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home / articles / heithanic studies / Huginn & Muninn

Origins of Ostara

Ostara. A name that we still use in modern English for Easter, instead of the more Christian Passover. Our Germanic ancestors celebrated her festival on the fourth lunar cycle, called Ostermanoth, which is usually slightly later in the year than the Christian Easter, which is celebrated after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Ostara has gathered quite a following and popularity in neo-pagan circles as well, having her linked to the celebration of that same spring equinox. But what do we really know of her?

Goddess of Dawn

Ostara, as depicted in the 19th century
Despite her popularity with the spring equinox, there is no actual reason to assume Ostara was ever honored on this event. In fact, there is very little reason to believe our Germanic ancestors honored the equinox at all, or in the earliest times even truly considered the seasons of spring and autumn as we know them today, let alone celebrated them. Throughout Indo-European languages we can find the names for both summer and winter quite extensively. Yet the terms for spring and autumn become much more diverse and often less precise. They relate mostly to the elongating of the days, falling leaves or the change of colors in nature, without truly stating a particular time period beyond a month. It is thus commonly believed that our ancestors recognized primarily summer and winter as the main tides of the year, an idea that holds true if you consider the harsh and often long winters of old.

But if the celebration of Ostara is not related to the spring equinox, then what was it related to? To answer that question, we first have to look at who this mysterious goddess is. Ostara is linguistically linked to the widespread Indo-European goddess of the dawn, often seen as the daughter of the Sky-father and sister to both the Sun and Moon. Ostara is cognate to the word east, the direction from which the sun rises (dawn). Ostara is thus equated to the Veddic Ushas, the Roman Aurora, and the Greek Eos. Whereas her Indo-European counterparts are quite well documented in religious rites and mentioned in myths, we are left a little in the dark when it comes to our own Germanic version. The only real literary reference we have, comes from Bede in his 8th century work, where he mentions the names for the months and how two of these were associated with ancient goddesses, of one he names Eostre (Anglo-Saxon for Ostara). This rather small mention and the name of the month in other Germanic languages, do not help us much further. To make matters worse, her name is nowhere to be found in the Nordic lore. Not in the Eddic lays, nor in the sagas. This is odd to say the least, as the goddess of dawn no doubt had to have had an important place in our ancestors religion. Furthermore, the images we have in our current Easter celebrations (the eggs, the hiding of the eggs and the hares) do not seem to stem from Christian roots and certainly do not seem to be tied to Christs' resurrection. Could these then be linked to Ostara, much like we still have her name associated with this time? Luckily, a hint to these questions is to be found in Indo-European comparative studies.

Ostara in Nordic lore

The Indo-European dawn goddess was considered such an integral part of religion, that a particular tale about her yearly rise as dawn of the new year (the end of winter) has been documented in several Indo-European myths. In this tale, the goddess is abducted and held until the gods demand to see her return and send a (often heroic) god to slay her captor and return her home. This tale is one we can find in Nordic lore in the form of Idhun and Tjazi. In this tale the giant Tjazi threatens to kill Loki unless he tricks Idhun to enter a clearing in the forest, where Tjazi then abducts her. The gods, who rely on Idhuns apples to stay young, grow old and weary, and search for Idhun. After they find out it was Loki that made the abduction possible, they force Loki to rescue Idhun. Loki flies to the giants abode and finds him gone, turns Idhun into a nut and flies her back to Asgard. Tjazi finds out and turns into an eagle and flies in pursuit. The gods then light a fire in which Tjazi burns his wings and has to land, where he then is caught and killed by the gods.

Here we clearly have the same Indo-European tale of the goddess of the dawn, mixed in with a fertility symbol in the form of the apples. A clear fit for our Ostara, apparantly going by the name of Idhun in Nordic lore. The story in itself brings with it several interesting elements to note. First off, there is the notion of the apples, the revitalizing fruit that grants the gods immortality. Secondly, we can see Idhun in the form of a nut, another fertility symbol. Lastly we have a connection to the goddess of dawn and fires.

The idea of Ostara as a fertility goddess is not an odd one. Her connection to the dawn alone would make her qualify as closer to the Vanir than the Aesir, but there is more. Epithets of her name include words expressing love and desire, roots cognate to the name Venus and most importantly for us the word Vanir. She is thus linked to the Vanir on a basic etymological level as well as the mythological level. We can see in other Indo-European cultures that the goddess of love and dawn often share dominion, most notably in Roman and Greek mythology. It is then that we might allow for the concept of Ostara being connected to the renowned Vanir goddess Freyja in some sense or to having been an earlier goddess of love and fertility.

Ostara, eggs and hares?

But what then of the modern Easter? What then of the eggs and the hares? Well let me state firstly and with the utmost stress: all modern celebrations are a mix of several influences that have been scrambled over the last millennium or so with large Christian influences, older heathen traditions of which a sizable chunk (and I do mean quite large indeed) has been changed in folklore to resemble these traditions of old without proper knowledge. It is with that in mind that we can not simply point to the eggs and announce an origin, nor can we claim them to be purely heathen. That said, we can recognize the fact that certain elements were maintained even though they were not sanctioned by the church. This would at the very least hint at older traditions.

So then, let me give you my theory on this odd celebration that is Easter, with the large note that this is my own speculation and insights, albeit born from lore and traditions.

If we assume Ostara to be of the Vanir - which with the notes above, I have very little issue with - then we can assume she had traits common to the Vanir. Vanir goddesses are often depicted with animal companions. Freyja for example is known for her connection to the sow, which later (when cats were introduced into the Germanic lands from Egypt) turned into cats. We have images of goddesses like Nehelennia, who is depicted with a dog and a basket of apples, who is considered of Vanic origins as well. We can then assume that Ostara too had an animal companion, which may or may not have been a hare.

The dawn of summer

To gain further insight into this goddess we can look to her festival. As already stated, this was celebrated on the full moon of the fourth lunar cycle, which puts it a little further into the year then the neo-pagan celebrations of the spring equinox (around March 21st) and into what we today call April. In fact, it often comes quite close to the May Day celebrations we know today in the Germanic form of Walpurgisnacht. If we take the above connection to a love goddess serious, then we might find here a more ancient root to the rather recent Walpurgisnacht or May Day celebrations. Grimm writes of a particular interesting aspect of the Ostara celebrations, where young maidens, dressed in white would hide between the clefts of rocks and mountain, showing themselves partly. Could we have here an early version of the hunt for eggs? In a very early and much more sexual form of human fertility? A form that resembles the Celtic celebrations of Beltane (May Day) quite surprisingly well. One could easily see a more proper Christian form of this celebration by searching for eggs as a symbol for fertility instead of girls.

This is a bit of a leap I admit, but one that rings true with me personally. The time that Walpurgisnacht gains popularity in Germanic culture is also the time in which the church is doing their best to change Ostara into Passover. Although we could be dealing with an older tradition that was renamed to Walpurgisnacht, we could also very well be dealing with a revival of the original Ostara celebrations, one of fertility, build on Celtic inspirations. This idea is, I feel, especially strong as it would counter the festival of the winter, which was usually celebrated around the 10th lunar cycle. A celebration in which the cold and darkness were honored and greeted (but that is food for a different post). If we look to something of a balance in our ancestral wheel of the year, much like midwinter and midsummer, then it would not be strange to place the festival of the dawn of summer as a counter to that of the dusk of winter.

Fertility symbols

If we do not entertain the idea of Ostara being an older version of the May celebrations, then we are left with the odd presence of the eggs. Their origin is a little unsure, but their presence can be found throughout West-Germanic countries and well beyond into the Slavic regions. The comparison with Idhun might make us think of apples instead of eggs, but we have to consider the fact that apples are rarely ripe in the early spring and thus would make for a poor feasting option or symbol for the birth of summer. Eggs themselves have been a strong fertility symbol throughout the world and it might very well be the original symbol of Ostara. The apples of Idhun are often connected to the myth of the golden apples, which were most likely 'bitter oranges' (Pomerans or Citrus Aurantium, not Pomegranates as I've seen on some sites). Bitter oranges were the predecessors of the common orange and are used in several beverages that have rather old origins (white beer, mulled wines, glogg, bishop's wine, etc). That said, the fruit seems unlikely to have a genuine root in an ancient practice unless its known use is much older than believed and brought to the Germanic lands in the Indo-European migrations and were somehow cultivated in a much too cold climate. It is much easier to imagine the 'golden apples' to make their way in early Viking age via trade-routes to the east, becoming a possible new symbol of fertility over eggs. Especially as the name for this particular fruit before the 15th century revolves mostly around its color (orange apples, golden apples, etc), much like the modern English word still does. It is only in the 15th century, when multiple species of oranges are introduced from China, that we see more names come into play (Sinas, Mandarin, all directly related to China).

Folklore

Lastly we should consider culture-geographical changes to this old celebration. If we are to step back to a very basic concept of Ostara being a Vanic fertility and love goddess - which seems more than plausible -then we can assume she had a fertility symbol and was accompanied by an animal or animals. Whether or not these were hares and whether or not she preferred eggs over apples or had an altogether different fruit is less important. Cultural and geographical folklore has managed to maintain these old images and traditions, which is the core of what we should take away here. Much like Wodan being named a deity of agriculture in medieval times, we should look not so much at the name or literal description, but we should look at it's core. Wodan has of course never been a god of agriculture, this is an older tradition that has gone slightly lost throughout the ages. Wodans name pasted on a half-forgotten memory of a much older tradition in a time when most people were still illiterate and there was almost no documentation available. As Jan de Vries states in his excellent 'Kultuurgeografische problemen van het sprookjesonderzoek', we should look at the existence and the core of ancient traditions, their resilience to stay in the culture of people, rather than look at the details that have been lost or changed over time.

Here then, we have a fertility goddess that brought the new sun, the summer, the time of rebirth and life. She was thus connected to not the spring, but the start of summer as she seems connected to the May celebrations more than the spring equinox. Her story is still celebrated by the Easter fires that might be seen as the fires that bring Tjazi, symbol of the winter, down from the skies and ready to be slain by the gods. All in all, we have a beautiful tradition of fertility, love, the turning of the wheel of time and one that has, much like Yule, has proven to be very resilient in the hearts of our ancestors. Even with over 1300 years of Christian influence, we can still find the heathen spirit alive and well.

 


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