comes the Vernal Equinox, and the season of Spring reaches it’s apex,
halfway through its journey from Candlemas to Beltane. Once again,
night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light on the
ascendancy. The god of light now wins a victory over his twin, the god
of darkness. In the Mabinogion myth reconstruction which I have
proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew takes his
vengeance on Goronwy by piercing him with the sunlight spear. For Llew
was restored/reborn at the Winter Solstice and is now well/old enough
to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/mother. And the
great Mother Goddess, who has returned to her Virgin aspect at
Candlemas, welcomes the young sun god’s embraces and conceives a child.
The child will be born nine months from now, at the next Winter
Solstice. And so the cycle closes at last.
We think that the
customs surrounding the celebration of the spring equinox were imported
from Mediterranean lands, although there can be no doubt that the first
inhabitants of the British Isles observed it, as evidence from
megalithic sites shows. But it was certainly more popular to the south,
where people celebrated the holiday as New Year’s Day, and claimed it
as the first day of the first sign of the Zodiac, Aries. However you
look at it, it is certainly a time of new beginnings, as a simple
glance at Nature will prove.
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays which get
mixed up with the Vernal Equinox. The first, occurring on the fixed
calendar day of March 25th in the old liturgical calendar, is called
the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M.,
as she was typically abbreviated in Catholic Missals). ‘Annunciation’
means an announcement. This is the day that the angel Gabriel
announced to Mary that she was ‘in the family way’. Naturally, this
had to be announced since Mary, being still a virgin, would have no
other means of knowing it. (Quit scoffing, O ye of little faith!)
Why did the Church pick the Vernal Equinox for the commemoration of
this event? Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the child
Jesus a full nine months before his birth at the Winter Solstice
(i.e., Christmas, celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December
25). Mary’s pregnancy would take the natural nine months to complete,
even if the conception was a bit unorthodox.
As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene
focuses on the joyous process of natural conception, when the young
virgin Goddess (in this case, ‘virgin’ in the original sense of
meaning ‘unmarried’) mates with the young solar God, who has just
displaced his rival. This is probably not their first mating,
however. In the mythical sense, the couple may have been lovers since
Candlemas, when the young God reached puberty. But the young Goddess
was recently a mother (at the Winter Solstice) and is probably still
nursing her new child. Therefore, conception is naturally delayed for
six weeks or so and, despite earlier matings with the God, She does
not conceive until (surprise!) the Vernal Equinox. This may also be
their Hand-fasting, a sacred marriage between God and Goddess called a
Hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite. Probably the nicest study of this
theme occurs in M. Esther Harding’s book, ‘Woman’s Mysteries’.
Probably the nicest description of it occurs in M. Z. Bradley’s
‘Mists of Avalon’, in the scene where Morgan and Arthur assume the
sacred roles. (Bradley follows the British custom of transferring the
episode to Beltane, when the climate is more suited to its outdoor
The other Christian holiday which gets mixed up in this is Easter.
Easter, too, celebrates the victory of a god of light (Jesus) over
darkness (death), so it makes sense to place it at this season.
Ironically, the name ‘Easter’ was taken from the name of a Teutonic
lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also get the name of the female
hormone, estrogen). Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for
fertility and because her worshipers saw a hare in the full moon) and
the egg (symbolic of the cosmic egg of creation), images which
Christians have been hard pressed to explain. Her holiday, the
Eostara, was held on the Vernal Equinox Full Moon. Of course, the
Church doesn’t celebrate full moons, even if they do calculate by
them, so they planted their Easter on the following Sunday. Thus,
Easter is always the first Sunday, after the first Full Moon, after
the Vernal Equinox. If you’ve ever wondered why Easter moved all
around the calendar, now you know. (By the way, the Catholic Church
was so adamant about not incorporating lunar Goddess symbolism that
they added a further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the
Full Moon itself, then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday
Incidentally, this raises another point: recently, some Pagan
traditions began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Eostara.
Historically, this is incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring
a lunar Goddess, at the Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name ‘Eostara’
is best reserved to the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself.
How this happened is difficult to say. However, it is notable that
some of the same groups misappropriated the term ‘Lady Day’ for
Beltane, which left no good folk name for the Equinox. Thus, Eostara
was misappropriated for it, completing a chain-reaction of
displacement. Needless to say, the old and accepted folk name for the
Vernal Equinox is ‘Lady Day’. Christians sometimes insist that the
title is in honor of Mary and her Annunciation, but Pagans will smile
Another mythological motif which must surely arrest our attention
at this time of year is that of the descent of the God or Goddess into
the Underworld. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the Christian
tradition. Beginning with his death on the cross on Good Friday, it
is said that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ for the three days that his
body lay entombed. But on the third day (that is, Easter Sunday), his
body and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead and ascended into
heaven. By a strange ‘coincidence’, most ancient Pagan religions
speak of the Goddess descending into the Underworld, also for a period
of three days.
Why three days? If we remember that we are here dealing with the
lunar aspect of the Goddess, the reason should be obvious. As the
text of one Book of Shadows gives it, ‘…as the moon waxes and wanes,
and walks three nights in darkness, so the Goddess once spent three
nights in the Kingdom of Death.’ In our modern world, alienated as it
is from nature, we tend to mark the time of the New Moon (when no moon
is visible) as a single date on a calendar. We tend to forget that
the moon is also hidden from our view on the day before and the day
after our calendar date. But this did not go unnoticed by our
ancestors, who always speak of the Goddess’s sojourn into the land of
Death as lasting for three days. Is it any wonder then, that we
celebrate the next Full Moon (the Eostara) as the return of the
Goddess from chthonic regions?
Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life
over death, as any nature-lover will affirm. And the Christian
religion was not misguided by celebrating Christ’s victory over death
at this same season. Nor is Christ the only solar hero to journey
into the underworld. King Arthur, for example, does the same thing
when he sets sail in his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring back precious
gifts (i.e. the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we are
told in the ‘Mabinogi’. Welsh triads allude to Gwydion and Amaethon
doing much the same thing. In fact, this theme is so universal that
mythologists refer to it by a common phrase, ‘the harrowing of hell’.
However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the
land of the dead, was originally accomplished, not by a solar male
deity, but by a lunar female deity. It is Nature Herself who, in
Spring, returns from the Underworld with her gift of abundant life.
Solar heroes may have laid claim to this theme much later. The very
fact that we are dealing with a three-day period of absence should
tell us we are dealing with a lunar, not solar, theme. (Although one
must make exception for those occasional male lunar deities, such as
the Assyrian god, Sin.) At any rate, one of the nicest modern
renditions of the harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows
as ‘The Descent of the Goddess’. Lady Day may be especially
appropriate for the celebration of this theme, whether by
storytelling, reading, or dramatic re-enactment.
For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low
Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter-days. And what date
will Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional
folk ‘fixed’ date of March 25th, starting on its Eve. Or they may
choose the actual equinox point, when the Sun crosses the Equator and
enters the astrological sign of Aries.
This document copyright 1986, 1998 – Mike Nichols
and all related documents can be re-published only as long as no
information is changed, credit is given to the author, and it is
provided or used without cost to others.
Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols.
Revised: Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.
Mike Nichols Homepage