This entry is adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. For the unedited and uncut version, buy the book!
When do you celebrate Ostara?
Some modern Heathens make a point of holding a blót directly on the spring equinox (March 21 or close), sometimes calling that date “Summer-Finding.” However, in German folk custom, “finding summer” meant a celebration upon finding the first spring flowers or the first returning birds (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, vol. 2, pp. 762-763).
A similar custom was observed in the Netherlands, where lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) lay their eggs in nests on the ground; the first lapwing’s egg to be found is a sure sign that spring is coming (Newell, An Egg at Easter, p. 294).
Obviously, such a celebration cannot be held on a fixed date.
If you choose to celebrate the feast of Easter / Ostara, it might be best to hold this feast when you can see signs of spring, whenever that might be in your area.
Pagan Easter within Historical Context
One thing becomes obvious when we look at Eostre or Ostara against the background of the traditional agricultural calendar: in Britain and Germany, any early spring holiday would have fallen in the middle of an exceptionally busy time of the year.
The weary, muddy labor of ploughing had begun as early as January, and the spring wheat would have been planted. But now that the weather was beginning to warm up, there were plenty of other crops to plant and an endless number of other jobs to do. An early 11th century Old English document, the Gerefa (“Reeve”; i.e. the manager of an estate), lists just a few of the tasks that a farmer would be busy with (ed. Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 454):
On længene eregian . ⁊ impian . beana sawan . wingeard settan . dician . deorhege heawan . ⁊ raðe æfter ðam gif hit mot gewiderian . mederan settan . linsed sawan . wadsæd eac swa . wyrtun plantian . ⁊ fela ðinga . ic eal getellan ne mæig þæt god scirman bycgan sceal.
In spring, plough and graft, sow beans, plant a vineyard, dig ditches, cut wood for the animal stockade. And soon after that, if the weather is good, plant madder, sow flaxseed, also sow woad, plant herbs, and many things. I cannot tell everything that a good foreman must take care of.
Lenzen and the Hungry Gap
This is not only a lot of work, but it comes at a perilous time. Spring is the “Hungry Gap,” when the food supplies that were stored for the winter are beginning to run low, and new sources of food are not available yet. The new crops have only just been planted, the sea may be too rough to fish, and the livestock animals themselves may be starving.
This moon was called in High German the "Lenzen" moon, which was the "Lean" or "Stretched Thin" Moon. "Lenzen" is the root of the word "Lent" which is the observance period in many Christian traditions where they practice various forms of fasting and self-denial.
The Hungry Gap would ease up later in spring as new sources of food became available—if everything went well. If everything did not go well, the result would be famine.
Even in relatively good years, poorer people might not be able to fill their bellies until late summer when the new grain was harvested. William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman is a Christian allegory, but it uses some very real details that would have been true in pre-Christian times as well (B.XIV.157-160, ed. Kane and Donaldson, p. 522; see also Frank, “The ‘Hungry Gap,’ pp. 229-230):
For muche murþe is amonges riche, as in mete and cloþyng,
And muche murþe in Maye is amonges wilde beestes;
And so forþ whil somer lasteþ her solace dureth.
Ac beggeris aboute Midsomer bredlees þei soupe. . . .
For there is much mirth among the rich, on account of food and clothes,
And there is much mirth in May among wild beasts,
And so it goes while Summer lasts and her pleasures remain,
But beggars around Midsummer have supper with no bread. . . .
Thus Easter or Ostara is similar to Lammas—a moment to catch one’s breath in the middle of a long season of hard work, and thank the Gods and the land spirits for their gifts. But more importantly, it is a time to ask for blessing on the hard work that still lies ahead and trusting in the bounty and goodness of the Gods.
Can Heathens Fast?
We will get into this more in our Blog, but fasting isn't prohibited in Heathenry or Norse Paganism--but neither is it explicitly prescribed. The Hungry Gap and Lezen were well known to Pre-Christian People in Northern Europe. So any "fasting" they did was likely involuntary.
Heathens today may want to observe Lent with their Christian friends and family, or begin their own fasting tradition around this time in honor of those who suffered and those who continue to suffer through hunger and famine. You may even want to make this particular moon of Lenzen a time of reflection and compassion that motivates you to be of greater service to others.
Heathenry has a deep and abiding value in hospitality and sharing abundance. Depriving ourselves of these things at specific times of the year can spark within us the call to service in our community. This feeling of care and compassion for others which inspires us to share goodness and help those in need is the "reason for the season." Sometimes, fasting can be a tool to help us achieve that feeling.
In certain forms of Theodisc Belief, Priests will commit to fasting for a certain period before rites as a means of ritual purification. The thought is that during certain rites, the Priest serves as a conduit for the goodness and the blessing of the Gods to the community. The Priest thus effaces themselves and their "ego" to remain "empty" in order to serve their community--where their ego and self-interest would serve as "friction" between the Gods and the community they serve.
You can make Lenzen a time of such reflection and fasting, if you choose, before your Easter celebration.
Where did the name "Easter" and "Ostara" come from?
The evidence for a feast in honor of the goddess Ostara comes almost entirely from Bede’s De temporum ratione, a work on timekeeping and the calendar (transl. Wallis, The Reckoning of Time, p. 54):
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
When Charlemagne ruled the Franks, he standardized their calendar and gave April the name of Ostermanoth. The oldest book in German, a Latin-German glossary known as Abrogans, gives Ostarun as the German equivalent of Latin Pasca, “Easter” (Sermon, “From Easter to Ostara,” pp. 336-337). Jacob Grimm argued that this pointed to a German and English goddess named Eostre or Ostara, who must have been so important that Christians had to keep her name for their own celebration (Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, pp. 290-291).
The name of the Ostara holiday may have been introduced to Germany by English missionaries such as Boniface, which raises questions as to whether a goddess by that name was known in pre-Christian Germany (Sermon, “From Easter to Ostara,” p. 337).
There it is. It's called "Easter" because that was the name for the month, which Bede believed was named as such because it was the name of a Goddess.
Was Ostara really a Goddess?
Many scholars today feel that Bede invented the goddess and her feast to explain a month name that he did not understand, or care to understand. As a devout monk who had lived in monasteries since the age of seven, he would not have willingly observed any surviving pagan practices; even if he had, he would have had no reason to describe them in detail. Volume 2 of Our Troth discusses the evidence for and against the existence of a goddess named Eostre or Ostara.
A conclusion that can be supported is that there was a goddess whose name derives from “East,” but she may have been worshipped only in limited areas (Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, pp. 58-68). She does not seem to have been known in Scandinavia, where the Christian holiday kept its Latin name (Norwegian and Danish Påske, Swedish Påsk, Icelandic Páskar; all from Latin Pascha and ultimately from Hebrew Pesach, “Passover”).
Having said all that, the worship of Eostre or Ostara as a goddess of returning spring and returning light has become widespread in Heathenry in the US. Many Heathens do seem to feel that there is a feminine personality that responds to their worship, whether she is Eostre or possibly another goddess. Individuals and kindreds may decide for themselves whether to hold a blót to Eostre at this time, to hold a blót to another goddess, or to celebrate a different feast entirely.
"Ostara" and "Eostre" could have been a name for another Goddess
Another popular theory among modern Heathens is that this "Ostara/Eostre" confusion is based on later Christians not knowing that these names were actually just epithets for a Goddess like Freya or Frigga. Since there is no evidence of the worship of this Goddess outside of this brief mention in Bede, one might be inclined to think that either She wasn't worshipped at all or perhaps calling someone "The Eastern One" or the "Dawning Sun" was an epithet for a Goddess who was more widely worshipped.
A growing number of Modern Heathens believe that Ostara/Easter was an epithet for Freya.
This makes sense in modern practice partly because while Freya is worshipped at the beginning of Spring, Freyr Yngve is worshipped at the end of Fall, which makes a very tidy Holiday calendar. Freya the Goddess for the sewing and Freyr Yngve as the God for the reaping.
We have to remember that the name "Freya" isn't actually a "name" as much as it's a title. "Freya" literally means "The Lady" which begs the question "The Lady...who?" What is the lady's name?
There is also a symbolic connection of Freya's necklace, Brisingamen. A bright necklace like Brisingamen could be interpreted as resembling the rays of a dawning sun.
This pendant from the Swedish Museum in Stockholm is purportedly of Freya. Notice the shape of the necklace and how it appears to have "rays" coming from it. This is all speculation, of course. But many modern Heathens have adopted it as part of their belief and practice.
Did Christians Steal Easter from Pagans?
No. Not at all. The date of the Christian holiday of Easter is based on the Jewish lunar calendar, with a few modifications to ensure that it does not coincide with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Calculating its proper date calls for some tricky arithmetic, known in the Middle Ages as computus (which is mostly what Bede was writing about in De temporum ratione).
The Date for Easter is Christian, through and through. But what about some of the interesting traditions for Easter? Are those Pagan in origin?
Many traditional Easter customs become clear when interpreted in this light. The most obvious is the Easter egg, which stem from simple biology: Geese and ducks lay eggs in March through May, and chickens reduce or stop egg-laying unless they are exposed to fourteen or more hours of daylight. Since our forebears didn’t have henhouses with automated lighting systems to keep their chickens laying year-round, Ostara more or less marked the first time since the previous autumn that they had eggs to eat.
In fact, the eggs becoming available around Ostara might have been the first fresh high-protein food source for several months. It’s not surprising that eggs at Easter-time were seen as giving strength and health; a proverb recorded in the Rhineland in the 17th century says
Auf Ostern iss hart gesotene Eyer, dann bist du das gantze Jahr gesundt, “At Easter eat hard-boiled eggs, then you’ll be healthy the whole year,” while in Oldenburg it was said that a weak man should “eat a few more Easter eggs” (Newall, An Egg at Easter, p. 253).
Jakob Grimm believed that eggs were part of the Heathen feast of Ostara (Teutonic Mythology, vol. 2, p. 780). However, Christianity adopted eggs very early, as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
Unburned eggs, or at least their shells, have been found in some cremation graves at Swedish sites such as Birka, along with remains of other food offerings such as fruits, bread, and chickens. At least some of these cremation graves also contained iron rings with multiple Thor’s Hammers (Gräslund, Birka IV, pp. 53-56), suggesting that the deceased and those who buried them weren’t Christians.
Christians have similar stories about what eggs symbolize, and coloring eggs red to symbolize the drops of the blood of Christ is a practice that dates back to the Medieval era. Thus while the meaning of eggs as signs of new life likely predates Christianity, their association with Easter has entirely Christian origins.
Baking these is another way of enjoying the benefits of Easter eggs (especially if you don’t care for hard-boiled eggs or omelets). In Britain, it was widely believed that bread baked on the Friday before Easter (Good Friday) was particularly lucky, and had curative powers; in some households this bread was carefully kept all year round. This bread evolved into the well-known “Hot Cross Buns” baked and eaten at this time. This custom was only recorded in the 19th century, and it has Christian roots; Hutton traces it to the medieval veneration of the Host, the consecrated bread used in the Christian service of the Mass (Stations of the Sun, pp. 192-193).
Still, some Heathens have suggested that they can be easily Heathenized, seeing the equal-armed cross on the buns as the rune gebo, ᚷ (Wodening, Hammer of the Gods, p. 111).
But regardless of the origin of Hot Cross Buns, this is still a traditional time for baking special breads. Heathens who bake may certainly offer some of their baking to the gods.
Was the Easter Bunny a Pagan Symbol?
The idea that a rabbit brings eggs at Easter was introduced into American culture by the Pennsylvania Germans, who told stories of the Oschter Haws, the “Easter hare.”
Since the 19th century, various scholars have conjectured that the hare was holy to the goddess Ostara and eaten at her feast. But there is no really solid evidence, and scholars now tend to see the “Easter bunny” as a late development (Sermon, “From Easter to Ostara,” p. 341).
Having said that, for whatever it may be worth, one Migration Era bracteate from Tuvasgården, Sweden, depicts a single hare. It is not unheard of, but somewhat unusual, for a single animal to be depicted in this way. At the very least, we can say that someone in Sweden around the year 600 thought that the hare was important enough to depict in skillfully wrought gold.
Easter festivals in Germany often included bonfires, a custom that can be traced to the 16th century. In the town of Lügde, six huge carved oak wheels are stuffed with straw, set ablaze, and rolled down the Osterberg, “Easter Mountain.” This custom of rolling burning wheels is more usually seen at Midsummer (see Chapter 22), and as always, proving that it has pagan roots is very difficult (Sermon, “From Easter to Ostara,” p. 338).
Regardless of whether something is Christian in origin or not, if you enjoy a tradition, there is nothing keeping you from incorporating it in your Holiday
So what have we learned? Is Easter a completely Christian holiday and Norse Pagans are just all doing it wrong? No, we shouldn't have that be our takeaway. Religion is complicated and sometimes we need to let it be complicated.
We also have to understand that our history is part of us. The Conversion period and everything since has influenced us and given us traditions and holidays that our religion didn't have before. Do we throw it all out? Do we toss out the last 1000 years plus of history or do we make it part of the story?
There is nothing in Heathenry that says you can't. You can have the Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, Easter Bread and all of that. You can fast during the Hungry Gap (Lenzen) and you can have Ostara as well.
But be intentional about it. Understand the why. Why we celebrate the abundance the the world can bring us. Why we trust in the Gods. Why Ostara is such a special time of year.
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