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Reconsidering a Historical Ostara/Eostre
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“A red light breaks over the horizon. Slowly and surely, a golden shaft creeps over the hills, with a quivering wind at its footsteps. The goddess of dawn arouses the hills by breathing life into it. It is as though the world was holding its breath under the spell of night.
At the foot of the Hag Hill, the first beam of light expands into a sliver against an ancient stone wall at 6:30, just five minutes after sunrise. Minute by minute, this sunray creature creeps against the back wall where the sacred symbols have been inscribed. Deep inside the cairn, ancient worshippers wield ceremonial tools. Some are staffs inscribed with ancient runes, decorated with straw, and tipped with obsidian flints.
In vigilant awe and silence, the whole mass beholds as a single sunray appears. She is golden as the hills – but gilded in pure, clean white. Outside, the blades of grass are dancing, birds are singing. This ray of light and the wind following are holy and pure – dewdrops sparkle with the light of life at its footsteps. As twenty-three minutes pass, a cheer goes out from the assembly. The back wall is lit as if it were made from gold.
The sunbeam scans this work of art – it is suns, depictions of sun rays, and spirits of the sun. With a single golden eye, it stops at its own reflection just nineteen minutes later. An eight-rayed sun like a golden bloom appears at the middle. In a mere eleven minutes, the light fades away.
It is the equal-night-and-day crowning aura of spring, the dawn of the year. This ancient hill is a cairn in Loughcrew, Ireland. This backwall is the “Equinox Stone.”
Of course, nowadays the average Pagan doesn’t go out to the nearest megalithic cairn to celebrate the sunrise of the Vernal Equinox. Some of us are, however, very keen on getting up to see the very first red – that part where the sun and the horizon haven’t completely separated. This moment of sunrise when the sun is not distinct – this is what the Romans called Aurora, and what the Greeks called Eos.
To those of us who got up especially early, just before the sun – a bright star, or rather, planet appears. It is to some the “son of the morning” and to others the “queen of heaven.” Either way it is the planet Venus that brings this amazing dawn.
In ancient Rome, the beginning of spring was the New year. Today in Iran there is the new year, Norouz. In India, the lunar months of the Hindu calendar determine many new years: Ugadi for the Telugu and Andra Pradesh. In mid-April, the sidereal vernal equinox is the New Year: Puthandu of the Tamils, Pohela Baisakh of the Bengals, and Vaisakhi of the Punjabs. The Thais, The Laos, the Cambodians, and the Sinhalese: Songkran, Bpee Mai, Chaul Chnam Thmey, Aluth Avurudhu.
Regardless of whether or not this is your new year, this is the time when the sun once transitioned from Pisces to Aries. This is the day when nights and days are equal, and days begin to get longer. No matter the case, in every culture that holds the equinox day holy there is a sense that through this commemoration some deep shadow has been conquered.
In Western culture, Easter shortly follows and occurs anywhere from March 22 – April 25. It is always on the Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox. In Neopaganism, specifically most Wiccan sects, the equinox is calculated through the “tropical zodiac” – it is precisely on the date of our calendars when NASA informs us the equinox is present.
We call this holiday Ostara. It is also known as Eostre, Lady Day, and Alban Eilir. To Greek Pagans, the middle of March is Bacchanalia. All of these Western Pagan holidays can be considered as “the rites of spring.”
Ostara, however, has become quite the controversial term. Let me just say, that there are a few stories out there passed off as authentic folklore that are clearly not. This isn’t to say that these aren’t beautiful stories or that perhaps it’s not natural that folklore should be already emerging as we commit ourselves to reviving old holidays. However, it is fairly obvious that most of it is “fake” in the sense of “not that old.”
For starters, there’s a lot of inference and speculation around this goddess that has become packaged as historical facts. The only real thing that we know about Eostre/Ostara comes from a seventh-century monk who goes by the name of Saint Bede or Venerable Bede. For one brief section he explains the original English months, (and these are all wonderful months named after pagan practices. I highly recommend checking this work out.) What’s interesting to first note though is the word “Giuli” – both the names for December and January give us the “Yule-months” and June and July are the “Litha months.” Essentially the solstices were observed on lunar calendars as occurring between these two months. What is most important to note though is the origin of the original month of April. To the ancient Britons, October or the “winter’s full moon” was the beginning of Winter and April was the beginning of English Summer.
April was “Eosturmonath” – which Bede describes in the Reckoning of Time as named after the goddess Eostre (pronounced ohs-STRUH.) He reports,
“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month' and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance.”
It is interesting to note that he considers the name “time-honored.” Some scholars falsely derive that he’s reporting of Eostre’s festivals as having died out, but what’s he’s actually saying is Christianity had enveloped it. What this says to me is these old rites were so honorable, and hence popular, that it was no offense to early Christianity to give this name to the English and German names for Easter.
Jakob Grimm several hundreds of years later studied the names of places and things he considered etymologically related to a similar Germanic Goddess named ‘Ostara.’ Many other authors arrive at some of the same conclusions as Grimm. Egg-laying rabbits had been in Europe for some mysteriously long time now and they associated these animals with this Goddess.
Although the Oschter Haws, or German Easter Hare, had been first recorded in the 1500’s, hare-hunting had been essential to Easter morning in records going back a ways. Many, many local superstitions surrounded these creatures. It only seemed logical to some, that perhaps hares were once a sacred or sacrificial animal to the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic Goddess of springtime, and eggs were an aniconic representation of Her fertility.
Critics of modern Ostara complain that Wiccans are distorting history in taking all these suppositions to the extreme. There is a very neat story, which was written very recently that describes the goddess Ostara saving a bird with a broken wing from winter starvation by turning it into a rabbit. This rabbit possessed the ability to lay eggs and as a result became the magical Easter Hare. Don’t get me wrong; this is a great story. It’s just that it’s very unlikely this or anything like it represents a true survival of equinox celebration anytime before now.
To the south of Britain, the spring equinox was a huge deal for a long time, representing the death and rebirth of many gods and goddesses of mystery traditions, springtime, and fertility. To the north, in the British Isles where Wicca was born, the four cross-quarter days and solstices were popular. We can’t really put a finger on much evidence for the equinoxes.
That’s not to say that someone somewhere wasn’t celebrating them. Obviously the stone calendars prove someone did at some point. I can’t help but feel a little angry as people point at us and call our religion completely unscholarly. I feel something bluntly obvious is staring critics in the face that few notice. Many critics greatest plea is that Eostre would be an April celebration and the equinox would occur in March. However, for one, solstices and equinoxes move.
The Hindu Calendar itself used a “sidereal” version – it has permanently recorded the date of the equinox to account for the “precession of the equinoxes.” In case you were wondering, solstices and equinoxes shift a few days every few hundred years. Christmas was once the ACTUAL date of the winter solstice. Long before this, the celebration of the rebirth of Osirs, January 6, was celebrated as the solstice by the Egyptians.
Now, what this means is all of the “25th” dates a few thousand years ago were completely accurate. St John’s Day was the actual Summer Solstice. “Lady Day” or the Catholic feast of Annunciation fell on March 25, and it was the spring equinox. Many Christians refused to accept the Julian concept of the New Year as January 1. They attributed the nine months before Christ’s birth as holy also and considered March 25 the new year.
The original moment when Mary is conceived by the Holy Spirit is considered the first presence of Christ on Earth and hence the true New Year. Coincidentally, many Christians also celebrated this fixed, unmovable date as the true crucifixion of Christ. In the Greek Mysteries, the death and rebirth of Attis occurred on the 25th of March also. Mithras, whose birth date was Dec 25, was also conceived on this date. Aligned with the Roman New Year, this day was considered holy by the Mysteries.
Some critics complain however that the equinox simply wasn’t observed in Britain. Ostara, they say, was at best a “springtime lunar goddess.” This is an incorrect assumption. Just because the deities ruling months were worshiped at the full or new moon, does not make them “lunar deities.” In fact, even in our own Craft lore it’s been postulated that seasonal observations like “sabbats” were often bumped to the closest full moon so there would be sufficient light and auspiciousness.
Some naysayers, like Nick Sayers, attempt to maintain that Easter is derived from the old German auferstehen, meaning resurrection. I must assert my own opinion on this matter. I feel that it’s a bit silly to doubt Bede’s word on this matter, as he is our only look into the past and was considered by some “the father of English history.” In any case, all of these words for Easter and Eostre will ultimately refer back to “aws” – an Indo-European root meaning “illumination, especially at dawn.” An etymology I found rather delectable is the idea that Eostre is “eos-aster” or a name that means, “dawn-star.”
However, if we take into account the inconsistency of a lunar calendar, the precession of equinoxes, the sloppy transitions between calendars, then what was known as the beginning of April could have very well once been the scientific beginning of Spring. If we also take into account that the ancient Britons regarded the first day of the year as Yule or solstice, than the beginning of the year would be what is today December 21. Likewise, April 1 (the first day of Eostre’s month) would have been our March 21. It is possible that Eostre/Ostara or Her earlier names were called out from these megalithic cairns on the dawn of Spring.
If the timing is right, Ostara could date back to the birth of the cairns themselves. The lunar calendar would preserve the old date among the pagan peoples or “peoples of the land” even with the advent of the Julian calendar. As access to the mysteries of solstices and equinoxes became sparse, folk traditions would disperse and would gravitate to more indistinct portions of time to commemorate Eostre and Ostara.
As a modern Pagan, I would like to speculate on how we can interpret Ostara:
1) First, Lady Day can be treated as a Christianized form of the same, astronomically updated holiday that was Ostara. Easter can be treated as a Christianized form of the old Eostre feast, except one Sunday later. Some Wiccan traditions even now celebrate Sabbats on the closest full moon. There is however no saying as to whether it was the new or full moon that was the height of Eostre’s rites. Either way, the feasts could have lasted a long time. Grimm suggests Ostara is a plural term for a number of feasts. Many of us believe that these holidays are rooted in the spring equinox and, in modern times, regard the “first day of spring” astronomically speaking as the most essential date.
2) Lady Day is a preservation of the “divine conception” aspect of Ostara. Many gods like Christ (and indeed the God of Wiccan tradition) are born on the winter solstice. It’s only logical that He is conceived nine months earlier. If we accept the presuppositions that hares and eggs were symbols of Ostara, it’s not such a stretch to say that She was a Goddess of fertility, and rites that involve “divine conception” were essential to this time. Fertility, though important, is only about humans’ fertility part of the time. Seeds and plantings are important to our modern Ostara because they represent the numinous powers of nature.
3) The death and re-birth holidays can be analyzed from a Freudian perspective. With Attis, Christ, and Dionysus, they are crucified against a symbol of the phallos. With Persephone and Inanna, there is a descent and return from the opening of the underworld. All of these are in some ways, mock deaths, because there is a miraculous re-birth. It is what the French call “le petit morte” – the little death that is the divine orgasm. The light that conquers the darkness is the arrival of sexual power recovered from the subconscious. These are not full-on deaths like the one we celebrate at Samhain – they are representations of one recollecting the events of a much earlier death and rebirth through sexual union.
4) Divine conception and mock death both happen simultaneously at Ostara. The very conception of a new child is in some ways a loss of the parent’s original substance. In the Wiccan timeline, this is the pubescence of the God and Goddess and the conception of the God of the next year. In every mystery tradition where a youthful deity is sacrificed, there is a sense of a disturbing loss of youth and innocence that transitions to new power. Like the literal loss of youth in literal puberty, there is a preoccupation with death and liminality. Following the descent of deities into the “subconscious realm of the underworld” is a joyous return. The uprushing of divine powers releases the seed that motivates the whole re-birthing process. The erotic power that is awakening in the earth heightens until it establishes codependence, and the wild courtship rituals that will appear at Beltane, the greatest fertility holiday in the modern Wiccan calendar.
5) Whether or not Ostara or Eostre had hares and eggs dedicated to them in the old days, they are great symbols of the month April, the dawn of spring, life, fertility, and should be re-dedicated to Her. Rabbits that appear just before dawn are most definitely sacred to Ostara as a dawn goddess.
6) We can give Ostara some lunar attributes through Her connection to the hare, but it is clear that Her associations could be interpreted as Solar (as Eos), Lunar (as Mani, or the moon, in her Spring form), and Astral (as the dawn-star). Regardless, celebrating Sabbats without lunar deities is shortsighted of the real work that occurs in the actual preceding season. It’s possible to connect deities of our esbats to our solar holidays. It’s also possible to give Ostara a much larger and complex domain than one orb in the sky.
7) No matter what they tell you, don’t give up your innermost intuitions about old holidays. A lot of the self-appointed “scholars” out there are keen on academic bullying. It’s a shame that so many Wiccans are asking for acceptance, because some of us would give up the mere possibility of so many things if a professional sounding “historian” demanded it. Many Wiccans are criticized for accepting Eostre as an authentic goddess without there being much written text on Her. However, while there have been a few texts that have emerged to tell of traditions from the past doesn’t mean they represent the bulk of them or don’t show a preselective bias.
There are some intuitions about Wicca that I refuse to give up. I feel is that some parts are old as dirt, and I don’t believe that to feel superior to anyone else. I believe that because I think it just is that way. While it’s unknowable as of now where a people that celebrated all eight of our holidays existed, or if we are the first ones to do it, I think it’s definitely worth a shot to be open-minded about it. If we truly study Bede’s calendar, it appears that to the Britons of the past, the year begins with the solstice and finds its height in Litha. Summer begins four months later and winter four months from summer. In our conception of the Celtic calendar, there is a similar idea but the opener of seasons are the cross-quarter and not quarter days. It’s not such a stretch to believe that if two neighboring nations collectively held these eight days sacred that there wasn’t, at some point, some tradition that revered all of them.
We may never find anything, but the pursuit of knowledge always yields fruit. It could be that even if the eight Sabbats are made up, that they are still “meant to be.” Like the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu, our holidays are incarnations of the demand of this current age and Deity is proud to support them.
I believe that it’s actually good that so much of some holidays disappeared. If we had been tied to a constant tradition from the stone ages, our overconfidence would have kept us from growing much. And this moment of recovery is truly grand and amazing. The Gods are still alive. Ostara, no matter how putative or obscure, has come to life. This year she will be reborn again hopefully as active and as cherished as many popular god-forms are. Certainly, she can be a once-a-year-goddess, but that moment we return to Her worship and service is a sacred hollow in every year.
I challenged some of the accusations presented by scholars. I meditated not only Eostre, who ruled what the English thought of as April, but also on Hreda – the ruler of March. While indeed a personal mystical speculation, to me Hreda appears as the hawk-headed predator goddess. She rules the valkyries, winter, night, and the powerful sky of March. By allowing the manifestations of the hare-headed Eostre to survive in some amounts, the Earth grows fertile, and the Hare itself appears to lays eggs ensuring the regeneration of all forms of the Bird Goddess. In a way, both drive away winter and encourage the beginning of the new light.
We need to, as a people, wake up to the numens, or vital essences of our own deities. As symbols they are all-powerful and beyond our problems. As benevolent forces, they are only as powerful as we allow them to manifest. There are rituals for “drawing down” divine powers into places to bring Them more into contact with us. I challenge every one of you who know these to grasp onto the distinctive essence of Ostara, and bring her into this new age and year.
The way Bede made it sound, Christians were glad to be allowed to keep the name of Eostre sacred in some way. There is a popular image, a black and white print of Her that has been circulating for some time. Just like the image of the moon goddess that was interpreted by some as Eostre in A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, her eyes are held from the viewer. Her wave that signifies her departure is a symbol of beatific joy and sorrow. In some ways it seems like a Pagan gesture akin to the Christ ascending with the sign of benediction. Something inside of me feels this is the moment she left our world to become a hidden part of Christianity. Let us now gladly re-greet her and discover her true essence.
Surely, there is much to be said on popular holidays like Beltane and Samhain. This is why we’ve held off regarding less knowable holidays, but as a result these lesser-known days of power retain a sense of mystery we’ve held off experiencing until now. They have become charged with very acute and knowable power. Their deities and emblems are teetering on the edge of awakening, bringing tremors of insight to their observers.
In the hypnotic images that have been regarded as Eostre, in the symbols that have been connected to Her, there is a mood and spell, to use a term popularized by Rudolf Otto, a mysterium tremendum, which She casts on every viewer. She is letting us know that Her spirit has been freed from the darkness of winter and the suppression of Her worship.
This year, as she awaits her Rebirth, let us not disappoint, and may Goddess bless!
"Reckoning of Time" by Venerable Bede.
"Teutonic Mythology" by Jakob Grimm
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