A lot of people wonder what the word ‘Easter’ means, and if you don’t already know the answer then you’re in for a surprise. Easter is actually Eostre, an ancient German fertility goddess associated with the springtime. Eostre is almost certainly a version of the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and therefore the same as the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who was also known (in different time periods and places) as Ashtarot. According to one very reliable ancient source (preserved by the early Christian bishop, Eusebius of Caesaria):
“… Astarte set the head of a bull upon her own head as the mark of royalty, and in travelling about the world she found a star that had fallen from the sky, which she took up and consecrated in the holy island Tyre [modern day Lebanon]. And the Phoenicians say that Astarte is Aphrodite.”
This is very interesting because Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus and identified with the planet of the same name, which is Earth’s nearest neighbour, and which is also the brightest star in the night sky.
So, I hope you all had a happy Ishtar!
Anyhow, it is the perfect time to acknowledge both fertility and birds, and here is a little video about birds which you will see pairing off and building nests right now all around Wicklow, and further afield.
The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:
Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:
Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it, much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.
Today is Midsummer’s Eve, and across much of the world the festival of Midsummer, Midsummer’s Night, is held from sunset on the eve until sunrise tomorrow, but only rarely in the British Isles in modern times. What is the difference between the Summer Solstice and Midsummer? That’s where things get interesting.
In the same way that Christmas Day occurs three days after the Winter Solstice, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist was three days after the Summer Solstice. John the Baptist was said to have been exactly six months older than Jesus, and whereas John baptised with water, Jesus was said to baptise with fire. Anyhow, in many places June 25 was the feast day of St. John, but in medieval times it was decided to settle on June 24, possibly for fear or the mirror-image similarities being noticed.
Anyhow, Midsummer’s Night, was traditionally held to be the most dangerous time of year, because between midnight and sunrise all sorts of spirits, ghosts, ghouls and goblins were held to be at their most powerful. Here in Wicklow midnight, the point at which the sun is furthest from where it set and where it will rise, actually occurs at around 12.30 GMT, which, in summertime, is actually 1.30 am. At Greenwich in London it occurs at 1 am tonight – so make sure you’re safe in bed before that time, or else go looking for Will-O’-The-Wisp, as traditionally it is most often seen on Midsummer’s Night. It should also be a great night for moths and other creatures of the night. A good time for nature lovers.