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Ostara: Easter’s Pagan Origins in Europe

Ostara

Easter, like many of our Christianised calendar celebrations, is festival with distinctly Pagan origins – Ostara. From symbolism to representation, the central tenets of the spirngtime festival are adapted elements of European Paganism that Christian thinkers adopted.

The very etymology of the word Easter is of Pagan origin. In Anglo-Saxon England, the Old English word for the month that corresponds to much of April in the Gregorian Calendar is Ēostremōnaþ. The stem word Ēostre was chosen by the Pagan English as it is the name of a prominent Goddess, which in Old High German translates to Ostara – the latter word has filtered into modern usage for Neopaganism, most probably because of its relatively simple amalgamation with modern English pronunciations. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, the Venerable Bede, himself a Christian Monk, refers to both the name of “Easter month” and describes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons’ celebration of the Goddess by that name. Other literary sources for the Goddess in the Anglo-Saxon and German world are scarce, but in his book Life of Charlemagne, the German Monk Einhard gives the old name for April as Ostaramonaþ.

Whilst the Christian festival Easter falls on no specific date of the Gregorian Calendar, the Pagan festival Ostara is fixed to the Spring Equinox – 20th March. Deutsche Mythologie refers to the festival taking place over two days, but there is no evidence to suggest this was universal across the Germanic world. The most important date of this festival, in any case, is 20th March, on which day a feast is held – as with any good Pagan festival – with the usual ceremonies; ancestor veneration, prayer for a good harvest, the cessation of work and so on. As opposed to Winter Nights and Yuletide, it is not customary to lay places at the table for fallen comrades or departed loved ones.

The primary cause for celebration on Ostara is the passing of winter and the rebirth of the sun. This is particularly important for the Pagan Germanic peoples were more acutely in touch with nature and the seasons, for their sustenance depended on it. The rebirth of the sun meant the ability to grow crops, to keep cattle and to work the thawing land. The coming of Spring is, of course, alone worthy of celebration, for the depression and general malaise of Winter was and remains an issue that our people are acutely aware of, living in a part of the world with often harsh Winters followed by a mild Spring. Thus, the rebirth of the sun is significant for the relief of Winter if nothing else, in modern times.

The Goddess Ostara herself symbolises rebirth and the new dawn. Additionally, she symbolises fertility in the Old English tradition, which is what originally gave rise to the egg-related symbolism. It is quite remarkable, and it always amazes me in fact, that people are quick to enforce this almost dogmatic tradition of calling chocolate eggs “Easter Eggs”, as if to defend Christian heritage in some way, but they never ask what exactly an egg has to do with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This is an example of Christian festivals adopting Pagan symbolism to suit the sensibilities of Europeans, like Yule trees at Christmas and masks at Halloween. The egg is an overt symbol of fertility and, along with the hare, has strong association with the Goddess Ostara – the hare is a totem animal of the Easter Goddess, particularly in the Celtic tradition.

These symbolic links to fertility and rebirth tie in nicely with the season, of course. Ostara is the giver of Spring, the Goddess who represents the lighter evenings, the brighter skies – the equinox – and the agricultural benefits that brought. Nowadays, in a world where we’re less dependent on the seasons to sustain us physically, it’s perhaps more appropriate that Ostara represents the psychological benefits that can be found in enjoying the longer, brighter days. And this is something our ancestors were acutely aware of, too. That was the reason they downed tools and feasted for twelve days over the Yuletide period, for example; to compensate for the malaise and depression brought on by the dark Winter nights.

To summarise, it’s not necessarily fair to say that Easter is a Pagan festival, but it draws heavily on Ostara and the latter clearly provided the foundations for the former’s adaptation to fit a European sensibility. Europeans celebrate every Equinox, and have done arguably since the days the Proto-Indo-Europeans left the Pontic Steppe, and they continue to do so with their secular festivals in modern Europe, even if they aren’t consciously aware of the Pagan nature of their rites and rituals. However, a revival of Ostara and a celebration of the Spring Equinox is more than mere history, it’s a living reminder of the primordial state of our people, and should be nurtured, protected and advanced at every opportunity.

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