Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (2024)

By Anna BressaninFeatures correspondent

Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (1)Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (2)Getty Images

The US tradition of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerging on 2 February to herald spring has fascinating origins – and creature parallels across Europe.

Every year, on 2 February, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog comes out of his burrow and if the sun is shining and he sees his shadow before scurrying back into his hole, winter will last six more weeks. But if the day is cloudy, spring will come early. Curiously, Phil is not alone. A couple of other creatures do the same job across the Atlantic – and in all instances, it is a sunny day that will herald an ironic extended winter. (Learn more about the ancient Germanic history ofGrundsaudaag - Groundhog Day – in this article by Sophie Hardach.)

In northern Italy, the final three days of January are known as "the days of the female blackbird" (I giorni della Merla). According to a rural archaic legend, the blackbird was once white (and beautiful and arrogant), and she told January that she didn't suffer the cold. So January sent her extra harsh days, she had to hide in a chimney, and that's how she became black. Because of this, duringI giorni della Merla, the locals say that if the weather is mild these three days, winter will extend longer – and if it's harsh, spring will come sooner.

In the region around Milan, there is a similar parallel with the bear: tradition has it that if the bear comes out of his burrow on a sunny day, he will be able to make himself a nice dry bed and then he'll want to keep on sleeping. This will signify that the winter will continue. But if it's a rainy day, the bear will have to stay out – and spring will come soon.

Are northern Italian female blackbirds, Milanese bears and American groundhogs somehow related?

Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (3)Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (4)Alamy

In Northern Italy, tradition says cold weather during "the days of the female blackbird" (I giorni della Merla) predicts an early spring.

"These traditions can be traced back to Indo-European civilisations 3,000-5,000 years ago," says Venetian historian Elena Righetto, author ofCalendario Tradizionale Pagano Veneto(Traditional Venetian Pagan Calendar, Intermedia Edizioni, 2022). "That's why they are spread all over Europe." She explains that in Greece and Ireland, for instance, there are also spring-heralding myths linked to mythical bears.

The deepest meaning of the tradition, according to Righetto, is in its seemingly contradictory nature. It might seem illogical that cold days signify the coming of spring, or that groundhogs and bears would decide to stay out precisely when the weather is bad.

"The idea is that the darkest moment, when everything seems to go wrong, is when we experience a rebirth, a new life," explains Righetto. The underlying thought is that life comes from darkness, just as plants sprout from the seeds left underground during winter.

"If we dig deep, it's all linked to the symbol of the mother, the symbol of birth," adds Righetto. "That's why these animals are all proxies for female deities." In Greek mythology, for example, the blackbird announces to Demeter that her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld and embodiment of spring, is coming back from Hades. The bear, on the other hand, is linked to Artemis, who Righetto explains is "the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation and of chastity and childbirth". And in Irish mythology, Brigid – both a Celtic goddess and the patroness saint of Ireland, whose feast day falls on 1 February and is also known as Imbolc – is often represented by a bear.

They help makes sense of the world, whatever happens. And that's reassuring. – Glauco Sanga, Universiti Ca Foscari

Groundhog Day: Did Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow?

This contradictory "darkness means spring" myth is so powerful that it crossed countries and survived centuries. The Christian celebration of Candlemas or the Candelora (day of lights), which hasorigins in the 4th Century, is celebrated on 2 February in Christian communities around the world. Traditionally, Candlemasoffers a similar weather forecast of sun predicting further cold:If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight.

"Proverbs often say one thingandthe exact opposite," explains anthropologist Glauco Sanga of Universiti Ca Foscari in Venice. "Because they help makes sense of the world, whatever happens. And that's reassuring." For instance, in the Dolomites in Italy, there is a proverb conveniently saying that if there is a cloud on the mountain Pelmo, it means that it will be either good or bad weather. The point is not to predict the future – rather, it's the idea of having a rite, a phrase or an action, some agency in the face of what can feel incontrollable and scary.

Traditions don't protect people from adverse weather, death, or illness, but they protect them psychologically from some of the anxiety related to those looming realities. "It's what anthropologist Ernesto de Martino calls magic protection," says Sanga. "It doesn't solve the real problem, but it solves the psychological problem – it helps you live through the debacles and obstacles of life."

In a way, if we can believe in the magical powers of female blackbirds, groundhogs and bears, we might find even an extended winter a bit warmer and friendlier.

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Now, let's dive into the concepts mentioned in this article.

Groundhog Day and its Origins

Groundhog Day is a US tradition that takes place on February 2nd. According to the tradition, if the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow and retreats back into his burrow, it means that winter will last for six more weeks. However, if the day is cloudy and the groundhog doesn't see his shadow, it signifies an early arrival of spring.

Similar Traditions in Europe

The article mentions that there are similar traditions in Europe involving other creatures that predict the arrival of spring. In northern Italy, the final three days of January are known as "the days of the female blackbird" (I giorni della Merla). According to a rural archaic legend, if the weather is mild during these three days, winter will extend longer, but if it's harsh, spring will come sooner.

In the region around Milan, there is a similar parallel with the bear. Tradition has it that if the bear comes out of its burrow on a sunny day, it will make itself a nice dry bed and continue sleeping, signifying that winter will continue. However, if it's a rainy day, the bear will have to stay out, and spring will come soon.

Origins and Symbolism

These traditions can be traced back to Indo-European civilizations that existed 3,000-5,000 years ago. They are spread all over Europe and are linked to spring-heralding myths. For example, in Greek mythology, the blackbird announces the return of Persephone, the queen of the underworld and embodiment of spring, from Hades. The bear is linked to Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth. In Irish mythology, Brigid, a Celtic goddess and the patroness saint of Ireland, is often represented by a bear .

The underlying meaning of these traditions is the idea that the darkest moment, when everything seems to go wrong, is when a rebirth and new life occur. It symbolizes that life comes from darkness, just as plants sprout from seeds left underground during winter. These animals are considered proxies for female deities, and the traditions are linked to the symbol of the mother and birth.

Psychological Significance of Traditions

Traditions like these, which seem to contradict logic, serve a psychological purpose. They provide a sense of agency and protection in the face of uncontrollable and scary events. They don't solve the real problems but help individuals cope with the anxieties related to those realities. Anthropologist Ernesto de Martino refers to this as "magic protection" that helps people navigate the obstacles and debacles of life.

In conclusion, the traditions of Groundhog Day in the US, the days of the female blackbird in northern Italy, and the bear in Milan are all related to the prediction of the arrival of spring. These traditions have ancient origins and are linked to the symbolism of rebirth and new life. They serve a psychological purpose by providing a sense of agency and protection in the face of uncertainty.

Groundhog Day’s European creature parallels – and surprising 3000-year-old origins (2024)
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