Lady Day: The Vernal Equinox
by Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols website

Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols. The original document can be viewed
clicking here.  Permission is given to re-publish this document only as long as no information is lost or
changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others.  Other uses of this
document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols
Greenman fountain at entryway
Mke Nichols Biography
Now comes the vernal equinox, and the season of spring reaches its apex, halfway through its journey from
Candlemas to Beltane. Once again, night and day stand in perfect balance, with the powers of light on the
ascendancy. The God of Light now wins a victory over his twin, the God of Darkness. In The Mabinogion myth
reconstruction that I have proposed, this is the day on which the restored Llew takes his vengeance on Goronwy by
piercing him with the sunlight spear. For Llew was restored/reborn at the winter solstice and is now well/old enough
to vanquish his rival/twin and mate with his lover/ mother. And the Great Mother Goddess, who has returned to her
Virgin aspect at Candlemas, welcomes the young Sun God’s embraces and conceives a child. The child will be born
nine months from now, at the next winter solstice. And so the cycle closes at last.

We think that the customs surrounding the celebration of the spring equinox were imported from Mediterranean
lands, although there can be no doubt that the first inhabitants of the British Isles observed it, as evidence from
megalithic sites shows. But it was certainly more popular to the south, where people celebrated the holiday as New
Year’s Day, and claimed it as the first day of the first sign of the zodiac, Aries. However you look at it, it is certainly a
time of new beginnings, as a simple glance at nature will prove.

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are two holidays that get mixed up with the vernal equinox. The first, occurring
on the fixed calendar day of March 25 in the old liturgical calendar, is called the Feast of the Annunciation of the
Blessed Virgin Mary (or B.V.M., as she was typically abbreviated in Catholic missals). Annunciation means an
“announcement”. This is the day that the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was “in the family way”.
Naturally, this had to be announced since Mary, being still a virgin, would have no other means of knowing it. (Quit
scoffing, O ye of little faith!) Why did the church pick the vernal equinox for the commemoration of this event?
Because it was necessary to have Mary conceive the child Jesus a full nine months before his birth at the winter
solstice (i.e., Christmas, celebrated on the fixed calendar date of December 25). Mary’s pregnancy would take the
natural nine months to complete, even if the conception was a bit unorthodox.

As mentioned before, the older Pagan equivalent of this scene focuses on the joyous process of natural conception,
when the young Virgin Goddess (in this case, “virgin” in the original sense of meaning “unmarried”) mates with the
young solar God, who has just displaced his rival. This is probably not their first mating, however. In the mythical
sense, the couple may have been lovers since Candlemas, when the young God reached puberty. But the young
Goddess was recently a mother (at the winter solstice) and is probably still nursing her new child. Therefore,
conception is naturally delayed for six weeks or so and, despite earlier matings with the God, she does not conceive
until (surprise!) the vernal equinox. This may also be their handfasting, a sacred marriage between God and
Goddess called a hierogamy, the ultimate Great Rite. Probably the nicest study of this theme occurs in M. Esther
Harding’s book, Woman’s Mysteries. Probably the nicest description of it occurs in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The
Mists of Avalon, in the scene where Morgan and Arthur assume the sacred roles. (Bradley follows the British custom
of transferring the episode to
Beltane, when the climate is more suited to its outdoor celebration.)

The other Christian holiday that gets mixed up in this is Easter. Easter, too, celebrates the victory of a God of light
(Jesus) over darkness (death), so it makes sense to place it at this season. Ironically, the name “Easter” was taken
from the name of a Teutonic lunar Goddess, Eostre (from whence we also get the name of the female hormone,
estrogen). Her chief symbols were the bunny (both for fertility and because her worshippers saw a hare in the full
moon) and the egg (symbolic of the Cosmic Egg of Creation), images that Christians have been hard pressed to
explain. Her holiday, the Eostara, was held on the vernal equinox full moon. Of course, the church doesn’t celebrate
full moons, even if they do calculate by them, so they planted their Easter on the following Sunday. Thus, Easter is
always the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. If you’ve ever wondered why Easter moved
all around the calendar, now you know. (By the way, the Catholic Church was so adamant about not incorporating
lunar Goddess symbolism that they added a further calculation: if Easter Sunday were to fall on the full moon itself,
then Easter was postponed to the following Sunday instead.)

Incidentally, this raises another point: recently, some Pagan traditions began referring to the vernal equinox as
‘Eostara’. Historically, this is incorrect. Eostara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess, at the vernal full moon.
Hence, the name “Eostara” is best reserved to the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself. How this happened
is difficult to say. However, it is notable that some of the same groups misappropriated the term ‘Lady Day’ for
Beltane, which left no good folk name for the equinox. Thus, ‘Eostara’ was misappropriated for it, completing a chain
reaction of displacement. Needless to say, the old and accepted folk name for the vernal equinox is “Lady Day”.
Christians sometimes insist that the title is in honor of Mary and her Annunciation, but Pagans will smile knowingly.

Another mythological motif that must surely arrest our attention at this time of year is that of the descent of the God
or Goddess into the Underworld. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the Christian tradition. Beginning with his death
on the cross on Good Friday, it is said that Jesus “descended into hell” for the three days that his body lay
entombed. But on the third day (that is, Easter Sunday), his body and soul rejoined, he arose from the dead and
ascended into heaven. By a strange ‘coincidence’, most ancient Pagan religions speak of the Goddess descending
into the Underworld, also for a period of three days.

Why three days? If we remember that we are here dealing with the lunar aspect of the Goddess, the reason should
be obvious. As the text of one Book of Shadows gives it, “As the moon waxes and wanes, and walks three nights in
darkness, so the Goddess once spent three nights in the Kingdom of Death.” In our modern world, alienated as it is
from nature, we tend to mark the time of the new moon (when no moon is visible) as a single date on a calendar. We
tend to forget that the moon is also hidden from our view on the day before and the day after our calendar date. But
this did not go unnoticed by our ancestors, who always speak of the Goddess’s sojourn into theLand ofDeath as
lasting for three days. Is it any wonder then that we celebrate the next full moon (the Eostara) as the return of the
Goddess from chthonic regions?

Naturally, this is the season to celebrate the victory of life over death, as any nature lover will affirm. And the
Christian religion was not misguided by celebrating Christ’s victory over death at this same season. Nor is Christ the
only solar hero to journey into the Underworld. King Arthur, for example, does the same thing when he sets sail in
his magical ship, Prydwen, to bring back precious gifts (i.e., the gifts of life) from the Land of the Dead, as we are
told in The Mabinogi. Welsh triads allude to Gwydion and Amaethon doing much the same thing. In fact, this theme
is so universal that mythologists refer to it by a common phrase, “the harrowing of hell”.

However, one might conjecture that the descent into hell, or the Land of the Dead, was originally accomplished, not
by a solar male Deity, but by a lunar female Deity. It is Nature herself who, in spring, returns from the Underworld
with her gift of abundant life. Solar heroes may have laid claim to this theme much later. The very fact that we are
dealing with a three-day period of absence should tell us we are dealing with a lunar, not solar, theme. (Although
one must make exception for those occasional male lunar deities, such as the Assyrian God, Sin.) At any rate, one
of the nicest modern renditions of the harrowing of hell appears in many Books of Shadows as “The Descent of the
Goddess”. Lady Day may be especially appropriate for the celebration of this theme, whether by storytelling,
reading, or dramatic reenactment.

For modern Witches, Lady Day is one of the Lesser Sabbats or Low Holidays of the year, one of the four quarter
days. And what date will Witches choose to celebrate? They may choose the traditional folk fixed date of March 25,
starting on its eve. Or they may choose the actual equinox point, when the sun crosses the equator and enters the
astrological sign of Aries.