Some practitioners of the Northern Tradition are celebrating Winter Nights (Vetrnætr, Haustblót ) around now, the time of the autumnal equinox so it is more in sync with mainstream pagan Mabon celebrations. Yet many more won’t be celebrating it until mid to late October, when it will be more in sync with the pagan celebration of Samhain. There are others who may not even celebrate it until November as that would be the approximate time when the harvest has concluded in their area.
The reason for the discrepancy is that as much as we sometimes treat the pre-Christian ancient German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon cultures as being part of a somewhat synonymous culture, the fact remains that we have regional differences as it applied to both methods of time-keeping, as well as it applied to when agriculturally related festivals were held based on that geo-specific culture’s natural cycle.
This has led today to a number of celebrations and observances including: Haligmonath, Winter Finding, Winterfylleth, Winter Nights, Vetrnætr, Haustblót, Völsi blót, etc.
So then what are all these different observances, and what do they have to do with this time of year?
When it comes to religious, pagan celebrations most people are familiar with the eight holy days or sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year, such as Lugnasadh. In the Northern Tradition, we do not call these celebrations sabbats. Instead, based on words (like the Old Norse hátíðir) used to describe the most holy of these celebrations (like Yule) as high tides, we tend to call the various religious celebrations we recognize today as holy tides (since not all of the holy tides are considered high tides).
Since we practitioners of the Northern Tradition are dealing with a general umbrella culture that existed in vast plurality we look to ancient Germanic, Scandinavian (Norse, Icelandic, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon sources. It is important to understand that these ancient cultures reckoned time in different ways in comparison to one another or to the modern world. They existed in different latitudes, lived amongst different types of geography with unique climate conditions that affected the local agricultural cycle. This means that sometimes the timing between when one group would celebrate and another would celebrate a similar type of holy tide could be several weeks apart.
Sometimes we can see an obvious and clear link between these cousin cultures to a specific holy tide like Yule, in other cases things are a bit less clear, or the celebrations of the different groups can sometimes seem vastly different even when they have a similar root. Case in point: the Northern Tradition holy tides in August known as Hlæfmæsse, or Freyfaxi.
Midsummer (or Litha, Sonnenwende, Sankthansaften, Midsommardagen, etc.), is without a doubt, a day with heavy connections to the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer is the longest ‘day’ of the year, as the sun appears in the sky for far longer than any other day of the year. In certain places of the Northern hemisphere including parts of Scandinavia, the sun may never fully set, giving locals an eye-witness view to what’s colloquially known as a ‘midnight sun’. As such, it should come as no great surprise that in pre-Christian times, as well as for pagans and Asatru today, the day is marked with celebration honoring the sun itself.
Sunna (or Sol) is described in our tradition as the Goddess who in her chariot drawn by horses guides the sun in its track, as her brother Mani similarly drives the moon coursing through the sky. We have no actual depiction in the archaeological record of Sunna herself, the closest we come is the Trundholm sun chariot from the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 500 BCE) found in Denmark, which depicts the sun (not the Goddess) being pulled by a horse drawn chariot, and the wheels of the chariot are clearly in the form of solar crosses, or sunwheels.
Symbols of the Sun
From ancient sources going back thousands of years, we have two types of sunwheels present in the archaeological record. The first is known as a solar cross, which is a circle bisected by a horizontal, and a vertical line arranged in the shape of a cross. The other incorporates the sowilo rune (which literally means ‘sun’) and may be known as a fylfot or swastika (which infamously was misappropriated by the Nazi party in World War II). Variations of this later type of sunwheel can incorporate a varying number of sowilo runes (two or more) into its symmetrical design.
This symbol is clearly connected to the Goddess Sunna, she whose chariot draws the sun in it’s path across the sky. Sunna (or Sol) is described in our tradition as the Goddess who in her chariot drawn by horses guides the sun in its track, as her brother Mani similarly drives the moon coursing through the sky. We have no actual depiction in the archaeological record of Sunna herself, the closest we come is the Trundholm sun chariot from the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 500 BCE) found in Denmark, which depicts the sun (not the Goddess) being pulled by a horse drawn chariot, and the wheels of the chariot are clearly in the form of solar crosses, or sunwheels.
The other sunwheel, the swastika is a symbol sacred to many world religions, you’ll find it used among Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Grego-Roman architecture and jewelry, and other Asian and Indo-European cultures and religions. Depictions of the swastika appear on various sundries including jewelry, runestones, swords and spears, cremation urns, etc. Throughout Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon finds.The symbol has even cropped up closer to home for most Americans, in that it was a sacred symbol of several Native American tribes including the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi.
The word swastsika derives from svastika a much older word from the Sanskrit language, which etymologically is comprised of words meaning both good and well-being, and thus the symbol can be interpreted to mean that it is a charm or blessing for good health. In the Germanic tradition, Sunna, is not only the Goddess that draws forth the Sun, but She is linked with healing in one of the Merseburg Charms as well. Since the Northern Tradition sprung from an agriculturally focused society, they viewed the year as broken up into only two seasons: summer and winter. Winter was the time when food was scarce, when disease ran rampant and illness, malnutrition and the cold weather took lives. Summer was seen as a time of not only warmth, but a time where food was more abundantly available.
Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology describes the traditional folk practices for Midsummer celebrations in the areas where the Norse Gods were once (and in some cases still are) honored is to set a sunwheel (or a wagon wheel) on fire. In some cases the wheel was simply lit locally and incorporated into the Midsummer bonfire. In other cases people trekked out into the countryside, found a hill, set the sunwheel on fire, and let it roll down the hill as they chased after it, people watching and cheering as they watched it roll along it’s fiery way, as vegetation caught fire. Sometimes mini-fires were set in the fields, as a way of directly burning in offering the crops that the sun had helped to grow, or fragrant herbs were tossed into local bonfires instead.
It is possible, that just as Native American tribes would regularly set clearings on fire for the sake of agriculture and to lure bigger game to lush fields, that the selective burning on the fields may have also been conducted not only as an offering, but potentially to help the land so that future crops were more bountiful. As we learned after Mt. Saint Helen’s blew its top, fire is actually a healthy part of nature, as it can help fuel rapid growth and renew the land. This is why the Forestry Service has now abandoned their previous policy of total fire suppression in the fight against wildfires. Sometimes they will now let forests burn because it is healthier for the forest in the long run to do so.
While there’s no doubt both types of sunwheels, solar crosses and swastikas, connect to the Goddess Sunna, some scholars including Hilda R. Ellis Davidson theorize that the swastika may be also connected to Thor, and therefore the symbol was a representation of mjollnir. HRED supports this theory by looking to the neighboring tradition of the Finnish Sami. On the shaman drums, it wasn’t uncommon to see a depiction of a man holding either a hammer or axe, or a swastika symbol. This male figure is identified as the Lappish equivalent to Thor, their Thunder God Horagelles. Considering that the symbol is comprised of two or more sowilo runes, and side by side sowilo runes which resembled lightning bolts were used for the Nazi SS, while this connection is less direct than with Sunna, it is to my mind a viable possible connection. Although I would posit a later appearing connection with Thor, and that the symbol was always closely associated with the Sun, and therefore Sunna.
Today, while many Heathens recognize both symbols, many Heathens tend to shy away from the use of the swastika symbol and instead use the solar cross symbol. This shyness with the swastika is firmly rooted in the atrocities performed by the Nazis in World War II. Today, the swastika tends to be far more associated with hate groups. For this reason many of the Native American tribes will no longer create arts and crafts baring this symbol, the symbol is banned from use except when used in historical context in Germany and Brazil. Yet the symbol is still clearly used on both the Finnish Air Force insignia, as well as in connection with the office of the Finnish President. Of those modern Heathens who do use the symbol, many do so in the privacy of their own homes, or in subtle ways. There are some who do fully embrace the symbol trying to reclaim it and educate in the process, but they are a small minority.
Sunwheels as a Ritual Craft Project
For Litha, I made my very own sunwheel to adorn the altar, which was infused with fragrant herbs and flowers. I opted to make my sunwheel in the solar cross design, and began by going to my local crafts store where I purchased a natural straw wreath, as well as natural raffia. Additionally, I stopped off at the florist and picked up sunflowers, yellow roses, purple mums, and a few other odds and ends that seemed appropriate. Then I used the raffia, and wrapped the wreath with it creating my base solar cross design. Once I had made the solar cross , I then began incorporating the flowers into the sunwheel. The end result only decorated the altar for a few brief hours before it was tossed into the Litha bonfire in offering to Sunna herself.
Or sunwheels I’ve made from other years…
This is an easy project that anyone can do for a modest investment, and can be made both by individuals for their own private rituals or by groups of people as a joint and collective offering. This crafty little project can also serve as a great way of including children into the Litha celebrations.
For those of us who are so lucky, we have a lovely three-day weekend before us. Memorial Day is far more than an occasion to exercise your checkbook (or should I say debit card swipe) in pursuit of retail bargains. Rather it is a holiday rooted in American history that has shifted overtime in the American consciousness, and yet it is also a holiday that many in the Northern Tradition have taken to claim as their own.
Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday. The official birthplace of Memorial Day is in Waterloo, New York, which since 1866 has annually observed the holiday of decorating the war dead in their nearby cemetery. The original holiday was known as Decoration Day, when local communities would visit their grave yards and decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in battle. It began first to honor Union Soldiers who had died in the course of the American Civil War. After the First World War the holiday was expanded to include the honoring of any military man or woman who died in battle. Today the holiday is also used to not only honor those who died in military combat, but also to pay respect to those who served in the military but either died later from injuries received in combat but were removed from the field of contention, or those who died after leaving the military service.
In the Northern Tradition, respect for the comitatus (war-band) and the warrior cultus is well documented. Even people unfamiliar with the vast histories and stories of our lore are usually familiar with the more popular aspects of this literature like the later occurring story of Beowulf. Let’s face it, this tale has been adapted to cinema numerous times, has become an aspect of popular culture in its modern adaptations. Many of us read it in school as part of our core curriculum as a classic and early example of English literature along the likes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Beyond the reverence of the war band, we also know the importance of the ancestors to the Northern Tradition. We have evidence in surviving lore of religious rituals performed to honor the ancestors: the disir and the alfar*. One of these rituals was known as disablot. In ancient Sweden it was held near the Vernal Equinox, in other areas it was held at Winter Nights. So the timing of the celebration varied.
The respect that those of the Northern Tradition have for the military can be seen in the wide variety of programs out there supporting the military community: including the Open Halls Project (and it’s also on Facebook), free hammers via The Mjolnir Project (currently suspended due to a backlog), for years Heathens fought to have symbols of our faith approved by the Department of Veteran Affairs for use on soldiers tombstones, a journey which took years to come to fruition: this spanned from a rally July 4, 2007 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. to get both the pentacle and the hammer as approved symbols for military tombstones, and in 2013 the Thor’s Hammer symbol finally was finally approved.
Others of us have also personally donated to service men and women. I know of variouspagan and Northern Tradition authors who have donated books to various military circles. I have sent off care-packages of altar items to the Bagram Pagan Open Circle, and sent items off to the Wiccan group Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care. I always offer Free Sigdrifa’s Prayer Bookmarks to American pagan and polytheist veterans and current active duty soldiers.
If you ask most Americans to explain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the sad and simple fact is that most can’t. The two days have slowly morphed over time into a seeming amalgam of sameness. Veterans Day is intended to specifically honor those veterans of military service who are still alive. This confusion can even be seen mirrored in the Asatru community.
The Asatru Alliance, has taken Veteran’s Day and recycled it as the Feast of the Einherjar, which like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day is a solely modern invention–not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this. Einherjar is a term used to specifically refer to the battle dead escorted by the Valkyries to Odin’s hall Valhalla. Now since I’m not a member of the AA, I don’t know what their motivation was in the choosing of this date for this invented festivity. Perhaps since May and June already had traditional rituals associated with those months (Walpurgis and Litha respectively), they were looking for something that seemed appropriate to a heathen religious viewpoint to place into the month of November.
Regardless of the AA’s motivations for associating this feast with Veteran’s Day, the simple fact remains that like the larger mainstream American culture, many in the smaller Asatru religion also confuse the true meaning of Memorial and Veteran’s Day.
Of course, just as words can shift meaning over time influenced by the culture that uses them, so to can holidays. Today while Memorial Day still honors the war dead, has slowly shifted in the American consciousness to become this vast amalgam Memorial Day/Veteran’s Day celebration, as well as a day like El dia de los muertos where families may also tend to other graves regardless of military service to the persons resting therein.
Some of the Northern Tradition take this more all-inclusive approach to this holiday. Others opt to honor the war dead at Veteran’s Day instead, and a few of us (like me) make it a point to honor the war dead at Memorial Day. In my case I specifically look to my own line and those who served there. My grandfather who was a chief petty officer in the Navy for the first great war, my Uncles who served in World War II or in Vietnam… to my great-grand father who served in the Confederacy and as my late grandmother told it “even after losing an arm to them, he never asked those ‘damn yankees’ for a thing!”
Regardless of when people opt to honor the war dead, I believe it’s important that sometime during the year you do take the opportunity to honor them. These can be both your ancestors, but also just dead soldiers known and unknown. ‘Texatru’ that rare breed of Asatru who happen to hail from Texas and LOVE being Texans can be just as patriotic about the Lone Star State as they are patriotically American; They have a tendency to give a shout out to Daniel Boone on the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. Just as some Anglo-Saxon Heathens may honor the late Mercian king Penda.
Of course, it should go without saying that honoring the war dead is something you should do as part of a periodically regular routine of respecting your ancestors. Sure just as we had disablot to honor the mothers in ancient times (and today)… it’s certainly not a foreign concept that we at times of our own determination have ‘themed’ celebrations to pay homage to the different types of dead.
So somewhere between the 50% off sales, the picnics and bar-b-q, I’d suggest taking a page from our Presidents who tend to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown solider in Robert E. Lee’s former residence reinvented as Arlington National Cemetery. Take the time out to honor the war dead and those who have served the military in ways that enabled you to the type of life and freedoms we now enjoy. Don’t be shy in just honoring your war dead, but if you’re lucky to live near a veteran’s specific cemetery, or even a normal cemetery with a veteran’s section… why not pick up some flowers, and decorate each grave with a single bloom. And don’t feel that you HAVE to go to a cemetery to honor the war dead.
If you don’t live near the grave of your war dead, you can always put out pictures on your ancestral altar of them, or items that remind you of them. If you don’t have pictures, you can also write out their names and place them into a small basket or trinket box on the altar. You can set out offerings of items they enjoyed in life perhaps tobacco, cornbread, steak, etc. My uncle had proclivities for candy corn, popcorn, peanut butter, Diet Coke, and Mr. Goodbars. He always had a deck of cards lying around too. So when I’m honoring him it’s not uncommon for me to incorporate all or some of those items into the ancestral altar.
But to get your creative juices flowing, here is one of my prayers for Memorial Day:
If not for my ancestors, if not for those soldiers who fought for my current government, or those who fought to defend the multitude of cultures of all my ancestors… I would not exist.
I would not know the life that I know.
My life has been hallowed in their struggles to survive, to make the world renewed, invigorated, Better than it was before.
To these men and women I owe a debt of gratitude, and at this time, and at this hour, And for all time evermore I hail thee– those who fought, who persisted, who endured, who took up arms and when none were in grasp fought with bare hands– your sacrifice is remembered, your devotion honored.
You did not die in vain, and the promise of your efforts still bears fruit.
May it follow like sweet reverb to future generations who will hear the call, and add their own harmonies to strengthen it. So do I hail!
One of the religious staples of the Northern Tradition, is the honor and reverence shown for not only our ancestors, but also for our heroes. All too often when reading some of the grand exploits, battles and wars found in the sagas we associate the word hero to that of being a warrior, but while there are indeed many great heroes who are warriors, sometimes heroes are simply those who stay true to their beliefs.
It is a historical fact that the Christian conversion of the pre-Christian peoples wasn’t always a peaceful affair. Some of the early Norse Kings have an especially bloody reputation when it came to killing the ancient heathens within their lands, and these accounts are preserved in part within the Heimskringla, a collection of various historically oriented sagas about the Norse Kings.
In the annals of history, we know far more about the Christian conquering leaders, than we do the names of the devout heathens that would not submit to conversion. Occasionally, we do have preserved the names of some of those ancient pagan martyrs who were determined to continue to honor their Gods and the traditions of their people. One such account occurs in the 11th Century during the reign of King Olaf II of Norway (canonized as Saint Olaf), and it is at this time of year in particular, as we approach the holy tide of Ostara that I always remember and honor in ritual: Olvir. He was a renowned local leader from a powerful family in the Trondheim area of Norway, and as such it fell to him to represent his people to the King, and to conduct religious rites within his local community.
King Olaf II learns that the farmers found within the inner reaches of the Trondheim Fjord observed the heathen holy tide of Winter Nights, by offering drink, food, animal sacrifices, and prayers to the Gods for the purpose of improving the harvests. The report that reached the King’s attention also noted that the people were all of a communal thought that the Gods were angered because a nearby community had allowed themselves to be baptized and converted into Christianity. Displeased, King Olaf II summons forth a group of men from the area including Olvir to give an accounting of themselves.
When the men go before the king, Olvir uses some clever wordplay when he responds to the king that “no one can be responsible for what fools and drunken people say” while being evasive in what he tells the king. Olvir was really in this case an early example of a diplomatic spin-doctor as he downplayed the significance of the gathering to make it seem like it was more a bunch of folks enjoying a feast and some drinks together. While sometimes there is that over-emphasis of the prowess of a warrior in battle, the ancient Norse loved a person of keen-mind and clever-tongue as well, and Olvir definitely had the later skill in spades.
Eventually the king let the men return home, but a short time later he heard once again that the people had assembled to observe the ancient heathen traditions of Yule. Furious he summoned forth the men again to report to him. This time however, the men who had gone last time before the King did not want to make the journey. While their exact motivations are not known, I think it is reasonable to assume that they were nervous and really did not relish going before a King known for killing heathens again. I also believe that they also recognized that Olvir had been particularly clever in the last exchange with the King. So instead of all the farmers going to the king, the farmers prevailed upon Olvir to go as a representative of all of them.
Again the two exchange words, Olvir attempting to downplay matters and describing it as more or less a grand party and King Olaf II pretty certain that these heathen practices had indeed occurred. The king eventually sends Olvir home, but with a warning: that he shall discover the truth, so Olvir better not participate in heathen practices again.
Yet even this warning would not dissuade the people of Trondheim from the religion of their ancestors. So it came to pass that after the King had celebrated the Christian Easter, his ships were made ready, and he summoned a man loyal to him, Thoraldi, who had recently moved into the area. Before telling the King the truth, Thoraldi made it clear that Olaf must protect him and his family from reprisal, and with that promise in hand Thoraldi became the Judas of the heathen peoples of the Trondheim Fjord.
Thoraldi’s statement to the King is damning, despite the fact many of the people there have been baptized, they’re still heathen in their practices. Observing the major religious holy tides of old (those we call today Winter Nights, Yule and Ostara), and that for this area there are 12 men who it falls to oversee the planning and facilitating of such events and that this year it falls to Olvir to make ready the feast, and that he is doing so even as Thoraldi was speaking to the King.
Furious, the King summons his contingent of more than 300 men who were standing by and they set sail in five ships for the inner reaches of the Trondheim fjord, reaching the area by nightfall. The troops rapidly surround the homes and ensnare the local pagans in the dark of night. Olvir and some of his men were captured and killed immediately. Other homes are ransacked as the King tries to find others he feels are guilty. Some manage to successfully flee, but others still are caught. Their property is confiscated in penalty. The prisoners are then held awaiting a Thing (which was a large gathering of the people where much business was conducted including legal judgments and sentences). These other prisoners represented members of powerful families, and they were essentially being held hostage to force their families to capitulate and convert.
Here was part of the death rattle of a religion in this area, propelled in part by King Olaf’s Christian agenda, political expediency for power and control, as well as what to my mind is no doubt motivated by greed as King Olaf and his soldiers greatly profited from the possessions of the people from the Trondheim fjord. Although it would take quite some time for Christianity to firmly take root.
Some groups specifically honor Olvir in March 9th yearly. This Ostara, I encourage all of you to take a moment this year as part of your celebrations to honor the memory of a man who paid the price for his faith. To honor a man who would not turn away from his Gods. We know his name, we know the story, and by honoring him we honor the unnamed compatriots who also died and suffered along with him. He also becomes a symbolical representative of all those who felt so passionately about their religious beliefs they could not in good faith turn their backs on their gods or their ancestral pathways.
So while the Christians celebrate the resurrection of their martyr this Easter, let us pagans celebrate the rejuvenation and return of not only the Spring, but of the old ways, the ancient Gods, and our ancestral traditions.
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).