Winter Solstice and the
Alchemies of Darkness
We have been conditioned to be afraid of darkness, but for our ancestors darkness was both medicine and alchemical magic—it brought regeneration and vision, connected to the bio-magic of the pineal gland and the hormone melatonin.
Here in the northern hemisphere, in these darkest days that precede the rebirth of the light on Winter Solstice, we enter into a sacred time, a geomantic womb where the Earth Mother gives birth to another solar cycle. This desccent into darkness is a magic portal.
This time of year was traditionally one of gathering together in the dark nights, around gentle and warming fires, to share medicine stories and call on the visions of Otherworld to guide and shape a new cycle, receiving messages from the quantum womb at the center of Mother Earth.
As we enter this solstice portal of oracular magic, let’s ask ourselves: What magic does this terrestrial darkness bring? How can we commune with this alchemical darkness that was the spirit medicine of the ancestors? And, from a biomantic perspective, what bio-magic does winter solstice encode?
Our world needs this earth wisdom now, so that our knowledge can birth a new vision.
If it feels that we are more divided than ever, it must be our shared earthly inheritance that unites us. We all walk on the same holy ground, surrounded and infused by the same bio-magic.
Solstice—When the Portal Opens
As 2022 approaches, a year that holds profound numerical symbolism, I find myself casting my mind back to 2012, almost a decade ago now, when I immersed in the alchemical darkness in a deeper way than ever before.
On the winter solstice of 2012, my wife, Seren, and I found ourselves sitting silently in the darkened womb of an earth and thatch Celtic roundhouse, built according to pre-Iron Age standards. The roundhouse was situated on the archeologic site of Saveock in Cornwall, home to a healing spring and a once thriving Swan-cult tracing back thousands of years, a tradition kept secretly alive over the ages by unknown witches, up until modern times, when ceremonial-ritual pits filled with talismanic objects such as swan wings and special crystals were discovered.
Crouching down to enter through the small doorway, we were greeted by a profound womblike darkness, lit only by a small fire. We sat directly on the earth, as our ancestors would have done 3,000 years ago, the embers of a fire glowing softly red-orange in front of us. Otherwise, we were surrounded by a rich and perfect darkness, absent all electricity or artificial lighting.
It was an experience of entering layers of darkness, first the outer darkness of the evening skies scattered with glittering starlight, as we had walked across the land, until entering the pure darkness of the roundhouse, where the mud walls seemed to hold the darkness like liquid.
“Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.” Lao Tzu, Chinese sage
Solstice comes from a Latin origin, meaning the stilling of the sun; on this darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere the sun appears to pause in its journey for three days, before gaining the light again with each passing day as the sun is “reborn”. This three-day descent into darkness has been celebrated for many thousands of years as a powerful feminine earth mystery, and was made famous in the story of Christ who descended into a tomb for three days before his resurrection. The megalithic Elder cultures built celestially aligned earth temples to receive rays of sunlight on sacred dolmens and barrow passageways, including at Newgrange of Ireland, Stonehenge and others across the globe, marking the resurrection of the light from the portal of the dazzling, sentient darkness that has always been, dark matter, dark mater, Dark Mother.
In our fast-paced modern lives we generally orient to the light, the brightness, the known. We talk about ‘enlightenment’ and ‘illumination’. The darkness feels, in contrast, unknown, frightening at times, and if you believe the narrative about this ancient feminine presence of darkness by modern institutions, you might even worry that darkness is malevolent. But indeed all of life, all of matter is birthed from darkness. Our universe is a dark womb. Light is rare, and when the switch goes off, creation returns to its resting state—the primordial blackness.
This alchemical darkness is the zero point of existence, a birthing womb, from which creation emerges —a scintillating network of dark filaments connects every birth and resurrection in the universe, from our own dark beginnings in the womb, to the womb of night that rebirths and cleanses our psyche every day, to the greater cycles of winter darkness that turn us toward rest as the vegetative world (and the food supply) dies back in temperate latitudes. These threads extend to the dark womb at the center of the earth, whose gravitational and magnetic fields make possible all life on the planet, emerging from the dark soil and dark oceanic depths. Our galaxy itself is birthed from darkness—a supermassive black hole the size of four million suns, whose gravitational waves organize the spiraling arms that birth new planets and stars. And, it is the invisible filaments of dark matter that hold together the superstructure of the universe itself.
"There is in God - some say - A deep, but dazzling darkness." Henry Vaughan
Biomagicians—Shamans of Body Wisdom
Our innate intuitive magic, it seems, may also be birthed from darkness. According to a study published by the former University of Virginia psychologist, Robert Van de Castle, PhD, up to two-thirds of verified extra-sensory experiences (ESP) happen during the dark hours of sleep.1 And, in a landmark review of suprasensory communication authored by Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem, PhD, our capacity to communicate telepathically is markedly improved in dark or dimly-lit environments.2 Darkness creates psychic states.
This explains the many traditions where initiates or mystics spent time alone in the darkness, often in a cave or a temple built like a womb/tomb. Darkness then, as our ancestors knew and as science also supports, is a potent doorway into magic, including time magic, as we will explore shortly. Every indigenous and magico-spiritual culture has recognized this fact. Night is the time for shamanic flight into altered states of consciousness, where we can access the living library of our bodies, the natural world and the cosmos, extending our perception far beyond the five ordinary senses to bring back beautiful gnosis for the tribe, as well as very practical information critical for our survival. It is a time for prophesy and oracles, for psychic vision.
In seasonal terms, Winter Solstice is the ‘midnight hour’ of darkness in the annual solar cycle. It is a time our psychic abilities are heightened and we are more open to oracular visions. I remember vividly the solstice night in December of 2012, as Seren and I felt the energies building, I took out a lyre and began to slowly play, invoking the magical spirit of the night. We breathed deeply and intentionally, toned, prayed and opened our bodies and consciousness to the secrets of the darkness. Instantly we were transported across time to speak with our ancestors present at this sacred spring several thousand years ago, and soon after that to our Neanderthal kin, peoples who pilgrimaged to the site tens of thousands of years ago.
“The Ancestors were reaching across the veil to remind us of their wisdom, and a profound message for modern humans, sharing that we were all in this together, and they were helping.”
Winter Solstice is traditionally a time when we merge with the deepest earth frequency, an electromagnetic energy that pulses deep within the dark core of earth, and that summons the ancestors to share their wisdom and memory, and to move through the membrane of timelines. This solstice alchemy is not something imaginary; it is biomantic, rooted in our biology and ecology, a sacred science. When our ancestors performed ceremonies and built monuments to mark winter solstice, it was not just for spiritual purpose, but for bio-magical purpose. They used this powerful time node to consciously shift and rebirth their biology.
The people who gathered at the Solstice time temples such as Newgrange in Ireland, or Stonehenge were bio-magicians and shamans of our most mystical hormone, melatonin.
The mysteries of the alchemical darkness, and earth magic, are entangled with the biomantic, alchemical secrets of our body, and particularly the power of the pineal gland and melatonin.
Melatonin is the bio-mystical hormone of darkness, prophesy, regeneration and rebirth.
Melatonin: “Mistress” Hormone of the Body
The alchemies of darkness are intimately entwined with the magic of our pineal gland, and the endocrine alchemy of our hormonal system, that interacts with the external ecology of earth.
The pineal gland is a small pine cone-shaped gland—about 0.8 centimeters in adults—located inside the center of the brain in the epithalamus, a tissue that connects our limbic brain, the emotional brain, to our other brain structures. The pineal gland’s main role is to secrete the hormone melatonin, that regulates the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycles of nearly every cell and tissue in the body—in response to the light-dark signals of the outer environment.
We hear a lot about serotonin as the "happy" hormone, but melatonin is the "mistress" hormone of our body, produced and released by the pineal gland only during the darkness of night. The pineal gland resides, like the Lady of the Lake, nestled against an inner ocean of cerebral fluid, and from this throne coordinates and governs nearly every aspect of our physiology.
For most people, the awareness of our how our biology works is almost exclusively focused to the daytime. As if when our eyes are closed and we are asleep, nothing important could be happening, right? But it is in the times of darkness, in the deep of the night, that melatonin cues our body to repair our DNA, to renew and rejuvenate our cells, to activate our stem cells, to restore our mitochondria, to grow and evolve our neural circuitry so we can learn from the day’s experiences, and to powerfully impact nearly every organ and system in the body.
Melatonin grows new brain cells via a process called neurogenesis, and it powerfully protects the brain from inflammation and degenerative diseases. It regulates and calms our autonomic nervous system; it improves our heart functioning; regulates blood pressure and protects against heart attacks and strokes. It boosts our immune system against viruses and bacteria; it suppresses cancer; and it reduces auto-immune conditions.3 It is one of the most potent anti-oxidants in the body, and with its unique chemical structure it can pass into every cell and compartment and fluid in the body, concentrating in particular in mitochondria, but also passing through breast milk to children, and through other feminine fluids. It helps us sleep and enter dream states.4 It deepens our brainwaves toward flow and trance states (alpha/theta).5 It regulates the functioning of every other hormone. The list goes on and on. Beyond that, its impact extends out forward and backward across time, as we’ll soon see.
Melatonin: Hormone of Quantum Time Magic
As the mistress of darkness, melatonin is not just the hormone of the night, it is the hormone of winter solstice. The melatonin production in our bodies reaches its maximum output on the night of winter solstice, when the seasonal wheel is passing through it darkest time, and opening up the doorway to a very powerful bio-magic, the inner alchemies of darkness.5
If we lived in full alignment with circadian and circannual rhythms and the complex pattern of light that shapes our consciousness, biology and endocrine system, then Solstice would be a moment when the gates of wisdom opened, deep within Mother Earth, to speak to us.
The name melatonin derives from the Greek melanos meaning dark, or black, plus tonic—melatonin is literally the tonic or elixir of darkness. It is the dreaming elixir of the witches and deep feminine consciousness. The ancients intuited the presence of this hormone long before modern science could isolate it and determine its chemical structure, with myth and legend from ancient times describing its mystical properties to create altered states of consciousness.
In spiritual circles the pineal gland is associated with the “third eye”, and from an evolutionary perspective this is literally true. It is the remains of a vestigial eye, once located on the top of the head of a common ancestor some 300 million years ago.6 Though a working third eye still remains on the top of the skull in a few reptile species, in most vertebrates, including humans, it migrated deep inside the brain where it translates the codes of sunlight through the retina into the hormonal pulses that shape our relationship to light and darkness, and to time itself. I like to think of it as our “dragon eye”, a primordial wisdom keeper within our deep brain.
“From a biological perspective, the role of melatonin is extraordinary, far and away more impactful than any other compound in the body. Its principal role is to translate the changing patterns of sunlight and darkness into biological codes, governing how our biology works with cycles of time—past, present and future. Melatonin is the dark mistress of biological time magic.”
When you look at the scientific literature on melatonin, the language sounds almost mystical. Thomas Erren, PhD, chronobiologist at the University of Cologne describes melatonin as a “universal time messenger”.7 Another cellular biologist calls it a “biological time–domain molecule acting on the circadian, seasonal, and transgenerational timescales".8 In other words, in addition to its immediate biological actions, melatonin also programs enormously complex actions that will take place in the future. For example, melatonin released at night determines the tide of sex hormones and cortisol released the following day, which is why it is sometimes prescribed to support waning hormones in peri-menopause.9 Beyond that, the melatonin released in the deep winter programs our biology for the following spring and summer.10 How well were you sleeping, digesting, managing viruses and regulating your hormones this summer? Look back onto what was happening with your melatonin last winter.
In the same way, how we are curating our hormonal template right now has an impact for the coming spring and summer. Just as our ancestors gathered food, they gathered light and dark, they understood the seasonal, circannual and circadian time magic of our endocrine system.
In simple terms the amount of light you consume in summer, completing at Fall Equinox determines how your body heals and regenerates over winter, and the amount of darkness you allow yourself to experience in winter, peaking at Winter Solstice, determines your health and wellbeing for the summer—from your metabolism and how quickly your burn calories, to your immune system and how well you can heal. Our health is programmed by both light and dark, so the “wheel of the year”, the traditional ceremonial calendar of the year in earth-centric traditions, is not just a celebration of seasons and archetypal energies, it is a profound bio-magic that we need to know about and align with, if we wish to embody health and radiance.
Our relationship with the interplay of light and darkness is primal. On an even greater timescale we are programmed by the light and dark we receive in the womb. Gestational melatonin, which surges four times higher in the third trimester of pregnancy, programs the baby for light and dark cycles for the following year, and also affects puberty a decade later.11 When we are older, melatonin determines our journey of ageing. Melatonin is what blooms us and withers us, it predicts when our life ignites and when it dies back down. The time-programming comes not just from the light record during the baby’s gestation, but from the historical record of light cycles over many years stored in the time-keeping centers of the mother’s brain.12
Our ancestral heritage is not just psychological or genetic; it is biomantic— somatic magic.
According to a groundbreaking 2018 study in Nature, 80% of our genes operate according to specific cycles and rhythms tied to the patterns of light.13 In other words, time, as determined by the shifting light and darkness, is the most foundational code-generator of our DNA expression, and thus our biology. Every cell, every tissue, every organ has its own “clock”. Melatonin affects all of these, making it the queen of epigenetic regulation of our DNA expression. And it is this melatonin that is at its peak power during the winter solstice. It is this magical hormone of alchemical darkness that is the secret to our longevity, our vitality, and our deep knowing—a “Sophia” code that lives within us, weaving us into the intricate pattern of time and life.
Grail Castle of the Brain—The Pineal Gland
I cannot finish this essay without re-emphasizing the symbiotic relationship of melatonin, the hormonal fluid mermaid who travels into every aspect of our cellular being, and the Grail Castle she hails from, the pineal gland. Together they have been known as the “seat of our soul” and the throne of our psychic, magical and intuitive powers, most potent over Winter Solstice.
The pineal gland is famous throughout history as the “gland of the alchemist”, often depicted in ancient manuscripts and texts as a pine cone that sits atop and crowns the spinal cord. It’s featured in the art of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, India, the Dionysian mystery schools and the Aztec culture of Mexico; and it crowns an enormous bronze fountain in the pope’s own Vatican City. The ancient Egyptian "Eye of Horus" symbol, some 5,000 years old, bears a close anatomical resemblance to the brain structures that surround the central pineal gland. Given their advanced anatomical knowledge, along with suggestive temple inscriptions, this is unlikely to be a coincidence. Author and scholar Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki describes an ancient journey taken by priests and priestesses of Isis into the "Star Chamber of Isis", associated with a temple of Isis at Sais, Egypt, that she believes describes imaginal journeys into the brain to activate the pituitary and pineal glands, and the production of melatonin, the mystical feminine molecule.14
“The pineal gland is the portal of earth alchemy, tuning us into the web of life and time magic”
The more subtle mysteries of pineal biology and neurophysiology are only now beginning to be unraveled by modern science. Calcite micro-crystals that deposit in the pineal gland take on complex and beautiful geometrical patterns, fractals of sacred geometries that are found in the natural world.15 These crystals are "piezoelectric" and are sensitive to electromagnetic fields.16 The pineal gland's nighttime secretion of melatonin is altered by electromagnetic fields, including magnetic fields in the same range as the earth's own geomagnetic field.17 These electromagnetic affects are stronger in the winter nights than the summer.18 This may well be connected to the scientific studies of psychic phenomena, which show that ESP (which happen more often at night) are also affected by geomagnetic activity, the electro-magic of sacred earth sites.19
The pineal gland is a psychic antenna that tunes into earth energy. From a neuroanatomy perspective, the pineal gland is situated perfectly between the worlds of the conscious, thinking mind and the artistic, intuitive, somatic, mystical, ancient mind. It sits like a magical portal at the center of a cruciform mandala, placed at nearly the exact mid-point of the brain - between the left and right hemispheres, between the front brain and back brain, and at the boundary of the brain and body, the only part of the brain not encased by the blood brain barrier, to allow it access to a tremendous circulation of blood, ounce per ounce more than any other organ in the body. The alchemists and ancestors understood how our body is the gateway of magic, and that true wisdom lay inside.
Our Bodies are Complex Quantum Time-Computers
Stepping back, you can begin to sense a picture emerging that is astounding. Our bodies operate as an enormously complex and environmentally sensitive quantum time-computer, with trillions of overlapping biological cycles, in every cell and tissue, that meet each other in specific nodes and conjunctions, allowing for predictive programming years and generations into the future. Our biology operates in a similar way to celestial-spiritual astrological calendars, such as the Mayan calendar, with the interplay of the orbital cycles of celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, planets, constellations—predicting critical nodes and junctures thousands of years into the past and future. Our body is a galaxy unto itself, surfing the codes of time magic, entangled across vast timelines.
With this knowledge at hand, we can revisit the sacred temples of our ancestors with a new perspective, a new and deeper understanding, of what they were calling forth in their ceremonies; and we can ask ourselves why have these earth temples been abandoned? Why do we modern humans not even understand the basics of our bodies, let alone our potential for bio-magic? Why has our education not included this?
We have forgotten how to live in and be magicians of our own bodies.
Newgrange - Return of the Light
In Newgrange in Ireland, a majestic earth temple was built thousands of years ago, in 3,200 BCE, older than the pyramids. It is designed to align with the first ray of light on winter solstice, which travels up the 19-meter passageway to illuminate the dark chamber with golden light.
The rocks around the entrance of the earth mound and inside are designed with talismanic symbols such as circles, spirals and chevrons that represent portals or gateways of rebirth and regeneration. In Irish myth it is called Sidhe in Brugha, described as a portal to otherworld and a temple and dwelling place of the divine ancestors. Old Irish tales tell of the solstice light of the god impregnating the womb of the goddess, conceiving or rebirthing the sun/son. John Carey, an expert on Irish mythology, says that the tales of Brú na Bóinne are the only Irish legends where a sacred site is linked with the control of time. Newgrange is also linked to legends of shapeshifting swans, often connected to lost prophetic traditions of druids and bards.
Because we have forgotten the secrets of bio-magic and eco-magic, these stories and the purpose of these epic sacred sites can often appear confusing or mystical in a way that is disconnected from the reality of our biology and its intricate interweaving with our ecology.
From the perspective of Biomancy and Ecomancy, the interconnected magic of life, knowing that the people who sat in the dark chambers of Newgrange were likely practicing a way of bio-mysticsm and courting the magic of their melatonin for a vision, we can reclaim our wisdom.
For me, this is what earth remembrance or earth activism must include. A true alchemical understanding of the magical reality of our bodies and earth, and a vision that emerges from this reconnection, as if the voice of mother earth is speaking through each cell of our body.
Dr Azra Bertrand
Sacred lore from Newgrange: ‘This was my palace. In days past many a one plucked here the purple flower of magic and the fruit of the tree of life…” And even as he spoke, a light began to glow and to pervade the cave, and to obliterate the stone walls and the antique hieroglyphics engraven thereon, and to melt the earthen floor into itself like a fiery sun suddenly uprisen within the world, and there was everywhere a wandering ecstasy of sound; light and sound were one; light had a voice… “I am Aengus, men call me young. I am the sunlight in the heart, moonlight in the mind; I am the light at the end of every dream… I will make you immortal; for my palace opens into the Gardens of the Sun.’ A Dream of Angus Og, AE (George Russell) 1897
Winter Solstice Alchemy
Your Guide to Solstice Alchemy
* For 3 days before Solstice, spend at least 30 minutes sat in total darkness (you might need to wear a light blocker). Visualize your entire body and energy field immersed in the darkness. If possible, go out into the darkness of night and connect to the land.
* The night before Solstice, spend at least 15 minutes in the early evening fading sun greeting the night. Close your eyes and allow your body to sense the feeling of night.
* You can listen to this Ancestral Swan Meditation on Winter Solstice, a guided biomantic journey: Find a quiet place to journey with the meditation, and ideally you would be in complete darkness – you can wear a blindfold if you need to block the light completely. The meditation takes you on a magical swan journey to Newgrange in Ireland for Solstice.
Rebirth of the Light
* If possible try to get up at dawn on the morning of Winter Solstice and see the first light
* Allow your body to become sensitive and aware to different spectrums of light
* Create a Winter Solstice ritual and light a special candle to symbolize the light’s return. * Experiment with meditating in total darkness with just a candle lit, and then extinguishing the candlelight. Tune in and feel how your entire body senses the dark
- Van de Castle, Robert. "Sleep and Dreams". In B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of Parapsychology, 1977.
- Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). "Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer." Psychological Bulletin, 115(1), 4–18. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.115.1.4
- José Cipolla-Neto, Fernanda Gaspar do Amaral, "Melatonin as a Hormone: New Physiological and Clinical Insights." Endocrine Reviews, Volume 39, Issue 6, December 2018, Pages 990–1028, https://doi.org/10.1210/er.2018-00084.
- Kunz D, Mahlberg R, Müller C, Tilmann A, Bes F. "Melatonin in patients with reduced REM sleep duration: two randomized controlled trials." J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Jan;89(1):128-34. doi: 10.1210/jc.2002-021057. PMID: 14715839.
- Cajochen C, Kräuchi K, von Arx MA, Möri D, Graw P, Wirz-Justice A. Daytime melatonin administration enhances sleepiness and theta/alpha activity in the waking EEG. Neurosci Lett. 1996 Apr 5;207(3):209-13. doi: 10.1016/0304-3940(96)12517-9. PMID: 8728487.
- More references coming soon!
“Winter Solstice Sunrise” – Newgrange. Ron Cogswell. CC 2.0 via Flickr.