After a long cold winter, there's nothing quite like seeing the first flowers of spring to lift the spirits. The hardships of the months gone by fade away with the sound of birdsong and the promise of warmer times ahead.
If this is how springtime can make us feel today, imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago before the invention of central heating or supermarkets. It’s easy to understand why ancient pagan civilisations worshipped gods associated with the seasons and held festivals to mark their departure or arrival.
Of course, our most famous spring celebration is Easter, a time when we fill our trolleys with chocolate bunnies and hot cross buns and partake in Easter egg hunts. Whilst Easter is a Christian festival, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, many of the themes of Easter are rooted in pagan traditions.
So let’s wind the clocks back to pre-Christian times and discover how some of the ancient pagans celebrated spring.
The prosperity of many ancient civilisations depended on a multitude of factors, but one of the most important was the success of the harvest every year. A bountiful crop was vital to sustaining the population, if the harvests failed then hard times would be faced by all.
On the first day of February, the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain held a holiday called Imbolc. It lasted until sundown on 2nd February and celebrated the halfway mark between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.
Imbolc represented the coming of spring and at the centre of the festivities was the goddess Brigid, one of the most powerful of all the Celtic gods. Associated with fertility, birth, fire, poetry and healing, the ancient Celts honoured her during Imbolc by feasting, lighting bonfires and all-around general merriment.
By honouring Brigid, the festival’s main aim was to usher in a productive farming season in the coming months.
Many historians believe that we have the Romans to thank for Valentine’s Day as it’s believed to have originated from the Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia. Commemorated every year on 15th February, the major festival was held in honour of the gods Faunus and Lupercus, the gods of agriculture and fertility. It also honoured Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome.
The event was all about health, fertility, purification and protection against illness, bad harvests and war; themes synonymous with pagan springtime rituals. Customs included animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women…not quite Valentine’s Day as we know it.
Held in honour of Dionysus - the ancient Greek god of wine, festivity and fertility - the Anthesteria was an Athenian festival that celebrated the beginning of spring. Spanning three days, the celebrations kicked off in late February to early March by our calendar.
Last year’s wine was drunk, parties were thrown across the city and each day held new and different festivities. The merriment peaked with drinking contests in which even slaves and children could participate.
Like other pagan festivals, the line between our world and the spirit realm became thin during this celebration. The ancient Athenians believed the souls of the dead rose during Anthesteria and walked among the living. Offerings were made to the dead as people looked to protect themselves from evil.
Established around 250 BC, the festival of Floralia was one of the most important and popular on the Roman calendar. Beginning at the end of April and lasting for around five or six days, the festival was held in honour of the goddess Flora, the Roman deity of flowers, fertility and spring.
Festivities included dancing, collecting flowers and wearing bright clothes. Public games were held as well and the festival was seen as an opportunity for the people of Rome to bid farewell to the hardships of winter and gather together to celebrate the joy of spring.
Eostre (or Ostara in Germanic paganism) was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, dawn and rebirth, who was celebrated with a festival during the spring equinox. It’s believed that we have her to thank for the word ‘Easter’.
As you might guess, Eostre’s special month was April and like the ancient Celts, the Anglo-Saxons worshipped her during this time in the hope she would bring a prosperous summer to all. With the long, cold nights of winter finally in the rearview mirror, the Anglo-Saxons embraced the longer, brighter days of spring and eagerly anticipated the abundance of the coming months.
Eostre’s close association with hares is believed by some to be the origin of the Easter Bunny story. Hot cross buns might also have originated from the Anglo-Saxon worshipping of Eostre since they were offered to her as gifts. The four quarters of the bun represented the four seasons as well as the four primary phases of the moon.
Moving the calendar forward to the first day of May, you come across another Gaelic tradition – Beltane. Traditionally celebrated at the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, Beltane celebrated spring at its peak and signified the coming of summer.
The ancient pagans lit bonfires and drove their cattle between them, in the hope of securing divine protection for their cows before they were led into their summer pastures. The burning fires were the centrepiece of the celebrations as they represented great sources of purification. The ancient pagans danced around them, held feasts and made offerings to the gods. There may even have been human sacrifices and practices to appease the mischievous fairies.