Rites of Spring

Take a tip from the Aztecs and welcome the season with a hearty thanks to the nature gods.

By Leslie Bilderback 04/03/2014

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Spring looks a lot like winter in Southern California, especially this year. All the things I love about spring — warm sunny mornings, baby bunnies, blooming flowers — already happened in January. And although April is traditionally the month of showers, I am not convinced that this month’s rainfall will bring any drought relief, let alone spring flowers.  

I blame myself for the lack of water. For my entire life I have ignored the traditional fertility rituals of my ancestors. I have paid no mind to the earth’s need for rejuvenation, nor considered I might need to offer the earth something in return for its bounty. Instead, I just drive to the store every week expecting there to be food for me. Our modern era has completely ignored the needs of the mysterious forces of nature. We present no offering, make no sacrifices, light no bonfires, make no attempt to please the unseen powers.  
Photo by Joe Atlas, www.joeatlasphotography.com 

Sure, we have many belief systems. Most of them share similar concepts, with rituals of the season that, though clearly based on pagan traditions, have little to do anymore with real fertility. Yes, the Easter egg is a symbol of rebirth. But how many of you are thinking about the rebirth of Californian agriculture as you draw invisible smiley faces on your hardboiled egg with a white crayon? Those chocolate bunnies are ancient fertility icons too, but no one thinks about fertility when enjoying them. (Except every teenage boy.) We need to look back in time for a no-bull ritual that will please Mother Nature and increase our chances of rain. 

The vernal equinox has long been a time of celebration and is very likely mankind’s oldest ritual. After a long dead season of winter (not here, but, you know, in the rest of the world), there is rebirth. Rain wets the earth’s whistle, grains sprout, fruits blossom and couples get busy (wink, wink). Fertility and reproduction of all kinds are celebrated, and life is reaffirmed.  

We know such rituals took place as early as the second century B.C. The Zoroastrians at Ur (an ancient city in what is now Iraq) celebrated Nowruz, still celebrated today as the Iranian or Persian New Year. The Achaemenid (or First Persian) Empire, which stretched from the sixth century B.C. to around 330 B.C. and ultimately encompassed a vast region from India to Greece, documented Nowruz on the walls of the ceremonial capital of Persepolis with relief carvings of offerings brought to the emperor. In this tradition, Persian and Zoroastrian descendants all over the globe give thanks for spring with culinary offerings, spring cleaning, family visits and bonfires (though not in brittle Southern California). Bonfires are also lit in Northern Germany and the Netherlands to welcome spring, or, more precisely, to scare away witchy evil spirits, thereby ensuring a bountiful harvest. 

In traditional Slavic countries the pagan-derived spring ritual Smigus-Dyngus (the single greatest name of any holiday ever) is still celebrated, albeit now intertwined with Easter. Rituals during Smigus-Dyngus include dousing girls with water and whipping them with willow sticks decorated with ribbons. (The colorful ribbons make it totally dignified.) The water is meant to call forth rain needed for a successful crop, while the whipping was said to bring about good health. (Rest assured, the girls retaliate the next day, drenching and whipping the boys. Awesome, right?) This tradition sometimes involves boys in bear costumes, because, of course, bears scare away evil and disease, and encourage crop growth. Boys in bear costumes chase girls, march door-to-door collecting offerings, then finish by “drowning” a (faux) bear in a nearby pond. (No, I did not make this up.) 

The Ute tribespeople of Utah and Colorado also use a bear in their spring ritual of a special bear dance that celebrates mating and fertility. The Hopis celebrate spring and call for rain with the flute ceremony, the snake dance and the Niman Katchina dance, which draws spirits out of the mountains to visit rain upon the crops. The eagle dance, common among many tribes, encourages the bird to carry their request for rain to the gods.  

The Saxon lunar goddess Eostre enjoyed a feast in her honor on the first full moon after the equinox, when she is believed to mate with the sun god, producing a child in nine months, at the winter solstice. Similar beliefs surround the ancient goddesses Ishtar, Isis and Inanna, all worshiped for their reproductive powers, and all invoking mythology around death and rebirth. Both the Persian tradition and Eostre the moon goddess likely led to the stories in the Book of Esther. The Romans celebrated Mithras, who was born at the winter solstice, then resurrected in the spring to lead those who worshiped him to the realm of light after death. (Sound familiar?) You can see how all these early rituals resembled each other, and how easily they were assimilated into the Christian tradition. That is because all the primary civilizations evolved along a similar path — with the possible exception of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Within a very short 200-year reign, the Aztecs incorporated the rituals of preceding cultures into one amazing year-round demonstration of thanks-giving. Ingrained in their everyday existence was the belief that the earth continued its cycles as a direct result of blood offered to their pantheon. Crops succeeded, rain fell, the sun rose and the stars twinkled only if blood was spilled. Xipe Totec, one of several fertility gods, is also known as (brace yourself) “the flayed one.” Thanks to him, springtime transforms the earth’s dead brown skin into new fertile green skin. Just to be on the safe side, they celebrated Xipe Totec by wearing the skin of sacrificial victims (sometimes captives, sometime willing participants). To these early cultures, sacrifice was not a violent, brutal act, but merely reciprocity for the sacrifice made by the gods during the birth of the fifth sun, when the earth as we know it was created. Like a cosmic thank-you note — written with the blood of your neighbor.
Our modern rituals do little to ensure we will have an abundant harvest. We don’t use them to ensure continuous water resources. We don’t think about the farmer’s well-being, or migrant workers’ rights. We worry less about whether or not our neighbors are fed than we do that someone might be cheating the food stamp system. We pay little attention to what we have done to the earth, and how our future generations will feed themselves.  Really, we just expect our food to be there and become indignant when the store runs out of our favorite kale chips. If we look back through history and compare ourselves to our ancestors, we look awfully foolhardy. 

Lest I be accused of launching a war on Easter, let me say that I still color eggs and put a carrot by the hearth for the bunny to snack on when he drops down the chimney to deliver his basket. (Everyone does that, right?) Still, the thing these ancient rites share, and what our modern rites lack, is gratitude to nature. So as you nibble on those Cadbury fertility icons, thank the moon goddess, ask the eagles for rain, turn off your backyard sprinkler and don’t forget your canvas tote bags.  

Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com. 

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