Four years ago, I was in Edinburgh for the Samhain parade on Halloween. It was beautiful and chilling and fascinating. It was full of pageantry and color and fairytale.
At the end of the parade, the crowd was crushed together in the square outside of St Giles Cathedral, and we watched as the Summer King was ceremoniously killed by the Winter King. Winter would reign from thereon until spring rolled back around and Winter was again subdued by Summer.
It’s a common concept in mythology. The turning of seasons has been explained in a number of ways. The ancient Greeks told the story of Hades who stole away Persephone, daughter of Ceres, goddess of seasons and harvest. Ceres mourned her daughter so deeply that she let the world be held captive by winter until the gods forced Hades to let Persephone go – except she’d eaten pomegranate seeds from the underworld and so she must return a few months out of every year. And so, said the Greeks, we have summer when Persephone returns home and winter when Ceres mourns her daughter.
The Samhain pageant of Summer’s death at the hands of Winter represents the cycle of season giving way to season, the endlessly rotating wheel of time. It’s a powerful and memorable image. And we can see that myth and metaphor of Winter giving way to the Summer King translated in vivid, stark beauty when penned into a children’s story by C.S. Lewis. But in Lewis’s story (and in our own) there is one very important difference.
In this case, it was a Winter Queen (or so she fancied herself) who seized power for herself. In a hundred years, spring never broke through the White Witch’s relentless reign. The cycle of seasons was disrupted in this unnatural perpetuation of winter. Order was lost. This was not Winter assuming her rightful place; this was a usurper seizing power that did not belong to her.
When the Summer King appeared, restoring order once again, the witch, of course, took action.
And so the Winter “Queen” slew the Summer King. So far, this might seem to follow the expected order of things. In the cycle of seasons, an endless wheel of one ruler holding supremacy while the other “dies”, the slaying of the Summer King is only natural and right and even good. And when the Summer King comes back to life and kills Winter, we might imagine we are seeing the wheel making yet another predictable turn – Winter to Summer repeating itself over again.
But in our story, Summer’s reign is not temporary. In our story, Summer will never die again.
We experience seasons of life – seasons of happiness and seasons of sorrow; seasons of plenty and seasons of want; seasons of new life and seasons of hard loss. The world may grow colder and voices might whisper around us that our Summer King is a myth, a children’s story, a dream; that there never was any Son; that this cold world is all there is.
But we know that beyond the brief seasons of sorrow and want and loss is an eternal summer. Our King is unchanging – the constant good, the King of glory, and the Lion who need only shake His mane to send His enemies running.