The Circle of Life and the seasonal festivals

by Francis Joy (22.6.2011)

The inspiration and motivation for the creation of the circle evolved from a guided meditation in complete darkness, during the ARKTIS Doctoral program at the Pyhä Summer School, Pyhätunturi, eastern Lapland, which included students from the Arctic Centre, and Aalto University Design School from Helsinki.

The circle has always been a symbol associated with the cycles of birth, life, death and re-birth. Each of the four quarters of north, east, south and west are also represented by the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and within the centre of the circle is a fifth element, that of spirit-either, which underlies the totality of creation. It is the constant cycling and re-cycling of each of these elements which brings matter into form that is infused with spirit and subsequently life in born. Each quarter has universal significance concerning solar activity where four main observances are celebrated throughout the course of each year, namely, the summer and mid-winter solstices, and the vernal and autumn equinoxes.

In every culture, the circle has much value as a symbol of balance which reflects the opposites of male and female; darkness and light; day and night, of life and death and so forth.

Detail of the  Circle of life, Francis JoyIn northern and central Europe, the circle or wheel of the year usually consists of eight spokes or directions; four associated with solar activity and four with lunar activity and the cycles of the moon. These four lesser or in-between variants in northern Scandinavia are points on the calender that mark the activities associated with hunting and fishing, birthing of calves in the spring, slaughter of reindeer and moose in the autumn. They are also associated with pastoral activity such as sowing seeds and collecting the harvest. In central Europe the four lunar points on the calender which correspond to agricultural activities such as the melting of snow and ice prior to sowing seeds, fertility and breeding of cattle, cutting the first harvest from the fields, and then collecting the last harvest of the year which falls from the trees. This last season is associated with death and decay.

The cycle of the earth and the cycle of human beings and animals are interrelated with each other, At the centre of the cycles of nature is the Sun, and at the centre of the life of human beings and animals is the Soul, which in the old calender, reminds us the old worldview of the hunters and agricultural peoples that once existed whereby the soul was thought to have originated from the sun, and so they believed that these two forces moved together in a constant cycle with each other; the sun being the driving force for life.

The circle in the photograph which is constructed from small stones (earth element), and spruce cones (fire element), is marked out by eight segments which are chiefly characterized by the four directions of north, east, south and west. The foot prints which are made from pebbles indicate on the calender the approach to Midummer, the 21st day of June; a time of the fullness of life and creation, the longest day of the year where everything is in full bloom. We are reminded of our own journeys through time at this point; sometimes it may be from continent to continent, from south to north, north to south, west to east, east to west, or it might be the case there has been no activity because we have been facing difficulties and challenges at this time. At midsummer we can look behind at the journey through the year so far. In front of us, one may choose to look ahead to where one wishes to go and with whom.

Circle of life Francis JoyAnother classic representation of a symbol representing the circle-cosmos and cycles of life in the north is the noaidi-shaman’s drum. The drum has at one time been compared to a bible without scripture, a sacred vessel which was worshipped; representing the powers of the different directions and all that existed within them which had importance for the hunters. In earlier times in Finnish Lapland, the cosmos was also represented by a tree which had between 3-5 different levels to it. At the very top was the Pole Star which was considered to hold up the sky as the point at the centre of the universe. In Norway and Sweden the noaidi drums had a sun symbol in the centre, just like the cycle of life. Stories were painted in symbolic ways on the drum skin as a form of oral communication which was enhanced by traditional knowledge and hunting myths. Each symbol was a representation of the noaidi’s journey through sacred time and space, travelling between the realms of the sacred and profane.

The circle with the sun at its centre reminds us of how our own individual journeys each hour, day, week, month or year, is a story about the trials and tribulations of life. On occasion we remember to stop and think about where we are, whom we are with, and how the journey is unfolding.

Francis Joy working. Photo © Päivi Soppela