The Spring Equinox is sacred to sunrise, youth, the morning star, the element of air and the East. The Saxon Goddess, Eostre (Ostara) – from whose name we get “Easter” – and the Greek Goddess, Eos – from whose name we get the direction East – are dawn Goddesses. Just as dawn is the time of new light, so the Vernal Equinox is the time of new life. From this moment on, the Sun God begins his journey across the sky, his light and warmth overtaking the darkness of Winter, until his power peaks at the Summer Solstice in June.
The fact that the holiday named for the Goddess Eostre is traditionally celebrated at sunrise services suggests that, in ancient times, the Vernal Equinox was a sunrise celebration. This is in keeping with the nature if the Sabbat. It is a celebration of new beginnings, the re-awakening of nature from its long sleep of Winter, and the very moment when the time of light becomes greater than the time of dark. For this reason too, the rooster, whose crow announces the dawn, was sacred to the Sun God, Apollo.
Eostre, or Ostara, is the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Fertility and Rebirth. A Teutonic variant of Ishtar and Astarte, and ultimately Isis, the original feast of Eostre was celebrated in the Pagan calendar at the Vernal Equinox. Her sacred month was the third lunar month, the Moon of Eostre, which corresponds to the period from mid-February to mid-March solar; it is also called the Month of the Greening of the Earth. In addition to “Easter”, this Goddess name is also the source of the word “estrus” – the restricted, recurring period of sexual receptivity in the female mammals. Sexton poets apparently identified with India’s Great Mother Kali-Ma. Beowulf speaks of “Ganges waters, whose flood waves ride down into an unknown sea near Eostre’s far home.”
Sexual relations were almost obligatory on Ostara Eve, as was a communal meal featuring foods associated with fertility such as cakes, honey and eggs.
The Greco-Roman tradition would celebrate Ceres, their grain goddess, from Ostara until the first harvest. She was believed to go from field to field at the equinox, blessing the newly sown crops. It is from her name that we get the word “cereal”. In the Roman tradition, this is the start of the new year. The Roman year began on the Ides of March (15th). The astronomical year begins on the equinox when the sun moves into the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, the ram.
The Persians also began their solar New Year at the Spring Equinox, and up to the middle of the 18th century they still followed the old custom of presenting each other with colored eggs on the occasion. Eggs were always a symbol of rebirth, which is why Easter eggs were usually colored red-the color of life’s blood-especially in Eastern
Europe. Russians used to lay red Easter eggs on graves to serve as resurrection charms. In countries where Christian and Pagan religions co-existed, Easter Sunday (sun-day) was devoted to honoring Christ and the Christian mysteries, while Easter Monday (moon-day) was dedicated to the Pagan deities. In Bohemia, village girls, like ancient priestesses, symbolically sacrificed the Lord of Death and threw him into the water, singing, “death swims in the water, Spring comes to visit us, with eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes; we carried death out of the village, we are carrying Summer into the village.”
Traditional colors of this season combine the cold colors of Winter with warm Summer colors to form the pastel shades of lavender, pink, green and yellow.
The lamb is another symbol of Ostara and was sacred to virtually all the virgin goddesses of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The lamb, too, has been carried over to the new religious festival of Easter.
The Easter basket is filled with Pagan symbols, colored and decorated eggs, chocolate bunnies and little chicks. The origin of the basket itself is thought to be closely linked to eggs, because it is believed that the earliest people were inspired to weave baskets by watching birds build the nests in which they laid their eggs.
Many of the Christian Easter “traditions” are of pagan origin – in fact Easter and the resurrection of Jesus is another version of ancient myths.
One of the first stories ever recorded of death and resurrection is the Egyptian tale of Isis and Osiris. In this story of eternal love, the Goddess Isis and the God Osiris ruled and ancient land in peace and bliss. That is, until Set, brother of Osiris, murdered him in a fit of jealousy. Set cut the body of Osiris up into fourteen pieces and scattered them around the world. Heartbroken, Isis wandered throughout the land, mourning her beloved and gathering the pieces of his body. When the pieces had all been collected, Isis, with the help of Annubis, Lord of the Underworld, brought Osiris back to life. Through the re-union of Isis and Osiris, Horus the Sun God was born.
In ancient Rome, the ten day rite in honor of Attis, son of the great Goddess, Cybele, began on March 15th. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and place in a sepulcher in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the high priest slashed his arm, allowing the blood to fall on the pine tree. In a ritual of mourning, there was frenzied music and dancing. Two days later, the sepulcher was opened at dawn and found to be empty. The God had risen and was saved, promising his followers their own triumph over death. This day was known as Hilaria, or the Day of Joy, a time of great feasting and merriment.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The date of Easter is still determined by the moon cycle. It is always the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, formerly the “pregnant” phase of Eostre as the earth passed into the fertile season. It was the time when the Goddess first slew then re-conceived the Savior – the Vegetation
God – for a new season.
A curious 16th century Easter custom was known as “creeping to the cross with eggs and apples,” a significant use of the ancient female symbols of birth and death, beginning and fruition, the opening and closing of circles. The Ceremonial of the Kings of England ordered carpets to be laid in the church, for the honor and comfort of the king, queen and courtiers as they crept down the aisles on hands and knees. The penitential implication of that creeping ceremony is clear enough, but the female-symbolic foodstuffs is a bit mysterious. It may represent a sacrificing of the Goddess’ ancient sacred symbols to the church-the symbolic triumph of Christianity over the Old Religion.
Germany applied to Easter the same title formerly given to the sacred king’s love-death-Hoch-Zeit, the High Time. In English too, Easter used to be called the “Hye-Tide”. From these titles came the colloquial description of any holiday festival as “a high old time”.
Rabbits are symbols of fertility because of their amazing rate of reproduction. For this reason, they are associated with the fertility rites of Spring. But aside from this more obvious association, the rabbit has deeper meanings for the Pagan-and a lot more obscure.
In the tin mining districts of England, the rabbit was considered lucky, almost sacred, to the miners. They,
like the rabbit, lived by burrowing into the Earth. Rabbits seem to dwell in two worlds: this one and the underworld.
The association between tin and rabbits is evident once again in several churches in Devon, England, which possess roof ornaments known as Tinner’s Rabbits. These triangular carvings depict three sitting rabbits facing in different directions, all joined at the ear. These Tinner’s Rabbits bear a striking resemblance to the highly collectable antique molds used to make chocolate Easter bunnies-molds which are made of tin.
The rabbit is also the lunar hare, sacred to the Moon Goddess in both the Orient and in western countries. In China, people gazing at the full moon see in it’s shadows the image of the lovely young Goddess Chang-O, holding her pet hare in her arms. In Japan, the people say that the lunar hare constantly crops the grass on the moon’s surface, cleaning it so the moon shines white and not green. In the West, the hare, like the cat, was a common Witch’s familiar; and Witches were said to have the power to turn themselves into hares. Irish peasants, to this day, observe the matriarchal taboo on hare meat, saying that to eat a hare is to eat one’s grandmother. The Celtic warrior-queen Boadicea of early Britain had on her banners the device of the lunar hare. In Germany, the people recalled the myths of the Moon Goddess Hathor-Astarte who laid the Golden Egg of the Sun, and children were told that, if they were good, the hare would lay eggs for them on Easter Eve.
The lily, appropriated as a Christian symbol of death, was a symbol of life in pagan Greece and Rome, where it adorned Ostara altars and temples. Young men, playing the role of the lusty young god, would present them to young women they were courting. Accepting the lily meant much the same as accepting a diamond ring does now.
The lily is deeply rooted in Pagan symbolism. It is a sacred emblem of Lilith, the Sumero-Babylonian creation Goddess; the lilu (the lotus or lily) symbolizes her magic genitals. The lily often represents the virginal aspect of the Triple Goddess (the original “Lily Maid”), while the rose represents her maternal aspect. Similarly, the lily was sacred to Eostre-Astarte, Goddess of the Easter lilies. The lily as the Goddess’ triple yonic emblem can be seen in the French fleur-de-lis, which is a stylized lily, and also in the Celtic shamrock, which is identified with the lily. The shamrock did not originate in Ireland but was a sacred symbol among the people of the Indus Valley some 6000 years before Christianity.
Other Goddesses who claim the lily as their sacred symbol include Juno, Uni, Venus, the Virgin Mary and Hera. When Hera’s milk spurted from her breasts to form the Milky Way, the drops that fell to Earth became lilies. The Easter lily was the medieval pas-flower, from Latin passus (to step or pass over), cognate of pasha, the Passover. The lily was also called Pash-flower, Pasque flower and Passion flower. Christians understood this last to refer to the passion of Christ; Pagans understood it to represent the Spring passion of the Vegetation God for union in love-death with the Earth Goddess.
The original feast of Eostre at the Vernal Equinox was a time for ritually blessing the fields and seed. If you wish to celebrate Ostara, some activities might include:
Ritually plant seeds (choose a special herb or flower symbolic of what you desire) in a pot, bless them with the four elements and set them in a sunny windowsill (or whatever exposure your plant likes). As the seed grows, so will your wishes come true.
- Start a garden
- Make and eat braided sweet bread
- Make and eat chocolate eggs
- Spring cleaning-out with the old and in with the new!
- Make a new broom, if you are a woman
- Make a new staff/wand, if you are a man
- Decorate with baskets of flowers
- Work with herbs for practical and magical purposes
- Wear the color green
- Make love in a freshly-plowed field or your newly-turned garden. This is the Great Rite: the woman’s body is identified with the land, the Earth Goddess incarnate, and in old Pagan times many conceptions resulted from this night.
- Go out before sunrise on the Equinox (or Easter Sunday) and draw water from a running stream. Water gathered in this way is said to be especially holy and healing.
- Go to a field and randomly collect wildflowers (thank the flowers for their sacrifice before picking them). Or, buy some from a florist, taking one or two of those that appeal to you. Bring them home and divine their meanings by the use of books, your own intuition, a pendulum or by other means. The flowers you’ve chosen reveal your inner thoughts and emotions.
- Plan a walk (or a ride) through gardens, a park, woodlands, forest and other green places. This is not simply exercise, and you should be on no other mission. It isn’t even just an appreciation of Nature. Make your walk celebratory, a ritual for Nature itself.
- Dye eggs, decorate with magical symbols and runes and exchange with friends and loved ones. Leave some in the forest for the spirits and plow some into your field or garden for a good crop. A variety of egg dyes can be made by boiling the following in water (use as much plant material as will fit in a minimal amount of water for the darkest color) for 10-15 minutes, strain, pour into cups and add 1-2 tsp. vinegar to each:
- Red = 5 or 6 stems of madder root, cochineal insects
- Pink = same as for red, but use less
- Yellow = turmeric root or spice, gorse blossoms, saffron powder
- Blue = woad seeds, crushed blueberries, red cabbage and vinegar
- Light Orange = onion peel
- Yellow-green = carrot tops
- Green = spinach
- Brown = cranberries
- Purple = logwood
Many of the foods traditionally eaten at Easter are also Pagan in origin. In the countries of Eastern Europe, they make a dish with cream cheese, butter and sugar called “pashka”. On Easter morning, the pashka is adorned with candied violets and people greet each other with the phrase “He is risen”. They are referring to Jesus, of course, but the violets link the pashka to Attis, from whose blood violets sprang. His resurrection, as we have learned, was celebrated at the Spring Equinox.
The Sun Wheel, a symbol of the perfect balance at the equinox, was the inspiration for the hot cross bun. These buns were Pagan traditions long before they were adopted into the Christian Easter, claiming to represent the cross of Jesus.
In Italy, colored eggs are used in baking braided loves, symbolizing the Goddess of Fertility and the Goddess of Grain.
Other traditional foods include seeds, zucchini, leafy green vegetables and sprouts, grapes and fruit punch.
Hot Cross Buns
1 cup raisins 1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup chopped walnuts 1 tsp. yeast
1/4 cup warm water 3 cups unbleached flour
1 tsp. salt 1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 Tbsp. Honey 1/2 cup very hot water
1/2 cup cold buttermilk 1/8 cup butter, melted
- Chop apricots into small pieces. Steam apricots and raisins briefly until soft. Dissolve yeast in warm water and set aside.
- Mix flour and salt in a bowl, making a well in the center.
- Beat the egg slightly; add honey, hot water, butter and buttermilk.
- Pour this liquid and the yeast into the flour. Mix and knead. Keep your hands wet as you work the stiff, sticky dough, letting it take in as much water as it requires to become soft and supple.
- Gently knead in fruits and nuts.
- Form the dough into a ball and place it smooth side up in the bowl. Cover and keep in a warm, draft free place.
- After an hour and a half, press out, form into a ball again, and let rise for about 45 minutes.
- Next, form into about 15 golf ball-sized rounds and place several inches apart on a greased cookie sheet.
- Let rise 10 minutes, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Let rise another 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350F. Just before putting the buns in the oven, use a spatula to mark each bun with an indented cross, pressing about halfway into the dough.
- While buns are baking, make a glaze with 3 Tbsp. honey, 1 Tbsp. butter and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Bring ingredients to a boil and set aside. Brush on buns upon removing from oven. Serve warm.
1 lb. cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 lb. butter at room temperature
1-3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup currants
1 cup toasted almonds
Toast almonds on a parchment lined pan in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees(F) for about 10 to 12 minutes or until slightly brown. Set aside to cool.
Place the cream cheese in food processor and process until there are no lumps. No food processor, run it through a fine strainer into a bowlusing a plastic spoon or rubber spatula. Add the butter and fold in until creamy. Add sugar and vanilla to mixture and mix. Add the currants and almonds. Scrape down bowl well and mix a few more
minutes. Refrigerate until hard, 2 to 4 hours minimum. Serve with a scoop of premium ice cream topped with Melba Sauce.
To make the Melba Sauce:
1 lb. raspberries (or 3 frozen 5-oz containers)
1/2-1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Puree fruit and sugar in blender. Add lemon juice and mix well. Strain through fine sieve into small bowl. Makes about 1-1/2 cups. Chill.