There is surprisingly little written about how the Spring Equinox was celebrated in Brythonic tradition. However, we can presume earlier inhabitants of Britain were aware of the equal length of day and night, blackthorn blossom, celandine sparkling beside streams and frogspawn pooling in ponds.
They would also have noticed birds nesting and the return of spring migrants. The cuckoo, ‘the Harbinger of Spring’, traditionally returns to the West Riding of Yorkshire on the 21st of March. Its arrival in March is also recorded in this jingle from Devon:
‘In March the guku beginth to sarch;
In Aperal, he beginth to tell;
In May, he beginth to lay;
In June, he alterth ‘is tune;
In July away a dith vly.’
I’ve never had the privilege of hearing a cuckoo. In Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, Michael McCarthy records its decline amongst other ‘spring-bringers’ including swifts, yellow wagtails, pied flycatchers, spotted flycatchers, nightingales, turtle doves and wood warblers.
McCarthy notes that because of global warming, spring is arriving earlier in Britain*, meaning migrating birds miss the caterpillar flush and other food peaks. Conversely, in Africa, the lack of rainfall in Sahel means there is not enough food to recover their energy stores.
For the first time since the last Ice Age the flight-paths of spring (and autumn) migrants have been thrown out of kilter. The fragile balance of the equinoxes has been disrupted. To which Brythonic myths can we turn to help us understand this crisis on the Spring Equinox?
One of our myths associated with spring is Gwydion’s creation of Blodeuwedd from flowers as a bride for Lleu. This magical act, bypassing the normal processes of human procreation to create a ready-made woman, possesses a Frankenstein-esque quality.
Gwydion’s plans go horribly wrong because Blodeuwedd commits adultery with another man called Gronw and the two plot Lleu’s murder. The dying Lleu is found in the form of an eagle by Gwydion. Gwydion consequently punishes Blodeuwedd by turning her into an owl.
This myth suggests attempting to bind nature into anthropomorphic forms for human purposes is doomed to result in rebellion and disaster. One thinks of parallels between Gwydion’s magic and genetic modification and its detrimental effects on eco-systems (I don’t know of any GM plants who have literally rebelled… yet…).
Another myth is Gwyn and Gwythyr’s battle for Creiddylad, daughter of the god-king Lludd. Gwyn and Gwythyr are winter and summer gods who fight to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, a goddess of seasonal sovereignty who might be seen as a flower maiden in spring.
In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur binds Gwyn and Gwythyr to fight every May Day, places upon them the unfair condition that neither can take her until Judgement Day, then locks Creiddylad in her father’s house!
In Arthur’s hubris, thinking he can control the seasons and a goddess who is sovereign over them, we find a fitting portrait of the behaviour of mankind that has plunged us into the anthropocene.
Can the imbalance of the seasons be redressed? With Gwydions and Arthurs governing much of the world things are looking grim, yet on a grassroots level we can make small changes: planting wildflowers, digging new ponds for spawning frogs, raising awareness about climate change, campaigning and/or protesting against environmental injustice.
We can converse with and pray to our seasonal deities, gift them with offerings and our thoughts and time rather than gifting to the systems that claim to control them. Flower by flower, word by word, nurture their presence back into the world, being their root-deep change.
*26 days earlier than in 1947
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Michael McCarthy, Say Farewell to the Cuckoo, (John Murray, 2009)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)