There’s more to Easter than chocolate bunnies and plastic flowers…
By Rebecca Bell and Eleanor Tremeer
What is Ostara? Commonly thought of as the origin of the Christian Easter, Ostara is the festival of the Spring Equinox, a time to celebrate the moment between darkest winter and the height of summer. You may have seen the latest way to observe Ostara — the video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla has given players a way to celebrate the festival with their virtual Viking settlement. How could the Vikings and Anglo Saxons ever have imagined that in the future we’d be celebrating this festival in a digital realm? Even as the centuries march on, it’s wonderful when we can connect with our past in new ways. So let’s take this opportunity to pull back the temporal veil, and discover the origins of this festival, in a time before chocolate and digital media!
The date of Ostara, like many astrological events, likes to ruin our attempts at pinning it down to our Gregorian calendar, thus it varies from year to year. Ostara comes between Imbolc and Beltane, and is the second spring festival on the Wiccan/Neo-Pagan Wheel Of The Year. As the equinox, Ostara brings night and day into exact balance — it’s the day when the hours of sunlight perfectly match those of moonlight, before the days get longer as we progress into summer.
Like Samhain, which falls on the Autumn Equinox, Ostara is a liminal time between winter and summer. But while Samhain historically deals with death and what lies beyond the veil, Ostara instead celebrates rebirth and life on this mortal plane. For Wiccans, it is believed to be the day when the goddess (Mother Earth) matures and is united with the sun god in sacred marriage. It is a time when the goddess is in her maiden stage, crossing from childhood innocence to adult passion, with the potential of fertility and growth, as well as a readiness to be reborn. This goes back to pagan mythology surrounding the festival, like the Celtic myths of Ceridwen and Herne the Hunter, or the Greek Persephone returning from the Underworld to bring life back to the world.
Ostara celebrates fertility and readiness to grow, and can be seen around us in the colour of flowers and blossom, so it is common practice to celebrate this time in nature observing the effects of the astrological union of sun and earth.
Gods, Spirits, and Symbols
Many deities and spirits around the world are associated with the Spring Equinox — which is unsurprising given the importance of fertility to all living things. We have Mithras from the Romans, and Osiris from ancient Egypt, who both share an all too familiar story of resurrection on the Spring Equinox. Many modern Wiccans and Pagans like to celebrate fertility deities around this time, like the Norse Freyja or the Roman Cybele. And spring celebrations don’t have to be rooted in the Equinox, because seasons around the world differ. For example, the Hindu spring celebration of Basant Panchami, which celebrates the spring goddess Saraswati, takes place in February — as spring arrives earlier in India than Northern Europe!
The changing of winter to summer marks an important date across cultures and time, and the threat of many double- booked celebrations as a result! However, in association with Ostara itself these two figures stand out:
- Eostre — sometimes known as Ostara, is the Germanic goddess of dawn, and is celebrated to bring fertility, renewal and rebirth, however her origins and worship are faded in history. It has been theorised, as early as the 8th Century by St Bede, that this Teutonic goddess was the foundation for Spring Equinox celebrations.
- The Hare in Celtic tradition is associated with the moon and is most connected to Eostre. In folklore it is said the moon and the Hare die each morning and are resurrected each evening. Thus, The Hare became the symbol of immortality, fertility, and abundance.
- Eggs feature in lots of folklore that surrounds the Spring Equinox. For the Zoroastrian Nowruz (still celebrated in Iran as the New Year), eggs were covered with wax and painted with bright colours.
How Ostara Became Easter
Obviously we can see parallels between these ancient roots and the Christian festival of Easter. Linguistically, Eostre is the etymological origin for “Easter”, so why is that? Historians have different theories. As Christianity spread through Northern Europe and people maintained their older traditions. The Church, as a result, started to encompass these pagan traditions and festivals within the Christian calendar.
St Patrick (whose day is also celebrated around the equinox) very deliberately incorporated Irish folk traditions and beliefs into Christian practice as he actively converted the population of Ireland. For example, the Celtic cross features a circle at the centre — as the sun was venerated within the Irish pagan tradition, St Patrick thought that this would help his converts associate the cross with divinity. Considering how popular the Celtic cross is today, it seems this campaign was a success.
As for whether Easter is the definitive date of Christ’s resurrection, that remains wreathed in shadow. While the Roman census clearly places Jesus’ birth in June, it’s harder to pin the crucifixion down to a day on the calendar (or even a year!) But whatever the histography of Jesus’ life, as a divinity linked to the sun, he is related to his predecessor pagan sun gods — like Mithras — who also died and were born again… and have been connected to the Spring Equinox as a result.
So, although claiming Eostre/Ostara/Easter for Christianity may have been a deliberate campaign by the Church, we could also argue that Jesus is just another in a long line of deities associated with this date in the calendar. What’s more, our popular iconography of hares/rabbits and eggs in association with the festival could be thought of as ancient traditions persisting, a millennia apart from their origins.
Rituals and Traditions
We are sure to find the superstores full of commercial goodies surrounding Easter, from eggs, fluffy chicks and rabbits to fake flowers and chocolate. These signs of commercial Easter, have a pagan past (of course!) Traditionally, in Germanic cultures, it would be commonplace to bring fresh flowers into the house, using flower petals to mark a sacred circle and even filling a vessel with spring water. Images of hares and even painted eggs would also be displayed to honour the Goddess of fertility. Now, modern pagans and magic users celebrate Ostara through rituals and spells that focus on balance and fertility. These and can be strengthened with the presence of a full moon — which this year happens on the 28th of March, just two days before the equinox itself!
And of course, there are many folk customs surrounding eggs. Full of promise and new life, the egg represents the fertility of the Earth and all creation. The Yolk symbolises the sun god, and the white the goddess Eostre, in perfect balance with the potential of growth. It is also known that if you bury and egg by the entrance to your home, your garden will be blessed with fertility for the year. Alternatively, you can blow eggs, and then paint the shells with symbols to represent your wishes before threading them on a string and hanging them in your home or gifting them to others as charms for the year.
However, you celebrate your Spring Equinox/ Ostara, we hope that it brings a spring to your step for the new season, and blesses your home and garden with fertility and life. For our tarot reading community don’t forget to check out our Blooming into Spring Tarot Spread!