Summer and winter Saint John
The solstitial celebrations
The solstitial feasts (around 21st June and 21st December) do not
reflect the character of the seasons. The solstice of winter, a season which is usually cold, sad and dark, opens, in fact, the beginning of the ascent phase of the sun in the sky towards light. The solstice of summer, a season which is normally warm, joyful and clear, initiates, on the contrary, the descent phase of the star on the way to obscurity. The solstitial celebrations refer to the Roman symbolism of Janus (from “janua” meaning gate), the double face God and, later on, to the Christian feasts of Winter saint John (John the Evangelist celebrated on 27th December) and of Summer saint John (John the Baptist celebrated on 24th June).
John the Baptist was, with Jesus, one of the countless Masters who proliferate in the East in general and in Palestine in particular. John the Baptist hid himself behind the coming Saviour as asserted by the Gospels: “He (Jesus born at Winter solstice) must increase and I (John the Baptist born at Summer solstice) must decrease” 1. This reference is in complete correspondence with both the ascent and descent phases of the sun.
Janus, the double face God, is looking, simultaneously, in the direction of the ascent and descent phases of the sun. He is the guardian of the solstitial gates opening both phases and the holder of two keys, his main attributes. The golden key opens or closes the ascent path towards light or spiritual knowledge; the silver key (or sceptre) opens or closes the descent path towards obscurity or (spiritual) ignorance. The keys are what make Janus, the God of the initiation to “mysteries”:
- The gate of mortals, associated with the Summer solstice, gives access to the “little mysteries” consisting in a complete psychical re-generation and producing an individual (“individuum” or indivisible), i.e. centred in himself and no more dispersed between his different tendencies. This gate opens the path to the proper human state.
- The gate of the Gods, related to the Winter solstice, gives access to the “great mysteries” bringing the being from the human state to the supra-human or spiritual state and identifying the centre of the individual with the Centre of the total being, where the One is.
Janus ruled over the “Collegia Fabrorum”, the craft guilds of the antique world. Builders transmitted their “Art” only to followers deserving it. The postulants had not only to possess working abilities, but also the proper qualities which could allow them to be initiated to the “mysteries”. As builders were gathering scattered materials to achieve a unique
construction, postulants had to put together their own qualities
to become an individual as well.
The antique tradition of initiation was also practiced in the Christian world and continued during the Middle Ages through the builder and craft fellow guilds (glass artists, stonecutters, sculptors, painters, carpenters, blacksmiths etc.) who had both saints John as patrons.
The journey initiation
Originally, the being fulfilled himself through the practice of a craft in accordance with his own nature. To exercise another activity could only be detrimental to himself and the social organization he belonged to. According to the traditional views, only the essential qualities of the being were able to determine his functions. However, within the secular views, the specific qualities of the individuals do not matter and they become properly “de-natured”. They are only interchangeable “units” in the eyes of a society where only quantity prevails, where everything is becoming digitized.
If the craft is a manifestation of the proper nature of the being, it is easy to understand that it could be used as an initiation basis. However, if the initiation knowledge comes from the craft practice, the craft has become in turn the field of applying that knowledge. The perfect correspondence between the being proper nature and the outer world is the only way a real “masterpiece” could be created. An approach far away from the contemporary “mass” production, of the greater “number” of similar objects devoted to the greater consumer number, also considered as alike. This new era of the quantity and uniformity triumphing over the quality and unity personifies the reign of “progress” for everybody, synonymous with the decline towards the lowest manifestation orders, the one of the “How much ? How many ?”.
The initiation (from “initium” or beginning) marks the start of a journey, a quest, the end of which is unknown for the initiate. Its first goal consists in harmonizing the being's own nature with the Cosmos. As the Cosmos is divided into three worlds (Earth, Atmosphere and Heaven), the being is associated with three orders (body, soul and Spirit) corresponding respectively to the states of the ordinary, human and total being. In order to harmonize the being with the Cosmos, he had to go through rites where Water and Fire symbols played an important purification and re-generation role. Fire, in particular, played an important part during the solstitial celebration time. As the Cosmos, Fire also covers three states. The ordinary or terrestrial fire, the intermediary Fire or lightning and the spiritual or celestial Fire. The lightning depicts the celestial and terrestrial Fire complement and serves as a divine spark to the Heavenly Fire.
Symbolism of fire and light in both Saint John's celebrations
The two symbols of the celestial and terrestrial Fire may be found in the customs of both saints John. The summer Saint John is a popular feast taking place outside and celebrated with jubilation. On the contrary, the winter saint John is a feast commemorated in the privacy of the home.
The woodshed of Summer saint John does not consist in a pile of branches to be lit, but in a clever arrangement where wood pieces are stacked up one on the other to construct a regular truncated pyramid. The missing summit clearly means that the being stops half way to the climax. The different pyramid levels represent many intermediary states burned one after the other before reaching the proper human being state.
The habit of singing and dancing in a circle around the fire symbolizes the movement of the “cosmic wheel”. Jumping in a couple over the flames is only a symbolic way to join the “Middle” and become centred in oneself and really human.
The custom of keeping a brand of summer saint John's fire to light the winter Saint John's log brings to the fore the subordination of the human to the total being state.
The log of Winter Saint John or Christmas, generally cut in summer from the trunk of a tree, symbolizes the vertical axis of the woodshed pyramid of the summer Saint John. It joins in direct line Earth and Heaven and represents the total being. The Fire symbolizes here the inner illumination which gives access to the genuine Knowledge. It does not only produce a being centred in himself, but standing in the Centre of the world. The burning log recalls, of course, the chimney, this other symbol of the vertical axis linking Earth and Heaven.
The custom of letting the log burn until it is totally extinguished signals the end of the journey. The visible or outer light of the fireplace associated with the being centred in himself, gives way to the invisible or inner Light characterizing the being who has rejoined the Centre of the world.
- René Guénon:
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
- Especially, chapter 38 concerning the two saint John.
- “Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2001;
- Particularly, chapter 21 on the “divine voyage” of the being on the way to liberation.
- Jean-Marie Pelt:
- “Flowers, feasts and seasons”, Fayard Publisher, 1988
- In particular, the chapter on Saint John's fires and herbs.
1 back The Church celebrates the nativity of Jesus (25th December), saint John the Baptist (24th June) and Virgin Mary (8th September) and the death of all the other saints.