Ronald ‘Chalky’ White

a celebration

The Festival of the Spring Equinox

Preamble

The ceremonies of the Spring Equinox relate to those of Easter, though they do not coincide as to date. Easter is basically a Jewish full moon festival (Passover), with Christian usage added and some pagan accretions from the Anglo-Saxon, such as the very name Easter which derives from the Old Goddess of Spring, Eostra, whose festival was probably originally celebrated at the Equinox.

March 21st. or 22nd. is the Equinoctial date when the daylight balances the darkness. Now the Waxing Sun God reaches His full strength. The remnants of Winter are driven from the land, and the Goddess appears as flower maiden, and celebrates Her betrothal to the God.

There are two intertwining themes here, as there are two main personages in the ritual. The strengthened vigour of the God is well tempered by the grace and delicacy of the Goddess. Once again we should consider, as always, what we are about and not accept any facile rubric patched together without religious and sensitive thought. Therefore whatever rituals I offer are for scrutiny and amendment. We should each, in intuition and love, express the themes in our own ways. It is the myth that matters, though when we have found expression in ourselves that works, its repetition in ritual strengthens our deeper understanding of its meanings and offers spiritual reinforcement to our lives.

Spring festivals are flower festivals: they are festivals of the risen and victorious sun: they are festivals of youthful vigour, joy and beauty. Most potent of symbols is the Easter Egg, which should be coloured red, the hue of the life that it contains. The symbolism of the egg is one of the most ancient and widespread ideas in pagan religious thought. Hares and rabbits are also closely associated with this festival, the latter, like some Hallows customs, being now reimported from America. The hare is peculiarly sacred to the Goddess, because it is swift and very fecund. It is associated with witchcraft as one of the transformations of which female practitioners were capable and therefore was considered as a fertility aspect of the Goddess. The rabbit is also a prime symbol of the prolific powers of life, or even, as some have said, of lechery. Because of these connotations it is mythologically reasonable to agree with the Druidic belief that the Easter Hare lays the Easter Egg or ‘Glain’, although this egg is more often attributed to a magic serpent. However that may be, the hare and the rabbit together with the egg are the most enduring Spring symbols.

There are so many Spring rituals still extant, many being peculiar to one place, like egg or orange rolling for example, (the orange being an obvious sun symbol), that any suggested ritual must be an attempt at no more than an outline of ceremonies still felt to be valid and numinous.

Processions are always an important part of these ceremonies. The Easter Parade is a reminiscence of one, as is the wearing of new clothes, and more particularly a new hat, or magically, as it symbolises this, a new fresh persona.

Spiral dances or spiral processions climbing hills, as can be performed at Silbury Hill, which was what it was built for, or Glastonbury Tor, are important features of pagan ceremonies. A spiral is the most widespread symbol of life and death; even the very stuff of life itself, the DNA molecule, has been shown to be a double spiral. The energy a spiral can store and produce is prodigious, from a whirlpool to a hurricane to our galaxy. Fibres twisted into a spiral are stronger than fibres straight. They also give greater grip. Our own clenched fingers opposed to the palm form a spiral, a matter that can be simply tested by grasping a lump of clay and observing the result in the mould so produced. Plants and trees have buds that spiral round their branches, and the seeds of many plants, like the pine cone and the sunflower, are so arranged. Moreover they have a definite mathematical relationship, which is set out in a series of numbers long known about but first publicised by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci. These numbers, because they relate to organic growth, are related to the Golden Mean, a system of proportions refined by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks and still of prime importance in Architecture and Art. Not surprisingly one can never resolve these numbers precisely – another example of the pervasive presence of our friend the Fool.

Related to the spiral and partaking of it is the maze, and maze dances were popular in Spring rituals. Sometimes they were called Troy Town dances. It seems that ‘Troy’ or some variant of it was an ancient Etruscan word for a maze. Mazes and spirals always have a cosmographic significance. They are considered by Indian Tantrics to be diagrams of the Universe. Spiral mazes as at Long Grange burial mound and passage graves in Ireland are held to depict a symbolic map of the land after death. The matter of mazes and spirals is a most fascinating study, and though beyond the scope of this work, it is recommended to any serious pagan, for these things express our understanding of life, death, and rebirth.

Now our festivals should not be mute. Dance goes with music. Chants can easily be invented and more people than ever can play some simple musical instrument. Rhythms occur spontaneously from the procession and the dance, and can be emphasised by stamping and clapping. The wordless song can set a mood, and humming both relaxes and attunes the sensitive worshipper.

Our dances have some connection with Morris Men, or, as some would have it, ‘Mary’s Men’. If so their dances are in honour of the Lady, and as we shall see, our Springtime dances are so dedicated. They also wear bells whose function, apart from enhancing the dance, is to drive away evil spirits. Morris Dancing is increasingly popular, and, more importantly in these days, is not performed for pecuniary gain but for the fun of the thing. This alone helps us to understand it as originally a religious act. Another thing: it is of overriding interest that the patterns, the weaving, the clashing of sticks, the interchanges of these dances are hardly fortuitous. They mime the evolution and entity of our mazy Universe, and have an esoteric significance as depicting its ever changing lattice of events where movement is continuous, acting and interacting across the whole multi-dimensional web of creation.

The Ritual

If possible, and it not always is, the ceremony should take place in the daylight. Some purists hold that the matter should take place at dawn, but alas! we are not always at liberty at that time, the occasion not being a public holiday, so that we must fit our ceremony into other and more mundane duties. Nevertheless some observances can occur in preparation for the ritual. The devotee can lustrate or bathe upon rising, and make a point of wearing fresh or new clothing, and offering a suitable prayer.

Wherever or whenever the ritual is to take place the worshippers should assemble some way apart from the dancing area. Each attender should have made every effort to have brought some seasonal flowers (daffodils are plentiful at this time). If the ceremony is taking place outdoors, and one would hope it was, it would be preferable to have a tree at the centre of the ground (a holly tree would be ideal). I have attended some festivals where the ladies had woven for themselves chaplets of flowers; the men wore anklets of bells, and, most importantly, carried a small wand or staff decorated with ribbons. These preparations can make all the difference to the assembly of a proper atmosphere, for the thought and consideration needed add to the concentration that should accompany the acting of the rite.

When all is ready the ladies retire to the ritual area. There they choose one of themselves to represent the Goddess. The chosen lady should have her face whitened in honour of the moon.

Now the youngest of the ladies advances upon the men and invites them to procession. This procession spirals slowly inwards sunwise, i.e. clockwise. Upon arrival at the tree they are offered wine to drink and pour a libation to the Goddess. She then leads the procession widdershins and outwards, and then turning spirals them back inwards sunwise. The men now dance outwards sunwise while the ladies do so widdershins in a mazy dance, the men completing eight turns, the ladies nine. Hands can be outstretched to touch and the leaders should encourage the dancers to go faster and faster. As can be imagined some of the complications resulting can be quite funny and serve to remind us that this, from the start, is a joyous festival. Again stamping, clapping or some simple music will help to create the right atmosphere.

More dancing can take place as wished, the men leaping high and showing off their agility and pride. Traditionally this was a sort of sympathetic magic to encourage the vigorous growth of corn and plants. Dances can be repeated throughout the ceremony as felt appropriate. For in all our observances there should be plenty of room for spontaneity around the central core of ritual.

This core of the rite is the selection from among the men of one to be consort to the lady.

The ‘Merry Men’, as they can be called, now start a dance together much in the way of Morris Men, banging their staffs against each others. At the conclusion they lay staffs at the feet of the Lady. The men now retire whence they came. During their absence the ladies solemnly dance widdershins around the tree. When the Lady is ready the men are summoned to return in procession and upon arrival to kneel humbly before Her. With great deliberation She then selects one of the staffs and returns it to its owner. Immediately the ladies crowd round him and push him out of the circle. He is ordered by the Lady to present himself properly. At this command the ‘Merry Men’ seize hold of him and drag him away. Once apart they redden his face and hands to symbolize the sun. He is then processed back to the circle, where the Lady greets him with a kiss. Wine and cake is fed to him, and he is made much of. One by one the disappointed suitors come forward and break their wands. Each then goes forward and lays the pieces at the Lady’s feet. They then make a solemn devotion and dedication to the Lady and then to their selected Lord. They praise in prayer the life-giving principles of both deities, they promise to respect and honour nature and to work for love and understanding in all things. Each is rewarded with wine, cake and a kiss. The ladies now each make their own declaration in the same terms.

The tree at the centre of the ground is then decorated with flowers. It is indeed a magnificent sight to see a tree burgeoning with spring flowers. These trees were called ‘Arbour Trees’. One such remains in Shropshire, and its ritual complete with procession of children and adults still takes place at Aston-on-Clun. Apparently, it had been discontinued as an observance under the Puritans. Two lovers, however, revived the custom to mark their nuptials, and moved the date to their wedding day. The custom continues. The tree decoration is the beginning of a party, feast and more dancing, during which the elected God leads his followers a merry dance, running outwards with his wand, and beating the ground to finally drive Winter from the land. The ritual thus closes with a general merrymaking.

On a more sombre note, it is traditional at this time to visit the graves of the dead and decorate them with flowers. This is a remembrance of our own mortality, and an acknowledgement that in life also exists death as a necessary counterpoint, particularly at this day when the balance between them swings to life, as later in the year it will swing the other way. It is also an expression of our faith in the unity of all beings and states of being in the greater life of the Goddess Herself.

The Sermon

What makes us is our climate. It tempers the way we think of our Gods and suggests the ceremonies whereby we celebrate Them. It determines, even in cities, many of our behaviour patterns. The Gods Themselves are in us and form the substrate of our beings, but Their expression in us is framed by our climate and our psychological expectations of that climate. Therefore we have to recognise that our ceremonies must be regional. Our rites with variations in time, place and climate nevertheless have a basic validity, and however the expression and timing alters, the core of myth remains and is the prompter of our religious thought and expression. In recognising this we also recognise that religious toleration is essential to a pagan and causes him no discomfort of mind nor conscience. Old Rome and Greece sheltered many religions. The Christians were persecuted as they offered a direct political threat to the stability of Rome, no other sect so suffered. The worst form of bigotry and intolerance is to despise another man’s religion, his myth and his Gods.

At the Spring Equinox, as we have noted, a balance between night and day is cast. It is the coming together of male and female, two great opposites in equal and creative harmony. It is this first conjunction we celebrate.

Our year goes round but never returns exactly to this same Spring. It is always a newly evolved Spring, another turn on the spiral path moving through our perceived time; a time that for us never stands still. We, being earthbound, are part of that moving time and interact with it, as well as at deeper levels we act out of the eternal ground of the Goddess where there is no time. We affect and are affected by all other things in the Universe. We cannot avoid being part of its dance. Even the shuttling web of our thoughts is part of the pattern of interaction. Remove one of the dancers from the dance and the pattern changes instantly. All things dance and have their own dance. [Note]

At this festival our dancing is a dedication and a courtship. Not only do we dedicate ourselves to the Deities, but being of them, we dedicate ourselves to the proper care of ourselves both body and mind. This loving regard we cannot keep alone but must give also to others. Our care should be to insult neither our bodies nor our minds; torturing neither with want or worry, avoiding the meaningless excesses of violence, fanaticism and dogma. This dedication is to a free spirit. It means we must try to take responsibility for ourselves, and that means responsibility, properly understood, for others. As the year grows up, so we have to consider with great care this responsibility for all our attitudes and actions. It could be said that Spring Equinox marks out a ‘Childhood’s End’. Finally we cannot expect the Gods to be gracious and noble if we do not cultivate these qualities in ourselves.

NOTE: The significance of the dance and an explanation of the reasons for its direction, widdershins or sunwise, is dealt with in the Appendix to this volume where the matter is fully discussed.

Next section: May Eve and May Day

© The Estate of Ronald M. White

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