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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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Hierophant and the Divine Passion

Thoth Hierophant

The Real Hierophant, that it Seems Relatively Few Know Of


by Race MoChridhe


I find the reputations of Tarot cards fascinating. Just as with the symbols of religions and mythologies, simplifications of meaning are commonly being used as expedient tools for teaching students easily overwhelmed by a surfeit of detail. Which is a valid approach, until those simplifications overwhelm the original symbol and reduce it to a parody of itself. Looking at which simplifications take on such lives of their own reveals a great deal about the society we live in.

One such victimized card is the Hierophant, whose cropping to the boundaries of societal expectation about what “church” and “religious institutions” mean goes too frequently uncorrected for the simple reason that nobody knows what a “hierophant” is, and far too many think they know what a “pope” is, in decks that so name their fifth trump. The Hierophant, associated with structure, tradition, and societal expectations and institutions, has thus developed an unfortunately stodgy image, not unlike the story of the little girl who, when asked who Jesus was, responded that he was a man who scoured the earth looking for people having fun and made them stop.

In a culture enamored of free spirits, rebels, and renegades, the Hierophant often comes off as the person over thirty you should no longer trust. When he is brought into association with another card, it is often to pair him with the cold and inaccessible High Priestess (first paragraph via link) or to oppose him to the following card, The Lovers, with its emphasis on personal values.

This opposition, or perception of opposition, tells us much more about ourselves as 21st century people than it tells us about the medieval figure on the card. The term “hierophant” comes from ancient Greek, meaning literally “one who shows the holy.” The title belonged most famously to the chief priest at the Eleusinian Mysteries, but was used anywhere someone held the sacred function of bringing congregants or initiates into the presence of the Divine. Frequently enough, as at Eleusis, that presence was in some way connected with fertility. Some decks call this card the Pope—a figure whose full Latin title, pontifex maximus, means “the most great bridge-maker”, linking the world of the sacred with mundane reality, but whose common title of Pope (Italian Papa) means “father”.

We are so used to desexualizing this term in religious contexts, applying it most frequently to celibate priests, that we often forget its wider range of connotations. Far from a masculine counterpart to the chaste High Priestess, was have here a figure much closer to the Emperor, with whom he shares this fatherhood association, and the Empress, who is the model of the goddess of fertility represented by Demeter in the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the order of the cards, the Hierophant stands directly after these, and directly before The Lovers, as the one who brings them into the sacred presence of each other—the preparer of the marriage bed. Is this not, in fact, what the Pope does in Christian parlance, where the Church is “the bride of Christ” being perpetually prepared for the Bridegroom?

The Hierophant speaks to us, certainly, of order, tradition, and institution, but not as some external counterpoint to a romanticized notion of “natural” spontaneity and instinct. Rather, he reminds us that, within human nature, the one is never found without the other. Half a world away from the preparation of Christ’s bride we find a startlingly similar image, of the shepherdess Radha being sumptuously prepared for her tryst with the God Krishna by her friends and handmaidens. For all that Radha and Krishna’s love is one of intensity, passion, and transgression, it is also one supported by careful planning and preparation, by strategy in setting and adornment, by art as well as by impulse. To this day, Hindu devotees in sects pledged to Krishna are often urged (men as well as women) to see themselves as the handmaidens of Radha, preparing the meeting of God with His beloved.

An insightful philosopher once observed that the experience of orgasm takes its significance in human life from the fact that it is neither wholly a voluntary act nor wholly an involuntary one. If it were merely a spontaneous response of the body to stimuli, like the reflex of a struck knee, there would be nothing of our heart and mind in it, and so it would reveal nothing of our inner life. Yet if it were wholly something within our conscious control, like the words we speak, it would also tell us nothing, for then it could lie. It is because of its liminal status, as something within and beyond our control, that it cuts to the core of what lies deepest in our souls.

The Apollinian Emperor is a creature of reason and intent who, left to his own devices, would sit immobile upon his block, like Manannán mac Lir set in stone. The Dionysian Empress is less a being than a becoming, impossible to fix in form or to direct in the service even of her own will. It is the Hierophant that prepares their meeting, through the medium of his traditions and his structures, that the one might be led and the other contained until they come together as the Lovers, united within and beyond themselves, neither restricted nor formless, but free—which requires a measure of both.

The Hierophant is not the old priest who scowls at your flirtations with a fellow congregant, but the old priest who conducts your wedding in full and approving cognizance of the wedding night, transforming that impulsive attraction into something much deeper, and much more revealing of your truest desires. He is not the Scottish kirk warden who has you punished for dancing freely, but the village elder who sets your steps into a pattern that dances with your ancestors of a thousand years, and your descendents of a thousand more to come. Like the art teacher who disciplines you to rules that he waits anxiously to see you break, he is the one who reminds you that your unformed instinct is as false as your blind obedience, and that your true self can grow only where air meets earth.

The Hierophant is a liberator, and if we have trouble seeing him thus, it is only because we have confused license with liberty. And that is when we need him most.

Thoth image copyright (c) US Games Systems Inc.; AGMuller; O.T.O.

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