March is upon us once again. An Old English name for March was Hlyda, meaning “loud”, presumably referring to the roaring March winds. This name survived as Lide in the West countries.
Eat leeks in Lide and ramsons in May, And all the year after physicians may play. — proverb from western England Ducks wan't lay till they've drink'd lide water. — Cornish proverb*
*Probably long after they’ve “drink’d lide water”. Ducks don’t lay eggs until there are 14-16 hours of sunlight in a day. Cornwall doesn’t see 14-hour days until the end of April.
It does seem likely that March will come roaring in like a lion this year. The forecast in my neck of the woods is for rain, sleet, strong winds and a 40°F temperature drop over the first few days of the month. I think I’ll just hide, citing traditional wisdom.
In Devon the first three days of March were called blind days, so unlucky no farmer would sow seed until the 4th. In Greece, the first three days of March are known as sharp days. If you wash clothes, they’ll wear out; chop wood and it will rot; bathe and your hair will fall out. Traditionally a March-thread is left out overnight on a rosebush then worn on the wrist for protection until Easter. This custom is sufficiently ancient that St Chrysostom complained of the ubiquitous red threads “draped on children” to protect them, and woolen threads to ward off evil were worn by the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries at Athens.
Paradoxically, Greeks also regard 1 March as the first day of fine weather. In the Dodecanese children go round with an effigy of a swallow, singing songs in honor of the bird and the fine weather it brings, begging for food at each house. This was also a custom in ancient Rhodes.
March has a long association with beginnings and new year celebrations. March 1st was originally the first day of the Roman year. Though the official new year was moved to January 1st in the 2nd century BCE, March 1st remained the de facto new year throughout classical times. It was marked by tending the sacred fire of the goddess Vesta and hanging fresh laurels on various important buildings in Rome. The Leaping Priests, or Salii, performed a procession in honor of Mars, chanting archaic hymns, which had devolved to nonsense even in classical times, and carrying figure-of-eight shields called ancilia, thought to have been the type of shield carried by King Numa, the second king of Rome.
March 1st was also the beginning of the official year for Venice. It was the Russian new year until the 14th century. March was reckoned the first month of the financial year in the Ottoman empire. The ancient Franks counted their year from March 1 until the 8th century. Sumerian new year festivals were held when barley was sown around the vernal equinox. Babylon continued this tradition, dedicating the first month of the year to their patron deity, Marduk, a rather martial god. Persians still celebrate Nowruz, “new year”, on the vernal equinox in March.
March 1st was also the feast of Juno Lucina, the goddess of childbirth. Called Matronalia, it was the married women’s festival on which they received presents and special attentions from their husbands. Of course, spring is still associated with birth — birds, bees and whatnot. The March Hare is mad, not at the raving weather as is sometimes supposed, but because March is the beginning of the breeding season for rabbits and hares.
March is named for the Roman god of war, Mars, who sired the founding twins of Rome, Romulus and Remus, and is therefore the patron deity of Rome. The season of beginnings and new life begins with the month of war; indeed, Roman war campaigns began in March. But Mars has an older association, one that may predate Rome, with agriculture — and spring is firmly associated with planting season. (Though planting has no true season and grain planting actually happened in late fall in Rome.) So there is a strange contradiction embodied in Mars and in spring. On the one hand there is a focus on new life and growth; on the other the time of Mars brings war and death.
To add one more complication, the Roman deity Mars is cognate with the Greek deity Ares. Ares was a true jerk of a deity, being solely focused on war as a force of destruction and chaos. War under Mars, on the other hand, was seen as a stabilizing force — the threat of war brought peace. Now, Ares lends his name to the first zodiac constellation, Aries, which time period begins near the end of March and the symbol of which is… a sheep. The lamb.
March is like that. It is the season of new buds and sap, eggs and lambs. But it’s also the time of the Snow Moon, the Hunger Moon. Warm green life and cold white death braided together in these marching days. Winter is broken, but summer is still distant. It’s time to garden, but I sure don’t want to go out there in this roaring weather.
Best wait on the lamb.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.