Tides – Esotre / Ostara

Our high spring festival is based on Bede’s statement in De Temporum Ratione that the heathen Anglo-Saxons called April after a goddess Eostre whom they honored in that month: (Aprilis) Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quodam a dea illorum quæ Eostræ vocabatur et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit. Eostre must have been very important to the Anglo-Saxons; they used her name, or taht of her festival, for the biggest Xian holiday of the year, Easter. Other European languages, including the Scandinavian languages, call it by the the Latin name Bede refers to, Pascha (which derives from Hebrew Pesach—Passover). Unfortunately, no information about her or the heathen celebration has been preserved.

The only other occurrence of her name is in the German name for the Xian holy day, Ostern; the Old High German is Ôstarûn, which gives us a German form of her name, Ostara. Anglo-Saxon missionaries played an important role in converting the German tribes and setting up the first churches and the see of Mainz, which is likely the reason her name was preserved there, too. However, apparently Easter used to be called Ostern only in Southern Germany, so in the absence of further evidence about Eostre, some scholars have argued she was a purely Anglo-Saxon deity never actually worshipped on the continent. It seems more plausible that the word for Easter was changed back to fit Church convention in northern Germany and Scandinavia as part of the struggle for supremacy between the bishops of Cologne and Mainz. But since there is no evidence at all of Eostre/Ostara in Scandinavia, some Scandinavian-focused heathens do not celebrate this holy tide; others take Eostre/Ostara to be local names for Iðunn.

Eostre/Ostara’s name is generally agreed to be cognate to Sanskrit Ušas, Greek Eos, Latin Aurora, and Lithuanian Aušra. The first three are dawn goddesses and the last either a dawn goddess or a dawn spirit, so it is virtually certain that she, too, was associated with the morning as well as with spring.

We should note that Ôstarûn is a plural. Some have taken this to mean there is no one goddess Ostara, that the festival was in fact in honor of the dísir; but that contradicts what Bede actually says, and in any case the Anglo-Saxons honored their dísir at the beginning of Yule, on Mothers’ Night, as Bede also tells us. So it seems to me more likely that it was a multi-day festival, as Yule is.

This is why some modern heathens celebrate Eostre/Ostara throughout the ancient month, starting with the first sighting of the crescent moon. It is more common to celebrate on the vernal equinox. The other plausible location of the holy tide is on the full moon, which will in fact cause it to coincide with Passover and fall just before Easter in most years. However, the full moon in March usually falls closer to the vernal equinox than that in April, and the civil calendar reforms mean that traditional dates fall later in the natural year than they would have a thousand years ago. So for example this year, 2006, I will celebrate Eostre on March 14, rather than waiting for April 13 to coincide with Anglo-Saxon Eostremonað and an unusually late Easter.

There are folk traditions in northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Jutland involving Easter fires, but most of the Xian folk traditions for Easter involve food. Hot cross buns are obviously easily adapted to heathen purposes using our sunwheel symbol. The new life symbolism of the egg is at least as appropriate to Eostre/Ostara as to Easter, especially when it becomes a chocolate egg left concealed in the garden by a rabbit carrying a basket. There are various versions, both pan-pagan and heathen, of The Legend of The Ostara Bunny. Many heathens have taken up the Ukrainian art of egg decoration, pysanki, as a way to celebrate this holy tide. Many also use eggs ritually in various more or less whimsical ways celebrating new beginnings. To mention two: one group breaks decorated eggs filled with confetti and glitter over each others’ heads; I participated in a rite at Texas SomeThing where we decorated raw eggs with runes signifying our wishes and then threw them in the air while facing the sun—a successful catch indicated the wish would come true, and could be followed by smashing the egg on someone else to transfer the good luck.

Since Eostre/Ostara is associated with the dawn and this is the dawn of the growing season, rites for this holy tide are often conducted at dawn, sometimes after an all-night vigil.