April has begun with the traditional fooling around that is April Fool’s day but why is April a good time to be foolish and play tricks on each other?
We have passed the Spring Equinox and now the days are lengthening, day is winning the battle over night and summer is winning the battle over winter, Persephone has returned from the underworld and it is a time of resurrection and renewal as well as fertility and rebirth. April is also ‘the cruelest month’ as TS Eliot recalled, although the spring is bringing beauty in the form of flowers and sunshine it can also be harsh in the form of April showers and strong winds that can batter those new leaves and tear the fragile blossoms from the delicate flowers. It is a time when we have to give up our cosy fires and warm fleeces and venture forth to take up new challenges casting our clouts before us as we go. The saying ne’re cast a clout till may be out refers to the taking off of the winter layers as the may blossom or hawthorn starts to appear on the bushes towards the middle of April.
We humans therefore have to cope with many changes at this time of year and mythologically this has been personified by using a tricky story-myth to illustrate the problems. Mythological tricksters, of which there are many , help to bring about change often enabling this by taking on a disguise of some sort and thus masquerading in order to make someone look foolish. They also personified illness and misfortune and were thus a means by which to explain the inexplicable , pagan people could blame the loss of a child or the onset of an illness on the harmful spirits or tricky demons that lived among them. Shakespeare’s Puck is one of these, here he is being very tricky in a Midsummer night’s Dream .
‘ And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
and when she drinks , against her lips I bob
and on her withered dewlap pour the ale .
The wisest aunt telling the saddest tale
Sometimes for a three foot stool mistakes me,
then slip I from her bum, down topples she….
Puck , also known as Robin Goodfellow appears in many folktales of trickery throughout medieval Britain, he is a hobgoblin one of the faery fraternity but other tricksters come from a much more elevated status, that of the gods. Hermes, Eros, Loki were all tricksters in their way. Hermes( Mercury) the messenger of the gods , was lord of boundaries and hence change , a master of deception and revered as the god of thieves , originally thought to be a snake god, which fits his slippery and mercurial nature. Eros (Cupid) god of love ,tricked many a fair maid with his arrows , he was a wild boy showing no respect for age or status, flying around on his golden wings shooting arrows at random and wantonly setting hearts on fire , just the thing for a crazy April fools day romance.
Loki, Norse god of fire and chaos
seen here played by the lovely Tom Hiddleston in the film Thor, was the supreme trickster. He managed to bring about the death of Baldur the beautiful summer god by tricking the blind god Hodur into firing an arrow made of mistletoe at the beautiful boy. Mistletoe was the only thing in the whole of creation that had not promised not to hurt the young god. The gods of Asgard , home of the Norse gods amused themselves by hurling sticks and stones at Baldur and watching them bounce from his body unscathed . Only mistletoe was his nemesis , the little plant had been considered too weak and lowly to need to take the vow of protection demanded of all things by Baldur’s mother Frigga . Hence Baldur the summer god died at the hands of a winter fruit and change was upon the gods of Asgard taking them one step closer to their eventual demise at Ragnarok.
The trickiest trick of all time in the mythological world has to be that played by Odysseus on the Trojans , the supreme practical joke that was The Trojan horse .
The unsuspecting Trojans pulled the horse into Troy only to be surprised later by a belly-full of Greek soldiers who unfortunately for Troy very much got the last laugh. Odysseus was not a god but a hero , or was he ? Tricksters tend not to be as respected and admired as the heroes, Odysseus was not hero- worshipped like Achilles , Hermes was not respected like Apollo and Loki was not revered like Thor. Tricksters were all cunning and crafty, they lived by their wits and not their brawn and hence were considered less manly and just a bit untrustworthy , certainly not noble and self-sacrificing like the archetypal heroes. They also tended to cross-dress quite a bit, putting on female garb in order to fool someone and often transforming themselves into beasts of various kinds, not the actions of a manly hero at all!
But we have digressed into trickery in general and left April far behind. Why April in particular? Because it is a month of cruelty and change but also a time to party and masquerade and a time when the thoughts of all young things turn to love and fertility. Disguise and masquerade help to make a party go with a swing as identities are hidden and social restrictions disappear within the protection afforded by the masks, allowing naughty goings-on to naughtily go on!
All of these elements were contained in the ancient Roman party that was Hilaria, Roman laughing day, this took place just after the spring equinox and lasted several days until the beginning of the New Year, which was then April 1st. Hilaria celebrated the resurrection of the god Attis and his return to Cybele the mother goddess ( mother earth), there were games of all kinds including masquerades and those in disguise would play tricks on the unsuspecting. Attis was fundamentally a vegetation god and thus represented the fruits of the earth which die in winter and are reborn in the spring. Cybele’s cult had elements of orgiastic rites , these had originated in the mountains of Anatolia but had then spread through the Greek and into the Roman worlds influencing the revels connected with Dionysus and Bacchus.
Scotland has a fools days known as Gowkie day for the gowk or cuckoo symbol used, the use of this symbol suggests a fool or cuckold and has intimations of sexual licence drawing on the pagan past. Today the day is much more likely to entail the pinning of a sign to someone’s back such as ‘kick me ‘ and watching the poor fool be abused by all and sundry .The use of the gowk or cuckoo symbol is perfect for both the day of foolish pranks and for the time of year. Cuckoos are summer visitors to Britain and the female is the laziest of mothers, she lays her eggs in the nests of poor unsuspecting pipits or warblers and thus fools the little birds into bringing up her offspring. It reflects the cruelty of the month as the cuckoo baby is often much bigger than her foster siblings and will edge them out of the nest where they will be unfed and die , while the cuckoo babies will grow fat and flourish exhausting their foster parents. The cuckoo is a herald of spring arriving in late March and laying her eggs in April thus creating
the ultimate of April Fools jokes.