The Curious Myth of Groundhog Day

groundhog day
Groundhog Day Ceremony
Photo Credit: Aaron E. Silvers, CC

America’s Groundhog Day, February 2nd, is a puzzling, fascinating, contradictory calendrical festival whose roots may go back to pre-Christian European traditions — and then again, they may not.

What fascinates me about Groundhog Day is that it seems to follow the same pattern as many ancient cults and festivals the world over, despite its relatively recent roots.

Moreover, Groundhog Day has undergone the same metamorphoses as many old myths in the modern age: it has become heavily commercialized, turned into a Hollywood film, and acquired its own website and Twitter Channel.  Can a video game be far behind?

The Cult of the Groundhog

The ceremony of Groundhog Day seems quite absurd to modern, western sensibilities: why does a group of white men in ceremonial frock coats and top hats rouse a rodent to consult him about the weather?

To societies more connected with cycles of the land, seasons, animals and crops, this would not seem so crazy. They timed planting, harvesting, and herding by observing animals for clues. After all, animals hibernate, migrate, and breed in synch with the seasons, always in anticipation of good or bad weather to come. They obviously know something.

Why groundhogs? Well, groundhogs are common in the Pennsylvania countryside, and they happen to come out of winter hibernation around Groundhog Day. So we can imagine Pennsyvania farmers using groundhogs as a rough indicator that the ground should be thawed enough for tilling in, oh, six weeks. However, we have no reliable record of groundhog consultations in general; our groundhog is a specific Groundhog with a capital G.

In mythic traditions the world over, when an animal myth becomes a popular tradition, it often coalesces into a particular, named representative of the animal (cf: Reynard the Fox, Brother Coyote, the Easter Bunny). Enter Phil the Groundhog, resident of Punxsutawney, PA. Nor is he an ordinary, humble groundhog. Phil is an immortal groundhog, a genuine magical totem animal!

“There has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. He has been making predictions for over 125 years!” — Groundhog Day official website

Phil, addressed in ceremonial language as “Seer of Seers,” even has his own shaman:  the president of the Groundhog Club must use a magical cane to interpret Phil’s “groundhogese.”

The Shrine of the Groundhog

Not only does Phil show all the trappings of a totem animal, but he has also acquired a real shrine, a pilgrimage site.

Phil’s burrow has not been left in its natural state any more than the oracle at Delphi. The Groundhog Club has built a staging area with a mock-treestump as Phil’s sanctuary, labeled with his ritual name. At dawn, the Inner Circle (a group of select tribal elders) removes Phil from his ceremonial burrow, consults him in a dramatic pantomime, and presents his prediction to the crowd of gathered pilgrims.

It all seems rather a hassle for the groundhog. At least haruspication has been out of vogue for a long time.

Of course, there’s a level of local pragmatism at work here.

Since ancient times, local shrines and pilgrimages sites have proved a boon for the local economy. There is always a measure of enlightened self-interest when local communities publicize and commemorate their cult hero or critter made good. Souvenir hawkers, tour guides and inns have been springing up around places like this for thousands of years: they’re in Herodotus, they’re in Chaucer, they’re in Marco Polo. I was going to say that the only thing separating Punxsutawney from more traditional pilgrimage sites is the Groundhog Day webcam, but of course that’s not true.

Myths About the Myth’s Origins

The funny thing about myths is that people so often concoct other myths to explain where myths come from.

Scholars debate the historical evidence of myths, looking at them from an outsider’s point of view. Whereas participants really don’t need a story that’s historically accurate; they just need a story that fits. An origin myth makes a ceremony feel more meaningful, more fun, more memorable.

So we have three or four origin myths for Groundhog Day.

German Hedgehogs

Supposedly, Pennsylvania’s German settlers imported their critter consultation custom from Europe, where they observed hedgehogs instead.  Really? Has any German ever confirmed the hedgehog connection? Maybe not. After all, the two animals’ names only sound alike in English. The German word for hedgehog is igel, and it’s a wee little thing, not very groundhog-like.

Hedgehogs aside, there is at least some justification for crediting German settlers with Groundhog Day. Excerpt from the diary of James Morris of Morgantown, PA, in 1841:

“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day; The day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as weather is to be moderate.”

More on Candlemas in a moment. But there does at least seem to be a groundhog tradition going back to the 1800s.

Roman Hedgehogs

For decades, the Groundhog Club which oversees festivities has been passing out pamphlets, now converted into a website, asserting that the Germans got their supposed hedgehog tradition from the Roman legions.

I studied Greece and Rome for a long time, and I cannot recall any hedgehog-related customs or Fasti. It is certainly possible that I have overlooked a reference. However, this Roman hedgehog lore sounds awfully like an educated guess — a myth – to explain the Groundhog Day myth’s origins.

Just as European roots make an American tradition feel more, well, traditional, classical roots give it an air of auctoritas.

Native American Hedgehogs

This isn’t mentioned very often, but considering Punxsutawney’s tongue twister of a name, I wonder if the Germans picked up their groundhog-watching habits from the Native Americans. Woodchucks, aka groundhogs, certainly figure in the myths of New England. However, I have yet to find any close connections between Grandmother Woodchuck and Groundhog Day.

Or Maybe Celtic Hedgehogs Started It

As mentioned above, Groundhog Day falls on the Christian Feast of Candlemas (or the day after, depending on the tradition). In Catholic tradition, Candlemas is celebrated as the time of the purification of the Virgin Mary and the date when Jesus was presented to the temple [Luke 2:20]. It was also once the end of the Christmas season, a festival of lights, the night to take down the last of the decorations. Light is of course symbolic of the sun’s and spring’s return.

Remember, modern Groundhog Day is concerned with the sun (the groundhog’s shadow) and spring.

Candlemas is Christian, but it overlaps a Celtic holiday, Imbolc, one of the four holidays exactly halfway between solstices and equinoxes.

Just to be confusing, there’s another name for the Candlemas/Imbolc holiday on Feb. 2 as well, St. Brigit’s Day. St. Brigit was an Irish nun at Kildare, where her torch burns in perpetuity. Light represents longer days, the sun, inspiration…a sun bright enough to cast a shadow on St. Brigit’s Day?

To the Catholic church’s dismay, St. Brigit may be a popular Celtic goddess in disguise, one whose holiday was once celebrated on Imbolc. Brighid or Bride was a virginal, Athena-like goddess of inspiration, of light and fire (hence the torch), of fertility and the fields, of poets and of blacksmiths, and of herd animals. However, despite some neopagan claims which may be influenced by the Groundhog Day tradition, I have found no evidence that the Celtic goddess Brighid or Catholic St. Brigit ever had anything to do with hedgehogs.

Curiously, among many old Candlemas hymns and rhymes about Brigid or “Bride,” we’ve got a serpent popping out of its hole:

Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

There are many variants of this rhyme in Scots and Irish Gaelic. Alternatively, sometimes it is the goddess of herself popping out of the hole like an Irish Amaterasu:

This is the day of Bride
The Queen shall come from the mound,
I will not touch the Queen
Nor will the Queen touch me.

~ Source: R.J. Stewart, Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses

I’m not certain there is any direct connection with the Groundhog tradition; there is no sense of danger or taboo with Phil. But I cannot rule it out. Certainly, the symbolism of serpents or goddesses emerging from caves appears in mythology the world over as a metaphor of renewal, birth, and spring.

The Groundhog Day Contradiction

While I’m not convinced there was ever a European Groundhog Day using hedgehogs to predict the weather, I do think there is a loose cultural link between Groundhog Day and northern European traditions of Candlemas/Imbolc/St. Brigit’s Day. The American version may not derive directly from Candlemas/Imbolc/Brigit, but it may reflect a northern European way of understanding the seasons.

Here’s a traditional English rhyme, variants of which survive in Scotland as well:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;*
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.

~ source

*Flight like a flight of arrows or birds: “another go,” we would say.

Ironically, good weather is seen as an omen for bad, and vice versa. It seems that northern European farmers were pessimists, and reverse psychology has been around a long time.

The good news for all you east coasters who are currently hunkered down under the biggest blizzard in years: I doubt Phil will see his shadow. It’s blown away.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Postscript: Groundhog Day Ceremony

[Feb 2nd,noon EST] I wrote the above post the day before the ceremony, and have now watched the videos of the festivities. Here’s the link:

1-minute highlight reel of complete Groundhog Day 2011 ceremony ]

Groundhog Day really is astounding. From start to finish, every element of the festivities unfolds like a script from a Myth & Ritual 101 class: the processions, the speeches with pseudo-archaic language, the mini-play performed around the “shrine,” the scrolls, the interpretation of the oracle to the crowd, and the blending of contemporary local in-jokes with antique ceremony. Particularly striking are the traditional chants and songs used to prime the crowd, getting them excited and involved. An anthropologist would be hard-pressed to distinguish this from any local seasonal festival or religious observance.

Of course, it’s not necessarily religous: sporting events, military and government ceremonies all borrow from the same playbook. There is just something about human psychology that craves structured, patterned group experience the way taste buds crave calorie-laden foods.

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