Already, we arrive at another of our markers in the solar cycle – the Spring Quarter Day that is the Vernal Equinox.
Whilst researching Scottish folklore I find precious little that refers directly to this particular juncture. In K W Grant’s Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll she talks of the Latha na Caillich, or Auld Wife’s Day which takes place on the 25th March each year (and which you may remember from my Imbolc and the Creative Cycle post) marked the New Year’s Day here in Scotland, prior to 1599.
This date, only a few days out from the equinox, marks the time when according to Mrs Grant, “the Cailleach has thrown her mallet under the holly,” – a sure sign that spring is underway.
The Cailleach is a myth deeply embedded into the landscape here in Scotland and I am prone to agree with my Geomythography of Scotland teacher, Stuart McHardy, that the prolific nature of her name in the landscape combined with the old stories and symbols carved into stone, suggests she is strongly related to an indigenous belief system, rooted in the principal of a feminine creative source.
The same studies demonstrate a clear continuity of culture from our very earliest times here in this land – a land where monuments, myth and landscape are inter-related, each feeding the other and reflecting varied aspects of the same, and even although spring equinox as a significant marker in our calendric system is now subsumed by Easter, it was certainly of significance to our ancestors long before the Christian tradition reigned supreme.
Our calendar year has varied over time, but its roots are strongly tied to the seasons, or tropical calendar. This is in comparison to the sidereal calendar, which observes the passage of our planet through space, and creates a shifting star-scape over millennia, due to the Precession of the Equinoxes.
The archaeoastonomer Douglas Scott has shown spring equinox alignments in some of our megalithic monuments (and also my beloved rock art) and this has been backed up by research led by Adelaide University in 2016.
This evidence points to an ancestral awareness of the sidereal calendar, but what has persisted in folk culture is the seasonal life cycle. It is with this information in mind that I turn again to the symbolism of this juncture in our solar year, what that may have meant to our way back folks and what wisdom it may therefore hold for us.
Before moving on, allow me a quick note to address the question, why look back in this way?
In this time of the Anthropocene, we can see that the systems in play are destructive, fragmenting and downright dangerous. For any right-thinking, open-eyed observer, the shit is truly hitting the fan. Personally, this fills many of my days and nights with high anxiety, much dread, unresolvable grief, utter hopelessness and a whole slag pile of other crappy stuff.
I’m not alone (so that’s a relief) and one way in which many of us are learning to exist in this particular time is to take heed of indigenous culture and animist traditions, slowing down to listen to that which is more than human as a means to exploring how to be in a way that is congruent to our inner longings, even in these dire times.
And despite our comprehensive education, born out of colonisation by a wealthy and powerful elite, here in Scotland there was a unique native culture that lingered far beyond most folk’s reckoning. So, it is to this place I am actively turning, in a way not limited to my painting or even my behind-the-scenes ceremonial action or self-inquiry practice, but through a turning towards that which sees the inquiry move beyond the personal, relating outwardly to a bigger picture – though hopefully not in an abstracted or transcendent way.
Florence Marian McNeill was a suffragist and eminent folklorist and she too makes scant reference to the spring equinox as a surviving tradition here in Scotland, although she records information about the many local festivals that took place around this time, including those associated with Easter. There is mention of All Fool’s Day (or Gowkin’ Day) as being associated with “the feast of the vernal equinox; for an octave, or eight days, used to complete the festivals of our forefathers, and since New Year’s Day was commonly kept on March 25th, the first of April marked the close of the octave.”
The figure of the Fool or the fool’s errand has origins from across the globe, but it isn’t for further exploration here. Instead, I shall revert to the likelihood that our ancestors would have paid most attention to the renewal of the vegetative and animal lifecycle at this time – giving rise to the notion of the new and what later became known as the New Year.
I am struck here by the idea that for our way-back people, their New Year was an entirely different beast to ours, particularly because their understanding of time was not the same as our modern insistence of a linear progression of time, moving from the past, through the present to the future. (This is something we spent time investigating in the Mandala Days module, Chronos Mandala.)
It is now clear that the megalithic monuments served as calendars in some way, but they didn’t need a new set with each renewing year. For the old ways, and we see this continued in the Gaelic cultural sensibilities, time was both cyclical and eternal.
It makes sense, though : there were no daily appointments to attend and the rate of change to their technologies, culture and environment was so slow as to appear non-existent. Therefore, the recurrence of natural cycles would have seemed to be eternally perpetual.
In the age of the Anthropocene, it seems to me that the destination of progress as it stands now is not desirable, though it is sadly likely to be irrevocable.
If we are to adopt the megalithic mindset (or at least that of our Gaelic/Pictish ancestors) it makes sense that because the life cycle is repeated in perpetuity, rather than in a linear fashion, there is less of a destination point in mind and instead we welcome an awareness of the spiralling of existence, unfolding many layers of time from before, during and after our individual presence.
How can we bring ourselves back to this non-linear, spiralling point of view?
Firstly, we can use the significant markers in the solar cycle to pause in our busy/business, or stop altogether if we are able. In this pause in the progression of time, we might take some cognisance of where we are in this spiralling existence.
Who and what are we linked to? Where do we find our roots? Who are our way-back people?
What might that hold for our creativity and where, how and to whom might we offer it in the world?
What new thoughts/actions/language/behaviour can we introduce to our practices that sees us act in alignment with who we are in how things stand in the current age?
Yes, my to-do list is brimming over, but I choose to take a pause and stand in recognition of my responsibilities to slow down and listen to that which is not my business planner.
At this spring equinox gateway, I choose to be in ceremony, and connect and commune with the land and its people. It’s a guiding light on a dark path, I know not where it leads – but for now it’s all I have.
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