Fifty winters after my emergence on earth I climbed on top of a dune and surveyed the beach below. Over a hundred primates were reveling near the frothy foot of Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain. Half were splashing in the cold Oregon surf, hollering amid the elements. Others kept to dry sand, recording the briny romp with little gadgets.
The New Year’s Day event is a growing attraction on America’s west coast and other beaches round the world. It’s been happening for over a decade here near our home, but 2013 was my first year in attendance. Spirit hasn’t moved me to get wet, yet, but sometimes my family lures me out to hold their dry clothes.
The scene from atop the dune was a living diorama, recalling depictions of how some terrestrial creatures evolved by returning to the ocean. Whales come to mind.
What links landlubbers like me with that half-naked tribe of seabillies? I’m prone to ponder what motivates human behavior, observing it from the periphery on occasion. Will some social reflex surround this caper with enough buzz to turn it into another holiday tradition? If heavily promoted, could the words “Polar Plunge” become as familiar as “Bowl Game?”
Surely simple herd impulse is part of what leads folks into the winter waves. Monkey see, monkey do. I suppose the timeline of human events could be explained as a serial tug between spectators and spectacles. Yet is some deeper influence also at work here, some cosmic compulsion our kind to cross that shoreline and christen the New Year?
I moseyed down to the beach, looking for insights. After weaving through the crowd I found myself standing with my friend Winston beside a big driftwood fire. He wore a towel round his neck like a prize-fighter, smile big as Jupiter, post-plunge vigor radiating from his mien.
The last time I’d seen Winston, a week or so prior, he was holding forth as Scrooge at the Cannon Beach Coaster Theatre. I asked him how it felt to be done with Dickens, finished with the shift from greedy fiend into Father Christmas.
“Oh, half and half,” he said, reflecting on one of many lead roles he’s had as a respected thespian. “It’s good to move on, but I always feel a bit let down when I think of ways a part could continue improving.”
I can relate, having tread the boards in smaller ways. Acting is a gratifying ritual. When all the lines and movements come together, magic fills the theater.
Winston told me he was on the receiving end of that alchemy over the holidays, when he watched the premier of Les Miserables at the cinema. Said he sobbed through the whole thing.
“What motivates you to stand in line when a blockbuster first comes out?” I asked, the habitual homebody. “Why not just wait until after the hype dies down, or just watch it when it comes out on video? Is it a social thing?”
“No, not really,” he said. “I don’t go out to see people or be seen. There’s just something compelling about being there at the time of a new release, participating in the cultural rhythm.”
The urge to surf that current does contribute to social trends, he admitted. But he said it can’t fully account for the tide of our collective behavior. What happens in society isn’t merely the result of patterns prescribed by individuals. He illustrated with the example of clothing, saying his mother worked as a designer. According to Winston, professionals know changes in dress aren’t just determined by insiders who’ve ascended the industry pyramid.
“Fashion is more than the sum of our social connections” said Winston. “There’s a greater funky flow to it.”
We touched on how that flow is influenced by high-tech communication, how events are shaped immediately by social media. I observed that people seem so wired into the hive that it’s hard to distinguish the cellular person from the superorganism.
Winston said he was speaking with someone the previous evening about a line from Midnight Cowboy, but he couldn’t remember it exactly, which was very frustrating. “Soon,” he predicted, “people all over the world will have the power to instantly retrieve all such information.”
“Here’s to more storage and speedier access,” I allowed. “Yet how will everything fit together? How will we integrate and use all that power?”
We gazed at the fire, ruminating on the elemental forces around us. What a wonder it is, the way winter brings us together while turning our awareness inward, concentrating our attention.
Crackling flames and chatter fused with the rumble of waves, mixing sounds and molecules as they’ve done before there were cell phones or hemlines. It all looks different when you gaze down from Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain. People are specks. The jagged surfline is pressed by shoreward roving swells, all connected somehow with barely-fathomable depths beyond the horizon.
And though few people see them, whales are out there making their annual pilgrimage to give birth, moving through waters we primates have depleted and fouled.
Last year’s plunge marked a big turn of the cosmic wheel. It was the beginning of a new cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar — an interval of time slated to span four more centuries. Some days it’s hard to believe humanity will last even four more decades. The consequences of our sins have become oceanic. Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Radioactive isotopes in the Pacific. Ice-caps melting, sea levels rising. Carbon emissions wreaking havoc on weather systems.
It’s past time for us to begin again. Can root resolve arise from our collective being? Can communal rituals help us mend our ways, repair our culture, re-connect us with the cycles that sustain life?
Now is the season to delve and inquire. Mature forces are at work in the weeks following solstice. Our planet is nearest the sun in the beginning of January, though that influence often goes unnoticed in the northern latitudes. Because of Earth’s tilt, solar rays fall lower in our skies. Yet deep down we all feel Sol’s proximity. The days grow at a freshening pace, even though it’s cold and dark outside. Nature’s stage is set to rejuvenate, build energy for lean months ahead. And so winter has long hosted core holidays. Names change, but old rites still point toward harmony of the spheres.
Ye ancestral nerds knew how this stuff worked. They didn’t need hi-tech gizmos to measure the 26,000-year wobble of the earth’s axis. They didn’t need global satellite networks to locate stone structures that were both astronomically aligned and geometrically complete. How they came by such knowledge is a mystery, but some of their thinking is stored in signs that mark our calendar routines.
In winter the sun moves into a portion of the heavens star-gazers call “the Water” or “the Sea”. The name was given to an assortment of aquatic-themed constellations, the foremost being a critter that’s half goat and half fish. Why did ancient geeks pick Capricorn to midwife the New Year?
Some authorities pair the astrological sign with Pan, a goatish Greek demigod that had an affinity for fields, wild places, reed pipes, and apparently nymphs. One story of Pan says he dove into the waters and became half fish in order to escape a monster king. A similar tale of escape is linked to the goat-fish Aegipan, who helped Zeus overcome titanic adversaries.
Not much to go on, but apparently the image of a goat-fish preceded those Hellenic myths. Capricorn is one of the oldest signs, despite being the smallest constellation in the zodiac. The sign has marked the winter solstice since the 21st century BC, when it was associated with Enki, a Mesopotamian deity of rituals, magic, wisdom, crafts, and some say mischief.
Somewhere in the churn of online data I read that Enki was called “Antelope of the Sea.” He was rumored to reside in a great body of water beneath the earth, perhaps an extension of the oceans. On occasion he would surface to teach.
Many years ago, an astrologer advised me that Capricorn is an ancient symbol for cetaceans — the family of creatures that includes whales. He claimed those intelligent creatures govern portions of the earth that are covered by water. Most horoscopes I’ve read cast Capricorns as a dull plodding lot, nose to the grindstone, tending toward conservative in the extreme. Perhaps that’s evocative of whales, because we think of them as slow moving giants.
Goats seem more like dolphins, in my farming experience. They’re the wild cards of herd animals. Sure, they are determined and persistent and drive you crazy when they try to get at the feed. But they’re also quirky, often in a very lovable way, and goat kids are the most adorable critters on earth. One moment they’re just browsing along, then suddenly they leap and spin around, or climb a tree (how they got so sure-footed with cloven hoofs is a profound puzzle to me).
This capacity for quick shifts in behavior probably gave rise to the word “caprice”, which isn’t exactly the same thing as “mischief”. It may also have some bearing on the word “panic” — that feeling of imminent danger that can cause crowds of financial speculators to stampede.
In spite of these traits, herders of mainstream horoscopes decided somewhere along the line that Capricorns are courtesans of convention. People must strive together to make it through winter, after all. Yet we must also innovate, inspire, instruct, and entertain. To keep the wheel of humanity turning, we can’t just recycle old rituals. We must toss out antiquated rules that don’t serve the common good. Fresh dreams must be injected into life’s disciplines. New traditions need seeding.
So whenever I read a drab diatribe about old workaday Capricorn, I refer to a list of generative natives.
Muhammad Ali, Steve Allen, Joan of Arc, Isaac Asimov, Rowan Atkinson, Joan Baez, Syd Barrett, Clara Barton, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pat Benatar, Victor Borge, David Bowie, Anne Bronte, Terry Brooks, Jimmy Buffet, Jim Carrey, Carlos Castaneda, Paul Cezanne, Charo, Mary Higgins Clark, Jim Croce, Marlene Dietrich, Bo Diddley, Maureen Dowd, Dian Fossey, Benjamin Franklin, Ava Gardner, Kahlil Gibran, John Hartford, Stephen Hawking, Zora Neale Hurston, Janis Joplin, Andy Kaufman, Danny Kaye, Diane Keaton, Rudyard Kipling, Eartha Kitt, Aldo Leopold, Martin Luther King, Annie Lennox, Shari Lewis, John C. Lilly, Jack London, Henri Matisse, Ethel Merman, Henry Miller, A. A. Milne, Mary Tyler Moore, Isaac Newton, Michelle Obama, Odetta, Dolly Parton, Alice Paul, Edgar Allen Poe, Elvis Presley, Paul Revere, Gregori Rasputin, Betsy Ross, J.D. Salinger, Carl Sandburg, Earl Scruggs, David Sedaris, Harry Shearer, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Sissy Spacek, William Stafford, Jean Stapleton, Donna Summer, Donna Tartt, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tracy Ullman, and Betty White.
These colorful goatherds would make invigorating company during the holidays. I did prune a few names from the list in order to tailor my feeling of fellowship (I cut Rush Limbaugh, Marilyn Manson, and Richard Nixon). Think of the toasts and side conversations! Imagine listening to Sir Newton discuss cosmology with Lamb Chop!
The most famous sea-goat of all was Jesus. It’s significant that Christmas is celebrated after the winter solstice. In ancient Rome this was the time of the Saturnalia, a festival of social reversals when people of lowly station were treated as nobility. A similar switch was celebrated in England, on Twelfth Night, commemorating the arrival of kingly magi at the barn where Jesus was born.
People who reject any connection between Christ’s birth and older myths are discounting these wise men — Persian astrologers who presumably saw the event in a pan-cultural context. Perhaps some related insight prompted priestly geeks in Rome to link the nativity with a legendary golden age of comfort and joy. Echoes of Eden?
Even if Jesus was born under another sign, as some authorities suggest, society would have turned him into a scapegoat. He exposed something deeply troubling about human predators. He did so by playing the same role goats were forced to play in old sacrificial rituals. In earlier times people were commonly cast for that part: sometimes crippled or poor folks, sometimes prisoners. At the end of each year conscripted actors were killed or banished to die in the wilderness. The annual event was believed to ritually cleanse a tribe of sin. Not a good tradition, in my opinion.
With the exception of one word, traced then quickly erased in the sand, Jesus never wrote anything. His teachings were transcribed from oral accounts of his actions and parables. Gospel authors gave a glimpse of his capacity for moral instruction, one that’s generally in keeping with horoscopes for Capricorns. He comes across as immensely devoted to his work, but doesn’t seem like someone who’d be much fun to hang out with.
Par for the course. I bet Jesus led plenty of quirky escapades that were never written down, partly for lack of space (data storage and access being what they were), partly for fear of being scorned or stoned or fed to lions. But it’s clear from what’s written that Jesus was an amazing storyteller. There’s every indication he’d hold our attention, sitting round the fire in midwinter.
When magic flows, it moves us toward moral beginnings. Will we learn to treat the least among us as we would treat the Lord of creation? Escaping doom will take hard work and playful new rituals. Imagine Christ at a polar plunge, splashing and yelling to high heaven. Maybe he’ll show up here in person next year.
If so, by God, I’m getting wet.