|| History/Culture: Easter/Ostara and the Goddesses of Dawn|
By Sherlyn Meinz|
I think Spring must be one of the most long-awaited and welcome of the seasons, especially in northern climates. March 20 marks the Vernal Equinox and the change of season to Spring, the time when night and day are in balance. Living in Vermont (US) that’s reason for a big hurrah and celebration!
Celebrated since ancient times as Ostara (Oestara, Eostre’s Day, Rite of Eostre, Festival of the Trees, Lady Day) from this holiday comes many of our Easter traditions. Others point to the 25th of March, or the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox as the date of Ostara. Easter is timed according to the Vernal Equinox and falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox, but cannot fall on the day of the full moon itself, in rejection of ancient Moon rituals that had long been celebrated marking this season.
In ancient Germany Ostara was honored, in Greece it was Eostre, both were Goddesses of the Dawn. Spring is associated with dawn and follows the season of darkness (night) or winter. The goddess Ostara was thought to be able to take the form of a rabbit or hare. April is considered Ostara’s month, and her name is related to dawn, morning light, and the direction East. Our words Easter and estrogen both come from the name of the Greek Spring goddess Eostre…
Since the ‘dawn’ of time, Spring has been the time to plant seeds, watch the Earth green, animals appear that have come out of hibernation, life returns to Earth after the ‘little death’ of winter. In areas where it is still too cold to plant, seeds are often blessed, as they hold the promise of new life. It is the time of ‘Spring Fever’, new love and new beginnings, and many clean their homes at this time – ‘Spring Cleaning’.
The tradition of cleaning out the remains of the dark season from the home also has ancient roots. Spring cleaning represented more than just the physical effort of cleansing, sweeping, washing, but was also an effort to free one’s home of any negativity that manifested during the long winter months. With long months of darkness, less outdoor and physical activity for most, Winter often allows more time for contemplation and meditation. Spring is a good time to begin manifesting new understandings. It is an important time to clean the house of your mind as well, ridding yourself of outdated conceptions, grievances, hurts, regrets, grudges, resentments, etc. Create room for new experiences, understandings, happiness by ridding yourself and your home of unneeded clutter.
The connections between the pagan celebrations of Spring and the Christian holiday of Easter are myriad. Did you ever wonder what Easter eggs, hot-cross buns, bunnies, and baskets with their green ‘grass’ have to do with Easter? These were all ancient symbols of Spring and the renewed fertility of the Earth. These ancient celebrations of the victory of the Gods and Goddesses of Light, Spring, Dawn; over those of Darkness, Winter, Night, show how the Christian celebration mirrors the more ancient ones it attempted to replace. Many ancient beliefs include the descent of a God or Goddess (Nature) into the Underworld (a place where the souls of the dead reside) only to return to Earth bringing light and warmth, in many traditions this journey to the underworld takes three days. It is the time when the God of Light, Llew vanquishes over his twin the God of Darkness, Goronwy, with a spear of light (Welch tradition). The yin and yang energies are in balance, and it is a time to remember to ‘walk in balance,’ to see our part in the greater scheme of things, and recognize how our deeds, actions and inactions affect others and the Universe.
As the Earth which has undergone the ‘little death’ of winter, begins to renew itself, so did Jesus die upon the cross to be renewed (risen) three days later on Easter, bringing his light and cleansing (of sin) to the people of earth as he ascends to Heaven. Christians celebrate the victory of Jesus (light) over darkness and death in the Spring.
Some believe that the earliest traditions came originally from Mediterranean lands, and were brought with the populations as they moved north. There is evidence that the first inhabitants of the British Isles celebrated the Spring Equinox from the ruins of ancient sites that exist to this day. This time was considered the beginning of the new year in many cultures, as vibrant life, energy, and growth returned to the earth after the winter season. It is considered an excellent time for prosperity rituals and anything that has to do with growth, new beginnings, improving communication, manifesting your plans. But Spring can also be a stormy time, weather-wise and emotionally - the heightened energy can carry you away.
In Christian tradition, March 25th, became the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The word ‘annunciation’ means announcement, and this is when the Angel Gabriel was said to have announced to Mary that she was carrying God’s son, whose was birthdate was set exactly nine months later on December 25th.
Ancient pagan festivals honored the process of conception at this time, as well as the Gods and Goddesses connected to all aspects of fertility – human, animal, plant. The young Sun God celebrates his marriage to the Maiden Goddess, and impregnates her. She will again become the Great Mother Goddess in nine months, at Yule (~ December 20/21).
In Germanic lands a ritual battle between Summer and Winter, was often acted out. Winter was slain or beaten out of the village, or effigies might be drowned or burned. Summer would then claim his bride (marriage, fertility). Spring is often the time associated with “hand-fasting” (an informal marriage, whose term is often a year and a day, and can be renewed each year should both wish to do so), and with love, romance and weddings.
Eggs, fertility symbols and decoration
Eggs have been used in many ways to symbolize and bring fertility to households, farms, etc. throughout mankind’s history. The egg is considered the symbol and home of the soul and life. The golden ball of its yolk represents the Sun God, it’s white shell the White Goddess (Bride), and the egg itself is a symbol of rebirth. Field workers in Germany were given eggs to ensure a bountiful harvest, in Russia eggs are buried with the dead so that the departed are reborn. The colors used to decorate eggs also had individual meanings, and were thought to help manifest different hopes and wishes for the coming year, and to keep away evil. In the Ukraine egg decorating was a part of a secret ritual performed by women. Non-fertile eggs were not used as they were thought to bring the bad luck of infertility. Red was the predominate color, in many other cultures, used for egg decorating - representing morning, sunrise, and birth – babies emerge from the womb covered in red (blood).
Egg games have long been part of our traditions. It was thought that the breaking of an egg in some of these games allowed the fertility to be released from the egg into the game players. England continues the traditions of ‘Egg-shackling’ and rolling colored eggs down a hill. Easter egg hunts are popular in the US, and throughout much of Europe. Eggs are placed among thornbushes and nettles in German tradition, forcing bravery or cleverness from the children who hunt for them. It is thought this tradition is related to the ‘mock switchings’ which also occured at this time. In the Spring, the ‘thorn of waking’, brings fruitfulness and awakening, and is considered to be the bright counterpart to the ‘dark sleep-thorn’.
According to folklore from a number of regions, eating eggs at this time is supposed to bring health, strength and growth. Some also keep Easter eggs and shells all year to provide protection to the family and livestock, especially against hail and lightening. In times past, the Storm God, Þórr, blessed the fields in Spring against hailstorms. Ostara rites included making “sun-wheels” from straw, oak, and green branches. These were brought to the top of the highest nearby hills, set afire and rolled down into the fields - in a very literal way bringing the warmth and light of the sun to the fields being prepared for planting. It is thought that this was a male-only ritual. In Germany and Czechoslovakia in later ages, an egg laid on Thursday was obtained, colored green to represent fertility and fruitfulness and buried in the farmer’s largest wheat field. On each side of the buried egg was placed a burning “hail cross.” These burning crosses replaced earlier traditions as Christianity spread. The charred sticks that remained were brought into the home for protection from fire, lightning, and hail. Ashes from the fires might be spread over the fields to bring fertility.
Hot Cross Buns
Examples of ancient “Hot Cross Buns” have been found by archeologists, early Anglo-Saxons decorated and ate wheat cakes decorated with crosses in the Spring, and similar cakes were part of Diana’s Spring Festival. The cross may have represented the four quarters of the moon, the seasons of the year, or a way to express the equilibrium of the equinox day. Today ‘hot cross buns’ are often made and eaten in association with cross upon which Jesus was hung.
Just about everyone recognizes the rabbit or hare’s abundant fertility. The Hare was a sacred companion to Spring goddesses in many cultures throughout the world. Ostara is celebrated by many on the Full Moon, and the hare and the moon have long been associated with each other. Some feel this is due to the fact that bunnies are born with their eyes open, or that the full moon seems to show the image of the hare on it’s surface. It is also suggested that the Hare was chosen as a fertility symbol because during Spring they can be seen ‘dancing’ in the fields on their hind legs, as part of their mating rituals and obviously for their frequent multiple litters. (Mythic animals that are associated with Ostara are unicorns, mermaids/mermen, and pegasus.)
Ham is often part of our Easter feasts, and the tradition of a spring ham has roots in our past. In the late fall, during the Blood Moon, the last animals were usually slaughtered before winter. Salted and cured meats could be expected to remain good throughout the winter season. When Spring arrived and worries about whether the stored food would last long enough had faded, the tastiest of the remaining stored meats were served in celebration. These meats often included hams. Spring also marks the seasonal end to the need to eat cured foods, fresh foods are once again available, and the young green plants are chock full of vitamins and minerals, which are very replenishing.
In the faery lore of the Celtic countries, it was customary to leave out food and drink for the fairies on the nights of festivals and holidays, to appease them and prevent possible mischief. At Ostara it was customary to leave something sweet, like honey. Consuming candy shaped liked bunnies/hares, eggs, and chicks, symbolizes ingesting these animals’ fertility characteristics and thus enhancing our own fertility.
Baskets filled with grass
Spring is when birds build their nests, which are symbolic baskets. Nests are created in preparation for new life which is about to spring forth, and thus associated with this season. Fresh green grass and plants burst forth as the ground thaws. Children in some cultures leave baskets in the fields for the Easter Bunny to place their eggs, in other cultures the baskets are laid out the night before or brought by the Bunny.
Blessed Spring/Easter to all, however you celebrate!
“The Old Ways: Spring”, by Doug and Sandy Kopf
(You can find a list of colors used on eggs and some of their meanings here)
Spring Equinox, Alban Elfed, Eostar Sabbat: Facts and Misinformation
Gwyl Canol Gwenwynol – Spring Equinox
Ostara (Esotre), Contributors: KyedulfR Hagan Gundarsson, Gunnora Hallakarva, Diana Paxson, Gunnwar Skaoadottir, Eric Wodening
Ostara, Spring Equinox
Ostara’s Home Page, The Germanic Goddess of Springtime
Ostara by Herne, Akasha, Herne and the Celtic Connection wicca.com, 1997
OSTARA (pronounced O-STAR-ah)
Holiday Overview, by Christina Aubin, March 2002
You Call It Easter, We Call It Ostara, by Peg Aloi
[21 March 2013 (previously posted on this site)]
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