It’s the beginning of spring or the tail end of it, depending on where you are in the Northern hemisphere. The vernal equinox this year arrives on a full moon night, merging lunar and solar celebrations of spring. The equinox, or Shunbun no hi, is a national holiday in Japan. It used to be a Shinto celebration, but was secularised after the war. The Japanese spend it honouring ancestors and cleaning homes.
Iranians do something similar as part of their Nowruz festivities. Some say the phrase “spring cleaning” originates in the Iranian khooneh takouni, literally “shaking the house”. As long as the ritual is performed as a chore or for pleasure, with no religious intent, the Ayatollahs look the other way.
Out in the far west, thousands of locals and tourists will gather at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, to watch the feathered serpent Kukulcan materialise out of light and shadow and crawl down the steps of a glorious pyramid. The worship of Kukulcan, and of his Aztec equivalent Quetzalcoatl, was discouraged by Spanish conquistadors, but not entirely eradicated.
DH Lawrence wrote a strange and sometimes marvellous novel titled The Plumed Serpent, in which a Mexican intellectual revives the cult of the Aztec gods, enshrining himself as Quetzalcoatl and his Irish wife as the goddess Malintzi. The novel possessed a rather unique combination of values, being sympathetic to authoritarianism while also acknowledging the power and value of the cultures that preceded Europe’s invasion of the Americas.
Europe itself has been rethinking and revaluing its pre-Christian beliefs for decades. Some of those beliefs have made a comeback in modified form, as the Wiccan faith and allied New Ageist philosophies. These neo-pagans will gather at sites like Stonehenge dressed in hoods and cloaks and capes, and ritually greet the rising sun and moon as they imagine Europeans did over 5,000 years ago.
In defining new faiths, they seek a closeness to nature which most modern religions lack and urban culture disregards. Islam abandoned natural or agricultural cycles in adopting a calendar that connected with nothing except Islam itself. Christianity retains only a tenuous link, through Easter’s relationship with the spring equinox and through non-canonical rituals like Easter egg hunts.
The Reborn God
A little over a century ago, the anthropologist James Frazer produced a gigantic work of comparative mythology that suggested the story of Christ was only the latest in a series of myths about gods who died and were resurrected. The resurrection of the god paralleled the rebirth of the land in spring. Among the dead divinities Frazer mentioned were the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Dionysus, and the Mesopotamian Tammuz. He also related the idea of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine are believed to become the body and blood of Christ, to other religious systems in which gods were eaten. The Aztecs, for instance, made and ritually consumed dough images of the deity Huitzilopochtli.
The strictest version of Frazer’s ideas fell apart under rigorous scrutiny by the generation of anthropologists that succeeded him, but the looser notion that new religions adopt and adapt aspects of old faiths remains valid. Something like that probably happened with Holi.
Indians, mainly Hindus, gather around fires under the spring full moon to sing and dance and drink, and continue celebrations the next morning by smearing friends and strangers with gulal or something nastier. There’s a legend associated with the bonfire, about Prahlad, Hiranyakashapu, and Holika, but it feels like a myth tacked on to explain an extant ritual. Very few Indians are even aware of the story of Holika.
Despite the intuitive sense that Holi is an archaic festival given a later mythic twist, its origins are hard to discern. The historian DD Kosambi interpreted the festival as a spring saturnalia in which hunter gatherers who were usually too deprived of food to have the energy for sex roused themselves to perform the act for procreation’s sake. Much as I admire Kosambi, this narrative appears unlikely, not least because ancient hunter gatherers ate far better than scholars of his generation assumed, though not as well as some paleo diet enthusiasts would like to believe.
If Holi is, indeed, a pre-Hindu rite that has gradually become part of the mainstream, it is one of the greatest testaments to Hinduism’s absorptive capacity. I can’t think of another culture which shares anything like India’s prudishness and yet celebrates a festival in which traditional constraints are discarded to the extent they are during Holi.
The secularised Shunbun no hi, Nowruz celebrated under the mildly disapproving eye of clerics, rituals at Stonehenge, crowds at Chichen Itza and millions of stoned, plastered, and multi-hued Indian visages all suggest that, for better or worse, old beliefs die hard, or, like Frazer’s gods, are resurrected after their apparent death. In the case of spring festivals at least, the persistence of belief and ritual is certainly for the better.