The Vernal, or Spring, Equinox is one of two yearly balance points between light and dark – the other one being the Autumnal, or Fall, Equinox. The Vernal Equinox is the mid-point between Imbolc, Brigid, or Candlemass in early February, and Beltaine. Beltaine is the most well known of the often-bawdy fertility festivals, but the Vernal Equinox is the lesser of these.
The celebration of the Vernal Equinox is known variously as Easter, Ostara, or Eostre for those practicing general Neo-Paganism or European Paganism, or the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries for those practicing Hellenic (Ancient Greek) mystery school traditions. It may also be referred to as Lady Day.
Easter generally has more “innocent” celebratory practices than Beltaine. Some of these celebrations have moved into mainstream, Christian culture, with absolutely no explanation as to the “why” of the practices. Egg dyeing, egg hunts, the symbol of the rabbit, and the wearing of flower-crowns have obviously Earth-based religious roots, yet these are practiced far and wide as a part of the celebration of the resurrection of the Christos – another symbol of seasonal rebirth.
Lesser known Equinox celebrations include the concepts of shape-shifting, trickery, and an all-together different way of celebrating a seasonal balance-point: cross-dressing and licentiousness! In some lesser-known, mostly Dionysian traditions, it is customary to cross-dress during the equinoxes. This is in recognition of the balance between light and dark, and between male and female aspects. Cross-dressing is also a celebration of useful trickery. It was a tactic that was that employed by Dionysus to hide his presence from Hera, the wife of Dionysus’s father, Zeus. Hera was not Dionysus’s own mother; Dionysus was born of a mortal mother whose name was Semele. So, in fear of Hera’s jealous rage, Dionysus hid himself from sight using a slight-of-eye; he dressed as a girl, and then as a young woman. Dionysus’ golden curls loaned themselves nicely to his feminine appearance.
To this day, many Priests of Dionysus dress in gender-neutral robes, and wear lipstick and eye make-up as a tribute to the role of cross-dressing in the tradition of Dionysian worship. Priestesses of Dionysus were known as maenads, or wild women. These women lived outside of the strict gender roles that were commonly enforced in Ancient Greece. Today’s maenads are likely to use intoxication as a path to exstasis – ecstasy – and communion with their God.
The Bacchanallia, a Roman celebration of Bacchus, another name of Dionysus, was celebrated on or near the Vernal Equinox, and had by all accounts a very bawdy, licentious and irreverent tone.
By yet another name, Dionysus is known as Liber – “the free one.” In honor of Liber and his female counter-part, Libera, a celebration called Liberalia was celebrated in Rome, again approximately on the equinox.
The Liberalia was a celebration of with many elements, ranging from rites of passage for young men, to fertility rites that included rural processions that featured a large phallus that was paraded through the fields and vineyards.
Priestesses in wreaths of ivy presided over great feasts dedicated to Liber and Libera, during which blessings were asked for the seeds that would be planted in the coming months.
So if you want to add some spice to your Equinox celebration, take a page from the ancient books – or tablets, as it were – and throw in some cross-dressing, rites of fertility, and phallus worship, and get licentious with the early rising of the sap!
Lasara Firefox Allen is an author, educator, activist, and coach. Lasara’s first book, the bestselling Sexy Witch (Llewellyn Worldwide), was published in 2005 under the name LaSara FireFox.