The Fires of Spring – Spring Equinox 2021
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land…
T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
Eliot actually wrote much of “The Waste Land” in the aftermath of the 1918 Flu pandemic – perhaps it is now easier for many of us to understand his feelings after experiencing a year of social distancing and lockdown. But I’ve always seen February as the unkindest month, forcing snowdrops through almost impenetrable frosty soil, breathtaking to see while impossible to forget the irony of many more frigid days to come, despite the hint that we might now dare to hope that the sun really hasn’t gone away forever. But She changes everything She touches….
By the Spring Equinox we can see and feel the sun’s fire strengthening and warming the soil, with precious small green signs of life renewing everywhere… trees and plants bud and blossom, birds and bees do what they do, and the Goddess moves towards her full expression as Spring Maiden. There are many names for this season, and you may know it as Eostre, Ostara or Alban Eilir, to name but a few.
Eostre, sometimes called Ostara, appears to derive from a West Saxon Goddess, although not a great deal is known of Her. There are stories of birds and rabbits, even egg-laying hares! Certainly these obvious symbols of fertility make a lot more sense when connected with the pre-Christian festival than with Easter, but–judging from the supermarket shelves–chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits aren’t going anywhere! Perhaps these symbols remain deeper in our culture, our collective subconsious, than we know. A pity then, to see in Christian iconography the rabbit or hare used not to celebrate fecundity and yes, the rising and necessary sexual energy of spring, but rather to suggest virginity and purity, perhaps not the best way to populate the Earth. In Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit, below, the Lady does seem to have a very firm grip on the animal, perhaps to restrain its sexual nature?
Not far from Bala we have our own Spring Goddess, at Pennant Melangell, near Llangynog. Briefly, Melangell is both Goddess and Saint, rather like Brigit. Both also have in common their work as healers and the wish to escape an arranged marriage…. people say Melangell was the daughter of an Irish king who wanted marry her off to one of his nobles for political expedience. But Melangell had decided on lifelong virginity and fled to Wales where she took refuge in this beautiful and quiet valley, and here she lived for 15 years without ever seeing the face of a man.
But then one day Brochwel Ysythrog, Prince of Powys, happened to be hunting hares nearby, and coming upon Melangell he was astonished to see a maiden of such beauty – it was a few moments before he spotted the terrified hare staring up at him from beneath the Lady’s skirts. Moved on hearing Melangell’s story, Brochwel right away gifted the lady this portion of his land, and also forbade the hunting of hares upon it. Because of this the hares became known as “oen Melangell”– Melangell’s lambs. Known in Latin as St Monacella, Melangell is the patron saint of hares and rabbits, as well as the natural environment. It’s also said that she cared for the people of the area and women would bring their children to her for help and healing.
Nowadays there’s a church on the land where Melangell made her home, although it’s clear that this was sacred land long before Christianity reached these islands… the llan, or enclosure, has yew trees at least a couple of thousand years old and the church appears to have been built over a Bronze Age mound; there are certainly many barrows and standing stones dotted around the higher ground, not to mention the breast-shaped hill at the foot of which stands the church. Just across the valley is a rocky ledge known as Gwely Melangell, or Melangell’s bed, where the lady is said to have slept. The llan is close to the head of the Tanat valley and a natural enclosure is formed there, suggesting a place of protection. Is Melangell the Christianised goddess of this place?
Hares, together with cats, have a long association with magic in the British Isles and other northern lands. It’s worth remembering how Boudicca, on the eve of battle against the Romans, released a hare from her skirts and divined the outcome of the struggle from its movements, an interesting slant on Melangell’s story, which perhaps suggests hares under skirts as code for the special connection between hares or rabbits, women and fertility and the sovereignty of the land?
So, how to celebrate in these difficult times when we can’t travel very far? You could decorate your altar with fresh flowers or a small plant, or with images of rabbits and eggs. You could even spring clean, that low but bright sun can show us just how much dust and grime has accumulated over a dark winter…! Even in lockdown most of us can get out for a local walk, and even in cities the signs of Spring and the Maiden are everywhere for those with the will to look.
1 March, 2021