The Spring Equinox ~ The Dawn of the Light of Life
Neopagans maintain the idea that more antique folk and pre-Christian cultures had a spiritual life that revolved around seasonal agrarian and cyclical astronomical changes. From this, the modern Wheel of the Year was formulated. Names—mostly of Celtic, Welsh, and Teutonic origins—were given to important dates of the Neopagan year: the winter and summer solstices (Yule and Litha, respectively), spring and fall equinoxes (Eostara and Mabon, respectively) and cross-quarter days marking late fall, early spring, late spring, and early fall (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lammas, respectively).
It should be remembered that, in earlier times, clans and cultures had their own unique names and traditions for Spring festivals. For Neopagans (a growing tradition that has its roots in the 19th century occult revival), the Spring, like the Fall, are marked by a series of observances that celebrate the return of the light and the growth season. We call them Imbolc, Eostara, and Beltaine.
Imbolc (or Olmec), a Celtic festival that falls on or about February 1 in the Northern hemisphere, commemorates the first glimmers of light after the Winter Solstice. In its own place and time, it commemorated the anticipation of new life in newly lactating and birthing livestock and also the majesty of the Celtic Great Goddess Brigid (traditionally pronounced “breed” and meaning “flaming arrow”). Being a solar deity, she personified new light and life. Like in corresponding early Spring festivals, such as Roman Lupercalia and Athenian Anthesteria, customs included rituals—spiritual, magical, and mundane—to disperse and avert negative energies, cleanse and renew one’s self and environment, and encourage fertility. Similar rituals about cleansing, light bringing, life, love, and fecundity were repeated during Spring equinox and May Day festivals.
Reframing “Ostara” in Light of Evidence
Neopagans have adopted the term Eostara (or Ostara) to denote the festival of the Spring equinox. The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for April: Éostur mónath. The word denotes the rising of an easterly wind and the eastern quarter of space, where the sun rises. The term may also refer to a putative Teutonic goddess of fertility, Spring, and Dawn. The goddess’s original name in Old German might have been Austrô, meaning “to shine” in reference to dawn light (from the Middle Indo-German word for dawn ausos) , which may be etymologically linked to the Latin Aurora, Greek Eos, and Indo-Aryan (Vedic) Ushas—all goddesses personifying dawn light.
Although much has been promoted in Neopagan circles about Eostara and the goddess Eostre, including rhetoric about the hijacking of pagan customs and terms by Christians, this content is more modern lore—or “fakelore”— than fact. It is based in elaborations on and speculations about passages regarding Eostre from a 7th century Christian cleric known as the Venerable Bede and the 19th century folklorist Jacob Grimm (whose references to Eostara in Deutsche Mythologie, published in 1835, tell us only what late modern era German folk people recall—and what Grimm speculates—about the Germanic cultural heritage, and not necessarily about customs and beliefs of pre-Christian Teutonic peoples).
A few Neopagan Web sites state that the Easter bunny and egg originated in pre-Christian traditions in Teutonic lands, but this is inaccurate. The hare and egg were symbols of fertility and rebirth commemorated across cultures and traced to deep antiquity. A myth conflating the hare with the egg can be traced to a Ukrainian fairy tale in which a woman saves a pet bird by changing it into a hare that then has the ability to supply eggs for Easter festivities. The tale seems to have been reinterpreted within the past decade or so to include Eostre as the character who performs the transformation. (Independent researcher Adrian Bott traces the fakelore to the Pagan Book of Days by Nigel Pennick.) Lore about a bunny that would leave eggs—including chocolate eggs—for well-behaved children on Eastern morning also surfaced in 16th century Germany and was imported to America as Easter lore with German immigrants in the 17th century.
This caveat about Eostara is not to imply that a Teutonic goddess related to the Spring equinox did not exist nor that Neopagans have no business naming a modern Pagan feast day/Sabbat after her. It is aired to challenge the heap of poor scholarship, speculation, propaganda, “Grandmother stories,” Christian bashing/Neopagan martyr-syndroming, and the sloppy cut-and-paste dis-informing that goes on in the Pagan community.
Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program
Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and many other peoples were said to revere eggs as mystical symbols of life, birth, rebirth, redemption, transformation, and renewal. Eggs were dyed and exchanged from time immemorial and it was customary to do so during the Spring equinox festivals. Red was the popular color in Mediterranean lands, symbolic of life force, vigor, health, and prosperity. The custom of dying eggs red persisted among Greeks and Orthodox Christians in which the red color was said to symbolize the blood of Christ. As for rabbits, the Romans, in particular, venerated them and goats as symbols of fertility, letting them run loose during fertility-related festivals, such as Floralia, celebrated in late April.
In the Mediterranean, deities associated with Spring and rebirth were commemorated during the equinox and ensuing May Day (Celtic Beltaine). Deities of this type, include Maia Maiestas (the Roman Great Goddess who was associated with the Earth and its abundance) and Persephone/Proserpine and Attis (who were associated with late Roman mystery cults and afterlife mysticism).
In the 4th century, the Council of Nicea decreed that the celebration of the resurrection of Christ would occur a week after the Spring equinox, and, thus, common symbols of life and regeneration—the hare and egg—were adapted into the celebration of the new holiday. Although it was called Pasca (or a derivative) in Mediterranean and Slavic countries (referring to “Passover”), the holy day came to be called Easter or Ostern in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic (ie, Teutonic) lands, probably more so in reference to the month of April than a cryptic tip-of-the hat to the goddess Eostre.
Some Egg Lore
As discussed, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and many other peoples were said to dye and exchange eggs from time immemorial and considered the egg a special symbol of birth, life, and renewal. Indeed, remnants of decorative eggs dating back to 3000 BCE have been found. Eggs were dyed red, symbolic of life force, vigor, health, and prosperity, in Mediterranean lands and exchanged during the Spring equinox. This custom persisted among Greeks and Orthodox Christians.
Among medieval Hermeticists, from whom much modern-era ceremonial magic derives, the egg was a symbol of the world and the four elements. The shell represented earth; the white, water; the yolk, fire; and the membrane, air.
Because eggs represented life and potential, they were used for divination. Methods, which were practiced in various places in Europe in pre- and post-Christian times, included smashing an egg on a board and reading the designs in the mess or else piercing the egg, letting white dribble into a bowl of water, and interpreting the patterns of the mixture.
Eggs also were—and still are—used to magically absorb or avert negative energy or illness. Practices included passing a whole raw egg over the face or body and then breaking it and placing an egg in dish beneath victim’s bed and keeping it until it began to smell (the idea being that the smell is the rotten energy it absorbed).
Because eggs were so mystical, they were feared to be used for evil magic. Egg shells were to be smashed because they were thought to be used by witches for transportation. Eggs of certain sizes or colors or having irregularities in them or laid by certain types of hens on certain days all could portend caution, ill luck, or supernatural evil in various folk cultures and rituals were enacted to deal with that. Eggs also were used in love magic by reading omens in eggs or by following rituals related to storing, sharing, or consuming them. They also were used as poppets in sympathetic black magic in which they were buried or treated in some other way meant to harm the target.
Games such as egg tapping (smashing eggs together or on someone) and egg rolling may have started as out rituals to either ensure good luck or avert negative energy.
I Web browsed through dozens pages to pull together an essay in a day and, thus, found myself reading through dozens of redundant unreferenced secondary sources and cut-and-pastes about Ostara and the history of Easter. The following are most of the more informative sites I found:
Anglo-Saxon Heathenism. http://englishheathenism.homestead.com/eostre.html
Adrian Bott. Eostre: The Making of a Myth. White Dragon. Beltane #48, 2006. Reprinted w/o reference citations at http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/502368.html
A. Æ. Hunt-Anschütz . Eostre and Easter Customs. http://www.manygods.org.uk/articles/essays/Eostre.shtml
Venetia Newall. Witchcraft and Magic in An Egg at Easter: a Folklore Study.
London: Rutlegde and Klegan Paul plc Ltd. 1984, 62-97.
Wikipedia entry on Ostara: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%92ostre
citing the following key sources:
Grimm, Jacob (James Steven Stallybrass Trans.) (1882). Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol. I. London: George Bell and Sons.
Giles, John Allen (1843). The Complete Works of the Venerable Bede, in the Original Latin, Collated with the Manuscripts, and Various Print Editions, Accompanied by a New English Translation of the Historical Works, and a Life of the Author. Vol. VI: Scientific Tracts and Appendix. London: Whittaker and Co.
Wikipedia entry on Fakelore (see “Eostara and Paganism” in discussion tab): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Fakelore