Eliot Coleman: Mythology and Day Length

The following is an excerpt from The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. It has been adapted for the web.

Humans have long had their own way of understanding the changes in day length and its affect on agriculture. Early Greek farmers, whose practical experience added mythical stories to astronomical fact, knew intimately that the power of the sun and the length of the day are the principal influences on agriculture. They created the myth of Persephone to explain the effect of winter conditions. As the story goes, the earth goddess Demeter had a daughter, Persephone, who was abducted by Hades to live with him as his wife in the netherworld. Demeter would have nothing to do with this and threatened to shut down all plant growth. Zeus intervened and brokered a deal whereby Persephone would spend only the winter months with her husband, Hades. Demeter, saddened by her daughter’s absence, made the earth barren during that time. On our farm we refer to the period when the days are less than ten hours long as the Persephone months.

The pagan agricultural calendar in the British Isles brings this ancient awareness closer to our hemisphere. It is often called the Wheel of Life. We are all familiar with four points on that wheel—spring equinox (March 20/21); midsummer, or summer solstice (June 21/22): autumn equinox (September 20/21); and midwinter, or winter solstice (December 20/21). Most people, however, are less aware of the agricultural significance of four other dates on the wheel. These are the cross-quarter days, which are evenly spaced between each of the four dates above. Each date marks a festival.

The first of these festivals is called Imbolc. It takes place on or about February 2. It celebrates the growing of the light, the onset of lactation in ewes about to give birth, and Brigid, the goddess of fire and fertility. Traditionally, fires were lit to represent the increasing power of the returning sun. Next in order, on May 1, is the festival of Beltane. It marks the beginning of the summer pastoral season when grasses for livestock begin to grow again, and the lushness of summer is off and running. The third festival of the year, celebrated on August 1, is called Lughnasadh, the first day of fall in the pagan calendar. Lughnasadh marks the beginning of the harvest season and the ripening of the first fruits. Around November 1 comes the last of these four festivals, Samhain. This celebrates the start of winter and the last of the harvest.

When one farms with nature as we do, it is easy to notice how closely the dates and meanings of these early Celtic celebrations fit in with our practical experience and day-to-day work. For example, February 1, the date of the festival of Imbolc, is the time of year when more rapid spring growth begins in our greenhouses as the Persephone period draws to a close. We have noticed that outdoor transplanted vegetables begin their season of rapid growth right about May 1. And August 1 is truly our bounteous
harvest time. Almost every crop we grow is in full production on that date. It is also the start of our fall planting season for winter crops. And November 1 is the end of our outdoor-harvest season and the beginning of the next Persephone period when growth slows down for winter.

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