Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ostara: A Festival Without a Cause

Ēostre/Ostara
Oatara. Eduard Ade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


An Overview of Ostara; Looking at why it Exists, and its Date


by Race MoChridhe

There is something in the air at Ostara. The Egyptians know this well, because every year since about 2700 BC they have gone out into the countryside to take the air, which is believed to be unusually rejuvenating on this day.

What that something is, however, is hard for anyone to say, for while the equinox is widely celebrated the world over, and though a very large share of traditional calendars take it as their new year, there are very few instances of theological significance attached to it. Some sources suggest that Norse communities held a Dísablót on the equinox, but many others, including Snorri Sturluson, place that sacrifice at the beginning of winter instead. The Celts leave no record of celebrating anything at this time. The Greeks and the Romans marked a variety of thematically unrelated dates in the weeks surrounding the equinox, but payed the day itself no particular mind. From the Slavic world, the pre-Christian Balts, or any other corner of Europe or most of the rest of the world, there is only the chirping of crickets (and, in northern climes, even that isn’t heard until Beltane).

In the ancient world, only Palestine and Iraq offer us vernal equinox celebrations focused on more than just spring cleaning, preparation for planting, marking a calendrical milestone, or taking in the fresh air. In what is now Iraq, the Sumerians (and later, Babylonians) marked the day as the return of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar to the world of the living after her descent into the Kur—the realm of the dead. In Palestine, the Israelites marked the Passover commemoration of their Exodus from Egypt on the fourteenth day of the lunar month of Nisan (cf. Leviticus 23:5), which was so arranged to always fall after the vernal equinox. So important was this that, if unripeness of the barley or any other indication was brought forward as evidence for a late spring, a special intercalary month (Adar II) would be inserted into the year to delay Passover.

The imprecision of such dating became fateful with the advent of Christianity. The Gospels mark Passover as the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion and resurrection (cf. John 19:14), and the earliest Christian communities celebrated Easter starting on 14 Nisan as a result. The trouble was that it was also well established in traditional Christian teaching that the Resurrection had occurred on a Sunday, and 14 Nisan did not always fall on one. In the second century, the Bishop of Smyrna marked Easter on the fourteenth regardless of the day of the week, citing authority from John the Apostle himself. Pope Victor I was having none of this, however, and attempted to excommunicate everyone not following his own practice of observing Easter on a Sunday proximate to the middle of the lunar month.

This dispute actually managed to be settled amicably (a rare enough occurrence in early Church history), and the Council of Nicaea universally decreed Sunday observance in 325. By that time, however, there was a new problem in determining which Sunday to use. Christians in Syria continued to consult rabbinic authorities for the date of 14 Nisan, but some Jewish communities, apparently including those at Antioch, by this time allowed the fourteenth to fall before the vernal equinox.

Frigg as Ostara
Frigg als (as) Ostara. By Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christian communities elsewhere had taken to calculating the lunar month for themselves, taking it as axiomatic that Easter not be allowed to precede the arrival of spring. The Council of Nicaea accordingly also decided that there should be a universal date for Easter and that it should be computed independently of Jewish reckoning, following a model used at Alexandria that eventually gave us the present Western system, which places Easter on the fourteenth day of the lunar month beginning after the equinox (this is called the Paschal full moon, although it can vary from the date of the astronomical full moon by up to two days). This is why modern Easter varies each year between dates in mid-March and dates in late April.

The so-called “Easter controversy” had a particularly long afterlife in Britain, where the Irish monks clung steadfastly to their own methods of calculating Easter at variance with Rome. This became political, and finally the Synod of Whitby was called in 664 to settle the issue, deciding against the Irish system and in favor of conformity with Rome. The Synod’s arguments became heated, and the enforcement of its edicts even more so. A letter written by St. Ceolfrid justifying the decision to the King of the Picts suggested somewhat histrionically that, “Whoever argues, therefore, that the Paschal full moon can occur before the equinox … allies himself with those who believe that they can be saved without the assistance of Christ's grace." Even the force of this denouncement, however, cannot compare with the attitude taken by Bede who, besides being our only source for the etymological connection between Easter/Ostara and the goddess Ēostre (for whose existence he is also the only source), also left us an account of the slaughter of native British monks by the heathen Æthelfrith in which the calamity is interpreted as a just punishment ordained by God for their recalcitrance.

What does this have to do with Ostara? A great deal, I think. The vehemence of Bede’s feelings are somewhat difficult to explain. The festival had no meaningful antecedent in his culture. Its traditional dating was based on a festival from another religion (Judaism), which itself was dated somewhat arbitrarily by a religious law in Leviticus that Bede, like all other Christians of his time, did not feel obliged to follow. Yet he felt so strongly that the Resurrection could not be commemorated before the spring equinox that he could look on the martyrdom of fellow Christians with contempt. In Christendom generally, and in Britain most fervently, God Himself seemed to be sublimated to the logic of nature’s renewal in the balance of the light; Jesus could turn water into wine before His hour had come (John 2:4), but was strictly forbidden from redeeming Creation before the equinox.

Modern Pagan Ostara is even more arbitrary. It has no direct ancient antecedents in formal religious observance, and even the folk customs upon which it draws are often very recent (the association of hares with the time around Easter, for example, is unrecorded before the 17th century, and does not appear to have spread outside southern Germany until the 18th). Gardnerian Witches did not mark Ostara as a sabbat until Doreen Valiente, before her public career, borrowed its observance as a cover, allowing her to claim that her practice was Druidic (Druid orders being much more respectable in Britain at the time). Even the older Druidic celebration didn’t go back further than the 18th century, being a product of the Welsh Revival. (For a debunking of many “ancient Ostara” myths, consult D.C. McBride). And yet, as modern Pagan mythology developed out of Robert Graves’ teachings on the White Goddess, Margaret Murray’s speculations on medieval witchcraft, and a patchwork of other sources, it developed its own ideas of dying and reborn gods that could, by the same inexorable logic as that which controlled the dating of Easter, not possibly find expression at any other time of the year.

Outside Judaism and Christianity, the equinox cannot really be said to commemorate anything old. All over the world, though, from Jewish Passover and Christian Easter, to Egyptian Shem el-Nessim and Persian Nowruz, to new year’s celebrations in India, southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica, it is a time of celebrating what is new. As modern Paganism, scarcely seventy years old in anything like its now recognizable form, takes its place among the world’s religions, Ostara may be the most genuinely Pagan festival of all, not despite the fact that it is a modern fabrication, but precisely because it is. Every new thing must happen now—for now is the time of renewal—and that is a very old tradition, indeed.


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