Friday, March 7, 2014
E is for Eostre, the Holiday
This is not a post about the NeoPagan holiday of Ostara, but rather about the word from which early Wiccans borrowed the name of their holiday. Ostara is a reconstructed Old High German word, reconstructed based on the Anglo-Saxon word Eostre. The origin of Eostre itself is somewhat questionable. The venerable Bede, writing De temporum ratione in the 700s, gives Ēosturmōnaþ as a name for a month in the Anglo-Saxon calendar that corresponds roughly with April (for more about the Anglo-Saxon calendar, Wednesbury Shire's website has some fantastic info). He also notes that the month is named after the Goddess Eostre, whom the Pagans would honor with feasts during this month. She is not attested in any other works, but her name can be linguistically linked with several other Indo-European dawn goddesses.
As an Anglo-Saxon Heathen, I think that celebrating the month of Ēosturmōnaþ is vitally important to my religion - in his writing, Bede references very few beings worshiped by his ancestors, which leads me to believe that the customs he does mention were very important that that time. I choose to celebrate this holiday as a one or two-day affair rather than the entire month, though I do give honor to Eostre through all of the spring (which is considerably longer than a month here in the midwest). Given that the Anglo-Saxons had a lunar-based calendar, I have chosen to celebrate Eostre's holiday on the day following the Full Moon - which usually ends up falling quite close to Easter, given that Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the Full Moon after the spring equinox. This year I'll be celebrating on April 15th, almost a full week before Easter.
In De temporum ratione, Bede specifically references feasts being given in honor of Eostre. The feasting at least is very much practiced in our culture today - every Easter, my family and many like mine get together and enjoy a ham or turkey. In our culture, which is becoming more secular, good times and good food with family are the markers of many holidays (which works out great for a Heathen!). According to the Wednesbury Shire, many of the English-speaking world's Easter customs, such as egg decorating and the celebration of hares, go back almost to Anglo-Saxon times. Alaric Albertsson in his book Travels through Middle Earth talks about the effects of light on the egg production of hens: by Eostremonath, the hen's eggs would have been an abundant food source, making them both an important symbol of the season and an object worthy of reverence.
So much like my Christian childhood, my children and I will be decorating eggs, cutting out bunnies from paper, and cooking up a delicious feast this mid-April - only instead of hauling them off to church that Tuesday morning, I'll be taking my children outside to explore all the changes happening around us: what flowers are sprouting, which trees have nests in them, what birds have brought their song back to our prairie now that the winter is over. We'll rise with the dawn to give honor and thanks to Eostre for the return of the light and the warmth. And that night, we'll all sit down and enjoy a feast together, leaving Eostre Her due on the altar. For us, this is how Eostre's holy day is celebrated.