(The following is extracted from the British Druid Order bardic course, booklet 17)
“Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,
hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees.”
‘Early Spring,’ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
The east, elemental Air, marks the spring equinox, Welsh Alban Eilir, ‘the Birth of the Fresh (or Green) Quarter,’ which falls on or about March 21st (September 21st in the southern hemisphere). In Western astrology, the Sun is now said to be entering the zodiacal sign of Aries, the Ram. In Vedic and Sidereal astrology, however, which are based on the actual position of the Sun relative to the stars, the Sun is entering the sign of Pisces, the Fishes. On the morning of the equinox, at least in the British Isles and equivalent latitudes, the Sun rises directly in the east. Day and night are of equal length. The divine child born at Midwinter now begins to develop as an individual, independent of its parents, still wide-eyed with wonderment but no longer content just to observe. Now the child is eager to experience all that the world has to offer. This is a time of balance between the long nights of winter and the long days of summer. Balance is a temporary state and, at this time, it is about to tip in favour of summer.
There is not a great deal of evidence for the marking of the equinoxes in British and Irish prehistory. A possible exception is the West Kennett Long Barrow (below) where, from floor plans, personal observation sitting atop the mound and compass readings taken both inside and above the chambers, the central passage seems to be aligned on the equinoctial sunrise. I say ‘seems to be’ because two things render accurate assessment difficult. One is that an enormous sarsen slab, some nine feet high and of similar width, stands across the entrance, blocking the light of the Sun from entering the passage. The other is that the passageway and chambers as we now have them are as reconstructed by the Ministry of Works following excavation of the site by Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott in 1955-6. When the excavation began, the passage and chambers were in a sorry state, the roof stones fallen in and the walls collapsed. Piggott numbered each sarsen stone as it was removed during the dig but there is some doubt as to whether his numbering was followed when the tomb-shrine was rebuilt. The roof was built from scratch, using sarsens found in situ but also a number of new sarsen slabs brought in for the purpose. The idea had been to reconstruct the passage and chambers as they were when the site was first created in the Neolithic era but there is considerable doubt as to whether anything like this aim was achieved and it seems that neither Atkinson nor Piggott were happy with the result.
Although the basic alignment of the central passageway is unlikely to have been significantly altered during reconstruction, the entrance seems to have been drastically remodelled. The default for chambered tomb-shrines is for their entrances to be small and narrow enough to make access difficult. The Ministry of Works, however, wanted the entrance at West Kennett wide open to make visitor access easier. Unless records of the 1955-6 excavations show what the entrance was originally like, gauging its original size and position is impossible. Taking a middle line down the centre of the passage, the alignment is about 6 degrees south of east. A narrower entrance only slightly offset from the centre of the present one would, then, have allowed the equinoctial sunrise to fully illuminate the large rear inner chamber, even allowing for the fact that the Earth’s axis has tilted by about half a degree in the last 5,000 years. A narrow entrance in the exact centre of the current one would allow the same to occur about nine days from the equinox.
Clive Ruggles has set out the difficulties involved in calculating the equinoxes in prehistory. Deriving their exact timing by observing the position of sunrise would depend on having an absolutely flat horizon to work from, so any such alignment would necessarily be an approximation. Ruggles also reminds us of the difficulty of discerning what the equinoxes might have meant to our prehistoric ancestors. As so often in our exploration of the deeper roots of Druidry, we are left to speculate based on much later sources. We do have clear evidence that our ancestors throughout the British Isles recognised and marked the two solstices, so it may be that the equinoxes, being halfway between the solstices, were also of interest to them. Possible equinoctial alignments in the Orkneys include the stone circle known as Callanish 1 and the Cuween tomb-shrine.
At least one certain prehistoric equinoctial sunrise alignment does exist, dated to the 4th millennium BCE. This is at Cairn T, the largest of a group of megalithic tomb-shrines at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in County Meath, Ireland (above). The stone first illuminated by the rays of the rising Sun is etched with more than a dozen symbols that may represent the Sun (left). Those with ‘rays’ have either four, eight or nine. Another prominent decoration is of ‘fish-bone,’ or ‘rib-cage’ patterns enclosed, or partially enclosed, in ovoid cartouches. These have either seven or eight horizontal lines crossing an upright central stem. One of the largest stones lining the passage has a surface pock-marked with numerous deep, circular holes. When the cairn was excavated, a number of chalk balls found at the foot of the stone were found to fit exactly into these holes. It has been suggested that these may have represented stars against the darker surface of the stone ‘sky.’
The range of hills on which Cairn T stands is Slieve na Calliagh, ‘the Cailleach’s Mountain.’ The Cailleach is the Hag of Winter who rules the year’s winter half, from Nos Galan Gaeaf (Hallowe’en) to Calan Mai (May Day). Cairn T itself is called the Hag’s Cairn or the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla. Fodhla is one of three goddesses who gave their names to the island of Ireland. Ollamh Fodhla, ‘Professor of the Goddess of Ireland,’ whose given name was Eochaid, was a prehistoric pagan High King of Ireland said to be the originator of a dynasty that ruled for seven generations. He is said to have originated the Feis Temrach, ‘the Feast of Tara,’ a week-long gathering held every three years at which laws were promulgated, disputes settled, oaths made and bonds renewed.
Rather than celebrating the day itself, the spring equinox has long been used to calculate the beginning of a celebratory period marking the return of life to the land after the long darkness of winter. The date of the Christian festival of Easter is still calculated from the first full Moon after the spring equinox. This method of calculation, combining the cycles of Sun and Moon, is first recorded in Sumeria more than 4,000 years ago, where the New Year festival of Akitu, devoted to the Moon-god, Nanna, was celebrated over twelve days beginning with the first appearance of the new Moon after the spring equinox and ending with the full Moon.
Born in the Underworld, Nanna is the child of the sky-father, Enlil, and the corn-mother, Ninlil, conceived as Ninlil is bathing in a sacred river. This is reminiscent of the coupling of the Morrigan (‘Great Queen’) and the Dagda (‘Good God’), which takes place when the Dagda comes across the Morrigan bathing in the River Unius in Ireland. The Dagda is father to the Irish god of love, Aengus Og, and of Brigid, the patroness of bards. Nanna fathers the Sun-god, Shamash, and the love goddess, Inanna (right), associated with the planet Venus, love and fertility. These three formed the holy trinity of the ancient Near East, a position they retained for more than a thousand years. A British equivalent of Nanna may be Nudd (or Lludd) Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’), Irish Nuada Airgetlam, or possibly Gwyn ap (‘son of’) Nudd, “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race.” Gwyn is ruler of both the Underworld of the Dead and the Otherworld of the Faery Folk. His name means ‘white,’ with connotations of ‘sacred.’
Some believe the celebration of Easter to be a Christian adaptation of a festival devoted to a goddess of springtime and fertility called Ēostre in Anglo-Saxon, Ôstara in Old High German. Her name survives in the old Northumbrian dialect name for the month of April, Ēosturmōnaþ, ‘Ēostre’s month.’ Her name seems to derive from a Proto-Germanic word meaning ‘dawn, or morning.’ It has been suggested that the egg and the Moon-gazing March Hare were symbolic of her. In British folk tradition, the expression, “mad as a March Hare,” is based on the courtship displays of male Hares who, at this time of year, may be seen leaping in the air, racing around in circles and engaging in what look like boxing matches with each other. The Hare is recognised as a sacred animal of the Moon in cultures from Britain to China. One of the most famous appearances of a Hare in a native British spiritual context occurs in Cassius Dio’s description of the revolt of Boudica and her Iceni tribe against Roman occupation in 60 CE. Cassius gives the following speech to Boudica as she rallies her troops for battle:
“... we have ... been despised and trampled underfoot by men who know nothing else than how to secure gain. ... let us ... do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its appellation but also its reality. ... Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. ... Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.”
When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman; for I rule over no burden-bearing Egyptians as did Nitocris, nor over trafficking Assyrians as did Semiramis ..., much less over the Romans themselves as did Messalina once and afterwards Agrippina and now Nero (who, though in name a man, is in fact a woman, as is proved by his singing, lyre-playing and beautification of his person); nay, those over whom I rule are Britons, men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common, even children and wives, so that the latter possess the same valour as the men. As the queen, then, of such men and of such women, I supplicate and pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, impious, - if, indeed, we ought to term those people men who bathe in warm water, eat artificial dainties, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with myrrh, sleep on soft couches with boys for bedfellows, - boys past their prime at that, - and are slaves to a lyre-player and a poor one too. Wherefore may this Mistress Domitia-Nero reign no longer over me or over you men; let the wench sing and lord it over Romans, for they surely deserve to be the slaves of such a woman after having submitted to her so long. But for us, Mistress, be thou alone ever our leader.”
I’ve included the whole of Boudica’s address to Andraste as it is one of the few records we have of a native British prayer from this era, albeit recorded many years later by a writer who did not himself witness the events described. Boudica referring to the land of her birth as an ally certainly has a good, Druidical ring to it. Likening the Romans to Hares and Foxes and her own people to Dogs and Wolves also has an authentically animistic feel. Divining by observing the movements of a Hare is also in keeping with both ancient European paganism and more recent folklore. The release of the Hare being immediately followed by Boudica’s honouring of Andraste has led many to suppose that the Hare was sacred to Andraste and that, since the Hare is widely acknowledged as a sacred animal of the Moon, Andraste must have been a goddess of the Moon. The name Andraste may derive from Proto-Celtic *anderā, ‘young woman’ and *ster, ‘star,’ giving the meaning ‘Young Woman of the Stars,’ a reasonable name for a Moon goddess and one that would place her in a family of star goddesses among whom we would place the Welsh Arianrhod, whose name means ‘Silver Wheel’ and who is linked with the circlet of stars known as the Northern Crown (Latin Corona Borealis), called Caer Arianrhod in Welsh.
For a time, it did indeed seem as though the Hare was right, that Andraste and the gods favoured the Iceni and that Boudicca might actually succeed in driving the Roman occupiers out of Britain.
Traditional celebrations at this festival include decorating the house and your altar with Spring flowers, decorating and giving eggs as representations of fertility and rebirth, and baking and sharing hot cross buns, the cross representing the four major stations of the Moon; new, first quarter, full and last quarter. Hot cross buns were made in ancient Egypt in honour of the Moon. A tasty and thoroughly pagan example of quartering the circle.
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