Friday, March 20, 2009
The Equinox & the Egg
As most of you no doubt know, today is the Vernal Equinox—the first day of spring. I’m extremely happy to say that spring in Indian Valley has arrived with the calendar—even a few days ahead of schedule. Our property, which stands on a south-facing slope, is pretty much free of snow, & the blackbirds & other songbirds are singing quite merrily & madly. Last night: a beautiful clear sky, thoroughly saturated with stars—& even a falling star as we stood on top of Mesa Hill.
The Vernal Equinox brings me back to a story from the first year Eberle & I lived together, 1998. It seems that Eberle had gotten a story from dear Robert Frost’s Banjo pal Audrey Bilger about how an egg will stand erect on the Vernal Equinox. Although this story dated back to the days when we all lived in Charlottesville in the mid 80s, certain aspects had never been “put to the test;” I believe the main point they hadn’t tested was whether this could be done at other times of the rolling year as well.
But of course, as with any mythic story, such considerations are really irrelevant. To my mind, the brilliant observation contained in Audrey’s story is connecting the egg & the Vernal Equinox, & whether or not eggs will stand on their ends on other days is less significant than contemplating this connection.
The egg is, after all, a truly venerable mythic symbol. Eberle recently came across a 3,000 B.C. Sumerian poem describing the goddess Ishtar; this poem contained the line: “My mother is a vessel made from an ostrich egg, full of perfumed oil.” We can learn from any number of sources about eggs being mythic symbols of creation & resurrection throughout the ancient world; the Egyptians placed them in tombs, the Greeks placed them on graves. The devotees of the Orphic cult spoke of the birth of the cosmos from an egg; Eberle has found a similar Nordic myth (in which the egg was a duck egg); & scholars now believe that the many “breasts” on the well-known Lady of Ephesus & Artemis of Ephesus statues are in fact eggs. Eggs were common offerings, especially to various manifestations of the European & Near Eastern triple goddess, & were also used as holders for lights in temples. The egg was also a symbol associated with Demeter’s Eleusinian Mysteries.
The connection of the egg with death & resurrection has also found its way into Christian iconography in the person of Mary Magdalene. Icons of Mary Magdalene often portray her holding an egg (usually red). There are also paintings of the Crucifixion showing eggs at the base of the cross. According to legend, the Magdalene’s connection with the red egg comes from one (or both) of the following stories:
One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that following the death and resurrection of Jesus, she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed "Christ is risen!" Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red, and she continued proclaiming the Gospel to the entire imperial house.
Another version of this story can be found in popular belief, mostly in Greece. It is believed that after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary put a basket full of eggs at the foot of the cross. There, the eggs were painted red by the blood of the Christ. Then, Mary Magdalene brought them to Tiberius Caesar.
Quoted from Wikipedia’s Mary Magdalene page
Of course it’s fairly widely accepted that the celebration of the Christian Easter festival integrated elements from pre-Christian equinox festivals, just as Christmas has incorporated elements from pre-Christian solstice festivals. The summer solstice festival, or Midsummer as it used to be known, also was a major Christian feast day thru the Renaissance & beyond: it’s the feast of St John the Baptist. While the feast is still observed by some Christian denominations, it no longer has the same wide cultural significance. In fact, the English word “Easter” is itself a close variation of "Eostre," a goddess worshipped in Anglo-Saxon England (attested to by Bede the Venerable).
It also appears that the connection of the egg with Vernal Equinox festivals is also ancient. Again, to quote from Wikipedia:
The ancient Persians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. The Nawrooz tradition has existed for at least 2,500 years. The decorated eggs are one of the core items to be placed on the Haft Seen, the Persian New Year display. The sculptures on the walls of Persepolis show people carrying eggs for Nowrooz to the king.
At the Jewish Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes both new life and the Passover sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Of course, Easter can’t actually fall on the Vernal Equinox, based on the dating established by the Council of Nicea in 325. Based on the ruling at this council, Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. Of course, even this has been subject to other controversies—including the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar—a change not followed by the Eastern Church, which means that Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different date than Western Easter.
So we see that while Easter is not a festival on the equinox, it is a festival related to the equinox—as well as to the phases of the moon. In any case, the emergence of the bare ground after winter’s introspection is a perennial time of birth—with its attendant joys & struggles. Eberle once watched a guinea hen chick emerge from an egg back in the days when we raised these birds, & she says the most memorable feature was the egg’s elasticity, & how the egg & the chick seemed one; in a sense, the struggle of the chick was an emergence from another form of itself. When we think of the egg in those terms, as a living container of life, it is a potent representation of new birth.