Spring Equinox: Ostara or Not

Warm winds blow, showers come and go (sometimes snow), birdsong cautiously builds to a chorus and hints of green begin to appear. Piecemeal signs of life carry moments of joy that bubble up from the monotony of a long, cold winter like tender shoots bursting through thawing muck and, with fertile hearts, we eagerly anticipate the dawn of spring.

The vernal (spring) equinox is a time of balance, when sun is directly above the equator—the earth's axis points neither toward or away from it—and the amount of light and darkness we experience on earth is equal. This only happens twice a year, on each equinox. The word equinox comes from the Latin “aequus,” meaning equal, and “nox,” meaning night.

In modern day Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox signals the start of spring, but in Neolithic Ireland it was the second festival of spring. This holiday, called Alban Eilir, is still celebrated by Druids there today. They gather at the ancient site of Loughcrew (above) each equinox to watch the rising sun illuminate the passages and chamber of Cairn T, bathing the center stone and its engraved sun symbols in golden light.

Alban Eilir is flanked by the festivals of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring and Beltane, celebrating the transition into the fullness of summer. The Druids' symbolic plant for this holiday is the shamrock, which goes back beyond St. Patrick's use of it to the teaching of Awen (inspirational muse). Its three leaves can embody the concept of the Triple Goddess (maiden, mother and crone); the realms of land, sea and sky; or the interconnected aspects of mind, body and spirit.

Neopagans call this holiday Ostara, named for the Germanic goddess of dawn. Although evidence of her worship as Eostre by the Anglo-Saxons is sparse at best, turning up only in the writings of an English churchman named Bede, it's safe to say that by the 19th century, Ostara had become an important part of German culture. The linguist and folklorist Jacob Grimm proposed that Eostre was a localized version of the Germanic goddess he called Ostara.

As one popular folktale goes, Ostara was belatedly rushing to bring spring to the winter lands when she stumbled upon a helpless bird lying on the barren ground, dying of cold. Remorsefully, she warmed the bird to revive it, but it couldn't fly because its wings had frozen. She compassionately turned the bird into a hare so it would survive in the wild. However, it retained its ability to lay eggs and repaid her by laying a colorful assortment for her festival each spring.

Hence the roots of Easter were tangled, and the story grows only more confusing with the Christian addition of the resurrection. What it all boils down to, is that virtually every culture throughout history has had traditions and rituals to celebrate the renewal and rebirth of spring. Many neopagans gather today at the mysterious Stonehenge to welcome spring's first sunrise, although there is no written record of what the ancient monument was built for.

So perhaps it's ok to embrace a little mystery, and celebrate the arrival of spring in whichever way best suits you. The spring equinox is a great time for us to open our sleepy eyes, look around and get our bearings, before we thrust upward into the sun-soaked action of spring and summer. 


Ostara and the Hare, Stephen Winick

Photo of Loughcrew, heritageireland.ie

Spring Equinox, danaan.net

Spring Equinox, druidry.org

Vernal Equinox, history.com

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