Tomorrow night and early Tuesday morning feature a total lunar eclipse, visible throughout all of North America. This eclipse falls on the winter solstice, a coincidence that has not happened for more than 300 years and will not happen again in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog on the date of its posting. (The next time falls on December 21, 2094.)
In the old days people would have greeted an event like this with all manner of pagan observances. Bonfires would have been lit and danced around, entire communities would have suspended – for one night – the rules about sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and whatever consciousness-altering substances available would have been consumed in copious amounts. Oracles and priests would have been busy forecasting the future and explaining what the omen meant. Bacchanalia, drunken feasts, and Dionysus’s Maenads, would have filled this night.
But now? Things are different and more boring. That’s the price we’ve paid for intellectual progress. Oh, a few people still believe and will build their bonfires, a few more don’t believe, but will build a bonfire anyway, and some neighbors may get together for a party, but not a bacchanal. Mostly the night will pass as any other winter night. Most everyone will be asleep in their warm houses and apartments and will wake up the next morning none the wiser and go off to work or go do their Christmas shopping.
The Romans, being Europeans and pagans, probably enjoyed the winter solstice more than we do. We are the spiritual and, often, the genetic descendants of the Puritans and, as a wit once noted, the only thing harder and more implacable than the rocky, cold, forbidding New England coast where the Pilgrims landed was the Pilgrims themselves. Few Americans have yet recovered from that grim Puritan heritage. H.L. Mencken once defined a Puritan as someone haunted by the belief that somewhere, someone may be enjoying themselves.
I assume that most readers of this blog are, like me, children of the Enlightenment, which means we are believers in science and what it teaches. We know, for instance, that a human sacrifice is unnecessary to make spring return this year and that Constantinople did not fall to the Ottomans because of the 1453 lunar eclipse. Irish Wrenboys no longer kill a Wren to get the sun to return.
But despite its unquestioned advantages for humanity, our enlightenment has come at a cost. Much of the magic and some of the mystery of the universe fade away in the light of reason. Certainly we know that this year’s winter solstice and contemporaneous total lunar eclipse are nothing but an orbital coincidence of the long eons in the ceaseless dance of moon, sun, and earth with no intrinsic meaning other than its physical beauty. We know there is nothing masculine about the energy of the sun, it’s just a thermonuclear furnace. And the moon? Nothing feminine about it. It’s just a cold lifeless ball of matter caught in the earth’s gravitational field. No mystical energy exists to be absorbed from her reflection of sunlight.
But what would be wrong with a willing suspension of disbelief for one night? We do it all the time when we read a work of fiction or when we watch a movie. So pour yourself a glass of wine, get outside Monday night/Tuesday morning, build yourself a little fire, and at least meditate, even if you don’t feel like dancing around the blaze. Like Dickens’s Monsieur Defarge, perhaps no vivacious Bacchanalian flame will leap out but you might discover “a smouldering fire” burning in the dark, hidden in the dregs of the wine.
I leave you in the company of Niels Bohr, one of the greatest scientists who ever walked on this earth and, along with Einstein with whom he disputed often, a father of modern physics. This preeminent physicist, scientist and rationalist kept a horseshoe above the entrance to his home. A guest once said to him, “Dr. Bohr, surely you don’t believe that a horseshoe can bring you good luck?” Dr. Bohr responded, “No. But I’ve heard it works for those who don’t believe too.”