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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Harbingers of Spring

Myth is not merely a story, but a reality lived.

Bronislav Malinowsky

The sun is shining today. Melting snow is dripping from the eaves, sparrows are chattering at the feeder and the chick-a-dees are whistling their “swee-tie” song. It’s early February, the middle of winter, but the light and the sounds today are a reminder that spring is around the corner. It really is. Last week, when the Cailleach, the hag of winter, went out to gather the firewood she needs to keep her through the rest of the season, she had a hard time finding any under all that snow and ice. That’s a good thing. If she can’t keep her fire burning, she has to relinquish her rule to Brigid, the goddess of spring and fertility. In fact, Brigid is already among us. The first day of February is St. Brigid’s day. Storytellers know that long before she was a saint, Brigid was a goddess, the daughter of the Dagda who was the foremost of the Celtic gods. Brigid is a healer as well as a muse to poets and artisans. She created the first tin whistle and it was she who gave us beer!

The myth of Brigid and the Cailleach helps me understand the feeling I get at this time of year. February is, by reputation, a dreary time. It’s the month we need a midwinter break from school because we just can’t take it any more, the month for get-a-ways to the sunny Caribbean. However, February has never seemed so bad to me. On the contrary, there is something about the mid-day light at this time of year that holds a promise of green. The animals feel it, too. The birds, like the chick-a-dee, sing less of their flocking song and more of their mating song in February. Small mammals, like the groundhog, come out of their burrows, the ewes become pregnant. Hence the spring lambs!

Once you recognize these natural phenomena, the strange February holidays begin to make sense. And they are strange. Prognosticating rodents and match making martyrs? What have they to do with this short winter month? February 1st is a cross-quarter holiday. It is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, another one of those days when the veil between this world and the next becomes more transparent. (The root of the Celtic word cailleach means veil.) February sets the stage for the burgeoning of spring. In ancient Rome, a festival of purification was held on February 15th. Some sources say that it coincided with the seasonal rains that washed and melted the earth – a kind of ancient Spring Cleaning. In later times, Romans celebrated the Lupercal on this date. Some of the rituals associated with that holiday were directly related to human love and fertility. No one seems to know how the day came to be associated with a Christian martyr, but in researching the connection, I came across this fact: there is a flower-crowned skull purported to be St. Valentine’s on display in the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

The flower-crowned skull, an image familiar to fans of the Grateful Dead, is also a motif in one of my favorite stories, Fitcher’s Feathered Bird, collected by the Brothers Grimm. In this story, the crowned skull is a token left by the heroine for her evil ex-lover when she departs his house after designing his well-deserved fate. By this time in the story, the heroine has transcended her human existence and transformed herself into a honey-feathered goddess who proceeds to purify her corner of the world with fire. A connection to St. Valentine? Probably not, but the existence of the relic is evocative.

We go through our lives accepting these February traditions without feeling any connection to them because they are remnants of an age when the rhythm of the earth played an essential role in the lives of men and women. It was a much harder life than the lives of most people who are likely to read this blog, and the rituals that acknowledged the seasonal changes were often matters of life and death, both, literally, in their enactment and in the consequences of the phenomena they recreated. Even so, I can’t help but think that an acute awareness of the week-by-week changes in the natural world added a richness to life.

Familiarity with myth can restore some of that richness to our lives. Myth allows us to personify the natural forces and to make them part of the story of our own lives. Myth gives a human reality to the earth’s rhythms, and reminds us that they are inseparable from the rhythm of our heart, the rise and fall of our breath, and the coursing of our blood. Myth tells us that the earth begins fade in October as Demeter anticipates Persephone’s journey to the underworld and reminds us that now, in February, the goddess is beginning to make the world ready for her daughter’s return. She is awakening the animals, opening the wombs of the cattle, swelling the buds on the trees, sterilizing the ground with ice, then rinsing it clean with rain. Myth reminds us that no matter how much wood the Cailleach gathers on February 2nd, Brigid is already with us to make sure that the old woman’s fire won’t last forever. There is hope in the stories of February. Read them and rejoice!

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