History of Ostara - The Spring Equinox

Many Holidays, Many Names

The word Ostara is just one of the names applied to the celebration of the spring equinox on March 21. The Venerable Bede said the origin of the word is actually from Eostre, a Germanic goddess of spring. Of course, it's also the same time as the Christian Easter celebration, and in the Jewish faith, Passover takes place as well. For early Pagans in the Germanic countries, this was a time to celebrate planting and the new crop season. Typically, the Celtic peoples did not celebrate Ostara as a holiday, although they were in tune with the changing of the seasons.

A New Day Begins

A dynasty of Persian kings known as the Achaemenians celebrated the spring equinox with the festival of No Ruz -- which means "new day." It is a celebration of hope and renewal still observed today in many Persian countries, and has its roots in Zoroastrianism. In Iran, a festival called Chahar-Shanbeh Suri takes place right before No Ruz begins, and people purify their homes and leap over fires to welcome the 13-day celebration of No Ruz.

Mad as a March Hare

Spring equinox is a time for fertility and sowing seeds, and so nature's fertility goes a little crazy. In medieval societies in Europe, the March hare was viewed as a major fertility symbol -- this is a species of rabbit that is nocturnal most of the year, but in March when mating season begins, there are bunnies everywhere all day long. The female of the species is super fecund and can conceive a second litter while still pregnant with a first. As if that wasn't enough, the males tend to get frustrated when rebuffed by their mates, and bounce around erratically when discouraged.

The Legends of Mithras

The story of the Roman god, Mithras, is similar to the tale of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Born at the winter solstice and resurrected in the spring, Mithras helped his followers ascend to the realm of light after death. In one legend, Mithras, who was popular amongst members of the Roman military, was ordered by the Sun to sacrifice a white bull. He reluctantly obeyed, but at the moment when his knife entered the creature's body, a miracle took place. The bull turned into the moon, and Mithras' cloak became the night sky. Where the bull's blood fell flowers grew, and stalks of grain sprouted from its tail.

Spring Celebrations Around the World

In ancient Rome, the followers of Cybele believed that their goddess had a consort who was born via a virgin birth. His name was Attis, and he died and was resurrected each year during the time of the vernal equinox on the Julian Calendar (between March 22 and March 25). Around the same time, the Germanic tribes honored a lunar goddess known as Ostara, who mated with a fertility god around this time of year, and then gave birth nine months later – at Yule.

The indigenous Mayan people in Central American have celebrated a spring equinox festival for ten centuries. As the sun sets on the day of the equinox on the great ceremonial pyramid, El Castillo, Mexico, its "western face...is bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. The lengthening shadows appear to run from the top of the pyramid's northern staircase to the bottom, giving the illusion of a diamond-backed snake in descent." This has been called "The Return of the Sun Serpent" since ancient times.

According to the Venerable Bede, Eostre was the Saxon version of the Germanic goddess Ostara. Her feast day was held on the full moon following the vernal equinox -- almost the identical calculation as for the Christian Easter in the west. There is very little documented evidence to prove this, but one popular legend is that Eostre found a bird, wounded, on the ground late in winter.

To save its life, she transformed it into a hare. But "the transformation was not a complete one. The bird took the appearance of a hare but retained the ability to lay eggs...the hare would decorate these eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre."

Modern Celebrations

This is a good time of year to start your seedlings. If you grow an herb garden, start getting the soil ready for late spring plantings. Celebrate the balance of light and dark as the sun begins to tip the scales, and the return of new growth is near.

Many modern Wiccans and Pagans celebrate Ostara as a time of renewal and rebirth. Take some time to celebrate the new life that surrounds you in nature -- walk in park, lay in the grass, hike through a forest. As you do so, observe all the new things beginning around you -- plants, flowers, insects, birds. Meditate upon the ever-moving Wheel of the Year, and celebrate the change of seasons.



by OMS Patriarch Sybok Pendderwydd

This day is the modern Pagan answer to St. Patrick's Day. Legend has it that St. Patrick drove the snakes of Ireland off the island, never to return. Science tells us that snakes were never indigeonous to Ireland in the first place, so what then is the truth (and all legends have at least a wee bit of truth behind them) underlying this legend? Prior to St. Patrick, Ireland had been a stronghold of the Pagan Celtic religion, and their priesthood, the Druids. One of the symbols of the Druids was the snake. So what the legend is really celebrating is Christianity become the dominant religion in Ireland, once the snakes (Druids) were driven out.

For about the past thirty years, beginning with Pagans living in California's San Francisco Bay area, raucous parties have been held, celebrating the return of the snakes – snakes in this case not just representing the Druids, but all the Pagan religions of old. The most common format has the party taking place at a local micro-brew pub, and hosted by an mc, who is usually a local Priest or Priestess from the Pagan community at large. Generally these have been bardic like affairs, with a featured musician or band, and with members of the audience participating in a kind of open-mic, offering songs, poetry, stories or demonstrations of prowess. Sometimes prizes are awarded for the best offering. Back when I was living in Santa Cruz, the party was well advertised, and Pagans from miles around would flock in. The practice was to collect a cover fee from anyone not appropriately dressed in what is considered Celtic costume (usually just Ren-Faire garb). A snake (real or toy) would also grant you free admission.

Isaac Bonewits has written a song celebrating the fest, appropriately named “Bring Back The Snakes”:

(To the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean”)

'Twas on a bright Midsummer's evening,
An old woman I chanced for to see.
She grabbed both my shoulders and shook 'em,
Saying, "Bring back the snakes to me!"

Bring back, bring back, bring back the snakes to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, O bring back the snakes to me!

"My land was a jewel most blessed,
My people both happy and free,
Till the preachers came in with their crosses,
And drove all the snakes out to sea."

Bring back, bring back, bring back the snakes to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, O bring back the snakes to me!

"Yes, 'snakes' was the word that they used then,
For the masters of all druidry,
Whom they murdered, converted or banished,
As threats to their new tyranny."

Bring back, bring back, bring back the snakes to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, O bring back the snakes to me!

"Now it's past fifteen centuries later,
The results now are clear for to see;
Ireland was better off Pagan,
So bring back the snakes to me!"

Bring back, bring back, bring back the snakes to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, O bring back the snakes to me!

Then the old woman's face started changing,
Every country and race I could see.
She said, "All lands are better off Pagan,
So bring back the snakes to me!"

Bring back, bring back, bring back the snakes to me, to me;
Bring back, bring back, O bring back the snakes to me!