It’s coming round to the time of equinoctial balance. In the north, this means spring. The Sap Moon is waxing and the maples are starting to show some signs of waking. Where I live it is still white and cold, but there are rumors of daffodils not far south and down by the coast. I have an annual tradition of heading out to Plum Island on St Patrick’s Day to spend the actual equinox — when day and night are equally twelve hours long — watching shore birds and migrating snowy owls. This year I might head up to Lake Champlain. There’s the Sand Bar National Waterfowl Area and Grand Isle. And if I’m feeling adventurous, I can drive right up the middle of the lake on a chain of mostly undeveloped islands connected by causeways all the way to Canada. But then, Burlington, just south of the shore birds park, boasts a really good Irish restaurant with live music. And fried pickles. So… decisions must be made. But I will be celebrating the coming of spring!
That said, I am ambivalent about spring. Of course, everybody is grateful for warmer days and less winter hassle. I would like to put my snow shovel away now, please. I would like to not have to mop the kitchen every week — sometimes more than once — because of the salt I track into the house, regardless of how often I scrape my boots. I would really like to see my garden, if for no other reason than to assess what will need replacing after this winter of ridiculous cold. Of course, I love spring flowers and bird antics and opening the house up to breathe in the fresh air. But I don’t love spring.
For starters, being an old fuss-pot, I don’t like mud. Spring in New England is a time of reversion to a primary bog state. Even on my mountain-side, vertically-sloped property, there are marshy areas that won’t dry out until July. One of these miniature swamps is just in front of the nook where the last owners placed the composter. So that’s pleasant…
I’m also not fond of the earlier sun rises — and the crow debates that ensue in the predawn twilight as they raucously hash out the day’s plans. I’ve never been a morning person, and spring is morning time. I do like the sunrise, but I’d rather be curled up and dosing as it crests the mountain. I don’t like urgency at any time and, with all the rushing about in the treetops, spring mornings feel urgent.
But the thing that is most bothersome to me is the symbology of spring in my culture. Not the eggs and rabbits, though I think most of us could do with fewer marauding leporids in the world. It’s this notion of balance as conflict — light defeating the dark, summer vanquishing winter, warmth conquering cold. And alongside this unnecessarily violent and hierarchical metaphor for spring, there is the collapsing of all the myriad kinds of love into mere sex. And then there’s the sugary toothache of all the spring holidays. It’s a whole stew of pastel, beribboned fatuousness… as well as just… incorrect…
Balance is a cooperative relationship, right? — and between many actors, not just this artificial duality of light and dark (which, of course, is a little too close to black and white for my tastes…). But the stories come from an ugly time in our culture, one dripping in racism and hierarchy. And I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of purging the violent symbolism. If anything, we’ve made it worse, overlaying the “balance as conflict” with notions of “free sex” and idealized, infantilized motherhood. It’s all sweet and pink, and I am not a pink person. I wasn’t even when I was young enough for it. Now it’s just insipid sap. That we’ve done this to the miraculous season of rebirth is decidedly galling.
In Wicca and other neopagan traditions, the narrative of the annual cycle is framed around a Summer King, the Oak Lord, and a Winter King, the Holly Lord. These two are rivals for the favor of the Goddess, the Sovereignty of the Land, usually embodied in a comparatively powerless young woman. I don’t know if these are old stories. I suspect they don’t much predate the Victorians; they are rife with Victorian tropes. There are a few mythological tales from the British Isles that might be models — or perhaps just one tale that has mutated into several versions — but none of them are a satisfactory match. Of course, it’s not impossible that 20th century writers like Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves just made it all up; they made up quite a lot of what they wrote. (Graves was at least cagily honest about it, admitting as much… now and then… when pressed…)
This story is irritating for many reasons. For starters, it’s wildly illogical. I mean, if there are beings that are powerful and ancient enough to be considered sovereign deities, is it really likely that they’d tolerate being a token to win? They’d probably get rather annoyed with us for reducing them to something weak and practically useless. Nor is it likely that a goddess might be anything like a human. There’s no reason to suppose that a deity has a body, never mind gender and human passions.
However, in the ancient myths that might have led to this Summer and Winter rivalry tale, the prize is ancillary, almost an afterthought, as though penned in by the bewildered Irish-Christian monks who were recording these pagan stories centuries after they had ceased to convey much cultural meaning. The maiden feels like an explanation added to a confusing tale of violence to somewhat justify the conflict. She hardly is named in most tales. She serves as a place-marker, not a character. And not all the myths of summer and winter kings include this element. For example, Lugh and Balor are sometimes seen as summer and winter kings respectively. But Balor is Lugh’s ogreish grandfather — not a romantic rival in any sense. Furthermore, Lugh is notably uninterested in maidens at the stage of his myth cycle where he faces off against his mother’s baleful father. Then again, Lugh’s core stories — as well as those of many other tribal tricksters — generally lack romance, and the one tale of romantic rivalry that might be tied to him is ambiguous. In that tale, he is clearly the aging rival, the cuckold, the Winter King. But he comes back for a final victory of sorts — he reclaims the kingdom, but his unfaithful wife is turned into an owl… sending the message that Winter controls the land forever? Hmmm…
In the spring, the Summer King is getting stronger and the Winter King is aging. This much makes sense symbolically. If it were a story of the annual cycle, spring of course leads into summer, and winter bows out around the time of the vernal equinox, more or less gently. In The Apple Branch*, Alexei Kondratiev uses animal totems to represent this idea. There is no rivalry, no fighting. Summer — embodied in a wild boar, the food animal of summer hunts — presides over the time when growth is the dominant process in the land. Winter — embodied in the antlered god, the food animal of winter hunts — comes to the foreground when the land is resting. Neither totem is ever gone. On the equinoxes, they shift back and forth between the shadowy world of deep spirit and the world of active physical principles. He uses a simple trick to symbolize this ritually. The symbol of the active idea is placed in the south, the place of both the goddess and the Earth in his system. The resting idea is placed in the west, the transformative direction of the paths of the dead. So in his system, the old antlered god will soon go back to the deep woods to rejuvenate while the young god, the good son of the land, is bringing the green back to the sunlit fields.
This is more or less how I think of it when I bother with ritual symbology. Which is not often. I’m giving this example in contrast to the more common portrayal to show what might make sense in a mythic cycle if the story was simply the progression of the seasons — and to show how the common story is just not that.
The focus of the tale of rivals is centered on neither the seasons and agriculture nor on romance and the wavering love of a fickle maid. The salient theme is the rivalry, especially the defeat. This is a story of dominance. It could be thought of as succession — the old king is forcibly deposed and the young king seizes power over the land. Or maybe it is more of a warband philosophy. After all, legitimate royal succession is more successful when the crown is passed along peacefully. Contrastingly, the leader of a military tribe must always prove his right to rule with the strength with his body. He does not give up his power; he is killed for it.
In the current telling of the summer and winter kings story, Winter is always forcibly banished to the land of the dead. Winter does not go quietly, nor even inevitably. It is a power struggle — which makes no sense in the context of the seasons but fits nicely with Victorian ideas about “primitive” myth, in which they saw everything as an unnatural power struggle. (Victorians were anxious people…) Stranger yet, the story does not have a parallel in the autumn. Winter does not come back and strike down Summer. Summer is slain by other processes, as the sacrificial harvest. Summer is the grain god, the vegetative deity, the Green Man. The Victorians determined that Summer must die so that we can eat. (Never mind that much of the green world has nothing to do with our sustenance and that Winter is not a lethal condition for most plants — it’s merely a time of rest.) But the discomfort of men with aging will not allow for an old man to defeat a young one, even though that is the essence of this cyclic story they’ve created. So Winter sort of slips back into power without much fanfare, and Summer has to die for other reasons.
But what of the harvest? Isn’t fertility what is at stake here? Summer and Winter are fighting over the dominance of the land. Presumably there is an agricultural underpinning? Perhaps obliquely. This comes back to the Victorian ideas about warbands. (Side note: I am unsure if warbands actually existed as early anthropology would have us believe. There is more evidence against than for that narrative now. But I’ll just let that ride.) In the warband narrative, the leader embodies fertility. When the Fisher King is injured, he can no longer rule. He’s banished off to a boat until such time as he is fit to reign again — if ever. He is put away forcibly because he is injured and the injuries of the king are disseminated throughout the kingdom in a literal manifestation of “as above, so below”. When the leader is ill, the land is no longer capable of supporting tribal life.
Notice that the land has nothing to do with fertility in this story. It is a passive reflection of a man’s ability to hold power. Similarly, the role of the maiden in this story is merely as an object to represent that power. She is a passive victim. Notably, her desires are never consulted. But worse, she does not act. She does nothing and means nothing. She meekly and cheerily accepts the rule of the victor. In spring this means she will then give birth to vegetation; in autumn she delivers the harvest. (She spends quite a lot of time pregnant in this narrative…) She is a productive vessel for the man’s vitality. When applied to ideas of deity and spirituality, this is monstrous. It is yet another tool to use the reproductive capacity of the world — and women — while erasing everything but the active human male roles.
I can’t help but think that this not a goddess, nor even a human queen. Nor any woman I’ve known. But this is exactly the image that men seem to carry around for an ideal mate. Or at least, this is the image we are force fed in advertising and cultural norms and labels of all kinds. Only in this context of a submissive body to absorb the desires of men does a love triangle make any sense. But this is not love; this is not even fertility. This is men fighting over a possession. More dumb brute property. They are not trying to win affections, just the legal rights to those affections — or more accurately, legal rights to the reproductive labor of an affectionate body. Which is just more of the upside-down, backwards, and inside-out logic of ownership and property.
Affections are not won. Care is given freely as it is needed, regardless of merit. Love is not possessed; it is an ever-flowing gift, streaming in many directions. In all caring relationships there is no room for conflict. Violence is only destructive; it can’t produce or maintain life because, as we are learning to our dismay, real fertility can’t be forced. Fertility — whether it be a healthy, human child or grain growing in a field of healthy, living soil — springs from caring productivity, a reciprocal relationship. It can’t be won or possessed because it is not a thing; it is a process. An active doing between cooperating actors, each with agency and desires.
In his novel, Understory**, Richard Powers provides a far more satisfactory definition of fertility and affection and love.
There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.
Balance is a beautiful metaphor. It implies cooperation and inclusivity. Domination can never be balanced, or even viable, because the loser is knocked off the scales and the victor goes crashing to the ground. You need at least two equivalent participants to create balance. In life, you need a whole web of balanced relationship simply to get through each day. Everything works together “making things”, making love, growing life. Nothing can be predominant because the whole system is broken when balance is shattered. Everything goes crashing to the ground.
If there is a land deity, she is that balance, the holding of everything in place so that everything thrives. We’re vexing her these days with our anthropocentric selfishness, so she’s making corrections, trying to restore the balance. I’m not sure if we’ll be a part of that restored system. But I absolutely know that stories of dominance and ownership are not helping us get there.
So I have my own ideas… I go visit shore birds to watch the joyful nesting season unfold. I celebrate the astonishing awakening of the green world. I honor the true balance in this miracle we call life. My rituals are earthy and tactile. I take off those salted winter boots, put away my battered snow shovel, and dance in the warm spring sun, feet squelching in the mud. No rabbits and love triangles and sugary pink necessary.
But sometimes there are fried pickles…
From the Book Cellar
*The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual, Alexei Kondratiev, 2003, Citadel.
**The Overstory, Richard Powers, 2019, W. W. Norton & Company.
For a look at the making of neopagan ideas, read Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (I have the 2006 Penguin Books revised edition with several pounds of additional reference materials) and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon (1999, Oxford University Press). For a comparison of the love triangle story to ideas in actual myths, read Pagan Britain again by Ronald Hutton (2013, Yale University Press). My key myth reference books for this type of story are The Táin: From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge translated by Thomas Kinsella (my edition is the 2002 revised Oxford University Paperback); The Epics of Celtic Ireland by Jean Markale (English translation 2000, Inner Traditions International); and Patrick Ford’s translation of The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977, University of California Press). Robert Graves’ The White Goddess is probably required reading to understand where many neopagan ideas originated. (My version is the 1966 revised American edition by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) But unless you have a whole lot of free time on your hands — and perhaps a large stock of antacids — I don’t really recommend The Golden Bough, nor much else by Sir James Frazer.
A Note on Pronouns: By now, my regular readers have noticed that I assign gender to non-animal things. More precisely, I use gendered pronouns for things that have no gender. I do this because I don’t like it and yet haven’t quite managed to retrain my head to use Robin Wall Kimmerer’s ki. And if I haven’t, as a dedicated acolyte of her writing, then most other folks are not even going to know that it’s not some strange typo. Also, I sort of feel that there is some restitution owed to the feminine pronouns. He has been used for everything for far too long. It’s ultimately no better to use she for everything, but it makes me feel better… And finally, in terms of productive creativity and care, she more accurately describes many life-producing and reproducing systems than he. If we assign a pronoun to a planet that gives it personhood, that person is probably more like an average female animal than a male. But again, this is just my opinion. You can read the pronouns however you like.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022