The Spring Equinox's Extremely Weird History
March 20, in case you were wondering what all that chanting from your astrology-focused friends was, is the vernal or spring equinox: the first day of spring, in which the sun reaches its highest point precisely halfway between sunrise and sunset and, in some parts of the world, bisects day and night precisely into 12 hours. In the modern world, it marks the beginning of the calendar in Iran and provides an excuse for people to flock to various archaeological sites that appear to reference it, dancing around, worshipping natural forces, and probably having arguments about astrology.
Before it was New Age, though, marking the vernal equinox was very old-school indeed. A lot of cultures appear to have had some kind of way of celebrating or noting it, though some had slightly more bizarre taste than others. If it's just another Monday for you, it's still a good chance to look back at a part of the physical landscape of Earth's place in the galaxy with a bit of interest — and to see what ancient civilizations made of it.
From self-castrating gods to botanical poetry and virgin births due to egg accidents, the vernal equinox is the pinnacle of human celebratory weirdness. Happy spring.
The Romans Used It To Worship A Meteorite Goddess Whose Lover Castrated Himself
The vernal equinox represents the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, and so is understandably associated with a lot of festivals celebrating fertility and agriculture. Nobody, however, did it quite like the Romans, who for a small segment of their history used the day as a way to celebrate the goddess Cybele, an utter badass who was driven around in a chariot drawn by lions — and drove her lover insane. You know, as an aside.
The Cybele cult celebration actually took a couple of days, and was based around a myth about the goddess's relationship with her lover (who may also have been her son or grandson), Attis: apparently he tried to marry a mortal, she got mad, and drove him so bonkers that he castrated himself and then died. The spring equinox seems to have marked the last day of the celebrations, which first commemorated Cybele's power, mourned Attis through his symbol the pine tree, and then finished with a "day of joy," or hilaria. There's a lot that's weird about this, but Cybele (who was an import from Asia Minor) was an odd goddess; she was worshipped as a black meteorite, and several followers would apparently get over-excited and self-mutilate in Attis-like ways during the celebrations.
The Ancient Persians Celebrated It With Horse Races, Parties & Rose-Throwing
Modern Iranians still celebrate the vernal equinox as Nowruz, their New Year, a practice that's extended back through Persian history. (Dating the spring equinox as the beginning of the world or the new year has actually been pretty common across historical cultures.) Ancient celebrations of Nowruz, however, were much more intense than they are now, and ramped up into a giant display of pageantry, poetry, and predictions.
Dating from ancient Persia in roughly 550 BC, it was a day of huge political significance, in which the leader marched in processions, was given opulent tributes by all his vassals to cement his power, wore beautiful outfits, and mounted horse races to celebrate. It was how you legitimized your rule, and leaders would go big: when Persia was a caliphate, the caliph would employ actors to put on giant displays and throw them coins for luck, a tradition that continues today with street performers.
Roses featured heavily. Royally commissioned poets would use the opportunity to write lavish assessments of how well the king had done in the past year, using botanical metaphors; one, in 1729, wrote that "the lord of spring used the tools of correction on the rose garden, and raised up the proud roses with their helmets of bud and flower." And a letter to Princess Augusta in 1832 about Persians in India notes:
"When it is known that the Nou-Roze will occur by daylight, the ladies have a custom of watching for the moment the year shall commence by a fresh rose, which being plucked from the stalk is thrown into a basin of water, the eye downwards. They say, this rose turns over of itself towards the sun at the very moment of that luminary passing into the sign Aries."
The Chinese Shang Dynasty Claimed It Originated From A Spring Equinox Egg
For an entire dynasty of Chinese rulers, the spring equinox marked a mythic beginning: the start of their line. The Shang Dynasty, which ruled China from 1600 to 1046 BC, spread the myth that they were divinely ordained to rule because of an incident involving a woman, a bird, and a god.
According to the legend, on the spring equinox, a lady named Chien-Ti either won an egg in a celebratory tournament, discovered it, or had it dropped into her mouth. The egg came from a "dark bird" or swallow, sent from heaven, and in due course Chien-Ti had a miraculous virgin birth from the egg, a child called Hsieh who would found the Shang's power. (She may or may not have given birth in a mulberry bush.) The swallow is intimately tied with the spring equinox in Chinese mythology; it's also called "the day of the return of the swallow."
12th Century Jews Thought Water Was Tainted With Blood During The Equinox
Many of the incidents marking the spring equinox in history were joyful ones (or at least pleasingly bonkers), but Jews in the 12th century took a slightly different approach. According to early modern calendars around rituals and proper religious practice, Judaism at the time looked at the four "seasonal points" or equinoxes as days on which water was unsafe to drink because it had blood in it.
Apparently, the spring equinox marked the day in the year in which the Biblical plague that turned Egypt's water into blood occurred. Accordingly, all global water remained unsafe on that day and needed to be avoided as unclean, though sources disagree about precisely what the problem is or where the blood might come from. (Plants during the month of the plagues may also have been seen as vaguely unsafe too.)
Medieval Scientists Thought It Marked The Start Of "Spontaneous Generation"
The life cycles of many animals, birds, and insects remained obscure to European scientists until well into the modern period. But they had to come from somewhere; so, from the ancient Greeks onwards, people decided that they just appeared out of nowhere. Well, that's not strictly accurate. The idea of spontaneous generation, as it was called, was the concept that things with no obvious life cycle sprang up out of rotting or decaying flesh or matter. Mice, for instance, were suggested to be created when sweaty underwear was placed near husks of wheat in dark places, transforming them into rodents.
The vernal equinox was, for medieval thinkers, the point of the year at which this practice started in earnest. A 12th century philosopher called Petrus Alfonsi wrote:
"From this spring equinox (which is the beginning of spring), cold weather turns warm... Blood increases in the bodies of animals, and the diseases which come from blood return; natural lust bursts forth from its latent state, and all insects which are born from spontaneous generation now procreate."
He was, of course, partly right: spring was the part of the year when things began to breed and new growth appeared. The bit about things randomly appearing in rotten flesh, though, not so much.
A 16th Century Cosmographer Used It To Come Up With The Gregorian Calendar
This one's just kind of fascinating. In the 16th century, the church became increasingly concerned about using the calendar they'd inherited from the Romans (the Julian calendar, after Julius Caesar). It calculated the length of the solar year wrong by 11 minutes, which doesn't sound like much, but over thousands of years was increasingly causing havoc with the dates of religious holidays. They needed a new one, so they commissioned the cosmographer Egnazio Danti to construct it for them.
Danti came up with an entirely new astronomical concept, the meridian line, to help him out. It involved placing small holes in a specific point in the wall of a large building (in Danti's case, two churches in Florence and Bologna), to look at the precise tracking of the sun as it came through the hole, work out the precise times of the equinox, and so make a more accurate calendar. The result? The Gregorian calendar we now use.
There Was A Massive Argument About Equinox Celebrations In Japan After WWII
Prior to 1945, the vernal equinox was a festival in Japan designed as part of Shintoism that celebrated "imperial ancestors," the emperors who'd once held the throne. Shunki koreisai, as it was called, was a key part of the religious calendar of the year. After World War II, though, General Macarthur insisted that Shintoism be separated from the work of the state, issuing the now-famous Shinto Directive:
"1. In order to free the Japanese people from direct or indirect compulsion to believe or profess to believe in a religion or cult officially designated by the state, and
In order to lift from the Japanese people the burden of compulsory financial support of an ideology which has contributed to their war guilt, defeat, suffering, privation, and present deplorable condition, and
In order to prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression....The sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of Shinto by the Japanese national, prefectual, and local governments, or by public officials, subordinates, and employees acting in their official capacity are prohibited and will cease immediately."
Shunki koreisai became the simple public holiday Vernal Equinox Day, and thus we got one of the oddest separations of church and state in history.