The Dawn goddess and the spring festival

Dawn is not a goddess of cult. She was hymned at the Vedic morning sacrifice because it was that time of day, but she was not the object of the ceremony. The Agnistoma, the springtime festival that began the year, opened with songs to her, and this led Alfred Hillebrandt to argue that Usas was especially a goddess of New Year.100 The Vedic texts themselves make it abundantly clear that she appeared every day in the same way; they contain nothing that points to a special association with a particular time of year.

It seems nevertheless that the Dawn goddess did have such an association in some branches of the tradition. It is not too hard to understand how this could come about. Many Indo-European peoples had festivities to celebrate the beginning of spring or summer, the time when the sun began to shine more warmly after the winter months. The sun was the focus of interest on these occasions, and the custom of getting up at dawn or before dawn to greet the rising sun is widely attested. In these circumstances it was natural that the Dawn herself, appearing in the east in advance of the sun, should attract more attention than on other days of the year.

99 II. 11. 1-2 = Od. 5. 1-2; compared by Kretschmer (1896), 83 n. 1. Helios too shines for immortals and mortals (Od. 3. 2 f., 12. 385 f.); cf. RV 1. 50. 5.

100 Hillebrandt (1927-9), i. 28-32; von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 204-6. Hillebrandt's theory was rejected by many scholars, but defended with learning by F. B. J. Kuiper, IIJ 4 (1960), 223-42, who concludes, 'the hymns to Usas are unaccountable as documents of religious thought, unless we take Usas to be in the first place the Dawn of New Year'. He puts this at the winter solstice.

We have seen that the practice of swinging was characteristic of these solar festivals, and that it was a feature of the Greek springtime festival known as the Aiorai, 'Swings'. According to the aetiological myth, girls swung from trees because one Erigone had hanged herself from a tree. We have testimony from Aristotle (fr. 515) that women sang a traditional song about her at the Aiorai. Her hanging became attached to the story of Ikarios, the man who brought viticulture to Attica, and she was made his daughter. But her name is simply a variant of Erigeneia 'Early-born', the familiar title of the Dawn goddess.101 Her hanging was probably invented as the mythical counterpart of a custom of hanging images in trees, and it was then used to explain the swinging as well.102

Alcman's first Partheneion (PMGF 1) is a song composed for a Spartan ceremony in which girls apparently carried a plough in procession. The time of year is uncertain, but there are indications that the activities began before sunrise. On one interpretation of lines 39-43 Agido, a girl who is located apart from the singers and whose 'light' they acclaim, 'is bearing witness to us that the sun is shining': this could mean that she is standing on an eminence, watching for the first appearance of the sun's disc above the horizon and signalling it by raising a torch. In lines 87-9 the chorus sings, 'my chief desire is to be pleasing to Aotis, for she has become our healer of toils'. Aotis is evidently a divinity, and her name can only be an extended form of Aos, Dawn. Here then is a dawn goddess celebrated on the occasion of what is presumably an annual festival. Perhaps her appearance on this day brings to an end the toils of winter.103

The Italic goddess Mater Matuta, 'Mother Morning', was considered, at least by some (Lucr. 5. 656; Prisc. Inst. 2. 53), to be none other than Aurora, though she evidently had other associations too. Her festival at Rome, the Matralia, fell on 11 June. It began at dawn with an offering of cakes that were flaua, the same colour as Aurora (Ovid, Fasti 6. 473-6, cf. Amores 1. 13. 2). Like the cakes previously mentioned, these may originally have been solar symbols.104

101 von Schroeder (1914-16), ii. 144.

102 For hanging images on the May-tree or Maypole in various parts of Europe see Mannhardt (1905), i. 156 (a doll in the form of a woman dressed in white), 173 (man and wife), 210, 408 f., 430 f. (young man and girl).

103 Procopius, Bell. Goth. 2. 15. 13, reports that in 'Thule' (somewhere in Scandinavia?) the sun did not appear in midwinter for forty days. When thirty-five had elapsed, scouts were sent up to mountain peaks to watch for its first appearance, and they then announced to those below that it would shine for them in five days' time.

104 Dum├ęzil (1968-73), iii. 305-30, made an ingenious attempt to explain other features of the ritual in terms of the mythology of Dawn. He took the date, 11 June, to mark the approach of the solstice. It is certainly noteworthy that it falls exactly six months before the festival that Johannes Lydus (De mensibus 4. 155) associates with the Sun.

The plainest example of the Dawn goddess's becoming attached to a single festival, and that in the spring, is that of the Anglo-Saxon Eostre and her postulated German counterpart Ostara, who have given us Easter and the Ostertage. Our source does not connect Eostre with dawn, but that is undoubtedly the meaning of her name.

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