Ostara – the Vernal or Spring Equinox - marks the time when the sun passes over the celestial equator in the Northern Hemisphere. Many modern pagan traditions celebrate the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring. The roots of this equinox celebration are found in ancient pagan holidays: Eostre and Liberalia.
Despite what's been circulating on the Internet since 2013, historians have come to the consenus that Easter is not related to the Assyrian goddess of sex and fertility, Ishtar. Though, in some aspects she does allign with the season. Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkely Divinity School at Yale University says: "There is consensus that...Easter is derived from the words used in Germanic languages for the East, the direction, and by extension for the dawn, etc.".
‘Ostara’ or ‘Eostra’, is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn found in various in Germanic traditions. Many trace this celebration back to a reconstruction produced by linguist Jacob Grimm (yes, one of those Grimms) of an old High German form of the old English goddess Eostre. We can get a general sense of the Germanic pagan traditions from Grimm’s writings, “Bonfires were lit at Easter and water drawn on the Easter morning, is like that at Christmas, holy and healing – here also heathen notions seem to have grafted themselves on great Christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.” Even in contemporary times, many people in Germanic countries, such as Austria, still light traditional bonfires at this time of year.
'Ostara', Johannes Gehrts (1884)
In the 1835 book, Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm speculates on the nature of the goddess and surviving folk customs that may have been associated with her in Germany: “Ostara, Eastre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s Easter Celebrations marking the Spring Equinox.” Grimm also mentions a potential connection to the Slavic spring goddess Vesna, and the Lithuanian Vasara.
'Allegory of Spring' , Bernhard Rode, (1785)
Celebrations marking the Spring Equinox are not limited to only Northern Europe. Roots of Ostara are derived from Eostre as well as Liberalia. In Southern Europe, the ancient Roman festival of Liberalia took place on March 17th in honor of god of fertility, Liber. Joined in this was the wine goddess Libera, (known in Greek mythology as Persephone) who is associated with freedom. The goddess Venus/Aphrodite was also honored at this time. The ancient feast of Liberia was celebrated with sacrifices, processions, raunchy songs and by hanging masks in trees.
Statue of Persephone-Isis, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Some practitioners associate Eostre with Idunn, keeper of the apples of youth in Scandinavian mythology. Some pagan authors say that Ostara derives from the ancient Celtic and Saxon spring holidays, and that what’s celebrated now is a modern invention. However the case may be, Eostra is a spring goddess who oversees the budding plants and burgeoning fertility of the earth.
'Idun with apples', Lucy Fitch Perkins, (1865-1937)
In the early 20th century, the name “Ostara” became the name of a Germanic, nationalist magazine, book series, and publishing house based in Austria. Because Nazis ruin EVERYTHING. Nazi appropriation of German and Nordic mythology has led to these pagan belief systems being associated with white supremacists. For too long have these belief systems been the property of fascists, and now more than ever could use a reclamation by progressive, non-bigoted pagans who find connection with Nordic/Germanic paths.
Many religions celebrate holidays during this time of year, including the Hindu Holi, Jewish Purim, Sikh Hola Mohalla and Christian Easter. The celebration of this holiday coincides with Christian Easter, and eventually was incorporated into the yearly Christian holiday. In fact, the reason Easter changes its date each year is because its celebration is based on a pagan lunar calendar. Easter is on the first Sunday after the full moon on the Vernal Equinox. Similar to those observed at Easter, symbols for Ostara include rabbits, eggs, flowers, and incorporate them into rituals, altars, and celebratory feasts.
For many pagans, the Spring Equinox is the time when the Spring Maiden and Horned God come together. As a spring goddess, Eostra (sometimes spelled ‘Austra’) oversees the budding plants and burgeoning fertility of the earth. The Horned God, frequently envisioned as the god Pan, symbolizes the festive enjoyment of nature through hunting and dancing. Symbols of fertility and new life play a prominent role in many Vernal Equinox celebrations.
Pink Narcissus, James Bidgood, (1971)
Whether you are a secular witch, or incorporate deities into your practice the essential element of this equinox is rebirth, new beginnings, and fertility. For childfree people, the thought of topics such as ‘birth’ and ‘fertility’ can feel quite alienating. By shifting our definition of those two concepts to suitably fit our needs we can make this both personal and meaningful to ourselves. Basing your celebration around areas of your life where new beginnings and creativity are present does just as well as focusing on more literal interpretations.
Much of the symbolism we associate with Easter comes directly from pagan Spring Equinox celebrations. The Easter tradition of painting Easter eggs with bright colors to represent spring flowers stems from pagan folk traditions using eggs as a symbol of the return of chickens laying eggs more frequently (they don’t produce much during the winter season). Rabbits have long been a symbol of fertility, and they too represent this time of the year when the world is waking up to the fresh start of the spring season. In the British Isles, the sacredness of the rabbit extends back to prehistoric times. Some scholars have linked customs and imagery involving hares to Eostre and the Norse goddess Freya. John Andrew Boyle writes, “her carriage…was drawn by a pair of cats – animals, it is true, which like hares were the familiars of witches, with whom Freya seems to have much in common.”
If you are a goddess worshipper or a secular witch – or somebody who considers themselves neither but wants to acknowledge the changing of the seasons – Merry Ostara, and here’s to the re-emergence of spring at last!