Thursday, March 1, 2007
Although the Dragon of Winter has not been vanquished, by the beginning of March he is loosening his icy grip upon the land. Although this is the season of Lent, there are a few old Northern European cultures that celebrate the herald of Spring in the last days of Winter.
In Eastern Europe, the very ancient festival of Martisor is a joyous celebration of the first signs of rebirth. Martisor can be celebrated throughout the month of March, but usually is perceived as beginning on one of two different days. It either occurs on the 1st day of March or at the full Moon of March, at the last full moon before the Vernal Equinox. This year, the Full Moon falls upon 3 March, and the Martisor Festival will be celebrated in many places on 4 March. In other parts of Eastern Europe, the festival will begin today on the 1st of March.
Martisor primarily is a celebration of life and of the first signs of Spring. It does not take the place of the Vernal Equinox or Easter celebrations when Spring actually has emerged victorious and Winter sleeps once more. The festival of Martisor is known in Romania as 'Martie' which is a diminuative of the name of the month and means 'Little March' or 'Dear little March'.
The most popular symbol of Martisor is a charm or amulet that consists primarily of red and white string intertwined. Originally, a gold or silver coin was tied to the string, but it became customary to substitute any silver-coloured coin or charm. Often other symbols of good luck, such as clover, horseshoes or tiny dolls now are attached to the Martisor necklace. These are given by men and women alike, not only as romantic tokens but as tokens of friendship. Either given on 1 March or on the day of the Full Moon, they then are worn for twelve days or a fortnight for good fortune and fertility for the entire year.
In an old Moldavian tradition, once the Martisor necklace was removed at the end of twelve days, it would be tied into the hair until the first birds of Spring were seen. It then would be placed on the first tree that flowered.
The festival of Martisor is Romanian, although similar festivals are celebrated in other Eastern European countries. Romania, as its name suggests was colonised by the ancient Romans, and the very name of the festival of Martisor is derived from the old Roman god Mars. Mars was the god of war as the son of Jupiter and Juno in later Roman religion, but originally, he was one of the three great gods, and was God of Earth and Spring. He primarily therefore was a chthonic god of Nature.
Reputedly the father of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, he was the reason all Romans referred to themselves as the 'sons of Mars'. The 'Feriae Marti', a festival devoted to Mars, was held in Rome on 1 March.
1 March was the New Year for the ancient Romans, whose calendar ran from March to March. In the old calendar, the days of the week and numerical dates would correspond precisely month after month, unlike our current calendar, where dates and days of the week change with each month.
The 1st of March was the day of the festival of Matronalia, the Roman equivalent of Mother's Day. This day was sacred to Juno in her capacity as guardian of mothers and particularly of childbirth: 'Juno who brings children into the light' . Her symbol was the peacock. On 1 March, women would participate in rituals at her temple on Esquiline Hill. This was the only day of the year when woman actually were required to wear their hair loose (unbound) and were not allowed to wear belts or use any knots in their clothing. This form of sympathetic magic is universal and it was believed that thus water would flow freely and childbirth would be easy as well.
This was a festival wherein mothers received gifts from their daughters and husbands would offer special prayers for their wives and present them with gifts.
Women were required on this day to prepare a special banquet for their slaves. (There was a similar requirement for men to prepare meals for the household slaves during Saturnalia.)
Romans brought their beliefs and customs to Eastern Europe when they colonised it but some of the customs of Martisor are even older than ancient Rome. Archaeologists have discovered necklaces over 8,000 years old consisting of pebbles painted red and white alternating on a string. White is the colour of purity, ice and clouds, a symbol therefore of Winter. Red is the colour of fertility, of blood and life, and therefore would represent Spring.
The Dacians worshipped a god named Marsyas Silen, who invented the flute known as the 'shepherd's whistle'. He was an ancient god of vegetation. The old red and white amulet was considered to be a protective symbol for children and livestock, but later became a general talisman given to every one.
Romanian folk traditions for Martisor include the snowdrop, the first herald of Spring in the midst of winter snows. A bouquet of snowdrops given with a Martisor amulet on a Spring postcard is one of the most popular and charming Martisor traditions.
Another interesting amulet of good fortune that is included in Martisors is a black chimney-sweep. This is a very ancient symbol actually. Throughout Europe, the chimney sweep was considered to be especially lucky and touching a chimney sweep on New Year's Day was considered to bring good fortune for the entire year. This old belief still is known in England.
Ashes always have been potent in magic. Sweeping dust from the house as well as ashes from the chimney was a traditional act at year's end. This is the origin of the expression known as 'spring cleaning'. The chimney sweep would be 'black' with the ashes of the old year and thus would be invested with the power of the old year. Ashes always featured in ancient New Year festivals and obviously touching the chimney sweep after he emerged from the chimney was simply a vestige of older rituals considered inappropriate in Christianity.
Throughout Eastern Europe, Martisor amulets are given to every one. Family members exchange them, friends give them as tokens of their friendship and lovers exchange them as 'Valentiines'. Even in the workplace, Martisor charms are given.
There are other old folk traditions of Martisor. It was believed, for example, that a girl should wash her face in the snow on 1 March if she wished to have a perfect complexion for the entire year.
Intertwined red and white wool yarn or string was tied to any flowering tree or bush but in particular, the hawthorn or rose or any fruit tree in an act of sympathetic magic as well as a 'wish' that the earth be fruitful. In placing the string on a rose bush, girls would wish for soft skin and cheeks like red roses. The old fairytale of Snow White and Rose Red is an example of these ancient correspondences.
There is another Martisor custom relating to cheese. In the days when a real silver or gold coin was attached to the Martisor threads, after wearing it for 12 days, an individual would use the coin to purchase sweet white cheese. White cheese symbolised purity and beauty. In fact, this correspondence exists throughout the world. Even in Palestine, a woman who desired a daughter would pray for one with a face as 'round and white as a cheese'. That would be considered the ultimate form of beauty and the name 'Jbene' or 'Cheese' is found as a girl's name in a number of old folktales.
Like most festivals, Martisor has become very commercial in Eastern Europe, but there still are people who make their own Martisor charms to exchange with loved ones. When I first read about the festival, I was enchanted with it, and decided to make a Martisor charm. I twisted red and white yarn together and attached an old silver coin to it. After 12 days, I placed it on our Goddess Tree. I have celebrated the Festival each Spring and it has become a tradition in this house.