The Magical Origins of Groundhog Day
by Patricia Robin Woodruff
(from the upcoming Roots of Slavic Magic series)
February 2nd is the date when a huge bear traditionally emerges from his den and predicts six more weeks of winter if he sees his shadow. Wait!… What?! Those of you who know of Pennsylvania’s famous animal prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil are thinking, “Don’t you mean groundhog?”
Well, yes, we do that now but it all started with the Slavic bear. In Slavic countries going back thousands of years, to a misty time before written history the bear was considered the most sacred and magical animal. It was taboo to even say its name. People very carefully used round-about ways to refer to the creature, calling it by metonyms such as “honey-eater”, “the brown one” or “the hairy one” or titles like “King of the Forest” and “Lord of the Fairies.” They were so careful that the actual Slavic name for “bear” is now unknown (although we can guess based on the ancient Indo-European name of bear which was artko giving us Arctic, and the lingering roots left in the Celtic language found in the proper name of Art or Artur, meaning “courageous.”)
The Slavic goddess Devana and her partner Veles were both known to transform into a bear, although people said this sacred couple might be glimpsed in the woods in a human form sometimes wearing big bear cloaks. Devana’s healing powers were attributed to the bear as well. The bears’ powers could be harnessed by the magical clerics of these deities. These magic workers were called “bear doctors” and they would even make home visits to those who were sick to cure them with the power of the bear. The animals were trained to walk on people’s backs to relieve back pain and heal sickness. Children would be placed on the bear’s back, and the bear would take nine steps backwards, which was considered a sure-fire way to convey health to the children.
In case these traveling “bear doctors” weren’t around when you needed them, they would sell amulets of bear fur tied with red ribbon for future use. Then, when women were having a difficult childbirth, the fur could be burnt and the smoke used as magical incense to ensure a healthy birth. Or you could just use the bear fur amulet as a charm to ward away sickness.
In a shamanic manner, even dancing like a bear in a circle around the outside of a house was supposed to protect it from fire. While in Latvian seasonal mummers parades the person dressed as a traditional Bear character gives out hugs that are supposed to give the person good health for the whole year. In Romania they have bear dances at New Year’s, where people dress up as bears to chase away the bad luck from the coming year. Since bears are still hibernating in the depths of winter, it is much more likely this was a spring tradition. You need to understand that in many Slavic countries they considered spring to be the start of the “new year” and only after a bit of manipulation of calendars, moving the new year to the Winter Solstice, the centuries-long process of switching the calendar from Julian to Gregorian did the date of the New Year finally settle down on January 1st.
While it was considered very bad luck to kill a bear, in some places an annual sacrifice of a bear was done in a ritual manner. Various protective rituals were carried out and young maidens had to be especially careful because the male bears potency was so strong it might even make a young girl pregnant to eat the meat! (To prevent this, she had to pull little pieces of the meat through a ring to neutralize this power.) According to author Max Fram, bear magic from Russia includes: the fat from a bear applied to the forehead improves memory, applied to the skin can salve frostbite and soothe arthritis and the ultimate cure to almost any illness was to eat the heart of a bear. The claws were used as protective amulets and if one claw was good the whole paw was thought to be even more effective.
Now we’re getting close to the groundhog part…
In places where bears were not so plentiful, the European badger was substituted. Like the bear, the badger also hibernates through the winter. Researcher Roslyn Frank explains that people would use the paw of a badger, which looks like a bear paw (but is a little easier to hang on a necklace or tuck in your pocket as a magical charm.) You have to agree that fur would be slightly easier to obtain from a badger than from a 500 to 700 pound bear.
February 2nd is a “Cross Quarter Day” because the date falls exactly between the quarters of the year: the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This was a day sacred to Devana and Veles, Lady & Lord of the Forest and ruler of the wild animals. During the Middle Ages, when the Orthodox Church converted the Slavs, the powers of the Pagan gods were transferred to saints, in this case St. Blaise, whose feast day was celebrated February 3rd (or February 11th.) St. Blaise emerged as a healing saint and the patron saint who protected people from wild animals… especially bears. So on February 2nd, the bears (ignoring the change in management) were still understood by the people to emerge from hibernation to check out the weather and predict an early or late spring. The Polabians (Slavic Germans) picked up this lore, but transferred this power of prediction onto their bear substitute, the hibernating badger. In the 1700’s when many Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought their beliefs with them, but as no badgers were to be found, they transferred this magical predictive power on the lowly groundhog.
“Bears and Maidens” Mythological Weave of Ice & Fire Web 11 December, 2017 <https://sweeticeandfiresunray.com/bears-and-maidens/>
Fram, Max. The Motherland of Elephants. Lulu Press, Inc. 2016 Ebook
Frank, Roslyn M. “Shamanism in Europe? Part 2. An Essay in Collective Memory and Cognition, Bears & Badgers, Basque & Celtic.” Academia.edu 2017 Web Document <https://www.academia.edu/35091642/Shamanism_in_Europe_Part_2._An_Essay_in_Collective_Memory_and_Cognition_Bears_and_Badgers_Basque_and_Celtic?auto=download&campaign=weekly_digest>