As inhabitants of the natural world – albeit much farther removed from it than our forebears – our connection to the changes in the seasons is deep and primordial. It’s certainly no coincidence that most of the world’s organized religions celebrate major festivals at the same times of the year, and that those same religious festivals correspond very closely to ancient celebrations of the sun and the moon. Not that it’s bound to make anyone in Europe or the East Coast of North America feel too giddy, but last week was the vernal equinox, marking the change between the dark and light halves of the year.
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Granted Boston, New York and London “celebrated” with a new 50' pounding of snow in what’s being called ‘The Winter Without End.’ It’s all so Game of Thrones, and I’m no Stark. But fear not – as of last Wednesday, March 20th, at 11:02 GMT, "Spring is coming." Feeling warmer?
The ancient Celts used an alphabet of tree-like runes called ogham, on which is based the lunar Celtic tree calendar. The tree-calendar month of Fearn runs until April 14th and is represented by the alder tree (Alnus), said to signify stability in times of change, protection in times of conflict. The following Celtic month is Saille, represented by the willow tree (Salix species). Willows grow best at water’s edge, and for this reason they were closely associated with the energy of water, also seen as lunar, feminine energy, and the means to deepening intuition. Emergent leaves on a willow tree are feathery and light, and ‘Willow Green’ is almost synonymous with ‘Spring Green.’ This new verdant growth perfectly represents the active yang energy that spouts forth at this time of year, as winter’s inward-turning yin energy recedes.
Despite their affinity for water, willows were also planted in the heat of ancient Egypt. A list of orchard trees drawn up by Ineni – builder to King Tuthmosis I (1528–10 BC), who reigned two hundred years before Tutankhamun – includes eight Salix subserrata trees. Ineni also planted Zizyphus spina-christi, also known as 'Christ Thorn,' although presumably not at the time. Zizyphus is one of the plants said to have been used to weave the Crown of Thorns, a grisly job if ever there was one. (Also, mortuary cosmetics artist.) Despite the onslaught of fluffy bunnies and Peeps at this time of year, the Christian festival of Easter observes Jesus’s death. The Crown of Thorns was constructed as a parody of the Roman crown of victory and over the centuries, it became a supposed relic attributed to Louis IX, Catherine of Siena (who’d previously turned down a golden crown) and the Sybil, a group of Delphic priestesses to Apollo who decreed his oracles. According to Thomas Aquinas, thorn branches symbolize minor sins; major sins are depicted by brambles (Rubus sp). The burning bush, through which God spoke to Moses, is also generally believed to have been a variety of Rubus.
The rabbit, meanwhile, has long been a symbol of fertility. Alongside the hare, it is an ancient Chinese lunar symbol and, in fact, ‘Moon Rabbit Pounding a Mortar and Pestle’ is the Eastern counterpart to the Western ‘Man on the Moon.’ In Christian art the rabbit morphs from fertility into a symbol of lust, and when painted at the feet of the Virgin Mary signifies the victory of virtue over lust. (Sigh, they do have a way of taking all the fun out of things…) So how do we get from piercing crown of zizyphus to fluffy fat fertile bunny via willow leaves, lengthening days and the odd patch of blue sky?
Rebirth – whether it’s of the seasons, energy, a messiah or new growth, the surge of hopefulness and renewal we experience at this time of year is due to our deep connection to the earth, no matter how far removed our modern lives or ideological beliefs have become. When Easter became set in stone, so to speak, as the observance of Jesus's resurrection, early Christian practitioners wisely marketed their holiday around the pagan festival of the goddess of spring, Eostre or Ostara. Taking on a new religion perhaps seems not so difficult when it’s loosely cloaked in the rites of your previous one. In the Middle East, the primal goddess of fertility was Astarte, and her sacred flower was the lily (Lilium), associated in recent millennia with the Virgin Mary and indeed, with Easter. The lily is also associated with Catherine of Siena, as before, and the Sibyl, aka the Oracle at Delphi.
Easter in Spanish is Pascua and in French, Paques from the Latin Pasch, which is itself derived from the Hebrew Pesach, which in English means Passover. Passover commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt and like most of the Jewish traditions, it is a holiday deeply imbued with symbolism. The Seder meal is a religious feast held on the first two nights of Passover, in which the food itself helps narrate the story of the exodus. Vegetables dipped in salt water represent the tears of the Jews shed during their time of slavery. Bitter herbs – generally horseradish – symbolize the pain and discomfort of bondage. A mixture of fruit, nuts and wine called charoset signifies the mortar used for bonding the bricks of ancient Egypt.
Another crucial element of the Seder meal? Lamb shank, also found on many an Easter table in the form of roast lamb. Hall’s Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art defines "lamb" as the ‘sacrificial victim in many ancient religions.’ The Jewish paschal lamb was quickly adopted by the early Christian church as a symbol of the son of God, and depictions of the lamb can be seen in Jewish funerary art in the Roman catacombs. A reformed vegetarian, I now eat meat with gusto, but lamb is the one food/animal that I can’t separate from its cute little image of frolicking fields of fun. But if you’re going to sacrifice it in your oven at home, and it sounds like observers of most of the world’s religions are, then I must insist you roast it with rosemary, grown in your own spring garden – green, fragrant, upward-facing, cultivated since ancient times, and also deeply imbued with symbolism.
It should by now be clear that nothing in history is clear, except for one thing. Everything starts in the same place: the soil, the bulb, the seed, the sun, the water, the atmosphere, the air. Whether your beliefs are Eastern or Western, spiritual or intellectual; whether your forecast is sunny and bright, cold and bracing; the light half of the year is here and new beginnings surround us. Unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, of course, in which case it's time to embrace your inner House Stark, Australia.
James Hall, Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art, London, 1994
Penelope Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History, London, 2004
Nigel Pennick, The Pagan Book of Days, Rochester, 2001
Gretchen Scoble, The Meaning of Flowers, San Francisco, 1998