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.