Saturday, January 17, 2015

JANUARY - here we are up to our knees in winter.  What do we have to look forward to?
What the groundhog predicts for the future.  All you ever wanted to know about the turn
of the year (February 2nd).



On February second Groundhog Day is celebrated.  It's not

every animal who has its own holiday or who has such a reputation

as a prognosticator of weather.  Or to put it another way, why do

otherwise sane people get up before dawn in the dead of winter

and walk to the top of a hill looking for a groundhog burrow?

Why do we do what we do?  

            Marmota monax, groundhog, a member of the rodent family, is

distinguished only by his once a year appearance on February 2nd

to predict the arrival of spring.    To clear up any confusion groundhogs and woodchucks are both

Marmota monax.  Woodchuck comes from a mispronounced Native

American word ”wuchuk” or ”otcheck” which may have to do with the

tongue twister usually brought up in conjunction with him: How

much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck
wood?  Or, if  you've practiced that one, how much ground could a

groundhog hog if a groundhog would hog ground.

The groundhog/woodchuck is a weed eater - grasses, plantain,

clover, common in the northeastern United States and Southern

Canada.  He loves the early morning and the late afternoon sun.

I often see one who sits on a fence post and watches traffic

going by on the expressway.  I had an idea about a groundhog love

affair broken up by the New York State Department of

Transportation.  She lived beyond the northbound lane and he

lived over the median past the southbound lane.  Perhaps that is

one explanation for the number of dead groundhogs on our

highways.  They are a common sight roadside, a brown bundle

appearing to wear a red corsage, which is soon pounded to the

color of concrete.

         Not as fast on his feet as his cousin the squirrel, the

groundhog is slow moving, but feisty when aroused.  I've seen one

rise hissing on his hind legs to fight off a dog.  He looked

formidable indeed.  They are not overly bright, but don't seem to

do much harm unless you have an alfalfa field overrun by them.

Farmers tell me they  burrow under a field undermining it so

badly that when you drive a tractor over the field, you

find yourself capsized, the big front wheels sitting in a roomy

grasslined den.

            Gardeners complain that young shoots and leaves become an

attraction for groundhogs, as well as rabbits, but contend that

while rabbits nibble, groundhogs act like pigs, chomping through
a row of vegetables or herbs until there is nothing left.  The

worst thing about them is their catholic diet.  Vicious gardeners

retaliate with rifles, or gas bombs. 

            Groundhogs usually mate in February or March and within a

month a litter of four or five babies are born.  By mid summer

the family disperses and searches out new burrows and begins to

eat to put on a layer of fat for the long sleep. In fall, the

groundhog enters his burrow and closes it up.  He curls into a

ball, head between the legs, arms folded around the neck and goes

to sleep.  The body temperature drops to between 40 and 50

degrees, the pulse is faint, respiration slows, and the long

winter passes by overhead while the groundhog sleeps like the

dead.  He can neither feel nor hear and it would take several

hours in a very warm place to awaken him.

 Early settlers found groundhogs tasty especially in groundhog

stew, and if you ever visit Punxsutawney, PA, for the

Prognosticalion festivities you can purchase a groundhog cook

book or two although this seems rather cannabalistic for a town

that made its reputation on the groundhog's annual predictions. 

            Historians guess that the groundhog came into modern

folklore via the German settlement of Pennsylvania and their

belief that the badger of their native land would predict good or

bad luck for sowing and planting.  Badgers, nowhere as docile as

the native groundhogs, were soon replaced.  Others suggest it was
the hedgehog who predicted, equally truculent and harder to

handle than the badger.  So it seems that prognostication fell to

the groundhog because of its reputation as an easy going, easy to

catch, easy to handle, animal, or are there other reasons.

In Druid Britain of 2000 to 3000 years ago there were four

main holidays.  Because Druids worshiped the sun, their holidays were the four

main turning points of the year.  They were fine accurate

astronomers.  The year ended at All Saints Day or November first.

All the fires were extinguished and new ones built (fires, little


     The other holidays were May Day on May first (Beltaine) when

the sun began to grow strong; August first (Lugnasad) when it was

at its peak; and February first (Imbolc) when it was about as far

away as it would ever get.  These dates are the halfway points

between the solstices (6/21 and 12/21) and the equinoxes (3/21

and 9/21).  Since the Druids liked three-day holidays as much as

we love do, it's not hard to assume that the

festivities on Imbolc drifted over onto the day after.

            Imbolc was associated with the sacred flames that purified

the land and encouraged fertility and the emergence of the sun

from its winter sleep.  On February first rites of

prognostication were held.  A great bonfire was built on a

hilltop and all the young men made their mark or name on a white

stone which was placed in the fire.  When the fire cooled, each

man searched for his stone and if he didn't find it, if the fire
had taken it, he had been chosen for the supreme honor.   He had

been selected by Bel (the sun god) to offer his life/spirit to be

sacrificed for the purification and general good of the tribe.

This bears close association with Shirley Jackson's short story

of the scapegoat, "The Lottery."  

The one who is chosen to be sacrificed for the good of the

tribe, the offering, fertilizes the fields for the coming

planting time.  This is a common motif of early agricultural

societys’ religious practices.  Until the 1800's this February

ritual was observed in the Highlands of Scotland only 'the chosen

one' jumped over or ran between the bonfires in a metaphor of a

metaphor.  (Bonfire is said to be an elision of ”bone fire” by


            Imbolc is also associated with the lambing season when the

sheep lactated and was sometimes called ”oimelc” which means

”sheep's milk”.  This is related to the fertility aspect of the

mother goddess Brigit or Brigantia (High One, in Celtic), a

respected member of the Druid's pantheon, daughter of Dana, the

female principle.  Brigit was the goddess of prophecy and

divination as well as fertility, home, hearth, and healing.

February 1st was the day sacred to Brigit.   

The similarity of dates, that point in temperate climates

where the sun is as far away from the earth as it will ever be

and at its weakest, six weeks between the formal turning points

of our solar year make the connection between Druids and groundhog


Also, there is the relationship between

the groundhog and  mother goddess cults, and the synchronistic

tendency of the Romans to adapt local gods to their own, a

practice which was kept by the Roman Catholic Church which was

busy 'civilizing' the known world.

             In the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints there is a St.

Brigit who enters about 400 to 500 A.D.  St. Brigit was said to

have been born at sunrise on February 1st.  She became one of the

patron saints of Ireland and at Kildare she founded the first

nunnery.  The nuns of St. Brigit in Kildare tended a holy fire

(like Rome's Vestal Virgins) up until the monastaries were

destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. 

            One of the legends about St. Brigit is the story of a blind

nun for whom Brigit restored sight.  When the nun Dara saw, she

realized that the clarity of sight blurred God in the eye of her

soul and asked to be returned to the beauty of darkness.  The

Druids were especially fond of riddles such as this which are

based on reversals.

The saint was said to have bathed in milk (lamb's milk?) at

birth and her house appeared to be on fire (born of the flame).

She is revered as the midwife of the Virgin Mary (the mother of

the lamb).

            Candlemas Day (February 2nd) commemorates the purification

of the Virgin Mary.  According to Jewish law Mary was required to

go to the temple in Jerusalem to be purified forty days after

the birth of Jesus (the winter solstice) and to present him to
God.   Luke tells us that he was "a light to lighten the

Gentiles. . . ."  For Roman Catholics February 2nd  is also the

time for blessing of candles for the altar and the congregation

used to march through the church holding lighted tapers

representing the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into

the Temple in Jerusalem.

   In Celtic folklore candles are used for divination or to

keep evil spirits away with a circle of flame.  They are of

course, the little suns. Long after the last Druid had gone to

his fiery reward, farmers circled the fields carrying torches to

keep the evil spirits away and purify the field for the seed.

Burning off the fields in spring is a ritual that only recently

ended with local anti-burning ordinances.

            The French scholar Joseph Vendryes suggests that Candlemas

is patterned on the Roman Lustrations (feast of purification held

in early February) commemorating the actions of the earth mother

goddess Ceres (or Demeter) who sought her daughter Persephone (or

Kore) ("European Religions, Ancient" 767).  Persephone had been

kidnapped by Pluto (Dis or Hades), the lord of the underworld

(darkness), and Ceres, distraught, neglected her earthly duties

so that darkness fell over the earth and all the vegetation died

while she hunted for her daughter.  When Persephone returned from

the underworld, spring came to the earth and life began again.

Freed from the dark realm of Pluto, Persephone brought spring to

the world but because she had eaten six seeds of the pomegranate,
she was required to spend six months in each realm.

            According to Thomas Bulfinch's rendition of the tale, during

her search for Persephone, Ceres had made a promise to the son of

a family who had befriended her in her grief.  She had promised

to teach him the use of the plough and how to sow seed.  She

taught him about the grains and agriculture and he was to teach

mankind.  Triptolemus built a temple for Ceres in Eleusis and she

was worshiped under the name of the Eleusinian

mysteries.  Bulfinch calls the fable an

allegory, signifying the seed corn which appears to be dead,

 is buried under the ground (resides with Pluto), and is reborn.

.Agricultural societies were fascinated with the miracle of the

seed.  A dull piece of matter, a tiny pellet which appeared to

have no life at all was buried in the earth at the right time

(this is all important) and it comes back to life.  This is why

we bury our dead in the ground like seeds.

            The groundhog was sacred to many earth mother cults because

he lived burrowed in the earth.  He appeared to die (hibernating)

and in the spring was born again much like the seed.  Bears were

also sacred and for the same reason, but I don't intend to burrow

any deeper into this aspect.  

            When the days lengthen, when winter lets go of the earth the

Great Mother or her representative will let you know when it's
time to plant just as the lengthening daylight hours let the seed

know it's time to begin the cycle of growth.

And so the old weather rhyme passed down from Druid times :

            If Candlemas be fair and bright,

            Come winter, have another flight.

            If Candlemas brings clouds and rain

            Go winter, and come not back again.                                                                                                 These agricultural societies lived much closer to the edge of

survival than we do.  Crop failure, bad weather, were not just

financial disaster, but starvation, death.  Good weather meant

everything and they were willing to sacrifice much for it.

            One of the most important jobs then of the Druid priests was

to predict the proper time to plant.  Since rhyme was holy

to the Druids we might assume these old rhymes are adaptations

of memorable predictions. 

In the northeast United States, already six weeks in the

dark grasp of winter, Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his

Pennsylvania burrow on the top of Gobbler's Knob and makes his

prediction.  If he sees his shadow, he's scared back into his

hole.  So we should all have the good sense to be afraid of the

dark in us.  If he sees only the gray winter sky, spring will

come soon.   Their predictions have become an amusing story for

a slow news day..

Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting for 103 years

(or his descendants since ten years is a good long life for a

groundhog).  Young men in the Highlands of Scotland were still building

bonfires in the middle of the 19th century to celebrate the

immanent return of the sun, and who knows how long ago the Celtic

peoples of Europe gathered to hear the Druid priests interpret

the signs and rhyme the results.

            One way or another, we drag the past with us.  It casts a long shadow. 


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