Fires And Ecstasy Of Spring

Spring, or vernal equinox falling around March 21 heralds the time when the sun will begin to overpower the dark. The days continue getting longer than the nights until we reach the longest day, the summer solstice, in June.

But it’s worth remembering why it was once so revered.

Many traditions involved a fire festival and some kind of sacrifice to the gods. Although there is speculation that there may have been a human sacrifice in our deep past, most of the practices described by Sir James Frazer in his early 20th-century book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion involve an effigy, usually made of straw.

One of the more intriguing ceremonies involving a mock court occurred in the Eifel Mountains in Germany. A straw man would be condemned to death for having “committed” all the thefts in the village in the previous year and would then be shot, paraded through town and finally burned “to death.” 

In Luxemburg, a ceremony involved surrounding a tree with firewood and straw and attaching a straw figure dressed in old clothing stuffed with gunpowder to the top of the tree. The tree and figure would be set on fire at night, with youths dancing around the inferno.

 In Switzerland, on “Spark Sunday,” the first Sunday in Lent, straw and brambles would be tied to old wheels and sent “rolling and blazing down the hill” Frazer writes.

These festivals were fertility rites meant to bless the fields for an abundant yield and people would light the fires and carry burning torches through the apple orchards. The bigger the blaze and the more revelry around the fire, the more fertile and bountiful the crops would be. Or so legend would have it.

Ashes from these fires would be collected and brought home to bless and protect the fields, as the ashes would provide nutrients for the soil. In some French provinces, herds of livestock would be driven through the smoke or embers to protect the flocks from illness.

Anglo-Saxon pagans celebrated this time of rebirth by invoking Ēostre or Ostara, the goddess of spring, the dawn, and fertility. Particularly in ancient times, fertility was of singular importance to ensure the survival of a species or group of people (after all if you didn’t get it on, there would be no future generations). To celebrate nature’s “rebirth,” the ancients would hold festivals in April to honor the Goddess, which most likely included lavish sex rituals, and even full-on orgies.

Ancient tribal people were no strangers to sex rituals: worshippers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, and madness, would hold orgies in order to celebrate and evoke the ecstatic state of the son of Zeus. 

Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols.

Because much of paganism harkens back to agricultural times, spring was historically the time when babies were born and crops bloomed.

It deals with spiritual growth. It’s renewal. It’s rebirth. It’s the beginnings of the stirrings of life.

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