The Rites of Spring

Spring Catkins by PL Miller

Photo: “Spring Catkins” by P.L. Miller

Compiled by Erin Abernethy & Hunter MacKenzie

The Spring Equinox is also called the Vernal Equinox. The word “vernal” comes from the Latin word “verno” which means “to burgeon, break into bloom” or “to be young.” Accordingly, spring traditions and rituals have historically emphasized fertility, cleansing, renewal and regeneration; many revolve around the “dying god” legends. The following are some of the more interesting ones we have found in our research.

In some of the villages of Germany, it was the custom for young people to gather and make a straw man. This was then carried out into the open fields; during the procession, they would sing a song about carrying Death away. Upon reaching the chosen spot, they would dance in a circle around the straw man, then tear it to pieces with much shouting. When torn apart, the straw man was then burned in a bonfire as the young people danced around it. After this, the young people would then return to the village and go from house to house begging for eggs, explaining that they had just carried Death away from the village to make way for Spring.

(Sort of a mixing of the modern traditions of Easter eggs and Halloween trick-or-treating.)

The ancient Romans celebrated the spring equinox on the 25th of March rather than on the 21st as is customary now. Part of their celebration centered around the resurrection of Attis, a god of vegetation who was considered to be dead or sleeping during the winter. Interestingly, when Christianity as a religion was still in its early stages, the widespread belief was that Christ’s crucifixion had been on the 25th of March, and accordingly, Easter was initially celebrated on this date.

March 25 was also at one time considered to be the date upon which the world was created.

(One wonders what was going on from January 1st through March 24th of that year… planning, perhaps? Waiting for project approval? Supplies on backorder?)

The word “Easter” comes from Eostre, the name of an Old German dawn goddess.

April Fools’ Day has its roots in the tradition of the Norse god Loki, a notorious trickster. The trickster archetype is not exclusive to Norse culture and mythology, of course. Many societies have had specific allotted times when it was permissible to engage in behaviors that were usually frowned upon.

In certain areas of France, bonfires are lit on the first Sunday of Lent. When the fires have died down, the young people take turns and compete in jumping over the embers; those who can do this without getting their clothes singed are supposed to be married within the year.

(Perhaps this is the origin of that phrase “better to marry than to burn.” Or perhaps not.)

Among some of the early tribes in China, an annual celebration was held to destroy all the evils of the past twelve months. It was carried out by burying a large clay vessel filled with gunpowder, stones, bits of iron, and so on; a match was set to a trail of gunpowder and the clay pot was blown up. Doing so was supposed to disperse all the ills of the previous year.

(Don’t try this one at home without safety glasses.)

Human sacrifice was reportedly not uncommon among the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, but it was also an annual spring event occurring around the last week of April. For this purpose, a person was chosen to symbolize a god for an entire year; he was treated as the embodiment of the god for that year, receiving all due attention and reverence. At the time of the festival, he was then killed and eaten by the people.

Parilia was a Roman festival held in April to honor the deity Pales. It included decorating sheepfolds with green branches, offering milk and cakes to the divinity, and driving farm animals through the smoke of fires in the belief that this would protect them from illness during the coming year.

(Smoke inhalation was evidently of no concern.)

April 24th is a traditional night of divination in regard to romance. A young woman who wished to see a vision of a future lover was supposed to fast from sunset, making a barley cake during the night. If she left her door open, her future lover was supposed to come inside for the cake. Floralia was a Roman festival to honor Flora, goddess of flowers and youth. Beginning on April 28th, it was known for its encouragement of sexual license. Medallions depicting various sexual acts were handed out, and seeds were thrown into the crowds as a symbol of fertility. In many places this time began the May festivals which featured the phallic Maypole and other fertility symbols; the traditions corresponded closely to the Roman Saturnalia (in December) and still survive in some form in many parts of Europe.

(Today we just have the annual Spring Break beer bashes on the beaches.)

© Copyright 1999 by Erin Abernethy & Hunter MacKenzie. Republished 2013, 2014, 2015.

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