It’s raining today, and cold, though not as cold as it could be for an early February day in the American Midwest. We are due for a string of fairly mild days. The weather personality at one local TV station is enthusiastic about this warm trend, while her counterpart at another station warns that winter’s worst still lies ahead. That’s February. I disagree with Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. It’s this one.
The month was probably named by the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who was not Roman but a Sabine, for the ancient Sabine purification ritual Februa. It was a ritual meant to prepare one’s home and fields for spring. Perhaps there in the Mediterranean climate of the Italian boot, February did signal spring’s onset. Here, not so much. There is the occasional phenomenon, maybe what we are experiencing right now, known as the February Thaw–one of those half-mythological and ill-defined times, like Indian Summer or Blackberry Winter, which many people believe they can define with certainty, only to find that the guy standing right beside them has a different definition. But whatever the February Thaw is, there is nothing certain or lasting about it, and March can find us buried in snow or still scraping thick frost from car windows in the morning.
And that’s what makes February cruel, this flirting with the end of winter, the beginning of spring. I don’t think I used to mind so much. But as the years go on, I find myself longing to spend more time in the sun and the warmth of spring. I also recently moved to a new home that includes several acres of arable land, and I am eager to start planting vegetables. This feeling that it could be any day now, rubbing up against the reality that it’s several weeks away, is frustrating.
Recently I have been studying the various vegetation gods of the old world. One thing that stands out is the violence that pervades almost all their stories. Inanna visits the underworld and is killed and hung on a hook, where she stays until she offers Dumuzi as a substitute. Persephone is raped by her uncle, with her father’s consent. Adonis is gored by a wild boar and bleeds to death. Osiris, not dead enough to suit his wicked brother Seth, is cut into fourteen pieces which are scattered the length of the Nile. And the Phrygian vegetation god Attis, whose cult reigns supreme for gore, castrates himself and bleeds to death, an act which is impersonated by initiates to his priesthood for many generations to follow.
All of these gods have rites which are solemnized by various ancient peoples in the attempt to ensure the coming of a fecund planting season. It seems that the coming of spring (or of the Nile’s flood in the case of Osiris) would be a joyful time, but in the various rites there is much weeping and wailing, not to mention ritual bloodshed. Did ancient people suffer in their desperation to bring on the spring? I long for spring, and find myself frustrated when it seems long in coming, but there are two important things to remember. One is that it doesn’t really matter to me: I do not feed myself by my own effort, or by the produce of whatever little garden patch I may cultivate. And second is the fact that I know the spring will come eventually, as it always does. I understand enough about earth’s transit around the sun to know this.
In a universe driven by superstition, there is always uncertainty. If you believe that your prayers and rituals, your Adonis garden, Corn Osiris, or some other talisman is partly responsible for seasonal transitions, you would tend to be very serious about these things. It is a leap from that kind of earnestness to priests slicing open their own veins and bespattering altars with their blood, but in trying to grasp these things in human terms, I think I get it. I may only feel frustration at the cruel jest of February’s taunts of the vernal season, but other people, in other times, have felt the need to take action. But while I understand this as a human instinct, I think I am too far removed from that time and place (or those times and places) to understand why their various explanatory tales, and in some cases their own rituals, included such a strong dose of graphic violence.
As I finish writing this the rain seems to have stopped. It’s still gloomy out, but that’s to be expected. One of the weather personalities on TV the other night noted that the rain so far in January and February has gotten close to breaking the back of the persistent drought that has dogged our region for a year. That’s good news, and gives me more to look forward to in spring. I can wait, I tell myself, even as the thought throbs at the back of my head that there must be something I can do. I choose to be ambivalent yet about February, but I am learning to live with it.