OSTARA

By Anna Franklin

 

Ostara celebrates the vernal equinox when day and night stand at equal length [12 hours] but the light is gaining and the days are getting longer. Legend says the Sun dances in celebration as it rises at the equinox.  We can really feel spring in the air, and notice the ever increasing warmth and the burgeoning of life. We experience a resurgence of vigour and hope as the energies of the natural world shift from the lethargy of winter to the lively expansion of spring.

After the bareness of winter, Imbolc has opened the year as Brighid brings light and energy to the world. At Ostara, the gods and goddesses of fertility return to the land, and we see new growth everywhere. The flowering of the gorse, daffodils, primrose and coltsfoot - sun coloured spring flowers - celebrate and reflect the increasing strength of the sun. Animals and birds are nest building and mating.

Around the world it was the festival of gods and goddesses of fertility. Eostre, the Saxon Goddess of fertility, and Ostara, the German Goddess of fertility were celebrated. From Eostre we get the direction East and the holiday Easter. She is a dawn goddess, like Aurora and Eos, signifying the start of new life as well as new light.

In Phrygia the spring equinox marked the resurrection of Attis, a vegetation god and lover of the Great Goddess Cybele. In Greece it marked the resurrection of Dionysos after being buried underground for three days. These are vegetation gods, each the son of a god and a mortal woman who sacrifices his life that his people might be saved [a metaphor for the sacrifice of the corn so that people might eat.  In all these stories there is usually a last supper before the sacrifice.

In ancient Rome, the ten day festival in honour of Attis began on March 15th. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a sepulchre in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. Two days later, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was saved. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment.

                No doubt this is a familiar story to you, but one with different characters. The Christians took both the myth and the date to celebrate the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. This Christian holiday is named after a the Saxon goddess of spring (Eostre) and takes place on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (making it the only Christian holiday with lunar connections). It was named Easter in the 8th century, but before that it was known as Hebdonada Alba, white week, because of the white robes worn by the newly baptized.

Other Pagan themes run throughout the Easter celebrations- the Easter egg, visiting holy wells and springs and the Easter bunny, which is actually the sacred hare, the symbol of fertility returning to the land. The egg is the Pagan symbol of life and renewal.

            In many traditions, this is the start of the New Year. The Roman year began on the Ides of March (15th). The astrological year begins on the equinox when the moon moves into the first sign of the Zodiac, Aries, the Ram. Between the 12th century and 1752, March 25th was the New Year in England and Ireland.

           

THE SACRED ANIMALS OF OSTARA

 

The Serpent

The symbolism of the snake is complex. It can be male and phallic or female, representing wisdom, in touch with the powers of the waters and the underworld, from which it emerges- a symbol of communication between the two worlds. The healing aspect of the snake occurs in Celtic myth. It is associated with healing waters and the god Cernunnos, who is often shown holding a snake, or horned snake as a symbol of virility and fertility. As a vegetation god Cernunnos emerges from the underworld at this time to flourish and grow- symbolic of the shoot emerging from the seed below the earth.

The snake is also associated with fire, as witnessed by the ram headed serpent of Cernunnos and its association with Brighid. Bel is sometimes shown with a serpent or dragon, as are various other sun gods such as Apollo, Pythios and Helios. Amongst many peoples the snake was a sacred animal, demonstrating the principle of life, death and rebirth as it sheds its skin and emerges renewed- symbolic of the earth renewed in spring after winter. It represents wholeness and its energy is that of creation, embodying sexuality, reproduction, psychic energy and immortality.

 

Hare

The hare is the most important Goddess totem at Ostara. In folk tales all over the world it is described as a witch familiar, the witch can turn herself into a hare and run across the countryside, drinking from cows in fields and pulling pranks. The witch hare could only be stopped by a silver bullet. The mad behaviour of hares in March is said to resemble a coven of witches dancing. For the Celts the hare was a sacred animal and there was a strict taboo on killing it. In Celtic countries, well into Victorian times, people would not eat the hare. The taboo was lifted at the equinox or Beltane and the hare was eaten to partake of its magical fertility. The Easter hare pie scramble still takes place in Hallaton in Leicestershire.

The Saxon Hare headed goddess of spring is Eostre. Eostre or Ostara is derived from a root word meaning ‘dawn’, from it we also get our word ‘east’, the station of the spring equinox as the sun rises in the east. The east and the hare are also associated with male deities, messengers and light bringers such as Thoth, Mercury and Hermes, as swell as slain and risen gods such as Osiris and Christ.

The Goddess hare often shelters beneath the gorse, the tree totem of the vernal equinox.

The belief in the "Easter hare" bringing eggs was first written down in Germany, and seems to have stemmed from that country; German children still build nests for the hare to lay its eggs in. In Germany, also, a rich buttery bread decorated with almonds and currants is often baked in the shape of a hare at this time, and bakery windows are full of hare-breads, cookies, and cakes. The Ostara Hare is certainly Heathen; to the christians, the hare was especially the symbol of lust and not to be encouraged.

 

Lamb

Lamb was considered an essential part of the festival fare. Because the lamb is born in the month of purification, when the spring rains wash the landscape and everything is clean and new it is a representation of innocence and purity. This symbolism is widely used in the Christian religion, where Christ is 'the lamb without blemish', the suitable sacrifice. There is a superstition that the sun dances as it rises on Easter morning, and a lamb with a flag appears on it. At the spring equinox, around 21st March, the sun enters the constellation of Aries the Ram- Chrysomallon whose fleece was stolen by Jason and transported to the stars Physical sheep are reported to bow three times to the east to welcome the rising sun. In Rome the spring equinox was the shepherd's festival, and a month later came the festival of the goddess Pales, patroness of shepherds. All the sheepfolds were hung with leaves and branches. The altars of the goddess were fumigated and all the sheep were purified at twilight. Millet and milk were offered to Pales, and her protection was invoked for the flocks.

 

 

THE SACRED PLANTS OF OSTARA

 

With Ostara comes the real arrival of spring. Fresh leaves green the trees, new vegetation covers the land and flowers are abundant. Modern pagans can observe these same customs by eating the fresh greens and early vegetables abundant now: dandelion greens, nettles, asparagus, and the like. Some take the opportunity to fast or detox to purify themselves beforehand.

The sacred plants of Ostara reflect the theme of the renewal of the Sun and Vegetation God and the beginning of the light half of the year. The common daisy [Bellis perennis] blossoms roughly from equinox to equinox and is sacred to the Celtic sun god Belenos. Tansy [ Tanacetum vulgare/ Chrysanthemum vulgare] celebrates the Sun Lord’s renewal and is used in a traditional Easter pudding.

Some herbs were used to purify the body after winter to prepare it for the new life cycle of spring, such as tansy and gorse, the early flowering of which celebrates the renewal of the Spring Goddess. Cleavers [Gallium aparine] make a good spring tonic and ground ivy [Glechoma hederacea/ Nepeta glechoma] in the ritual cup honours the Spring Goddess.

The underlying vernal equinox theme of the snake is very ancient [see above], but persevered in folk customs and the popularity, at Easter, of bistort  [Polygonum bistorta], also known as Snake Root, Easter Giant, Snakeweed, Dragon Wort, Easter Ledges and English Serpent Tree. The common name of bistort is derived from the Latin 'bis' meaning 'twice' and 'torta' meaning 'twisted'. This refers to the serpentine shape of the roots and accounts for many of its local names. Bistort was, and still is, traditionally eaten at Easter. In the north of Britain an annual contest is held to find the best Easter-ledge pudding.

Garlands and Ostara circle decorations should try to utilise the sacred plants, or sun coloured spring flowers such as daffodils, forsythia etc.

 

THE EGG

Another essential Easter food was eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. In those ancient days, eggs were gathered and used for the creation of talismans and also ritually eaten. The gathering of different coloured eggs from the nests of a variety of birds has given rise to two traditions still observed today - the Easter egg hunt, and colouring eggs in imitation of the various pastel colours of wild birds.

                The hen represents the maternal instinct as she cares for her chicks. She represents fertility and security. An old British custom was to take a hen to the home of a newly married couple to ensure happiness. That the world hatched from a cosmic egg at the Spring Equinox is a universal idea. The ancient Egyptians and Romans gave each other presents of eggs at the spring equinox as a symbol of resurrection and continuing life. The egg, dyed red, represented the resurrection of the sun at the equinox. 

Christians adopted the egg as a symbol of the resurrected Christ. It was common to give children hard boiled eggs dyed red as the symbol of Christ's blood. This would keep them healthy for the coming year. Eggs blessed by the church were holy gifts. After the reformation, there was some decline in such customs, those they continued in England, where there were also games based around dyed and pained eggs rolled down hillsides until the broke and were eaten. In this case the egg represents the passage of the sun. In northern England as well, where instead of a flaming sun-wheel, brightly coloured eggs were rolled down hillsides on Easter Monday instead.

The egg is a universal symbol of life and creation, and so of resurrection. As a symbol of initiation it symbolises the twice born, its laying being one birth, its hatching another. That the world is hatched from the cosmic egg is a pretty universal idea. In Hindu tradition the divine bird laid the cosmic egg on the primordial waters and from it sprang Brahma and the two halves formed heaven and earth. The cosmic tree is sometimes depicted as growing out of an egg floating on the waters of chaos. In Egyptian legend the Nile Goose laid the cosmic egg from which Ra, the sun, sprang. In China the yolk was the sky and the white the earth. The egg is closely associated with the serpent. One Egyptian legend says that Kneph, the serpent, produced the egg from his mouth. Orphism, holding the egg to be the mystery of life, creation and resurrection, often depicted the egg surrounded by Ouroboros, the circular serpent with its tail in its mouth. The Druids called the cosmic egg the egg of the serpent.

The egg is a prime symbol of Ostara and the rebirth of both the year and the Vegetation God. We use it to represent that rebirth, and also our own inner rebirth at this time of year, when the weather warms and our horizons become expanded- from our winter introversion and keeping close to the hearth, we go out and accomplish things. It is time to put to work the lessons we have learned from our winter reflections, deep inner visions and expansion of consciousness, and to bring that knowledge into the world. The egg reflects that potential, already once born, but waiting for its hatching. In the ritual the egg stands for our spiritual hopes in this yearly cycle.

 

FOLK CUSTOMS

The hot cross buns eaten on Good Friday were thought to be very powerful and some would be saved and kept tied in a bag hung from the kitchen rafters until the next Good Friday. It was thought that a portion of such a bun could cure any illness in man or beast. Eating buns marked with a cross, representing the four directions and the four phases of the moon, was a traditional food at Pagan celebrations of the spring equinox in the ancient world, and was adapted into Christian custom. You could try re-introducing this into your equinox rites and using the cake as a charm.

In Tenby young people would ‘Make Christ’s Bed’ by gathering reeds and weaving them in the shape of a man, which was laid on a wooden cross and left in a field. This is similar to many European customs of Green George, when a figure made from greenery, representing the vegetation spirit, would be thrown into a stream, buried or disposed of in some other manner. Try making a green man mask or figure and using it in the ritual to represent the regeneration of the vegetation spirit.

In pre-Reformation days an image of Christ would sometimes be buried on Good Friday, presumably to emerge on Easter morning. This is comparable to the Pagan idea of the sun or vegetation god emerging from the underworld or a cave on the morning of the spring equinox.

On Easter Day people would climb the nearest mountain or hill to see the sun dancing at dawn ‘in honour of the resurrection of Christ’; the inhabitant of Llangollen ascended Dina Bran and greeted the rising sun with three somersaults. In other areas a basin of water was taken to see the reflection of the sun dancing on the horizon; another old Pagan custom.

Easter Monday was devoted to feasting, cock fighting, games of various kinds and the custom of ‘lifting’. Three of four men, decked in ribbons carried a decorated chair around the town, accompanied by a fiddler, and called at homes where they knew young women lived. Girls were placed on the chair which was then raised in the air three times and kissed by the lifters, for which privilege she had to reward the lifters with a small gift. On Tuesday women lifted the men. On both days the lifting ceased at noon. This is plainly a fertility custom.