Today is February 2. Most Americans know this as “Groundhog Day” in which, according to their superstitions, a groundhog is able to predict if warm or cold weather will come. The story is that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, it will become frightened by it and scurry back inside. The act of returning to its burrow signifies that Winter is still here and it’s not practical to go outside looking for food just yet. However, if the groundhog exits its underground home and does not see its shadow, it will stay outside. This symbolizes that the groundhog is not afraid to venture out from its place of Winter hibernation and that Spring is right around the corner.
Many people nowadays scoff at such nonsense. How can an animal predict the coming of Spring? But did you know that there is an ancient religious background to this modern-day ritual? The beginning of February is important in a few religious calendars. It’s the time of the Feast of Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. It’s also the date for the ancient Celtic holy day of Imbolc. In ancient Ireland, the beginning of February was marked by a feast dedicated to the goddess Brigid, who was later turned into a Catholic Christian saint. Finally, early February marks the Catholic Christian festival of Candle Mass, which is either held in honor of the Virgin Mary or the day that the infant Jesus Christ was officially presented to the Jewish temple. This day was marked by a great lighting of candles in the churches and carried in processions, and it has been proposed that this ritual procession of people carrying candles originated in ancient Rome, because the Romans performed a nearly identical ritual in commemoration of the purification god Februus (1)
All three of these religious days have one thing in common: early February, either February 1 or 2, marks the half-way point between the coming of Winter and the coming of Spring. The beginning of February celebrates that Winter is half-way over, that the days are getting longer, and that warmer weather is on its way.
The ancient Roman seasonal calendar was different from ours. To us, the Vernal Equinox in late March marks the beginning of Spring, but to the ancient Romans, the Vernal Equinox marked the middle of Spring. To them, the real beginning of Spring was in early February, somewhere between February 1-4. Therefore, to the Romans, February 2 was their true Spring Festival.
Now that you know that warmer weather is coming, you need to get ready to plant your crops. In an earlier post, which you can read here, I described the ancient Roman agriculture festivals that took place in late January and early February. In that article, I stated that the Romans conducted a pair of religious rituals several days apart dedicated to the Mother Earth goddess Tellus and agriculture goddess Ceres. The Feast of Tellus, which was customarily observed on January 24 (although it didn’t always fall on this date), served to purify the soil by removing any pests and diseases in it and also called upon the Mother Earth goddess to bring good weather and other profitable growing conditions. The purification process would take several days, probably depending on how large your field was. Then on February 2, the second of the pair was celebrated, a festival dedicated to the goddess Ceres.
Like the first festival, the second was designed with the goal of purification. February 2 was marked by the Blessing of the Seeds, in which the Roman priests offered sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes, symbolizing livestock and crops, to Ceres and asked her to bless the seeds which they were about to plant into the ground and to remove any impurities from them, such as fungus, disease, or pests. Once all of the prayers and sacrifices had been made, the farmers planted the purified seeds into the purified soil (2).
Photograph by David Burns (October 14, 2021). Image used with permission.
The seeds which the Romans were about to plant had been kept in storage since October. It was prudent for farms to set aside the seeds that they intended to plant the following year. However, to keep these seeds safe, they needed to be locked away. If anything should happen to them, such as animals eating them or leaving them out to go moldy and rotten, there would be no food and the country would be gripped with famine. So, once the Autumn harvest was taken in, the Romans placed the following year’s seeds into underground storage containers, which were dedicated to Ceres. You can read more about this by clicking here (3).
The ancient Roman poet Ovid says that in the archaic past, the Romans would only offer grain and salt to their gods. However, they later added animal sacrifices to their rituals, and says that Ceres was the first god to have this done in her honor. On her feast day, a pig was sacrificed to her, supposedly as punishment for pigs uprooting a farmer’s crops. As Ovid relates, “Ceres was first to delight in the blood of the greedy sow, her crops avenged by the rightful death of the guilty creature. She learned that in Spring the grain, milky with sweet juice, had been uprooted by the snouts of bristling pigs. The swine were punished, terrified by that example” (4).
“Satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest, so they reap a worthy prize from their efforts. Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness, don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows. When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes, sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain. Forbid the birds, that prey on cultivated land, to ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds. You too, spare the sown seed, you ants, so you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest. Meanwhile let no scaly mildew blight its growth, and let no bad weather blanch its colour, may it neither shrivel, nor be over-ripe and ruined by its own rich exuberance. May the fields be free of darnel that harms the eyesight, and no barren wild oats grow on cultivated soil. May the land yield rich interest, crops of wheat and barley, and spelt roasted twice in the flames” (5)
Note that Ovid makes NO MENTION of an agricultural festival occurring on February 2. All of the information that we have about this is mentioned in conjunction with the activities which took place on January 24.
Once all of the religious rituals had been conducted, the farmers could get to work sowing the seeds on their land. This was an important event in the minds of the ancient Romans. These were the first seeds planted in the year, and whether these seeds would do well or not would be a sign to the farmers about what the rest of the year would be like for them. If these first seeds did well, their Autumn harvest would be bountiful, but if they did poorly, they were likely going to suffer famine. In this way, we can see a similarity to the holiday of Groundhog Day – the good or bad fortune observed on this one day determines how things would play out in the future.
So on February 2, as you see snow blowing outside your window, be comforted in knowing that you are halfway towards sunshine and warmer days. Pray to Ceres for a good growing season for the coming Spring. Pray to Ceres to protect your seeds against birds, bugs, and bad weather. Offer sacrifices of pork and wheat cakes upon the household hearth.
- John Audley, A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804. Page 24; Reverend Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798. Pages 34-42; Augustine Calmet, Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813; Edward Augustus Kendal, Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811. Page 329; Hipolito San Joseph Giral del Pino, A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
- William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33; Thomas Morell and William Duncan, An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862. Pages 29-30; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24.
- Audley, John. A Companion to the Almanack, 2nd Edition. London: 1804.
- Bradley, Mark. “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Butler, Reverend Alban. The Lives of the Saints, Volume 2. Derby: Thomas Richardson & Son, 1798.
- Calmet, Augustine. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Volume II. Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1813
- Fowler, William Warde. “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
- Kendal, Edward Augustus. Pocket Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Polite Literature, Volume I. London: 1811.
- Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
- Pino, Hipolito San Joseph Giral del. A Dictionary: Spanish and English, and English and Spanish. London: 1763.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 9. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 24. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkOne.php.
Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!