Happy Equinox

This year I have been asked to write a series of articles about the various Pagan festivals for a non-pagan audience, so I have been looking at the ‘basics’ of what is common to each festival rather than just relying on my own personal eclectic practices. Needless to say my online searches have turned up many short introductory articles, most of which repeat the same information, most of which is totally familiar. But just a few give me something that I didn’t know before, and in the case of the Spring Equinox, some of what I thought I ‘knew’ has proved to be just a little different.

1. I always had the impression that this festival and its September equivalent were less celebrated and therefore less important than the other sabbats.
However, several stone circles including Stonehenge and various circles in Derbyshire where I am getting to know them have alignments to the sunrise or sunset on this day. They wouldn’t have bothered if they weren’t interested!
I also suspect that the majority of celebrations were related to the farming year – it is always the time when I start my seed sowing, and it always feels entirely appropriate to start it with a ceremony.

2. It comes in the middle of the Pagan year.
Well it does if the year starts at the Autumn Equinox or at Samhain, but actually the spring equinox comes at the start of the modern Persian year, the old European year (on March 25th), the astrological year… The Romans also celebrated new year in March before they created January and February. Of those who didn’t, the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice, and the Egyptians and Phoenicians started their year at the Autumn Equinox.

3. The name Ostara is used for this festival, the German equivalent of Eostre.
First there is the confusing claim that Eostre was only mentioned by Bede and nowhere else so he probably made her up… Given that Bede was pretty good on his knowledge on every other subject, I don’t see why he shouldn’t have known about the local Goddess where he lived! Evidence on many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities is pretty scanty at times, but there are always clues for those that wish to see them.
But, and this is a big but for me, I then read that Eostre’s day was the first full moon after the equinox, not the equinox itself. Given that Eostre is concerned with hares and eggs, this makes perfect sense that the full moon would be relevant, and also explains why Easter is the first Sunday after Eostre’s day. The only trouble is I shall no longer feel right celebrating eggs at the equinox, I will want to wait for the full moon. And it also means that Eostre (and if they are equivalent Goddesses, Ostara) had nothing to do with the Equinox – giving me a whole new set of challenges, and hopefully journeys of discovery, for next year.
Just to confuse things further, there are also those who claim Easter was named for Ishtar who, while still being a Spring Goddess, has a whole different mythology associated with her…

4. Egg hunts are just a fun thing for children to do.
Eggs have been apparently been decorated on every continent, the oldest yet discovered being South African and 60,000 years old. The ancient Egyptians decorated eggs. Almost every European country as well as several Asian and American ones have their own special egg traditions. Eggs can be cooked or blown, scratched, carved, coloured in many different ways, and then displayed in some form (often hung in a tree or by a well) or offered to another. They are not restricted to a particular day either; any time from early spring to the summer solstice seems to have been recognised in this way. But in Britain, eggs were apparently buried by Celtic Druids after being dyed red in order to encourage the life force to return to the Earth for new planting. More sinisterly if true, during difficult times in Europe eggs were hidden to avoid it being known that offerings were being made to the Goddess and children were apparently paid on finding and reporting these eggs. Hiding eggs so that they may be hunted for ‘fun’ seems to have started in England by the 1800s.

Oddly I found an egg buried nearly a foot deep in my garden a month or so ago when planting a small tree. Probably a duck egg, white and quite large, and heavy as if there was an egg inside it. Having absolutely no idea where it came from or what to do with it (we have lived here for 19 years and have never kept ducks) I just left it on the surface of the soil to see what would happen. A week later it was still there, but after another week I saw its broken shell, and it was now definitely empty. Who or what ate it, and what condition or age it was, I have no idea.

Advertisements

Garden Sculptures

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture

Moonstruck Hares Sculpture
(Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire)

I came across this wonderful garden sculpture last weekend, while doing “essential research” for planning the redesign of my garden. (This garden is a little bigger than mine however…) It consists of ten wooden hares, nine of which are mesmerised by a full wooden moon hanging in the tree above their heads.

The hare has inspired many legends thanks to its unusual behaviour, such as boxing which is apparently females boxing males to either prove their strength before mating, or else fend them off. Until relatively recently it was believed that hares were hermaphrodite and changed sex each month – as late as the nineteenth century valuations in Wales did not specify the sex of the animal unlike for cats, dogs, or any other farm animal. Hares do not mate for life, and do not have much of a family life. They are born fully furred and with eyes open, and can just about survive by themselves if they had to. Each leveret will have its own ‘form’ or nest for the mother to visit, constructed in some long grass to give shelter, so they learn to be independent and solitary from the start. It was said that hares can do superfoetation, that is be pregnant twice over, with each pregnancy at a different stage. Science has apparently yet to prove this one way or the other. However it is known that one doe can produce 42 leverets in a year, which is a pretty high fertility rate for a mammal.

They are often said to be shape-shifting witches in disguise, particularly during times when witches were feared. Their solitary nature, being active at night, and being unpredictable and illogical in most people’s minds rather than recognising their intuition led the two to be associated. In British mythology, the Goddess Eostre was said to change into a hare at the full moon, the hare was sacred to the Moon Goddess Andraste, Ceridwen changed into a hare, and Freya was attended by hares. Boudicca used hares for divination, releasing them before battle and seeing which way they ran.

Hares are closely associated with the Spring Equinox, as it is the one time of year when they are seen to gather in droves, for reasons not yet understood. It is also at this time they are seen to box, run in random directions or in circles, roll in the grass, and generally behave like ‘mad March hares’. In more recent times the relationship with Eostre is cited for a reason for celebrating them at the Equinox, and also because their sex brings balance, which is the key to the energies that surround us at that time. Like the moon, they symbolise resurrection as they go through the birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth cycle at great speed. Male hares can supposedly give birth, having got themselves pregnant, and they are even said by some to lay eggs, like the picture of the hare in the moon holding an egg. Some see the hare’s egg as a cosmic egg which contains the seeds for all life.

Equally interesting is the tree, which is a handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, which was in flower when I saw it. (The flowers were all a little high for photographing individually, and just past their best.) Also known as the Dove tree in its native China, a tree of peace, seed was brought back to England by EH Wilson in 1901. It is the sort of tree that still gets mentioned in the newspapers here when it flowers, because it takes several years to reach flowering size and is still considered to be a rare sight. It was never widespread and remains endangered in the wild.