Marmots in the snow: Imbolc morning in Pennsylvania

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In the religion of Ancient Rome, haruspicy – divination by reading entrails – was practiced regularly. Animals were sacrificed, their entrails used to augur spiritual answers to all the worst problems. Etruscan religion also employed the practice, as attested in Libri Tagetici, the work of Tages, the founding prophet of that religion, later mentioned by Latin authors. Tages is depicted in early bronze work found in Tuscany as a young haruspex – an expert in haruspicy – wearing a conical hat and examining a liver.  The training for a haruspex was extensive and highly specialized, and they were consulted for questions that ranged from personal matters to forecasting natural phenomena.

Handle of an Etruscan beaker jug with a relief of a haruspex examining a liver [Allard Pierson Museum, Wikimedia Commons].

The Babylonians consulted animal livers regularly. The Hebrew Bible even mentions the practice in Ezekiel 21:21:

For the king of Babylon will stop at the fork in the road, at the junction of the two roads, to seek an omen: He will cast lots with arrows, he will consult his idols, he will examine the liver.

The practice remained popular in northern Europe until nearly the beginning of the Renaissance. Thomas Becket, for example, is reported to have consulted an expert on reading entrails, presumably an haruspex, prior to his involvement in an expedition to Brittany.

The animals used in haruspicy were aligned with the deity needed to resolve the question: geese to Isis, cocks to Asclepius, and steers or horses to Apollo or Neptune. None of the deities, though, appear to want groundhogs or woodchucks. This is good news today, because another form of animal augury and omen reading is alive and doing well in Pennsylvania, where they conduct an annual ritual event that involves interpreting the behavior of a venerated burrowing mammal.

This morning, in ten degree weather, thousands gathered at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There they were treated to music by the local band The Punxy Boys, whose songs included  “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Groundhog” and “Your Gloves,” in which a Pennsylvanian narrator asks a Montego Bay vacationer for permission to use their left-behind gloves. (The latter was sung to the tune of the Outfields’ “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love Tonight.”) The music was excellent and mostly on-key.

Other singers followed, with a rendition of “Shout” sung toward a stump on the stage. Above a groundhog-sized door carved into the stump was written the name “Phil.” The crowd awaited  Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, “prognosticator of all prognosticators,” to emerge from his burrow and predict whether there would be another six weeks of winter or if spring would come early. Personally, I wondered whether Phil could really be sleeping through all the racket.

Right before sunrise, the “Inner Circle” of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club (est. 1887), clad in ritual black top hats and Victorian coats, processed through the crowd to the stage. There are fifteen of them, and together they “feed [Phil] his ‘Elixir of Life.’ The elixir is made from a secret recipe and has sustained Phil with longevity and youthful good looks.”  They appear to have specific roles and various special Inner Court Circle names, including “Stump Warden,” “Head Hailmaker,” “Sky Painter,” and “Moonshine.”  One is stuck with the rather ordinary name of “president.”

Vice-President Jeff Lundy (“Fair Weatherman”) addresses the crowd and has them repeat an incantation oath statement: “I saw Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler’s Knob on Groundhog Day; and I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.” The crowd cheers.

[The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and Punxsutawney Phil announcing his 2019 prognostication Image Punxsutawney Groundhog Club via Facebook]

He then recites,

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Finally, the president of the Groundhog Club, William Dooly, explains that he is invested with the power to speak in Groundhog-ese, which is apparently like taking the third degree, except with woodchucks. He has already spoken with Phil, who has, presumably, gone back to sleep before sunrise. But now, everyone must help awaken Phil by using his name to raise the cone of power chanting his name in unison.

At this point, we see that Phil is actually padlocked inside his burrow, presumably for his and everyone’s safety.  The door is opened, and the straw-covered Phil is plucked from his slumber and presented with arms raised to the crowd. “All hail groundhog supremacy!” goes the cry, and they do worship unto him.

Phil is placed upon a red velvet altar, explains his interest in music through his interpreter, and then selects a rune scroll that contains his divination of the weather. He instructs one of the inner court circle friends to read to his faithful followers:

“Faithful followers, there is no shadow of me –
A beautiful spring it shall be.”

An early spring Phil has promised.  And on cue, he breaks on to the stage.

The rite community gathering ends with everyone going to have cakes and ale breakfast and take pictures.

Dunga galungagoonga – at least that’s what it sounded like to me – is “Groundhog-ese” for Happy Groundhog Day, a festival that is absolutely, totally dissimilar to any Pagan sabbat, for certain.