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The Ancient Origins of Groundhog Day

Such a large gathering for such a small creature.  Groundhog Day attracts thousands of visitors to Punksutawney Pennsylvania each year.

Such a large gathering for such a small creature. Groundhog Day attracts thousands of visitors to Punksutawney Pennsylvania each year.

Why Groundhog Day?

Have you ever wondered about the origins of Groundhog Day, why each year men in top hats pluck a prosaic groundhog from their hole and hoist it up in a host of hoorays?

Why is it that each February 2nd a modern nation that abhors superstition vexes at a varmint's vision of their shadow? Yes, the celebration of Groundhog Day is a mystery to many, but few know how groundhogs have been with mankind since the beginning and even helped start civilization.

Groundhogs are prevalent in cave paintings.

Groundhogs are prevalent in cave paintings.

Prehistoric Groundhogs and the Rise of Civilization

Groundhog Day is one of the longest celebrated holidays in human civilization. Looking closely at 14,000 year-old cave paintings at Altamira, one can quite clearly see the prevalence of the groundhog as a central figure in early man's life. Of course back then, groundhogs had a long snout and what appeared to be tusks - but other than that the resemblance to the modern burrower is uncanny.

As early man retreated into caves for shelter and solace from the frigid world, they drew depictions of groundhogs standing proudly in the sun light, their shaggy mane protecting them from glacier covered Europe. You see, for those early humans the groundhog stood as a symbol conquering that inhospitable land, signifying an end to the several thousand year winter.

When the glaciers retreated the megafauna evolved into their current forms; even the groundhog shed its tusks and diminished in size. As dens of ice and snow disappeared, the groundhog took to digging complex series of permanent dens in the earth. Still holding the groundhog in reverence, early man learned from their ways. Soon, man began a more sedentary lifestyle and planted their own roots in the ground. You see, it is from watching the groundhog that the idea of civilization grew into the mind of man.

As civilization developed along the rivers of the world and intensive agriculture depended on alluvial flooding, it was the groundhog - the founder of modern society - who was honored as a bringer of those spring waters. Why, you may ask? Quite simply, the end of the groundhog's hibernation cycle coincides with the rich floods of early river valleys.

Of course, as ancient cities grew, the river flooding ceased to adequately water the expanse of crops. According to a cuneiform tablet, a frustrated farmer watched a hapless groundhog accidentally burrow into the bank of the Tigris River. Though the groundhog swam to shore, the hole behind him filled quickly with water. The farmer watched in amazement as the distant surface hole began spurting river water and watering the nearby crops in drought. This farmer had discovered irrigation with the helpful assistance of the groundhog.

Many budding cultures from around the world incorporated the groundhog into their religious pantheons and into their developing mythologies. If one looks closely at the Sphinx the two front legs are the digging paws of a groundhog. Do you remember how Zeus assumed the form of a groundhog when visiting man from Mt Olympus? In religions around the globe, the groundhog became a central figure in a late winter fertility ritual, blessing the grounds for an early spring.

It was in this way that the groundhog went from revered titan of the ice age to a simpler creature with command over divine providence.

Alters to groundhogs like this one in Wiarton Canada are common throughout much of the world.

Alters to groundhogs like this one in Wiarton Canada are common throughout much of the world.

Yet another monument erected to groundhog worship.

Yet another monument erected to groundhog worship.

Groundhogs: From Deification to Folklore

After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Christianity, the worship of groundhogs as a deity went underground. However, many of the ancient beliefs were integrated into the modern liturgy. For example - St Phillip VIII, a ninth-century Romanian monk, was one of the first to scientifically document the correlation of weather patterns and animal hibernation habits. It should be no surprise that St Phillip is the patron saint of weather as well as groundhogs.

However, groundhog worship flourished in isolated pockets across Europe, especially by those cultures more resistant to the strong influence of the Church. These communities still associated the groundhog's presence with the advent of spring and it was here where the legend of the groundhog shadow flourished.

Unfortunately, the crueler tentacles of the Church strangled these pagan outposts as the time of the Inquisition arose. Practitioners of groundhog worship were forcibly converted or killed and hundreds of innocent groundhogs were captured and burned at the stake. However most of them were slow roasted and served with boiled potatoes.

Despite the mainstream abandonment of the groundhog as a fertility deity, their ability as a weather forecaster fell into the realm of folk-belief. Gradually the groundhog turned from the mechanism of change into a prognosticator of weather patterns.

As immigrants flocked to the United States in the 19th century , folk-beliefs in hand, they found a land open to new tradition and forgiving of superstition. As winter lingered on through unforgiving Januaries, these immigrants resurrected the tale of the groundhog and it's unbelievable prediction abilities. Soon communities began watching for the emerging groundhog in early February as an indicator that spring was to come.

Today, communities celebrate Groundhog Day in style and with a slight flair for the dramatic. Once again, the groundhog is held in high regard and its admiration is practiced openly without the fear of persecution.

So as you go out to your Groundhog Day celebrations, give thought to that furry burrower of the earth that awed us in the ice age, inspired a sedentary lifestyle, helped develop irrigation, served as a religious figure, provoked the study of meteorology, and tie us to our ancestral roots.

A Disclaimer on Facts

Before citing this article in your next world civilization or anthropology of religion course, be advised that no actual research was completed prior to writing this article. The conclusions reached throughout are based on a minor understanding of history, conjecture, and a desire for humor.

© 2012 Dan Human

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