Understanding Ostara

The spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere falls on Friday, March 20 this year, marking the time when the sun passes over the celestial equator. Wiccans and other neopagans observe the day as Ostara, a festival that celebrates the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring.

Ostara is one of 8 neopagan sabbats, or holidays, that make up the Wheel of the Year.

The word Ostara is just one of the names applied to the celebration of the spring equinox on March 21. The Venerable Bede said the origin of the word is actually from Eostre, a Germanic goddess of spring. Of course, it’s also the same time as the Christian Easter celebration, and in the Jewish faith, Passover takes place as well. For early Pagans in the Germanic countries, this was a time to celebrate planting and the new crop season.

Typically, the Celtic peoples did not celebrate Ostara as a holiday, although they were in tune with the changing of the seasons.

Spring equinox is a time for fertility and sowing seeds, and so nature’s fertility goes a little crazy.

In medieval societies in Europe, the March hare was viewed as a major fertility symbol. This is a species of rabbit that is nocturnal most of the year, but in March when mating season begins, there are bunnies everywhere all day long. The female of the species is superfecund and can conceive a second litter while still pregnant with a first. As if that wasn’t enough, the males tend to get frustrated when rebuffed by their mates, and bounce around erratically when discouraged.

In ancient Rome, the followers of Cybele believed that their goddess had a consort who was born via a virgin birth.

His name was Attis, and he died and was resurrected each year during the time of the vernal equinox on the Julian Calendar (between March 22 and March 25).

The indigenous Mayan people in Central American have celebrated a spring equinox festival for ten centuries. As the sun sets on the day of the equinox on the great ceremonial pyramid, El Castillo, Mexico, its “western face…is bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. The lengthening shadows appear to run from the top of the pyramid’s northern staircase to the bottom, giving the illusion of a diamond-backed snake in descent.” This has been called “The Return of the Sun Serpent” since ancient times.

According to the Venerable Bede, Eostre was the Saxon version of a Germanic goddess called Ostara. Her feast day was held on the full moon following the vernal equinox–almost the identical calculation as for the Christian Easter in the west.

There is very little documented evidence to prove this, but one popular legend is that Eostre found a bird, wounded, on the ground late in winter. To save its life, she transformed it into a hare. But “the transformation was not a complete one. The bird took the appearance of a hare but retained the ability to lay eggs…the hare would decorate these eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre.”

Modern Celebrations

This is a good time of year to start your seedlings. If you grow an herb garden, start getting the soil ready for late spring plantings. Celebrate the balance of light and dark as the sun begins to tip the scales, and the return of new growth is near.

Many modern Pagans mark Ostara as a time of renewal and rebirth. Take some time to celebrate the new life that surrounds you in nature–walk in a park, lay in the grass, hike through a forest. As you do so, observe all the new things beginning around you–plants, flowers, insects, birds. Meditate upon the ever-moving Wheel of the Year, and celebrate the change of seasons.

The Christians

In much the same way that Christmas and Hanukkah co-opted Paganism, so Christianity also grafted itself onto the Pagan celebration of spring and called it Easter.

The Hebrews were of course Pagan before they converted to one god, and much of the Old Testament was taken from the days before they converted. They just changed the name of the particular deity in each story to God.

Christianity continued this tradition: as Christians came into contact with Pagan cultures, they Christianized them, and made them their own. The idea was that non-Christians would be more likely to embrace Christianity if they were allowed to retain their Pagan practices, especially if some Christian correspondence with their traditions could be established.

Ostera, Anglo-Saxon Goddess Of Spring

Thus, the name Easter comes from Ostera or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, for a spring festival celebrating fertility and the renewal of life, which was held annually for thousands of years before the birth of Christ. It is from this Pagan festival that many of our Easter customs have come.

The Christian festival of Easter celebrates the torture and death of Jesus on a cross and his subsequent resurrection, and has links to the Jewish Passover, but most people, including Christians, unknowingly celebrate its Pagan influences, including colored eggs,  representing the sunlight of spring, and the bunny, a symbol of fertility.

Interestingly, the early Christians did not celebrate Easter. It took more than 300 years before Christians established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March Equinox at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.

In fact, there is no celebration of any Christian holidays in the Bible’s New Testament. The four gospels were written between 40 and 70 years after Christ’s death. They were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke, much less wrote. They were not written by eyewitnesses. And there are almost no details of the Easter stories found in one gospel that are not contradicted in another gospel.

Easter was invented hundreds of years after the “first Easter.”

Photo by Guen Gothly

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