For those of us in the Northern Tradition, the high holy tide of Ostara is upon us. Some are gearing up to celebrate during the astronomical spring equinox (which varies slightly but always occurs between March 19-21), and others may postpone their celebrations so that they coincide more with the observed Christian date of Easter instead, which is April 16th this year. The later allows heathen children to be able to participate in more mainstream activities such as egg hunts with their peers at school and at community parks.
Even in antiquity there wasn’t one set, collective date across the peoples who worshipped the Aesic gods such as Odin. Observances varied based on a manner of different time keeping methods, as well as localized, regional cues based on the local climate and life cycle. For the Norse peoples, the warmer weather would arrive much later than it would in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Venerable Bede gives us our only specific information about the Anglo-Saxon Goddess known as Eostre in his De temporibus ratione, where he informs us that the month of April was called Ēostur-monath, and that he believed the name was derived from a Goddess that had been worshipped in ancient times. Some scholars, and even certain pagans consider the information unreliable and so dismiss the claim. I would counter however that we have ample evidence of not only a heathen religious holy tide celebrated at this time of year, but other evidence, which while not direct, only adds credence to Bede’s claim.
Just as the Anglo-Saxon month of April was Eoster-monath, as we know from Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni the Germanic Franks shared a similar name for their month of April: Ostarmanoth. So here we have some supportive evidence of the Anglo-Saxon practices from continental Germans.
If we look to the Norse sources, and at the collection of sagas that comprise the Heimskringla, we see multiple mentions to three high holy tides throughout those sagas, such as mentioned in Ynglinga Saga, and is echoed again in Óláfs saga helga which states: “It is their custom to perform a sacrifice in the fall to welcome winter, a second at midwinter, and a third in the summer to welcome it’s arrival.”
Now most modern people would interpret this incorrectly, because today we have a concept of there being four seasons in the year (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), but we know from both ancient Icelandic laws as well as Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons that the ancient people’s had a cultural concept that the year was only comprised of two seasons: Summer and Winter. Thus the first day of Summer occurs sometime in what we might think of as the Spring today, and ‘midsummer’ or the summer solstice (known sometimes as Litha) occurs in the middle of the summer. The beginning of Winter occurs in the Autumn and is marked by the celebration known as Winter Nights. By following this reasoning the midwinter celebration is therefore Yule. We see this timing echoed when we hop back across to the Anglo-Saxons.
We know that the Witans, or ruling councils of the Anglo-Saxons, gathered during specific days from the Christian calendar: Saint Martin’s Day, Christmas, and Easter/Whitsunday. These three Christian religious observances sync with the pagan timing of the three high holy tides we find amongst the Scandinavian sources: the start of Winter or Winter Nights, midwinter or Yule, and the start of Summer or Ostara. Not only did the Witans meet at these times, but when these councils came together to meet the Anglo-Saxon Kings of old would also specifically wear their crowns at this time. No doubt this is an old carry-over from expected duties of the King during the heathen religious celebrations. We certainly see in Ynglinga saga that the King of Sweden in his role as high priest at the temple of Uppsala conducted religious rites.
In Óláfs saga helga we see that shortly after King Olaf II of Norway had observed the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, he heard news that Olvir of Egg was making ready the preparations for a pagan religious celebration occurring within a matter of days of the Christian Easter. While the timing didn’t sync precisely, remember that we have different methods of time-keeping at play between pagan customs and the way the Christian Church put together the calendar for their observances, and the Church has a long history of moving many of their celebrations to capitalize on ancient pagan rites, or to adapt those ancient celebrations to their new religion.
While the Norse sagas do specifically mention Winter Nights and Yule, the springtime celebration is never specifically called Ostara. We do however find ample celebrations held at this time amongst the Scandinavians: Sigrblot (which translates to victory sacrifice), Sumarmál or Surmanaetr (Summer Nights, sometimes occasionally called Summer Finding by modern heathens).
Now, I’m sure a few of you might be puzzled about why there would be a ‘victory sacrifice’ at what amounts to the beginning of the modern-day concept of Spring. In part the warmer months are generally when ancient peoples would conduct war-fare. But more than that, Spring is that balance between forces of Night (Nott) and Day (Dagr), and the transition has somewhat of a combative flare to it at times as well. (which was touched on by fellow Pantheon contributor Galina Krasskova when she writes of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hretha and the Roman God Mars). We also see that ‘balance’ as well as the importance of victory reinforced again in Sigdrifa’s Prayer. There also abound a number of theories by academics and modern heathens that look at possible connections between Eostre & Hretha, Eostre and Idunna, Eostre and Walpurga.
I have my own theory, or at least a partial insight. In Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology he describes several folk-practices, one where women appeared clad in white at the first dawn of the Summer (i.e. the modern day concept of Spring). This isn’t the first time we see women in a context with light clad in white. We see another folk tradition amongst the Scandinavians at Yule where there are females of the community acting as ‘light bringers’. While this is most commonly connected with the Christian observance of Saint Lucia’s Day, Lucia may in fact have pagan origins to the ancient figure of Lussi. As midwinter marks the return of the light from the darkest time of the year, the start of the summer represents the balance of light and dark. So could it be that these white clad females brought light on darkest night at Yule, and at the dawn of Summer are revealed as a symbolic representation of the changing cycles of the year?
The connection with dawn with this holy tide isn’t coincidental. Ostara, or Old English Eastre or Northumbrain Eostre, is believed to etymologically derive from a proto-germanic term meaning to shine, and that also relates to the east or the dawn (and this placement of the dawn and the east, correlates to the “Venus” star of the spring). Please also note that the etymology for the Old English term Eastre is believed to derives from the Old English ēast (in other words the cardinal direction), and thus suggests again another association with the dawn. While evidence is inconclusive, there are references to a possible Proto-Germanic goddess known as Austro. Still within the same etymological family, we then have the term Austriahenae or “Eastern Ones”, which is a known matron cultus (disir) from the Germanic Rhine-land, that has well over 100 votive stones found dedicated to them in the archaeological record. Could it be, that the folk custom described by Grimm of white clad women appearing at dawn might have its roots in this particular matron cultus? We don’t know. But it certainly is tantalizing food for thought.
Now, if we decide to branch out beyond this specific umbrella grouping of cultures and instead look at other cultures within the Proto-Indo European family we also see correlating Goddesses in other traditions, including the Roman Goddess Aurora and the Greek Goddes Eos, and even the Indian Goddess Ushas. Etymologically speaking, the names of these Goddesses all appear to be ‘in the family’.
While there’s no bit of history connecting the phenomena of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights that we know of to the aforementioned Goddesses… I personally think that the timing of this natural phenomena is of special note. It begins at the start of our autumn, and concludes around the start of our spring. Syncing up with the ‘winter’ of this ancient culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the Vikings or Teutonic tribes thought about the Northern Lights.
While we have a very strong prevalence of the east associated with a Goddess, there are two masculine Eastern references as well. The first is to the dwarf Austri who is one of four dwarves named for the cardinal directions that support Ymir’s skull, which in turn is the foundation for the sky and heavens above us. We also see from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, a ‘eastern’ connection with Freyr, or rather very specifically with his aspect as Ing Freyr coming “from the East’, and its in part for this reason and his known connections with fertility that many heathens opt to also honor and make offerings to him on this day. In fact, Freyr is known as not only a god of fertility, but also as a god of peace. In Gylfaginning, Freyr is said to rule over “rain and sunshine and thus over the produce of the earth; it is good to call upon him for good harvests and for peace; he watches over prosperity of mankind.” Now doesn’t that sound like exactly what you might need at the start of the crop-growing season for the agricultural cycle ahead?
We’ve touched on the Holy Powers in our tradition that all relate to the etymological root word to ‘shine’ or ‘dawn’, and the related ‘east’. So let us now examine the term Easter. Simply put the term is not rooted in Abrahamic tradition, but was rather appropriated for use by the Church to apply to the Passover/Resurrection tradition. While to Christians the term Easter refers to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the symbolism of moving from death back into life stem from pagan understandings of the cycles.
If we think in very vague general terms about ancient rites and what was going on in the calendar year we see a pattern emerge. Since this was very much an agricultural religion, much of the holy tides revolve around the necessary life cycles. Spring was about re-seeding life, and new life, and new growth. Summer was the continuance of growth ‘maintenance’ of the crop, and also the time for war, travelers, and traders. The fall marked the harvest of the crop, and preparations to survive winter. And winter was a time to hold up, rest, and sleep, and a time of death as well.
While no one individual piece of evidence is definitive, this overwhelming body of supportive (albeit somewhat indirect) evidence does to my mind make it really clear that yes not only was there a religious holy tide at this time, but that yes there was a Goddess Ostara as well, although it appears just as we have regional variances with the leader of the Wild Hunt amongst the heathen peoples (The Goddess Perchta in Germany, and the God Odin in Scandinavia) that we also had some regional variation here as well. As someone who has invoked Her and given her offerings through the years there is absolutely no doubt to my mind that she is in fact very much real.
Below are the words to an invocation I sing to Her.
Goddess of the sunrise
Shining in the east
Spring now from your slumber
Ostara so we plead
So what about Easter traditions like the Easter Bunny and eggs?
From observations of the ancient world, this is indeed the time of eggs, which often times represented the first substantial food that ancient heathens would have had after exhausting their winter stores. Chickens for instance generally won’t lay eggs until there are so many hours of daylight. As to how the association of hares with eggs came about… well that’s two-fold. First, now that winter was over the hares were entering into their breeding season that would last for a few months. Hares like their distant cousins rabbits, are known to have multiple childbirths, and be able to give birth to several litters in a year and thus have a reputation for “going at it like bunnies”. Unlike their rabbit cousins who live in underground burrows, hares live in above ground nests. And since birds lay eggs in nests… and both hares and eggs were suddenly around at the same time it is a reasonable conclusion that the two were connected.
While there are numerous folkloric traditions with egg decorating, egg fighting, egg rolling throughout the ancient heathen peoples, to my knowledge the oldest known decorated egg comes from outside our tradition and dates to sometime in the Iron Age and was found in Northern Africa (Ancient Carthage).