The vernal equinox occurred last night which means this is the first full day of Spring. The weather is nice unless you live in New York or anywhere else in the Northeast. You know you should get out and do something, but what? Perhaps you should do what your ancestors did: Party.
Balance is a key concept to spring. The vernal equinox occurs on the day when the amount of daylight and darkness are the same. Temperatures during the season are typically neither too cold nor too hot (though there are always exceptions). There’s a bit of rain, a bit of sun, and the soil reaches the perfect temperature for germination to occur.
While we have grown to expect and almost ignore many of Spring’s traits, our ancestors certainly didn’t. Spring represented both the opportunity of the future and in many ways the passage from death to life. In humanity’s earliest existence, cold prevented communities from doing even basic things such as disposing of the dead. In more frigid portions of the Northern Hemisphere, bodies of the deceased would be stacked outside in the snow until the ground thawed enough for burial. Life was celebrated as that which had passed was laid to rest, and new life was welcomed.
Of course, beyond the practical there has always been matters of superstition and myth. Ancients with a less than rudimentary understanding of earth sciences wondered what force brought about these changes and more often than not mythologies were created to explain what was then unexplainable.
Interestingly enough, one of the people most well versed in those ancient mythologies, their heritage, and foundations, was none other than Jakob Grimm, the elder brother of folklore fame. Beginning with a history of the German language (Geschichte der deutschen Sprache), Grimm sought to explore everything that had brought the Germanic people to their modern position; in essence, he was looking to social anthropologies to answer questions of why people are the way they are.
While the poetic tales he accumulated and edited with his brother Willhelm remain the most well known and most frequently re-edited of his work (not to mention horribly watered down for contemporary sensitivities), one of Grimm’s most important works may have been Deutsche Mythologie. This massive undertaking, which would be considerable even by modern standards, explored not merely mythology and superstition, but went all the way back to the first inklings of direct evidence and traced from there the development of the germanic people through their literature, poetry, and song.
One of the primary histories to come from Grimm’s research were the celebrations of Ostara, which were likely based on the similar traditions of Eostre, from which we get the modern word Easter. Like many mythologies, the transition from winter to spring is symbolized by the coming of one from death, or the place of the dead, back to life. The sun god, Llew, stabs the lord of the underworld, Goronwy, with sunlight, representing the return of the sun to darkened skies. Llew then makes out with Ostara/Eostre (the Great Mother Goddess) who had magically become a virgin (again) over the winter, and she conceives a child to be born at Winter Solstice, perpetuating the cycle. That’s the story.
Food was also a huge factor in these celebrations, especially recipes that involved eggs. Eggs were seen not only as a representation of fertility but the newness of emerging life. Teutons and ancient Germans also thought rabbits laid eggs during this time (so much for biology) and it is from that line of thinking that the whole Easter Bunny thing, complete with colored and well-decorated eggs, was born. Feasts were common, sometimes involving the butchering of a new calf (if there were enough to not put the herd at risk), or chicken (which were more numerous), or lamb/goat (depending on geography) along with early root vegetables and spring onions and herbs.
Fortunately, we’ve long since developed past the point where blood sacrifice was considered necessary for securing a good crop. This ancient tradition made Spring a very dangerous time to be a virgin, though the exact manner of sacrifice varied and sometimes meant the poor girl was simply married to the village priest (not using that designation in any contemporary context). Still, the concept of giving something up is present in the Catholic tradition of Lent and isn’t all that far removed from the ancient traditions of sacrifice to appease the deities.
Then, there’s music. As those who survived the winter began to emerge from their huts and hovels and gather communally, music was inevitably part of their celebration. Some songs told the tales of how they survived. Others recounted events of history. Most, though, were rhythmic celebrations of joy and life which precipitated the dancing.
One person who most aptly captured the emotion and essence of ancient celebrations was Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. His 1913 ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring), is said to have caused riots at its premiere, its rhythmic underpinnings having connected to the most basic of human emotions. While the riots may have been slightly apocryphal, the music itself makes for a wonderful celebration of Spring.
So, in addition to the photo above, which I consider an apt celebration of the season, we give you this link to music as well. Whichever rites you may choose to observe, may your celebrations be joyous and full of life.
Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1943 version): Part 1: L’adoration de la terre, a song by Igor Stravinsky, Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Rahbari on Spotify