motifs are shuffled in a narrative of two brothers that evoke memories of Joseph, Cain and Able. In this variant, the divine queen of Egypt is impregnated by a figure of resurrection in the form of a bull. The new prince she bears is at once the Bull’s child AND reincarnation. More specifically, it’s the child and reincarnation of Bata, the story’s Osiris figure. This is the Apis bull, which synergizes the resurrection of both life and moon.
This is to say, the death and resurrection of Osiris is conflated with the death and resurrection of both sun AND moon, which is to say, the more primary journeys are of light and life. The overlapping use of both solar and lunar symbolism is based on the reality that both offer tremendous representations of such journeys. The same can be said of wheat, and, in the case of Egypt, flood cycles. We’re not there yet. The key, for now, is recognizing that 1, solar and lunar cycles can be abstractly aligned, and 2, major myths have taken advantage of this alignment. The question of whether the Egyptians saw natural cycles as opportunities to signify something else or whether they saw nature as a divine teacher is beyond the scope of this text. The important perspective from the myth and story frame is THAT. The alignment of solar and lunar cycles is represented in myth—that tells us that it’s present in powerful stories and that potential writers of powerful stories should take notice. Why is another question.
That Easter represents an alignment of solar and lunar cycles is established orthodoxy. My speculation is that Christmas is no different. The symbolic alignment of the New Moon and Winter Solstice is expressed by the three days between Solstice and Christmas, which represent, on one hand, the dark days between lunar cycles, and on the other, what time it takes to see days lengthen. These aren’t combined because Jesus is a Solar AND Lunar savior, it’s because he’s the lord of light, which both represent. This is mythopoeically expressed by the alignment of both lights (and a star!) with his life cycle.
This focus on the increasing abstraction of pattern repeats throughout the book, and special emphasis is given—time and again—to this crucial turning point. What’s essential for us to recognize at this moment is that not only do daily, monthly and annual cycles give form to our world, lives and myths. They can also be aligned with one another through the common frame of light itself, the abstraction of which has been central—to myths, religions and holidays.
When we focus on the alignment of these cycles at their nadirs, we recognize a set of interesting images and moments. This is when new life comes into Osiris and when Horus is conceived. It’s when Christ is born into the world. It’s when the bread and water of new life is delivered to a rotting Inanna—who goes into labor. It’s when fire is retrieved from the whale’s belly, and an argument could be made that it’s when Persephone conceives from the pomegranate seed. It’s also when Theseus decapitates the minotaur and begins his journey home. In this abstract moment of light’s nadir, we can also recognize the Nirvana (extinguishing) and En(light)enment of Buddha. These are MAJOR moments in world mythology, which is why I wanted to give specific focus to this specific moment. This is a moment we’ll continue to recognize as we progress through mythic models and narrative theories.
Life – From the cycles of light, we shift to the cycles of vitality—waking, living and procreating. These have already been introduced through their reflection in mirrors of light. We now give them their proper focus. Beginning with life, a full-grown life-form will age then die. Such loss is replaced by an egg or flower, which is fertilized. The offspring then grows until born. From birth, the offspring matures until grown.
All life shares a journey from birth to death. The narrative experiences of mortal beginnings and ends has been a major conditioned factor through every stage of evolutionary, cultural and psychological development. By definition, this is true anywhere in the universe. The arc of life and death gives form to our own psyches, for which reason stories that engage this narrative pattern engage the patterns of our own psyches.
The abstract pattern of the life cycle enables the alignment of specific life cycles, which stimulates metaphor and projection. The birth of a human from its mother can be projected into the birth of an animal from its mother or a sprout from the earth. Similarly, the sacrifice of an animal or plant has been a stand in for human sacrifice. The sacrifice of Isaac was replaced by a ram, which mimes the gradual displacement of human with animal sacrifice.
Similarly, human death is often symbolized by a reaper, which cuts down grain. On the Death Tarot card, for example, the reaper cuts grass with heads of humans. This is reminiscent of the decapitated Green Man, whose head mimes the annual harvest and loss of (deer) antlers. On one level we see the conjunction of the Green Man’s decapitation with Christmas as an alignment with light cycles. On another level, we see his head as a synthesis of human, plant and animal life. The death and resurrection of this life is then synchronized with the cycles of light.
This is all very intuitive. It’s why we see the growing up of a kid can be seen in the growing up of a child. The attraction to new sprouts evokes a similar response to the attraction we feel towards babies. Indeed, babies and new sprouts are most common when light and warmth returns in the spring. It’s even true that the first milk deer give their babies tends to be made from Spring’s first sprouts. But as enchanting as that may be, introducing the point introduces a problem.
Yes, it’s true that sunrise is actually related to waking up and that there’s an actual connection between baby sprouts and baby deer, but this kind of point can lead us down a literalistic way of thinking. The primary alignment of cycles with which we’re interested is abstract—minimum light and life with minimum light and life, maximum light and life with maximum light and life. But this isn’t to say the new moon should actually line up with the winter solstice or that we should die in winter. The alignment of cycles is abstract and metaphorical.
As we’ve seen in their reflection off light cycles, the human life cycle is a recurring pattern in mythic stories. Osiris, Attis, Inanna, Adonis, Christ, Dionysus—these myths are about death, resurrection and eternal life. The same can be said of Persephone, whose seasonal journey was through Hades, which was associated with winter. This can be seen in Dante’s Inferno, which, beneath the flames, is frozen. There at the base, it’s ice that traps the devil—Dis—a name shared with Roman Hades. And it’s from this encounter with the bottom that Dante begins his ascent—not just to Heaven, but more specifically, to the desired destination of everlasting life. This is a Roman-Catholic version of the soul’s journey through the afterlife—not unlike the story of Orpheus or Osiris.
Sexuality – Mature male plants and animals pollenate female plants and animals, at which point the pollen and semen travels deeper into its womb, where new life first sparks. This is called conception for animals and fertilization for plants. Hermaphroditic plants, animals and humans can use male and female organs to pollenate and fertilize both others and themselves. Offspring then grows into fruits and babies, which mature towards sexual adulthood.
Mitosis and fatherless pregnancies exist, but a majority of humans and earthly creatures were born from sexual procreation.
The alignment of the reproductive narratives shared by plants, animals and humans bears a cornucopia of familiar metaphors. The earth in which seeds gestate becomes seen as a mother’s womb. To be born is to sprout. To bear fruit is to bear children.
Birds and the bees, which carry out the masculine task of delivering pollen, become seen as male suitors. Flowers—the mature sexual organs of plants—become associated with sexual maturity. This is why Persephone, before abducted by Hades, plucks the narcissus. The flower is a narrative motif that symbolically communicates her stage in life—sexual maturity. Where the flower uses smell to drive its procreation, so do animals, so do humans. We use pheromones—a chemical mating call. Male animals are particularly attracted to the smell of females when they’re in heat or rutting. Despite the analogy’s crudeness, the cycle of a man’s attraction to a woman’s pheromones is driven by her ovulation pattern. A more elegant veneer can be seen in the conflation of perfume and scented flowers with seduction.
The arousing beauty of scented flowers makes them more than a metaphor, but the same can’t be said for the birds and bees. Both point to a core quality of metaphor—indirectness. It’s hard to say someone died, so we say they’ve been laid to rest. We don’t want to tell kids about sex, so we tell them about birds and bees. Charm is often dependent on ones ability to oscillate between metaphor and directness as required by the subtleties of mood.
The cycles of procreation are prominent in the mythic imagination. This is especially seen in the myths of great mothers—Inanna, Persephone, Mary, Isis, whose journey into the underworld is one of death, begins labor at the bottom. The return from the underworld is then represented by the labor and birth of her child. The return of Persephone is similarly conflated with the birth of her mysterious child, which follows her impregnation by seed from her husband. Isis’ story is mimetic—her conception is associated with the bottom of the Duat, and the birth of her son comes at the end of the journey through death. Like the other divine mothers, Mary was impregnated by a god. And as with Isis, the birth of her child is seen as the bringing of new light into the world.
The cycle of procreation can not be reductively connected to the moon, however, when discussing the cycle of procreation, special reference must be given. Where Mary stands on the crescent moon, it hangs above Inanna and Isis wears it as horns—in each case, the crescent sliver is associated with their motherhood. The new or empty moon is as an empty womb, which is regulated by lunar-length monthly cycles. The first sliver of moon represents the emergence of life in and/or from the womb. In the story of Inanna, when she’s hanging on the peg, rotting, at the bottom of the underworld—just before she goes into labor—help is sent. It comes in the form of her maternal grandfather, who cleans the dirt from beneath a thumbnail. He then molds the dirt into two creatures. They carry the water and bread of life to Inanna, who is revived on the cross by the communion. This white crescent sliver of thumbnail can then be seen as the vessel from which divine bread, elixir and life come forth—the same that trigger Inanna’s labor. Again, the crescent, which represents the lunar shift from waning to waxing, is symbolic of the shift from death to life. Inanna goes from dying to giving labor.
Sleep & Dream – Beginning with a state of alertness, earthly life wearies until flowers close their petals and creatures close their eyes. Sleep comes, and all animals dream. Eventually, while mostly asleep, the process of awakening begins its course until, finally, earthly life awakes. The presence of sleep fades as we rise until fully alert.
The persistent conditioning of day and night has translated into the sleep and dream of plants, animals and humans. Not all creatures are awake in the daytime, but light is the anchor to rhythms beneath sleep and dream.
We’ve already discussed Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Osiris, whose death-like sleep and/or journey through night is like a dream. But where the dreams of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty remain mysterious, we follow the dreams of Dorothy, and Alice. Wendy’s journey to Neverland is a journey through the stars and to morning—not unlike Osiris’. Dream’s don’t just inform and appear in stories, they give them structure. The journey from day to the dream world and back is like a journey from the nursery to Neverland and home, or from Egypt to the Duat and back.
Notice, this is not like the tragedy of Oedipus, which tracks from sunrise to sunset—hope to its abandonment. The journey of Osiris is from hopelessness to hope; from death to resurrection; from sunset to sunrise, fall to spring. Sometimes the prominent metaphor is seasonal, sometimes it’s the day, month or year, sometimes it’s the life cycle of a food staple or a specific animal, sometimes it’s the dream journey, and sometimes myths carry layers of these metaphors—like that of Osiris, which is a journey through night, dream, death, procreation and winter. Persephone’s Journey is through death, winter, procreation and marriage. Inanna’s journey is through death and procreation. What these journeys share in common is their abstract movement—from departure and descent to ascent and return. The potential for metaphor comes exactly from these alignments.
Vitality & the Mortal Condition – Life, Procreation & Sleep – Beginning with one’s awakening at birth, the mortal condition is a climb to the prime of life, sexual maturity and alertness, which give way to procreation, sleep and death. We see the cycle in individual plants and full forests, individual animals and full populations, in babies and whole generations. More abstractly, this is a cycle from maximum vitality to minimum vitality and back again. This vitality can be seen in life, sexual virility and in waking consciousness.
Alignments of these cycles yields rich metaphors—beds aren’t just where we sleep, they’re where we procreate and die. Death is known as sleep, or rest, and tombs are as wombs. What we see in the burial mound is the mimesis between the pregnant belly and the mound we make over planted seeds. The womb-tomb isn’t meant as a mere vessel—metaphorically, literally, spiritually—it’s what’s impregnated with new life. In Hebrew folklore, Adam is buried with seeds in his mouth, and the subsequent trees are carried to the Ark by Shem. This was not an uncommon practice. Throughout Britain, for example, great trees are often concentrated on burial mounds. In Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when the king buries his son, he notes that flowers have always grown on the burial mounds of his forbears. The flowers growing from the tomb participate—metaphorically, literally, spiritually—in the new life of his son. In the case of Osiris, his resurrection is in the form of both his son and the grain, which is seen growing from his sarcophagus.
The alignment of sex and death is a pervasive taboo. Gawain fights for his life on a perilous bed made for love-making and murder. Mishima, the Japanese playwright, wrote endlessly about their entanglement. Each story in the eponymous film represents a new sex and suicide fantasy. Death is the extreme, but sex loves the dark, the dreamy, the fantastic. Child raising demands the opposite—clarity, predictability, lucid attentiveness and real-world priorities. Such is the alignment of these cycles—especially in our own imaginations. In the case of Osiris, his symbolic death and imprisonment in a coffin is a consequence of his love affair with Nepthys – all are associated with the sunset, his death, the castoff of his coffin, and Nepthys herself. Original Sin gives birth to mortality. The first murder comes after the first sex.
Zenith & Nadir – Light - Abstracted from the day, month, year and starting with light at its fullest, the story of light begins with decline, which continues to a halfway point between brightest and darkest. The decline of light then proceeds until it reaches its darkest point—if not complete extinguishment. From here light begins to return. At the halfway point of its return, there’s more light than darkness. The climb then continues until there is as much light as ever.
The daily, monthly and annual cycles of the sun and moon are all defined by the rise and fall of light. Midnight, new moon and the winter solstice are the nadirs while noon, full moon and summer solstice are the zeniths of celestial light.
In Game of Thrones, the prominent religion is one of light—not sun, moon or fire—light. The common frame shared by day, month and year is light. This more abstract or general frame can be shared with anything that burns: logs, candles, oil lamps—all of which start small, grow, shrink then extinguish. Mythic interest in the more abstract frame of light can be seen in the log of Meleager, who dies when it burns out, and in the Yule log, which aligns sun, fire and life. Similarly, across Ancient Greece, when a king died, flames were doused; and when a new king was coronated, fires were relit from a central hearth—one in Delos or Delphi. This was like lowering a flag, which emulates the reduction of flickering candles. In this way, the new light represents a new reign, not unlike the way new light represents the solstice new year, or the way Christ’s new light represents a new age: Anno Dominie (A.D.).
A comparison can also be made to the radical beam of light from Buddha’s forehead. It happens at the moment of his enlightenment and begins a new era. As with the transition from a moon’s last to first sliver, Buddha’s Nirvana (extinguishment) is requisite for his enlightening. Here we see the deep symbolic conflation of light with clarity and understanding—not just life. This is also seen in the myth of Prometheus, who brings light and knowledge to humans. The same motif is carried by Christ—among countless deities. Though solar and lunar symbolism can be recognized in such figures, they should be reduced to neither, as light is the primary metaphor. And again, even the more abstract metaphors of light itself pertain, first and foremost, to human concerns like vitality and knowledge.