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The Straight Dope

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Why, on Groundhog Day, if the groundhog sees its shadow, does it mean that there will be six more weeks of winter? Presumably if the weather was nice enough to see a shadow, winter would be over. --Nep Smith, Los Angeles

Shoot, a question about Groundhog Day, February 2, and here it is April. I'm never going to make it to the op-ed page with that kind of record. First we must cleanse the problem of extraneous detail. This has nothing to do with groundhogs. In Europe the same legend has attached to bears, badgers, and hedgehogs. German immigrants brought it to North America in the 19th century and, not finding any hedgehogs, settled on the somewhat similar (it's small, it hibernates) woodchuck, aka groundhog. Not that you need animals of any sort. Medieval English proverbs strip the proposition to its paradoxical core: "If Candlemas Day [also February 2] be bright and warm, ye may mend yer auld mittens and look for a storm." Some writers (e.g., Gail Cleere in Natural History) trace the belief back even further "to an ancient pagan celebration [by Scottish Celts] called Imbolog, which marked a "cross-quarter' day, one of the days that fall midway between the four mileposts of the solar year," namely the solstices and equinoxes.

Incredibly interesting, but why did the Celts figure good weather today meant crappy weather later? Beats me, and from what I can tell, pretty much beats everybody else too. Best, or perhaps I should say only, theory: sunny days in winter are the product of cold, dry arctic air masses, while cloudy days result from mild, moist tropical air. Unfortunately, while this may be true as a general proposition, the predictive value of the weather on February 2 basically sucks mud. According to Canadian Geographic weather columnist David Phillips, a multidecade, multicity study in Canada found that groundhog-driven predictions were right only 37 percent of the time. Which means, I guess, that you'd be right 63 percent of the time if you said good weather on February 2 meant good weather ahead. But what kind of weather proverb would that make? Those ancient Celts obviously knew what the TV tabloids have only recently rediscovered: better to be wrong but memorable than right but mundane.

How did some medieval Europeans come to display lions on their coats of arms? Few if any would have been able to see a real lion during their lifetimes. --Zach Church, Washington, D.C.

You never heard of Daniel in the lion's den? So much you have to explain to these postreligious Generation Xers. Lions once ranged more widely than any other land mammal. While there were none in Europe during the Middle Ages (they had become extinct in Greece, their last European outpost, by 100 AD), they survived in considerable numbers in the Middle East and north Africa. Medieval Europeans had regular contact with these areas, and presumably with lions, via trade and (in the Middle East) via pilgrimages and the Crusades. The last Middle Eastern and north African lions weren't wiped out until this century.

But even if medieval Europeans had had no contact with the big cats at all, they'd probably still have had a thing about lions. Lions show up in the art of China, after all, even though none has ever roamed there. Lions early on attained mythic stature and became embedded in human culture, after which point it didn't much matter if the real thing was around or not. No animal has been given more attention in art and literature. C.A.W. Guggisberg, in his classic book Simba, says the lion is referred to 130 times in the Bible. The lion can be found in Stone Age cave drawings, and no doubt has been considered king of beasts since the dawn of man.

The high regard in which lions traditionally have been held to a large extent accounts for their greatly reduced numbers today. They have always been considered the premier game beast, and men have slaughtered them in vast numbers to prove their manliness. But it seems certain that lions would survive in human recollection as a symbol of nobility and courage even if, as may well happen, all living specimens were destroyed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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