The Vernal Equinox – The Festival of Ēostre
By Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. 🐾
The Spring Equinox festival is based in Germanic Paganism. Ēostre or Ostara (Northumbrian Old English: Ēostre; West Saxon Old English: Ēastre; Old High German: *Ôstara) is a goddess in Germanic paganism who, by way of the Germanic month bears her name.
As a pagan holiday Ostara is one of the more confusing and convoluted festivals in terms of its history. It’s claimed by German neo-Pagans, Norse, Saxon and Celt. Celts admit that holiday is not one of their original observances and therefore it’s accepted to be part of a reconstruction of old Celtic ways.
There is speculation that this holiday owes its roots to the Romans who took their holiday into the invasion of Ireland and even spread into Germanic cultures. However, this does not play out when one reviews Celtic or Germanic mythology and history.
Ēostre derives from Proto-Germanic “Austrō” the translation of which is “to shine”. But the name alone doesn’t help us figure out where the holiday started. German philologist, jurist and mythologist Jacob Grimm wrote in his 1835 Deutsche Mythologie:
This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.
He states the Old High German adverb ôstar “expresses movement towards the rising sun“, as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon ēastor and Gothic áustr.
He continues his explanation:
Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.
Many scholars point to some of the earliest references of Ostara which can be found in the writings of an English Monk named Bede (Venerable Bede), sometimes known as St. Bede (672/673 – 26 May 735). Now Bede isn’t some fly by night Monk. His monastery had access to one of the most complete and highly regarded libraries of his time. He was a great scholar of history, as well as an adept linguist. His research through ancient writings, allowed him to document knowledge that would have otherwise been lost in his day. He was considered to be the foremost expert on English History. And it is from his research and writings that we have the first documentation on Ostara.
The problem is, by the 19th Century many scholars began questioning Bede’s “research” and writing. Some believe the pagan Goddess concept was a creation of the English Monk because it’s been so difficult to document here story in other histories, be they folklore or accepted mythologies. These academics believe the concept of a pagan festival at this time of year comes from 19th century reconstructions. There are extreme arguments on both sides for and against Bede and his writing of an early pagan Goddess named Ēostre.
In 1958 near Morken-Harff, Germany, 150 Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions are discovered. The inscriptions are incomplete as they have worn over time, but they are complete enough to tell they are written to and about the matron Austriahenea. In his writings Bede links Ēostre to Austriahenea. Astriahenea is the older variant of Aestorhild which is the ancestor variant to Ēostre.
Charles J. Billson a translator, lawyer, and collector of folklore is known for his study and writings of ancient customs. In his search for customs and folklore of the hare, he cites
“whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island”.
Other scholars have noted that little more is known about Eostre beyond the one passage provided by Bede. He describes her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. She represents fertility and carnal pleasures that lead to fertility. Because of this she is linked to Aphrodite who was also seen with the hare as a companion, along with satyrs and cupids.
Some have tried to link Eostre to the Norse Goddess Freya, but this doesn’t make sense. Freya was seen with felines as her companions and not the hare.
Ostara From The Celts
From a Celtic perspective, things get even more confusing. The holiday seems more of a neo-pagan attempt to reconstruct a festival for the vernal equinox. But what it’s based on isn’t fully agreed to by historians. The holiday has been long associated with Nemetona, who is a Romano-Celtic Goddess of the magikal Grove. Nemetona means ‘grove’, and she holds special significance to the Celts. The woodlands are long thought to be magikal and sacred places. Her name is thought to be derived from Nemhedh who was (according to the Book of Invasions) the leader of the third invasion of Ireland.
As a goddess of the grove, Nemetona is often seen in the company of the hare, foxes and other woodland creatures. A story from folklore describes the Goddess Nemetona using a hare to carry a message across a battlefield who gives orders to a chieftain that permits his army to win the day. I’ve looked for reliable resources for this myth and have not been able to find it or any reference to it. I can’t tell if this is a modern folktale for entertainment, or if the story has some basis in myth.
So with all this confusion, what exactly is the history of Ostara? There are many who will give you their opinion and tell you it’s a pagan holiday that honors the equinox. The equinox is a time to be acknowledged. It occurs twice a year and marks the day when the Earth is neither pointed to or away from the sun. It’s perfectly perpendicular, for lack of a better word, to the sun.
Even in the cool wetness of the early spring, it is obvious to all that winter is over. The blooms and buds of the next growing season are pushing through their winter slumber. The rebirth of the world is honored at Imbolg, but it can be seen and felt at Ostara. Whither you connect to the Germanic roots or favor the Celtic version of Ostara, it’s a festival that is celebrated by some and honored by many in the pagan communities around the world.
The Purpose of Ostara
Ostara is seen as the time of total balance. The longest day and longest night, not winter and not yet spring. It marks the rebirth of nature and the return of the God who comes to join the Maiden to bring new life and fertility to the coming growing seasons.
For pagans, this is a day of preparation. Clear and cleans old tools and consecrate them for new workings. Bless seeds for spring planting, or start a garden by cleaning the area and tilling the soil. It’s a good time for the lady to acquire a new broom and for the gentleman to craft a new staff.
It’s also a time for introspection. Meditation and evaluation of the current events and attitudes in your life. Examine where you might be unbalanced and where you might need to let go of the past and prepare for a fertile future. If you’ve been working extra hard during the winter months, then now you should turn some attention to home and hearth. If you’ve secluded yourself from the world other than school and work, then now turn some attention to family and friends. Too much of a good thing, still has its draw backs.
On the eve of Ostara, when the sun has set, honor the fertility of the season by sorting seeds to be honored during a festival ritual. If you have children, of if you’re a kid at heart, this is a good time to boil eggs and decorate them with beautiful colors and symbols.
As the night progresses, decorate your altar with simple symbols of spring and conduct a small ritual honoring the rebirth of Mother Nature and the coming of spring. Once your honoring has been completed, spend the rest of your evening on introspection.
While the world is quiet and at peace, review your current life and take stock of your emotions toward yourself, others and events in your life. Try not to justify anger or sadness by placing the responsibility of what might be occurring in your life upon someone else. Rather step back without blame and take a look at how you and your actions have contributed to the events, good or bad, in your life.
For those things that are working well, commend yourself. Give yourself some credit and think of something you can do as a celebration or congratulations for your efforts. For those things that have not been going well, take responsibility for your part in the event and forgive yourself of the actions, words or even thoughts that may have contributed to the event. Then think of way to turn things around.
On the day of Ostara, plan a walk through the park or arboretum. Hide the eggs you decorated, and help your children play games to find them. Work in your garden or flower beds and prepare them for the growing season. Spend the afternoon sharing in the preparation of a feast of celebration. A ham, vegetables, and potatoes are always a good sampling for the spring holiday. We like to add an ice cream cake decorated in the shape of a colorful egg to represent the fertility and warming trend of the season (the melting of the ice cream is good for that).
During the evening hours you can continue the festival with a formal holiday ritual. There are as many ways and suggestions for conducting such a ceremony as there are people on this planet. Follow your instincts and what you like or feel drawn to.
End your evening in private reflection. It is important for anyone practicing a spiritual life to reflect on his or her actions. Record your thoughts, your emotions and your experiences. This is the true value of your book of shadows. And there is no better time to take stock of yourself and your life than during a High Holy Day.
You can find more about the High Holy Days: The Pagan Sabbats, to discover why they’re observed at sunset and their timing through the year.
© 2013 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.