Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter. Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld and Demeter is the Goddess of Grain.
According to the standard version of the myth, the child-goddess Persephone is picking flowers with her nymph friends when the god Hades emerges from his underworld kingdom and abducts the maiden, forcing her to become his wife. The distraught mother Demeter retreats into her sorrow, refusing to tend her plants. The earth dries up.
Alarmed at the dying vegetation, the remaining gods unite to pressure Hades to relinquish the maiden goddess. Hades relents and agrees to release Persephone, provided she has eaten nothing while in the land of the dead. Of course this is trickery, because Persephone has eaten one pomegranate seed. A compromise is reached, whereby Persephone spends one-third of the year in the underworld and two-thirds of the year above ground.
While this myth explains the fertile and fallow periods of the agricultural calendar quite well, there are parts of the story that don’t fit. How is the Goddess of Death able to spend most of her time in the land of living? Gods and goddesses go back and forth between these worlds all the time, but welcoming the spirits of the dead isn’t a job you can just pack up and leave, except maybe for a long weekend. If Persephone is integral to the world below, and the poets insist that she is, then surely she can’t live in Greece two-thirds of the year. She would be considered a full-time resident for tax purposes (and husband Hades has a ton of assets).
Many scholars resolve this confusion with the conjecture that Persephone has been syncretized with another goddess, who is Demeter’s daughter in the myth. Since Persephone is often addressed in Classical texts by the title Kore, which means “Maiden,” this inferred goddess is called Kore. Separating Persephone into two personas goes a long way to clearing up the confusion.
But there is another problem. Persephone’s cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries, welcomed her back to the land of the living at the Autumn Equinox, rather than in the spring. In a lot of ways this makes sense, since the spring wildflower season in the Aegean is succeeded by hot dry months inhospitable to agriculture. Recall that Kore-Persephone is picking wildflowers when she is abducted. At the same time, Classical texts often place Kore’s return as the spring. This is most commonly considered the season of the world reborn. Perhaps the timing of the myth has been modified to apply to other localities or later agricultural practices.
When does Kore-Persephone leave and when does she return? It probably depends not only on hemisphere, but climate. In low-desert places in the northern hemisphere, most agricultural activity ceases as summer approaches. Or perhaps it depends on whether you live by an agricultural calendar at all. If you follow an academic calendar, summer is a time of rest and productivity reboots in the autumn. Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter.
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Compete Edition, London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Gregory Nagy, trans. Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University.
Patricia Monaghan, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Books, 1990.
As spring approaches look for more posts about the woodpecker. This is a Gila Woodpecker, a familiar inhabitant of the Sonara Desert, in a saguaro tree.
Here is a longer piece posted four years ago about the woodpecker.
I wanted to post a nice flower picture for my Spring Equinox entry this year, but alas not even a snowdrop is blooming. The subtle signs of spring are welcome but not eye-catching. I doubt anyone wants to see a picture of snow fleas, who aren’t really discernible anyway except by their movement. Similarly, the increasing flow of water can only be expressed over time. There are brown bare patches of earth in the fields, but mud is not the best part of the thaw, and anyway these patches will be covered once again in the snowstorm this weekend.
The most startling shift for me at the equinox is an audible one: the winter birds begin making their presence felt. They have not been completely silent during the dark months, to be sure, but now their calls are louder, more frequent, and much more varied. Blue Jays, ravens, chickadees, doves, and woodpeckers are most prominent. The migrating birds have not yet appeared, but soon the cacophony of Canada Geese will be overhead and then the huge chorus will begin, going on all day and all night, with insects and frogs adding to the fracas. I can’t wait. Whoever said the country is quiet? Only in the winter, and I am beginning to hear the sounds of spring.
The egg plays a pivotal role in many creation myths. In the early Greek “Pelasgian” cosmology the great goddess Eurynome “assumed the form of a dove, brooding on the waves and, in due process of time, laid the Universal Egg.” She enjoins the serpent god Ophion whom she had fashioned out of chaos, to help her nurture this egg, and so “Ophion coiled seven times about this egg, until it hatched and split in two. Out tumbled all things that exist, her children: sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth with its mountains and rivers, it’s trees, herbs, and living creatures.”In a Finnish creation story a sea duck lays seven eggs, six gold and one iron, which fall to the bottom of the ocean, break apart, and reform.
From one half the egg, the lower,Grows the nether vault of Terra:From the upper half remaining,Grows the upper vault of Heaven;From the white part come the moonbeams,From the yellow part the sunshine,From the motley part the starlight,From the dark part grows the cloudage;And the days speed onward swiftly….
Spurred by the lengthening days at the spring equinox, birds begin to lay their eggs, and egg gathering forms the basis for many spring rites. The custom of dying and decorating chicken eggs probably began as a way of mimicking the many colors and designs of wild bird eggs that were once gathered in the spring hunts.In the Netherlands to this day there are spring hunts for the eggs of the wild Lapwing, who makes her nest on the ground. Bird nests probably formed the inspiration for basket weaving, and perhaps before this innovation people gathered their eggs in nests.Another animal who nests in the tall grass in the early spring is the European Brown Hare, who makes a rudimentary nest or “form” for each of her babies. This is where we get the idea that the “Easter Bunny” is hiding eggs. The hare is also linked with the moon, itself shaped like an egg, because the outline of a hare holding an egg can be seen on the moon’s surface.Early German settlers in the Pennsylvania area abandoned the hare and christened “Peter Cottontail” their “Easter Bunny.” This was a sensible decision. Cottontail rabbits are ubiquitous in this region, and while this leporid is technically not a hare, she makes a very well developed nest on the ground, unlike the European rabbit who burrows.Pagan spring rituals around bunnies and eggs became absorbed by the spring Christian holiday of Easter, which ostensibly has nothing to do with either. While in English the holiday is known as Easter, derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, in other countries the holiday is derived from its Latin name “Paschal.” The English Saint Bede, also known as “The Venerable Bede,” wrote early in the eighth century:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
So we have a spring folk custom of a bunny who hides eggs or treats, baskets lined with goodies and fake grass, and organized hunts for colorful eggs, all associated with an old Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) holiday. Moreover, spring hare folklore can be traced to Germany and egg hunts to the (Germanic) Netherlands, among other places. It certainly looks like a traditional Pagan holiday, barring direct evidence to disabuse us of this assumption. Surprisingly, there are many Christians, historians, and even Pagans who have taken on the mission of disabusing us of the notion of Easter as a Pagan holiday.Part of this hinges on the fact that Bede does not mention hares or eggs in connection with Easter. These can therefore be assumed, if desired, to be of recent origin. It always makes sense to our detractors to assume recent origin for customs embraced by modern Pagans, even in the face of contradictory evidence. The bar for acceptability of evidence can be made extremely high, or, failing that, evidence can be simply ignored with ignorance forming the justification for saying “no evidence exists.”This brings us to the argument that the “only evidence” for the goddess Eostre comes from Bede. The phrase “the only evidence comes from Bede” implies that Bede is not a credible source, or that there is contradictory evidence elsewhere, or that there is such a plethora of written material from Europe’s Dark Ages on pagan customs that we would expect to find contemporary written confirmation. I don’t mind when academic historians spout this nonsense, because it confirms my low opinion of them, but it bothers me when Pagans pick up the refrain. Our detractors are reliably direct in their condemnation when they actually have proof, and so we need to learn to parse the words when the invalidation is subtle. When we hear that so-and-so is the “only evidence” we can be assured that: 1) a written source is being acknowledged; 2) the source is credible; and 3) there is no contradiction anywhere in evidence or plausibility. As far as Pagans are concerned, objections about “the only evidence” are usually an academic’s highest form of validation.Pagans need to develop a strong skepticism about scholarly sources. Remember: historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists are not our priests. In most cases, they’re not even our friends.SourcesCrawford, John Martin trans. The Kalevela, 1988. Sacred TextsGraves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.Hoffman, W.J. Folk-Lore of the Pennsylvania Germans, part 2, 1889. Sacred Texts
Hosking, Rebecca. “The Lapwing – the unsung hero of Easter and farmland icon” Permaculture Inspiration for Sustainable Living, April, 2011. Hunt-Anschütz, A.E. Eostre and Easter Customs. Association of Polytheist Traditions, 2006. Note: I got my quote from Bede from this article. In some ways this article illustrates the type of poor Pagan scholarship I’m talking about. For example, pre-Christian hare associations are legion, and others have traced the introduction of hares into Christianity from Celtic pagan practices (see Hare by Simon Carnell). Do an exhuastive study before stating “there is no reason to believe.” Also, stating “the symbolism surrounding” an item “fits into” Christianity begs the question. Find out how and why something without Biblical associations was “fitted into” Christian practices. In fairness, the author does concede that it’s implausible to say St. Bede was making up goddesses.
Spring Equinox comes on March 20th this year. I count the holiday as the day when the sun first rises in the sign of Aries. I saw an advertisement on an occult website recently urging people to buy now and be ready for the solstice. That would be quite a head start indeed: Summer Solstice is June 21st. Remember, equinoxes are equal; solstices are solar extremes.Spring Equinox is the celebration of the youth in all of us. In one way of looking at things, we are born, we mature, we grow steadily older until we become decrepit (but wise), and then we die. In another view, we are born, we mature, we grow old, we become young again, we grow old, and then we are young again.Featured spring goddess this year is the lovely Norse Idunn, who keeps the gods of Asgard forever young with the magic red berries she keeps in a special box. There is debate over what kind of berries these are. Some call them “Idunn’s apples.” Others say they come from the Rowan tree. Still others believe they are the same berries women pluck from the tree on the Hill of Healing to aid childbirth. Myself, I think they are cherry cordials.To regain a sense of newness, wonder and enthusiasm, include some red sweets in your spring ritual. They could be red jelly beans or strawberries or raspberries–just about anything red besides pomegranates, which are a death fruit. Ask Idunn to bless your berries with the spirit of youth. Idunn is a generous goddess, so share your magic berries with others as well as partaking of them yourself.