We now come to spring. You can be forgiven for thinking it would never arrive. For many of us the winter months are dark, cold, and unpleasant. Yet it is on this day in March when the calendar moves on towards warmer weather. The light at the end of the tunnel grows larger.
It is thus a time for celebration. The time around March 20th is known to most as the Spring, March or Vernal equinox. To us, however, it is the holiday of Ostara. We mark it as the time when life begins to emerge. The light which was born on Yule and strengthened at Imbolc now becomes powerful enough to tip the balance. The God reaches maturity and begins his journey towards Litha where he will thereafter decline 1.
So Ostara is a time of equilibrium, when light and dark are in balance. It shares such a quality with Mabon, to which it sits opposite on the wheel of the year. However Ostara is altogether different. Whereas at Mabon, we saw the God decline and the darkness strengthen, now the reverse occurs. While the main theme of the Autumnal Equinox was the harvest and of gathering the fruits of what has been sown, at Ostara we look forward to the planting and growing of those seeds.
The equinox itself is an entirely natural phenomenon. Since the earth is titled 23.5° on its axis, different parts of the world are exposed to differing levels of sunlight. Hence we experience the four seasons. However at two times in the year the day and night are of equal length. Those periods are known as the fall and spring equinoxes 2. The theme of balance thus begins with the earth’s rotation itself.
Interestingly the exact time date of the spring equinox has not always been the same. It moves forward by about six hours every year until a leap year is reached at which point it moves backwards and the cycle repeats. Thus the spring equinox is not always the same day every year and varies between March 19 and 21. At one point it actually occurred on March 25th. However when Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar to make up for errors in its calculation, the spring equinox moved to the current date 3.
Perhaps due to the origins of the spring equinox, many cultures celebrated it in one way, shape, or form. For example, in Ancient Greece spring was the time of Dionysus and when Persephone returned from the Underworld. Similarly, Romans held a celebration to honor Attis, consort of the goddess Cybele. In ancient Persia the spring equinox marked the start of the New Year, a tradition which continues to the present. And in parts of Germany, some have said the spring equinox was dedicated as a celebration of the Goddess Eostre 4.
It is from there which the modern word “Easter” is derived. The name of the goddess first appeared in The Reckoning of Time, written by an eight century English monk known as Bede (or sometimes as the Venerable Bede). He asserted the month in which Easter fell was named “Eosturmonath” after a goddess named Eostre. Bede furthermore said it had at one point been a time of feasting, a habit which was later transferred to the Christian festival of Easter. The theory was developed further by German Philologist and Mythologist Jacob Grimm who connected Easter to Eostre 5.
On the surface the above would seem to point to a pagan origin of Easter. Furthermore, Eostre was also known in Old High German as Ostara 6. So the evidence appears to point to a connection between Easter and Ostara with both having origins in pagan German practice. Indeed, many Neopagan writers have stated as much, implying a link similar to the one between modern Imbolc and pagan Brigit festivals.
Upon closer inspection, the story becomes decidedly less clear. One needs to keep in mind the true origins of all modern Neopagan holidays was actually a set of rituals written by Aiden Kelly for the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. For the most part, Kelly drew on various literary sources and as well as folk traditions found in the British Isles. However there is no evidence of any equinox celebrations in Great Britain, Ireland, or elsewhere in Northern Europe in ancient or medieval times. Therefore Kelly took the goddess attested to by Bede and Grimm and named a festival after her 7.
Furthermore in retrospect the evidence for the existence of a goddess known as Ostara is less than solid. The word is related to a number of others in various Indo-European languages meaning dawn and goddesses associated with it. So Ostara may simply been a Germanic dawn goddess invoked at the beginning of Spring. Or the word “Eosturmonath” might simply have referred to the beginning of the season and not any particular deity. Therefore if any ancient equivalent to the modern Ostara existed at all, the evidence for it has been lost 8.
So Ostara, like Mabon, is purely modern in its origins. There is no shame in admitting as much. Indeed the ability to critically analyze one’s own history lends a certain amount of credibility to a group or social movement. Yet what matters most is the personal meaning one finds in it. Religion after all is a belief system. So the key point is whether or not one believes in it.
From a magickal point of view Ostara means a number of things. As mentioned previously, it ushers in a time of renewal. It can be seen as a fertility festival 9. However the theme here is the fertility of the earth and nature. Life is emerging from its winter slumber. Whereas much of the land is in a state of hibernation prior to Ostara, now the growing season can begin. Soon warm weather will be here. Good times are ahead.
We also see the balance tipping from dark to light. Ostara is thus a time of joy and celebration. No longer are we mourning the demise of the old God. Now we are celebrating his growth. If Imbolc represented a light at the end of a tunnel, then Ostara is our emergence from said tunnel and into the light 10.
There are several activities one can do on Ostara. A popular one is to paint or hang decorated eggs 11. Though popularly associated with Easter, the egg has been a symbol of new life in spring since time immemorial 12. So anything related to them is most definitely seasonally appropriate. One can also give the activity a pagan spin by decorating eggs with pentagrams or other such symbols. As with Christmas, many of the popular traditions occurring during this time are not strongly tied to religion and can be appropriated as desired.
One can also plant an herb garden 13. The success of such a venture will depend heavily on the local climate. Since the planting season begins at different times in different places, an outdoor garden may not be feasible. Therefore it may be best to start indoors and move outside as the weather improves. Doing so also allows for a much broader selection of herbs to be grown.
However the classic spring activity is to clean. In many ways, spring cleaning is an extension of the activity begun at Imbolc. But with spring arriving, it becomes more of a necessity. As new seeds cannot be sown until the fields are cleared, so too must our own lives be uncluttered and tidied up in order for new growth to take hold 14.
Yet Ostara is also a time of balance. So it makes perfect sense to reflect on it. Doing so goes hand in hand with cleaning out that which is no longer needed. In order to achieve balance within our lives, some things must be let go. Only by doing so can we make room for all the wonderful new experiences and understandings which await us in the New Year 15.
And so we see the wheel of the year turn onward once more. At Mabon the balance tipped from light to dark, ushering a time of withering and introspection. Now it tips back again. We move towards summer when the light and the God will be strongest. The time for planning is nearing its end, but the time for celebration is just beginning.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 Christina Aubin, “Ostara - Overview by Christina.”
2 B.A. Robinson, “Spring Equinox Celebrations.”
Ronald Hutton, “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition,” 260–61.
8 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 180.
9 Christina Aubin, “Ostara - Overview by Christina.”
10 Mara Light, “Ostara Enter the Light!”
11 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways, 112–113.
12 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 198.
13 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways, 119.
14 Christina Aubin, “Ostara - Overview by Christina.”
B.A. Robinson. “Spring Equinox Celebrations,” February 23, 2000. http://www.religioustolerance.org/spring_equinox.htm.
Christina Aubin. “Ostara - Overview by Christina,” March 17, 2002. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usma&c=holidays&id=4050.
Edain McCoy. Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways. 1st ed. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1994.
“?ostre.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, February 9, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C4%92ostre&oldid=646385543.
Mara Light. “Ostara Enter the Light!,” March 29, 2009. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usca&c=holidays&id=13210.
Ronald Hutton. “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition.” Folklore 119, no. 3 (December 2008): 251–73.
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996.