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The vernal (spring) equinox is associated with images of hope, new beginnings, and rebirth. As the sun appears progressively earlier in the northern hemisphere and warmer temperatures thaw the earth, our blood and being too awakens to images of renewal. After what can become the weariness of the darker winter months, spring equinox celebrates the beginning of new things, the symbols associated with death and resurrection, and the triumph of good over evil.
There are several modern festivals associated with the vernal equinox. The Hindu celebration of Holi takes place on the full moon between the end of February and mid-March. Young and old, people drench loved ones and strangers with powdered dyes in hues of blue, green, red, yellow, pink, and. They rejoice with spring’s arrival in the victory of good over evil.
Likewise, Pesach or Passover celebrates the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. It takes place around the first full moon after the spring equinox. Around the same time as Passover, Christians celebrate Easter with symbols of light, renewal and fertility to commemorates Christs death and resurrection. Among the Baha’i and Zoroastrians (ancient Persia, modern-day Iran), Naw-Ruz or Nowruz is celebrated on the vernal equinox and marks their New Year. They celebrate with foods symbolic of renewal, and, especially herbs that are restorative. In ancient Egypt, the new year began with the annual inundation of the land by the Nile River, bringing with its destructive force the silty waters that would fertilize the crops soon to be planted.
Ancient Egyptian mythology tells of how the sungod Re dies as he falls beneath the horizon at sunset. His mummified corpse is placed on a special barge on which he journeys through the body of sky goddess Nut for the twelve hours of night (Duat). During those twelve hours he is renewed and restored in body, mind, ethics, heart, and sexuality. His attitude of power and control becomes modified by the divine feminine powers of love and fertility. There are various stories of Nut and her role in the transformation of deadly power into restorative love.
In one of Nut’s narratives she is transformed into the heavenly cow Hathor (Wente 2003), and is associated with the astrological movement of the planets and stars. We see evidence of this on the murals at the temple dedicated to Hathor in Denderah. She also carries the sungod Re between her horns across the celestial realm. Descriptions of the cosmos and its workings are an essential part of ancient Egyptian theologies:
Several scholars have suggested that Nut may originally have represented the Milky Way, as Spell 176 of the Book of the Dead refers to this broad band of stars which crosses the night sky and the following spell begins with an invocation of Nut, and some representations of the Ramessid Period show stars around the figure of a goddess as well as on her body.
There is astronomical evidence which may support the equation. Ronald Wells has shown that in the predawn sky at winter solstice in predynastic Egypt the Milky Way would have looked remarkably like a stretched-out figure with arms and legs touching the horizon in exactly the manner in which the goddess was often depicted. Furthermore, at that time of the winter solstice the sun would have risen in the area of the goddess’s’ figure—her pudendum—from which it would be imagined to be born, just as nine months earlier, at the spring equinox, the sun would have set in the position of the goddess’s head—suggesting it was being swallowed. (Wilkinson 2003)
It is through her association with the Milky Way that Hathor became known as the deity who casts the fate of the newborn in the stars, their astrological connection to the cosmos. This above-described Milky Way connection to the sun’s death and rebirth inextricably associates Nut and Hathor with disintegration-death-resurrection.
Nut is associated with the sacred sycamore tree, which is “a refuge for the weary dead at noonday during the summer, where in its shade they were refreshed by the food on which the goddess herself lived (Spence 1994). Nut’s facilitation of the indulgence in corporeal comforts is part of what renews and resurrects the sun god Re daily, as well as the bodies of the worthy dead. “The deceased are described in the Book of the Dead as relying on [Nut] for fresh air in the underworld, over the waters of which she was supposed to have dominion” (Spence 1994). Coffin lids painted with the image of Nut, “frequently showing the solar disk in the process of being swallowed or reborn” (Wilkinson 2003) are an imagination of her voluptuous embrace during death, and perhaps as a petition and surrender on the part of the dead to her ministrations, with hope that through union with her they may be renewed. Her painted image on coffin lids “was rarely omitted in the Egyptian burial ceremonies (Spence 1994) from the Old Kingdom through to the New Kingdom, a span of more than fifteen-hundred years (Hornung 2001).
The Christian myth of Christ is rooted in the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, has parallels with that of Christ (Harpur 2004). Osiris is killed and dismembered by his brother Seth. His sister-consort Isis restores him to life. After she gathers the thirteen pieces of his body, she uses her love and her magic powers to knit together his bones and restore his fertility. Isis is helped by her sister Nephthys, goddess of the infertile regions and by Anubis known as opener of the ways. They are critical members of the entourage who bring Osiris through the night hours of the Duat to his rebirth at dawn. When Isis and Osiris are reunited in the netherworld they conceive the sun god, Horus. The conception and birth of Horus is a symbol of the light emerging from the darkness, and with light emerges new life and new meaning. These thousands of years old ancient Egyptian myths remind us that what may seem to be a hopeless disintegration during the hardest of times can and does transform to become again bright and creative. We need only endure with hope and faith in the cosmic force, and of course persist with love.
Now, let us imagine planting into the dark soil of the past winter all those seeds of what will bloom to support our living forward. Consider with love what will you sow, and where you will sow it?
Harpur, T. (2004). The Pagan Christ: Recovering the lost light. Toronto, Thomas Allen.
Hornung, E. (2001). The secret lore of Egypt: Its impact on the west. New York, Cornell University.
Spence, L. (1994). Egypt: Myths and legends. London, Senate.
Wente, E. F., Jr. (2003). The book of the heavenly cow. The literature of ancient Egypt: An anthologoy of stories, instructions, stelae, autobiographies, and poetry. W. K. Simpson. Cairo, American University in Cairo Press: 289-298.
Wilkinson, R. H. (2003). The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. Cairo, American University in Cairo Press.