On March 20th, 2012 at 1:14 AM EST the vernal equinox occurred. It actually may have occurred on March 19th depending on where you are, but still, allow me to wish you a very Happy Spring in the Northern Hemisphere! (And an equally Happy Fall in the Southern Hemisphere.) The March equinox marks the moment when the sun is positioned directly over the equator so that the Earth is neither tilted toward or away from the sun. As a result, day and night are believed to be approximately the same length (1). The observance of seasonal shifts by people all around the globe, capture moments of transition that reflect the rhythms of their lives.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Spring is tied to Persephone's story. The legend goes following the fall of the Titans, fearsome giants rose to battle the gods. The defeat of these foes shook the Earth to its core, forcing Hades to the surface to check that his realm was secure. Aphrodite and Eros spied Hades, and the goddess encouraged her son to pierce the heart of the dark god—there is a bit of malice in her words as she encourages Eros to exert his influence and prove that none can escape love, whether it's the God of the Underworld or the daughter of a certain Earth goddess who has taken to following the strong, independent examples of Athena and Artemis (2). Hades, so afflicted, chances upon Persephone, daughter of Demeter, a harvest and fertility goddess, and Zeus. Persephone was apparently the picture of innocence as she gathered flowers with her playmates. He captured her (we won't delve too deeply into what that means exactly) and forcibly removed her to the Underworld to be his queen.
Once Demeter learned she was missing, she searched high and low to try and uncover Persephone's fate. Finally finding evidence suggesting Persephone has been swallowed by the Earth, Demeter's grief was so great that she cursed the land so that nothing would grow. The Earth—and its inhabitants—suffered until a nymph, Arethusa, intervened and informed the grieving mother that she had seen Persephone in the Underworld. Demeter turned to Zeus and begged him to return her daughter. For the sake of the barren Earth, he agreed—providing Persephone had not eaten anything while with Hades. But she had: Hades had offered her a pomegranate, and she had sucked the pulp from six of the seeds. For six months, she would have to live with Hades and for the other six months she could return to her mother. Thus, the Greeks and Romans explained seasonal shifts: vegetation dies and the Earth goes into mourning as Demeter does when Persephone returns to Hades—the darkest, coldest months of Winter are those when Demeter's grief is greatest—and the Earth blooms again when she returns, giving us Spring.
The key elements of seasonal death and rebirth in Persephone's story are old themes that human populations around the globe have observed. In Babylonian mythology, for example, Tammuz (a god of harvests and food) is likewise mourned. The passing of the summer solstice, when the heat of the summer defeats agrarian efforts, marks his death. His lover Ishtar, a goddess of fertility, journeys to the underworld to bring him back and during this period the Earth effectively dies. Social anthropologist James Frazer writes of Tammuz and Ishtar in The Golden Bough[pdf]:
During her absence the passion of love ceased to operate: men and beasts alike forgot to reproduce their kinds: all life was threatened with extinction. So intimately bound up with the goddess were the sexual functions of the whole animal kingdom that without her presence they could not be discharged. A messenger of the great god Ea was accordingly despatched [sic] to rescue the goddess on whom so much depended. The stern queen of the infernal regions, Allatu or Eresh-Kigal by name, reluctantly allowed Ishtar to be sprinkled with the Water of Life and to depart, in company with her lover Tammuz, that the two might return together to the upper world, and that with their return all nature might revive.
Osiris, the Egyptian god of death and afterlife, has a complicated story of rebirth tied to his mythology. In short, the keeper and judge of the dead is also the keeper of life as he manages the flooding of the Nile and consequently the growth of crops. And Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity often depicted as a feathered serpent, may have been tied to the regrowth of vegetation.
The list can go on. While there are parallels within mythologies—particularly those of the Ancient World—these stories ultimately suggest a way to reconcile changes that touch everyone. And while we may not necessarily rend our clothes and beat our breasts to remember Osiris' dismemberment, we recognize these changes in our own way. Spring cleaning, for example, clears the old to make way for the new and can arguably instigate a psychological rebirth. How do you mark these periods of transition?
(1). This is false. An equinox is not the same as an equilux. The former, meaning "equal night" in Latin, is a actually a moment when the sun is positioned directly over the equator—for many reasons, day is actually longer than night on these occasions. In the latter case, there are two specific occurrences when sunrise and sunset are approximately 12 hours apart. Thus, all is not quite equal on the equinox.
(2). Said daughter, the lost Persephone, repays the favor to Aphrodite by refusing to relinquish Adonis, a beautiful child who is found and sheltered by Aphrodite, after she asks Persephone to keep him safe for a time. Ultimately, he comes to share a similar fate: six months with Persephone and six months with Aphrodite and becomes tied to rebirth in his own right.