Opening my eyes, the early morning light filters through the partially open panelled shutters. As for most of us, each sunrise chases away any lingering worries from the night, reminding us, wherever we live, that it is another day. The birds begin to murmur and then, especially at this time of year, the volume increases with the light as they sing a glad chorus to greet the day.
Sunrise is woven into so many of our cultures and systems of beliefs and thoughts. The bible begins “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light”. In antiquity, the Pharaonic Egyptian sun god Ra captained a boat crewed by gods across the sky. He then had to face the underworld each night in order to re-emerge with the sun the following day. In Norse mythology, Sol is chased across the sky by a wolf – perhaps because in northern climes the sun is rather more fleeting.
Irrespective, whether we look out of the window or admire the hope, lights and colours of this repeated moment in time in works by the great painters – Monet or Turner, Vincent van Gogh or Pissarro for example – sunrise offers a positive renewal in our lives.
Facing south and east in one corner of the Castle is a golden room, the walls hung with antique Italian embroideries whilst the high ornate ceiling is painted with a classical scene of Athena Rising. She is the Greek Goddess associated with wisdom, handicraft and warfare and is shown here surrounded by clouds and light, almost like a sunrise Traditionally she has gleaming bright eyes and sometimes an owl perched on her hand.
Artists and allegorists have long used her as a symbol of freedom and democracy because of her associations and her image is often inherent in the concept of a republic. Thus, a statue of the goddess stands in the centre of the Place de la Revolution in Paris and the statue of Pallas Athena is in front of the Austrian Parliament building in Vienna. Alternatively, if you look up at the sky at night, Athena is associated with an asteroid.
Of course, it is the planet Venus which is associated with sunrise. Venus sometimes appears before the sun in the morning and, given it is one of the brightest objects in the sky, has been known since prehistoric times. It has been a major beacon in human culture for as long as records have existed. Venus references the springtime blossoming of trees and flowers and borrows from her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite. The epithets “smile-loving” or “laughter-loving” are associated with Venus all of which are very welcome after a year in which such things have often been absent. The language and roots of these beliefs live with us today: human emotional hopes and dreams look for the same anchors even if the mechanical means of life and travel are different today.
Thus, last week, from such myths, a ship slipped quietly out of Portsmouth harbour, named for Venus and the new dawn (Viking Venus). It was a huge treat to spend a few hours sailing on her as she was christened. Names are always crucial and the ceremony to welcome her drew on Norwegian traditions and blessings.
Sailing out of Portsmouth was a thrill, passing all the British navy ships and the old buildings, for once last week bathed in sunshine rather than washed in torrential rain. In fact, sailing anywhere was a pleasure. This new ship was taking guests of Viking Cruises around the UK, drawing them back into the world of Cornwall and Poldark before sailing up towards the great northern ports.
Highclere’s main contribution to the launch was to propose a Venus Sunrise cocktail (Highclere Castle gin of course): the colours of the dawn, the promise of holidays and fun and balance, created by Luis, our butler at Highclere.
A gin cocktail, a new perspective, the sound and smell of the sea, the smile loving Venus and the wisdom of Athene. What more could one ask.