Bright Blessings, Witches! Today we’re talking about the history of Ostara. As we make way for spring, it’s a time of Mother Nature’s awakening after her long slumber through the winter. The days become longer and warmer as the Sun gets stronger. The collective energy is one of refreshing renewal.
Unlike many other Sabbats, Ostara’s history is hard to pin down. A patchwork of folklore, traditions of yesteryear and modern construction, this Sabbat is a hotly debated one. We’ll cover all of this and more in this post. Let’s get started!
WHAT IS OSTARA?
Ostara is one of eight Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year. It celebrates the Northern Hemisphere’s Spring Equinox, when day and night come back into balance after the long, dark winter months.
THE OSTARA DEBATE
To preface this section, it is important to note that it doesn’t matter how much or little history is behind a festival or holiday. Concern with historical evidence defeats the purpose of observance and celebration in the first place. A holiday or Sabbat can lack in history and be just as meaningful spiritually.
Having said that, Ostara is perhaps the most misunderstood Sabbat in the Wheel of the Year. And while saying this will ruffle some feathers, learning about how the Sabbats were formed will go a long way to help eliminate misconceptions and further the education of the Neo-Pagan community.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Ostara. However, at the end of the day, modern Ostara traditions as we know it are constructed from self-serving intentions based on historical speculation. And while it may be uncomfortable for some to even acknowledge this – let alone accept it – let’s talk about it.
COMMONLY HELD MISBELIEFS
- Ostara is named for Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn
- Eostre is a Teutonic variant of Ishtar or Astarte
- Eostre corresponds to eggs and hares
- Ishtar/Astarte corresponds to eggs and hares
- The Easter bunny and egg are appropriated Pagan fertility symbols tied to Eostre and her festival
- The Easter bunny comes from the Lunar Hare, a figure in near- and far-Eastern mythologies
When we seek historical evidence to support our modern beliefs, what happens when we discover they are historically unfounded?
THE HISTORY WE KNOW
Let’s take a look at what history does back up. Ostara as we know it holds roots in distant Proto-Indo-European time. It has also been INFLUENCED by scholar and mythologist Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), the Christian Easter, and the Neo-Pagan community.
What Ostara is based on – the Spring Equinox – was extremely significant to the likes of the Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. Ancient cultures started their calendar years around the emergence of Spring as it was viewed as an important agricultural and spiritual event.
An order of priests in ancient Roman religion called the Salii of Mars were known as the ‘leaping priests’. This order was made up of 12 youths who would dress as warriors and make their way around the city in March of every year. They would sing, dance, and end the festival with a great feast.
The Akitu was a Spring celebration of the Babylonians. Its focus was the imprisonment of the god Marduk, his escape, and then marriage to Ishtar, the Earth goddess. Their union and their love represented the promise of fertility and bringing forth life in the Spring.
THE HISTORY WE DON’T KNOW
In terms of the Spring Equinox celebrations that took place before Christianity in Northern and Western Europe, we know very little. Surviving megalithic structures belonging to the pre-Celtic occupants of the British Isles do not provide any clear evidence that they paid any special attention to the Spring Equinox. This isn’t to say that they didn’t observe it; however, no explicit reference to Ostara can be found before 725 CE.
A Christian Northumbrian monk called Bede wrote the Anglo-Saxon era treatise De Temporum Ratione – ‘The Reckoning of Time.’ in 725. It is in this treatise where he describes the prime ancient calendars with its focus on calculating the date of Easter. He reports the method that was formulated by Dionysius Exiguus while also giving directions for determining Easter’s full moon.
In his book Bede also described the Easter holiday and attached the name ‘Eosturmononath’ to the fourth lunar month that lasted from mid-March to mid-April. Bede wrote:
“Eosturmononath has a name which is now translated as “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
And that is the ONLY mention of Eostre in any ancient writing. There has been no altars or shrines or any other kind of evidence that supports the worship of Eostre.
Jacob Grimm was a German linguist, author, and folklorist. It is with him we find the next instance of Eostre and Ostara to be written of – 1,108 years later. Grimm suggests in his 1839 book Deutsche Mythologie that from Bede’s goddess ‘Eostre’ the Old High German name for Easter ‘Ostern’ was derived. He also put forth a theory that connects Eostre to eggs:
“To what we said on p. 290 I can add some significant facts. The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate : I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people’s amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.”
A CONTROVERSIAL INTERPRETATION
It’s interesting that it took a little over 1100 years for a person to write about Bede’s claim about Easter’s roots surrounding the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. As such, what he postulated also went unchecked. Let’s take a look now.
As aforementioned, the ONLY premodern source referencing Eostre or Ostara is written by Bede in his De Temporum Ratione. Isn’t kind of funny that it leaves Eostre’s existence as a goddess unfounded? It’s because of this that we barely have any kind of evidence for a historical Ostara.
Another questionable interpretation of Grimm’s is his suggestion that Teutonic Easter customs are associated with an earlier Pagan holiday. This claim is not supported by actual concrete historical evidence, but instead conjecture and speculation. He makes it sound proven through use of the rationale that elements that don’t come from Christian origin MUST come from pre-Christian Pagan traditions.
THE HARE AND THE EGG
There’s also issue with his association of the hare and the egg with Eostre and Ostara. In 1678, the Easter hare first appears in recorded history. The only place where it was found was in Southwest Germany until the 18th-century. As such, its emergence among ancient Pagan tradition is highly doubted.
In terms of the Easter egg, its symbolism is relevant to Paganism; however, it fits just as well into a few different ancient religions and Christianity:
“The egg is probably the most well known symbol of Easter, and was of great significance to the early Church… Spring eggs heralded the beginning of new life after the cold winter months, and so symbolized the resurrection of Jesus. By the Middle Ages, it was customary throughout Europe to give decorated eggs on Easter Sunday, when they could finally be eaten after the long lenten fast…”
THE GODDESS OF THE DAWN, EOSTRE
As previously stated, a commonly held misbelief is that Eostre is a Teutonic goddess gleaned from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The only connection we have is based on the aforementioned Babylonian festival of Akitu that took place during the Spring Equinox. Part of Akitu exalted the union of the sky god Marduk to the Earth goddess Ishtar. This connects Akitu to Easter as it would act as a model for what would come to be the Christ myth. However, the connection ends there.
A direct link between Eostre and Ishtar herself is even harder to prove. The closest thing we have to evidence that supports this connection lies with a devotional altar to Ishtar – presented as Astarte – that was found amidst a dilapidated Roman fort located near Bede’s monastery. From here, that would mean that over time the residents’ memories of the goddess Astarte morphed into Eostre. Highly unlikely. After all, only one altar dedicated to Astarte was found and all that proves is there were some Roman soldiers exalting her close to Bede’s Abby – roughly 400 years before he wrote his treatise.
SO WHO IS EOSTRE REALLY?
Historically speaking, Eostre more than likely came from the Proto-Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn – Xáusōs. Linguistically, we can link ‘Eostre’ to Proto-Germanic ‘Austrōn’ (dawn) and also to the Proto-Indo-European root of ‘Aus’ (to shine). It is through comparative linguistics that we can glean not only ‘Eostre’, but Lithuanian ‘Aušrine’, Greek’s ‘Eōs’, Vedic ‘Uṣas’, Avestan ‘Ušā’, and Roman’s ‘Aurora’ – ALL Dawn Goddesses – thus making Eostre an Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn.
Doreen Valiente’s Request
According to Gerald Gardner’s first 1954 run of Witchcraft Today, Wiccans only observed six Sabbats instead of the current eight. There were the four ‘Greater Sabbats’, or fire festivals – Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain – as well as the Winter and Summer Solstices. At the request of Doreen Valiente, a prominent figure and author of much of the early liturgy within the Gardnerian Wicca tradition, Gardner amended the Sabbats to include the Spring Equinox and Autumn Equinox.
But why did Doreen Valiente ask to have these two equinoxes added into the Wheel of the Year? Was it for their merit and importance? Not at all. At the time, witchcraft was still very much frowned upon as it wasn’t until 1951 that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed. However, Druidic orders were socially accepted and joining one did not raise any eyebrows. Valiente proposed adding these holidays into the Wheel so that she could say she had joined a Druidic order without upsetting her family.
SO HOW DID WE GET MODERN DAY OSTARA?
The Spring Equinox and Autumn Equinox were officially given the same treatment as the other Sabbats in 1958 when Gardner requested it be so. However, it would be another 10 years before Ostara received its name. This is when Aidan Kelly who was writing the formulary of customs for the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. It is most likely that Kelly arrived on the name ‘Ostara’ after drawing inspiration from several literary works – like that from Bede and Grimm – and fleshed out the themes of rebirth and renewal as we know them today.
Well there you have it! A super interesting post to write, I learned quite a bit about Ostara and its history – or lack thereof. Regardless, I will keep my personal rituals and ways of celebrating the same as they still align with the Spring Equinox. How about you? Do you see Ostara differently now? Let me know in the comments! Bright Blessings and Happy Crafting!