Heathen Holidays: Eostre

Heathen Holidays: Eostre

by Trey Wentworth

This is the third blog post in a series on the topic of Heathen Holidays.

In February we began to really see and feel the lengthening of days as we moved away from Yule. Now, the seasons are indisputably changing – in warmer places, flowers are coming up, and even in the cold mountains of Vermont where the snow lingers, it’s finally melting faster than it falls and the air has the smell of spring. In Heathenry, we feel the subsiding of the Wild Hunt that rules the winter, and nights become less dangerous, making space for the beings of the land to flourish once more.

Today, our calendar marks four seasons, but the Venerable Bede tells us that “originally, [the English] divided the year as a whole into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter.” These months were tracked according to the moon in a lunisolar calendar, information confirmed by Icelandic and other Germanic sources to be a pan-Heathen method of reckoning time. With the coming of the April moon, we transition at last into the summer season, and the “light half of the year.”

As ever, different branches of the Germanic people celebrated this time in different ways. In Scandinavia, they performed a Sigrblot – a victory offering – while in Old English custom, this tide was called Eostre and perhaps centered around a deity by the same name. While academics and pagans debate the historicity of Eostre and her worship, it is indisputable that today, many modern Heathens have found potency in venerating her as one of our gods.

Who is Eostre?

It is not incidental that the Old English name Eostre looks so similar to our word Easter. Most European languages derive their name for this Christian observance from the Hebrew word Pesach – but English, Dutch, and German all retain this same Germanic root, giving rise to Easter, ooster, and Ostern. Clearly this celebration was of particular importance in West Germanic Heathenry! Linguists have proposed that the Old High German equivalent word would have been *Ostara, a familiar word today as it was used in the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year to denote their spring celebration (though they also moved it a month earlier to align with the equinox).

The word Eostre is related to the word east, and derives from a Proto Indo-European root meaning “dawn.” Rob Schreiwer has collected a Pennsylvania Dutch story Oschdre (Where Color Comes From; Origin of the Distelfink), where the figure Oschdra, equivalent to Old English Eostre, is responsible for manifesting the colors of the dawn sky as she walks between her sisters Day and Night.

While few snippets of lore around Eostre remain, she is clearly far more than a simple seasonal figure appearing only at springtime. Instead, she brings the dawn of each day, and the spring is hers because it is the dawning of the year itself. Folklore also suggests a connection with running and welling waters and their magical healing properties.

One folk symbol that has become beloved on Chase Hill at this holiday is that of the Osterfuchs – the Easter fox – who seems to be an older being appearing at this season, eventually displaced by the later and better known Easter bunny.

Celebrating Spring

With the ending of winter, there are many rituals needed to close out the dark half of the year and look toward our summer work. Now that the Wild Hunt’s ride is over, it is safe to call on the spirits of the land once more. After the April full moon, we again put out any statues or garden plaques (such as a Green Man, Wood Wife, or other symbol of the animating forces of nature) knowing that they are safe from being harried by the Hunt. If you saved a symbolic token of your harvest such as a Harvest Queen, she should be buried in the ground at this time to return that fertility to the earth for the coming season. And, of course, we give offerings to the land as well – mead, bread, and eggs to feed the earth with our gifts and our gratitude, in the hopes of a bountiful summer.

German folklore tells us that Easter dawn is an especially potent time for healing rituals. Drawing on these old customs, specially appointed Eostre Attendants wake early before our ritual on Chase Hill, dress all in white, and draw water from the well in silence as day breaks. This water is poured over the hands of everyone at our ritual to help wash away whatever wounds we carry from the long dark of winter. If you have a local spring, well, or stream, you can easily draw your own healing water, so long as you set an early alarm! Wear white to honor Eostre, and don’t speak aloud until you have your water. Make sure to check the potability of your water source before deciding to consume it – but even non-potable water can be used for ritual washing.

Eostre is a time of hope and beauty, with flowers, light, and longer days. But spring was still a harsh time for pre-modern people. This is the so called “hungry gap” between the ending of winter and the first harvests of summer. Local New England lore tells us that the serviceberry tree is so named because when it blooms the ground has thawed enough to bury the bodies of those who died over the winter. Eostre’s arrival in springtime is not one of unfettered joy, but instead a time when we need to catch each other in our ragged post-winter daze and find softness, healing, and a place for the griefs we have endured in the last six months. Only by finding community and gentleness in spring can we recover enough to stand up for the work that summer will demand of us.

Heathen Holidays: Mothers’ Night

Trey Wentworth

This is the first blog post in a series on the topic of Heathen Holidays.

The season of Yule is upon us, and though many pagans share the word yule these days, celebrations by the same name may differ widely from one tradition to the next. Here we’ll be talking about how Heathens celebrate Yule, particularly traditions practiced by the Chase Hill community in Vermont.

In Heathenry, Yule is always a multi-day celebration. (Ever hear of the twelve days of Christmas? That wasn’t a Christian innovation!) Historically, it may have been celebrated for a span of days, weeks, or even months! Many modern Heathens celebrate Yule starting at sundown the night before the winter solstice and ending at sundown on January 1st. This holiday marks the ending of one year and the beginning of the next – with the span of 12 or 13 days belonging to neither, but instead a potent in-between time for resting and setting intentions for the coming year.

The first night of Yule is often called Mothers’ Night after the Old English tradition as recorded by the Venerable Bede. This is a time when we honor all the goddesses and female ancestors – the Good Ladies – when they at last take a break from their yearly work and wander the earth, traveling from home to home during the night. As the start of the almost two-week Yule celebration, it is also the time when we bless and ward our homes to protect them from the many dangerous beings that live in the long dark nights between years.

Celebrating Mothers’ Night

Leading up to Mothers’ Night there is a flurry of house cleaning. When the host of the Good Ladies comes, we want our homes to be orderly, and it is customary to finish all fiber arts projects before they arrive. Because spinning, weaving, and other crafts are so sacred to the Good Ladies, we set them aside for the span of Yule and don’t pick up new projects until the New Year. Working on fiber arts while the Good Ladies themselves take a break from that work would be hubris indeed! All this should be done before the sun sets, signaling the start of the Yule holiday.

Once the house is clean, all your knitting projects are done for the year, and night has fallen, it is time to bless the house. We “kindle fires in every corner of the house” by turning on every light – even that rarely used closet or basement light. Light every candle and oil lamp that is out and in use (you don’t have to pull out that backup box of 20 tapers and light them all!), and turn on all your flashlights. Any woodstoves or fire places should be lit – even if only by an electric tealight. The house should be fairly glowing in contrast to the dark winter night. Then gather up some bells (yes, bells!) and step outside to recite this prayer to all the unseen beings that move through the night between years:

Come those who wish to come,
stay those who wish to stay,
and fare those who wish to fare,
harmless to me and mine.

(adapted from Our Troth, vol. II, Second Edition, compiled by Kveldulf Gundarsson)

Ring your bells and walk a circle around your house, welcoming in good luck and all kindly spirits, while driving away bad luck and any beings that mean you harm. When you are finished, your house is blessed, and you can turn off all the extra lights and blow out the candles (make sure you don’t forget any!)

For a holiday dinner, I often make dishes that fit the theme of the Good Ladies – potage bonne femme (a French leek and potato soup whose name means “soup of the good woman”) and hexenschnee (a Dutch dessert of applesauce, gelatin, and whipped egg whites called “witches’ snow”) are two of my favorites.

And beyond feeding ourselves, it is also time to feed the spirits. On Yule eve, the house spirits of the Heathen world are given their yearly pay in the form of cream porridge — with a big dollop of butter on top. The hob, tomte, nisse, or whatever regional name you use for the being that protects your home will find your offering if you place it on the hearth or the doorstep. If your house spirit isn’t particularly hungry and the bowl is still full in the morning, the contents can go to your garden via the compost.

Lastly, before bed, we lay out the Feast of the Good Ladies, because tonight they will come to the house, checking to see that all is in order and all spinning for the year is finished, and we must welcome such august guests with a meal. This food stays on the table until morning when we eat it ourselves for breakfast, taking in the blessing of all those kindly spirits as the first act on the first morning of Yule. It is important to leave the food uncovered so the Good Ladies can take part in the feast and lay their blessing on it. But be aware that some breakfast foods don’t survive well exposed to warm, drying air for hours. This is a great time for foods with rinds, peels, or crusts – fruit (a bowl of apples or clementines), cheeses (which are often stored unrefrigerated in countries outside the US), and uncut loaves of bread, pies, or pastries. There are some European recipes such as the Italian La Befana Cake that do well sitting out, as they are made for traditions just like these in their areas of origin (la Befana is an Italian witch who similarly enters homes looking for a meal, though she rides at Epiphany on January 6 — a date in common with some other Heathen versions of this practice, especially in the Urglaawe tradition).

However you celebrate it, here’s wishing you all the blessings of Yule, and all the protection of family, home, laughter, and light in this dark time of year.