Four quarters of a year, an eternal battle of the Gods on the horizon.
With the festive season over, many consider it to be nearing the end of winter’s chilly reign.
Soon, the days will lengthen and the air will warm instead of chill us to our very bones – lest you reside in the United Kingdom where rain is an all-year visitor. Nonetheless, the world outside will begin to flourish and come to life as spring takes the centre stage to prepare us all for summer.
However, have you ever stopped and wondered why the seasons change? Of course, the physical cause is due to the tilt of the Earth as it rotates around the Sun. This is the modern-day explanation that we have obtained due to our technological advances. Nevertheless, back in the early stages of civilisation, there was no way in which our ancestors could have deduced this. Instead, they attributed the phenomenon to the work of the gods. These myths were enchanting and demonstrated the excellence of the human mind. The two most well-known legends about the coming of winter and summer at their respective times of the year originated from the Ancient Greeks and Celts.
In Ancient Greek mythology, several gods were said to be inadvertently involved in the changing of seasons. The tale is best told by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter which begins with Hades (also known as Aidoneus), the god of the dead, falling in love with Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. After receiving permission from the ruler of the gods, Zeus, Hades kidnapped Persephone to bring her to the Underworld. Once Demeter realised her daughter was missing, as the goddess of agriculture, she was said to have cast a curse on the earth out of grief. In turn, mankind suffered a devastating famine that threatened their very survival.
Eventually, the other Olympian gods came to Demeter to ask her to remove the curse – having been spurred by the cries and torment of their followers. Regardless of their pleas, Demeter insisted that the people shall suffer until she was reunited with her daughter. This prompted Zeus to send Hermes, the messenger of the gods, down to the Underworld to persuade Hades to return Persephone to earth so she could see her mother. Hades agreed but before he allowed Persephone to depart, he tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds. Back then, it was thought that consuming any food or drink in the Underworld would mean you were destined to stay there for eternity.
Once mother and daughter were reunited on earth, Persephone confessed to Demeter that she had been forced to eat pomegranate by Hades. At this point, they were both aware of the dire consequences of her actions.
Thus, Zeus proposed a compromise to rectify the situation: Persephone would spend a third of the year with Hades in the underworld and the remaining months on earth with Demeter. When Demeter and her daughter were together, the earth flourished with life and vegetation that nourished mankind. On the other hand, once Persephone returned to Hades, winter would fall upon the land as a product of Demeter’s annual mourning for the loss of her child.
Instead of being the result of a family feud, Celtic mythology saw winter and summer personified into 2 mighty deities: the Oak King and the Holly King.
The Oak King was considered the ruler of summer and so, fertility. Conversely, the Holly King was the feared embodiment of winter and death. The two were thought to be locked in an eternal battle for control over the year on earth.
When the Oak King emerges victorious, the Holly King retreats to tend to his wounds for the next six months according to some versions of the tale. This is when the days in the year are long and humanity’s crops are plenty. However, once the Holly King returns to conquer the Oak King, the earth is plunged into darkness.
In some traditions, the Kings are believed to battle at the equinoxes. Thus, when we begin to observe spring granting life back to earth after the cold winter, this is a sign of the Oak King’s victory. He subsequently rises to his full power by the summer solstice before beginning to weaken until the Holly King thwarts him at the autumnal equinox. This event marks the beginning of autumn where the natural world deteriorates as temperatures plummet. The Holly King is thus most powerful at the winter solstice.
Overall, you may now be encouraged to view the switching of seasons as magical and grand. After all, a little bit of imagination can do wonders to ordinary life.
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