The pre-Julian calendars of ancient Rome only had 10 months. From the end of December to the start of March was just a winter gap, undeserving of a name. I’ve always asserted the reason for this is because winter can be congealed into a singular bleak stretch of awful, but realistically it is probably because ancient calendars were primarily agricultural, and the winter gap reflected the winter fallow. Seasonal myths were prevalent in many ancient cultures; so as we head into winter here are a few that were told in the bleak winter months as a reminder that spring would always follow.
The myth of Demeter (the goddess of crops), and her daughter Persephone (queen of the underworld), come to us from the ancient Greeks, and was retold again as the myth of Ceres and Proserpina by the Romans: One day while Persephone was out collecting wild flowers she was abducted by her uncle, Hades, and taken to the underworld to be his bride. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter, and as she searched the globe for Persephone she neglected her duties, letting the world fall into an endless winter. Eventually a deal was struck with Hades; that Persephone could spend part of the year with her mother provided she returned to him for the remainder of the year. So, each year when Persephone retreats to the underworld, her mother resumes her grieving and winter falls upon us, and in spring when she re-emerges the world blooms again with her mother’s happiness.
A similar myth comes from the Hopi Indians and their story about their beloved Blue Corn Maiden: One day when Blue Corn Maiden was out collecting fire wood, Winter Kachina found her and fell immediately in love. He took her back to his home and blocked all the doors and windows with snow so she was forced to remain with him. One day while Winter Kachina was away Blue Corn Maiden tunneled through the snow and escaped. She made a fire to warm herself by, and as the snow began to melt Summer Kachina came to her aid. Like Winter Kachina, Summer Kachina also fell in love with her. When Winter Kachina returned, and found them together a battle quickly ensued. The two Kachinas were equally matched and finally reached an agreement: Blue Corn Maiden would spend half of the year with each. Now, when the blue corn starts to appear, the Hopi people know that spring has arrived.
The Russians tell a different, but hauntingly beautiful folk tale of Snegurochka, the snow maiden. The story begins with an old lonely peasant couple who had not been blessed with children. One day, after the first snow had fallen, the old lady went outside and created a beautiful maiden out of snow. As she lamented how much she wished for a child, she was overheard by Father Frost. Father Frost pitied the old lady, so he brought the young snow maiden to life. The couple were overjoyed to find they finally had a child of their own. All winter they lived happily as they worked side by side, and their daughter joined in on village life. But, when spring came, the beautiful snow maiden became more and more withdrawn, and stayed indoors whenever she could. One day her playmates came to the door and tried to coax her to come out and pick the first berries of spring. Her parents, worried about their daughter’s emotional well-being, convinced her to go. The young girls picked the ripe juicy berries all day and, as night fell, moved into a clearing and lit a fire. The Snow Maiden watched from the shadows as the other girls invented a game where they all took turns leaping over the fire, laughing and cheering as they did. Eventually the loneliness became too much for the Snow Maiden, and she decided to join in their game. As she jumped over the flames, she melted and disappeared, leaving her parents heartbroken.
Is there a common theme to these three stories? From Persephone to Blue Corn Maiden to Snegurochka, there is a persistent sense of loss. The last tale presents an inversion – it is the spring that brings heartache to Snegurochka’s parents – a fact that that one imagines Hades and Winter Kachina would agree with.
Image attribution: Elena Ringo, http://www.elena-ringo.com
If you would like to know more we recommend the following books:
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretative Essays
The Fourth World of the Hopis. The Epic Story of the Hopi Indians as Preserved in Their Legends and Traditions
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