5 Ridiculous Spring Rituals From History

by JR Thorpe

It's spring! Well, it's technically been spring for a few weeks, anyway. (I live in England, where we've been getting unseasonable flurries of snow in the middle of sunny days. It is confusing.) Are you celebrating by cleaning your entire house, getting your summer clothes out of storage, or being late to work every morning because you keep gawping at blossoms?

If you've been there and done that with these standard spring traditions, may I suggest making an offering of burnt cattle blood, or perhaps digging up decayed pig flesh and then planting it in fields? Or maybe you're more the dance-around-wearing-bells kind? Ancient and medieval Europe had some incredibly interesting ideas about how to welcome in spring and ensure a profitable, plentiful harvest — and sometimes, it got gristly. Or just uncomfortable. But no matter what, you have to admit, they were more dramatic ways to celebrate the changing of the seasons than just bringing all your old sundresses to the Salvation Army.

For any society that had any connection to the land, spring was a vitally important season — so you can understand why civilizations concocted ornate rituals and beliefs to make sure that the spring would be a good one and crops would flourish. Humans are nothing if not imaginative, though, so these rituals took forms that ranged from the sweet (running around waving ribbons!) to the faintly distressing (worshipping a god with a severe penis problem!). Disclaimer: I do not recommend performing any of these rituals to people who a) are not professionals or b) do not have planning permission from their local butchers. So don't come to me if you accidentally set a cow on fire — I warned you.

Here are five of the strangest ways in which humanity's welcomed in spring over its history. Ensuring a good harvest and a healthy summer has never been quite so... messy.

1. Digging Up A Decayed Pig

If you don't have a strong stomach, the ancient Greek rite called the Thesmophoria would not be for you. A three-day annual festival exclusively for women, it was focused on fertility and the myth of Demeter and Persephone (you know, the goddess and her daughter who spent six months of the year in the Underworld, thus forming the seasons). And at one point every year, it got quite, er, visceral.

A key part of Thesmophoria was the depositing of various things, including sacrificed pigs, pine branches and cakes, into chasms in the earth, where Persephone lived for half the year. That's all fine and dandy; but when the next year's festival came around, a group of women would go into the chasms and bring them out again. Yep, they'd actually haul up a year-old decayed pig. (Some interpretations say that the pigs had only been there for a few days, but either way, it's pretty disgusting.) The remaining decayed pork was then mixed with seeds and planted to ensure fruitful crops. It's enough to turn you vegetarian permanently.

2. Dancing In Circles While Waving Handkerchiefs

I'd better be careful about how I describe this one, because Morris dancing — the practice of "welcoming spring in" by doing ritual dances in special outfits while waving handkerchiefs and wearing flowers and bells — is still an important folk rite in many parts of England, where I live (and I actually know a person who participates in this ritual). It has been a part of English tradition for centuries, though it very nearly died out in the 20th century.

The New York Times reported in 1982 that we're not even sure where the name "Morris" came from; it may be a very old reference to the word "Moorish," after the old tradition of Morris dancers painting their faces black (they don't do that any more, thankfully). It could also be derived from the French word morisque, for "dance." We have records of it from the 15th century, and there were huge regional variations in what kind of dancing a Morris troupe did (some troupes had cake-bearers, who gave out cake skewered on swords to onlookers). But no matter the variations, it was always definitely about entertaining crowds at spring festivals and ritually "welcoming spring in".

3. Running Around Poles And Scattering Flowers

The maypole may seem like an innocuous sort of old-fashioned tradition if you grew up in Europe, but for those across the pond, it likely looks bonkers. Running in circles around a giant pole several stories high while holding ribbons? The hell were these people doing?

It turns out that we're not quite sure. Circling, or dancing, around a very big pole is an exceptionally old tradition that still shows up in Germanic countries, though it's not agreed what the pole represents: some kind of botanic tie to a god, a representation of a "world-tree", a symbol of the world's poles? Who knows.

Running around the maypole was one of the medieval European folk traditions held on May Day, or May 1, technically regarded as the first day of spring. May Day was regarded as a spiritually powerful day and had a heap of slightly bonkers superstitions associated with it; washing your face with dew on May Morning was meant to make you beautiful (instead of just cold), you weren't allowed to borrow or loan anybody anything or churn butter for the entire day, you had to scatter yellow flowers to prevent fairies from getting into your house, and it was traditional to spend the day "beating the bounds," or walking around your land's boundaries to remind everybody where they were.

4. Worshipping A God With An Enormous Member

If you were a Roman or Greek, you likely associated spring fertility rites with the worship of a god with a particularly problematic member. Priapus (yes, the medical term of "priapism," which refers to the problem of having a constant erection, comes from him) was one of the most notable fertility gods in history, because of his tendency to be depicted with a penis almost as big as himself. Understandably, he was associated with fecundity, good crops and bountiful harvests.

Priapus wasn't entirely a god of good associations, though. The rejected son of Aphrodite, poets wrote that virgins should be "afraid to look at him directly," and he was viewed as a constant figure of troublesome erotic fun, unable to ever fully consummate his lust and prone to getting into fights with animals about whose penis was larger. Plus, there was the disturbing assertion in 2015 that a picture of Priapus in the ruins of Pompeii actually revealed the painful condition of phimosis, where the foreskin can't be fully retracted from the head. Worshipping a dangerously fun-loving god with a serious medical problem sounds like a slightly troubling way to start your spring.

5. Nearly Setting Your Cattle On Fire

This one's from Gaelic tradition, specifically from the festival of Beltane, which was the equivalent of the May Day celebration for Celtic countries in the medieval period, and still survives in modern paganism. What distinguished Beltane from other, more boring fertility rituals was its fire. Lots and lots of fire. And, more specifically, bringing things very close to fire to purify and protect them.

In an agricultural society, animals matter just as much as crops, which is likely where the Beltane tradition of driving your immensely valuable cows and bulls between two very large fires came into play; the ritual was supposed to make sure there would be lots of calves the next year, though how any cow could perform after being nearly set aflame is quite beyond me. It could be worse, though; there was apparently a variant where farmers bled their cattle and then burned their blood, to ensure their safety and fertility. Yeah, I'll still take cleaning out the coat closet over this one.

Images: Frederick Goodall, Francis David Millet, Christoph Weiditz, Pietro Santo Bartoli, Stefan Schafer/Wikimedia Commons