Easter (Vernal Equinox)
Lithuanian: Velykos, German: Ostern
Easter is a festival of light, fertility, and coming of spring. The Equinoxes are the only two times in the year where the sun rises exactly in the East, the Vernal Equinox being the one from which onward the light half of the year starts: The days are now longer than the nights. This is reflected in the Easter celebration, which takes place some time between the Vernal Equinox and the fullmoon after. Christians still put Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon of the Vernal Equinox. In ancient times people would often celebrate and feast at fullmoons because of the lighting conditions, easy date calculation and raised spirits in fullmoon nights. The moon is also linked to fertility and plant growth, which might indicate a lunar aspect of the Easter celebration.
The Goddess of Dawn
The name of the Easter festival is linked to a Germanic dawn goddess called Ēostre. She is mentioned the 8th-century work De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time) by Anglo-Saxon monk Beda Venerabilis, short Bede. In the 15th chapter he describes the indegenious English names of the months. On the month of April he writes:
Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum, quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes.
Eosturmonath, which is now understood as ‘Paschal month’, formerly had a name derived from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and in whose honour they were celebrating feasts in that month: now from her name they give a nickname to the Paschal season, calling the joys of the new rite by the customary name of the old usage.
From the Frankish 9th century monk Einhard (sometimes also called Eginhard), we know that April was called ‘ôstârmanot’ on the continent as well. In his Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm reconstructs the Old High German name *Ostara for the goddess linked to this holiday. From the existence of the month name on the continent we cannot automatically conclude the existence of the goddess as well. But if put together with other evidence, it becomes extremely unlikely that the continental Germanics wouldn’t have known about a similar deity, especially in regards to the continental Saxons, from whom the Anglo-Saxons split in the 5th century.
Bede explicitly tells us about the existence of a goddess. It makes sense that since March is named after the goddess Hrede, the following month would be named after Eostar and the probability that Bede invented that goddess, as has been claimed, is very small. As Grimm has pointed out, he seems rather reluctant to talk much about his knowledge on paganism in the first place and there is no reason whatsoever why Bede should invent a pagan goddess. Her name perfectly aligns with the rising of the sun in the East at the time, she triggers an archetypal response in the psyche in Europeans to this day and in general the skepticism against this goddess reaches a point where talking her away is much more circuitous than just accepting her existence.
The Iberian goddess of Dawn is called Ataegina, a Goddess of Spring, whose name indicates her being linked to rebirth. Equivalents to the Germanic Ēostre-Ostara can be found in various European countries, such as the Lithuanian Aušrinė, the Greek Ēōs, and Latin Aurōra, which names are all cognate to the root of the word East and mean “the shining one”:
Old High German: *Ostara
Old Saxon: Eostar
Old English: Ēastre, Ēostre
Lithuanian: Aušrinė, Aušra
Greek / Ionic: Ἠώς (Ēōs) / Attic: ἕως (heōs) / Doric: ἀϝώς (āwōs) / Aeolic: αὔως (auōs)
Sanskrit: uṣás, usastara
PIE-origin: Hausōs, Ausōs (PIE *h éwsōs, an s-stem) ₂
The Scandinavian name of Easter seems to be Várblót, which means ‘spring sacrifice’. It’s possible that Ēostre was called Freyja or Iðunn here. There might also have been a male Easter deity: In Snorri’s Gylfaginning there is mentioned a male being called Austri, described by Grimm as a “spirit of light.” Was he maybe a solar deity? There is no female version of the deity in Scandinavia and the nature of Austri remains unclear, since in Snorri’s text he does not play a major role.
The Blessing of the Fields
It can be hard to distinguish aspects of the two spring festivals Easter and Valburg’s Night (May but it would seem that Easter is more about the arrival of the goddess, whereas Valburg’s Night is a time where her powers are already in full effect.
The reviving quality of Easter also implies the start of agriculture. In regards to the continental Saxons, we have evidence of an Eostar-blessing from about the 10th century, supposedly found in Corvey monastery (Westphalia). The original manuscrip of this text is not preserved and might have gone lost as early as in the 30 Years War, so the authenticity could never be confirmed by scholars. There is thus doubt whether the one on Eostar is legitimate. The earliest mention of the text is in the 1853 book Deutscher Volksglaube in Sang und Sage by Nikolaus Hocker who might have had access to a copy of the manuscript.
The formula of this short text is apparently very similar to a passage in the longer Anglo-Saxon Æcerbot (“field remedy”), a Christianized text from the 11th century that went alongside a day-long field purification ritual, of which the purpose was the heal the field from malevolent influence, such as witches. Here are both texts and translation for comparison:
Eostar, Eostar, eordhan modor,
genne these acera veaxendra
und wirdhendra eacniendra
einiendra. fridha him! that his yrdh si gefridhod
and heo si geborgan
as his halige,
the on heofdenum sind.
Eostar, Eostar, earthly mother,
grant this field growth
and sprouting, blossoming,
and blooming. Frith be upon it,
so that the earth may be befrithed
and that it be protected,
as the holy ones
that are in heaven.
[…] Erce, Erce, Erce, eorþan módor
geunne þé sé alwalda, éce drihten
acera wexendra and wrídendra,
æcniendra and elniendra […]
Geunn him éce drihten
and his hálige, þe on heofdenum synt,
þæt hys yrþ sí gefriþod
wið ealra féonda gewæne,
and héo sí geborgen
wið ealra bealwa gehwylc […].
[…] Earth, Earth, Earth, earthly mother
may the eternal and all-ruling trustee grant you
fields that grow and sprout,
blossom and bloom […]
May the eternal trustee grant
and his holy ones / Saints, that are in heaven,
that this earth be befrithed
against all hostile dangers,
and be it protected
against all malvolent folk […].
We can see that the Æcerbot refers to Erce (earth) instead of Eostar. It appears to already be more Christianized than the Corvey text, since it doesn’t only address Erce/Eostar, but also the “eternal trustee,” which refers to the Christian god. In the Eostar text mother earth is asked for fertility, but in the Erce text the Christian god is asked to give fertility to the earth. Also, the name Erce is easier to be understood as just earth or soil, whereas Eostar has obviously more pagan exclusivity. This might be a reason why the Christian Æcerbot may have preferred this name when incorporating the sequence. If the sequence has a pagan origin, which is almost certain, there must have been a solely pagan predecessor. It makes sense to consider the Eostar blessing as such a still more pagan version of the same original pagan one. It only mentions the “halige,” the holy ones, which refers to Christian Saints and could have referred to the gods originally.
There are also parts in Genesis 3:18-20 that might play into the conception of the Æcerbot, namely Yachweh’s casting and lifting of the curse on the fields. The question is if it would make sense for 11th century English Christians to draw a parallel between a curse cast by god and by evil witches. It seems much more likely that the field blessing ritual derives from former pagan customs that are part of the agricultural cycle. We know of processions across the fields from several sources on both early modern folk culture and original pagan societies, like field processions with idols and grain sacrifices, mentioned in the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum: “De simulacro quod per campos portant“ and “consparsa farina.” Easter processions with horses still exist today.
If we conclude that Æcerbot and the Corvey Eostar-text have the same authentically pagan origin, this means that the field blessing goes back to an original Easter ritual and constitutes the main content of this festival. The field blessing ritual could be adapted on a smaller scale by anyone who owns a garden by a stride around the property, libation of mead or well-water and invocation of fertility for the plants of the garden. In folk tradition there is for example a formula that you say whilst putting twigs in the field’s corners, very similar to what is happening in the Æcerbot:
I crown you on holy Easter Day
So God (= originally Thor/Ostara?) may graciously protect you
From the damage of lightning and hail storms.
In Lithuania, the most important spring gods are Perkūnas and Goddess Žemyna. Even now, not only are traditions alive, but so are the songs and dances, meant for the Goddess Deivė – the maiden, and the God Viešpatis – dear father. Authors like M. Stryjkowsky, J. Lasicki, S. Daukantas and others have identified this invocation to the god Viešpatis:
Tu išvarai žiemą, parneši malonų pavasarį,
Su Tavimi ima žaliuoti laukai, sodai, miškai.
Prašome padauginti pasėtus javus,
O visas rauges teikis sutrypti.
You chase away winter, bringing a kindly spring
With you the fields, gardens and woods turn green.
We ask you to multiply the crops we’ve sowed
And trample the weeds under foot.
Afterwards, the sky is greeted and the earth is honored with beer and cake made of a few types of grain. Fire, water, and earth are worshipped. A painted egg (margutis) is divided between everyone. The shells – part of them are burned, part buried. Swinging on the swings starts as early as Užgavėnės, later on Velykos, Sekminės, Jorė and Rasa. Now it’s just entertainment for kids, but earlier older people were swinging too. It is believed that the higher swinging up in the Easter time, the higher the flax will be, the longer their fiber. The field processions might correspond to the one reported on by Tacitus regarding the Germanic Mother Earth, Nerthus:
There is nothing noteworthy about these tribes individually, but they share a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she takes part in human affairs, riding in a chariot among her people. On an island of the sea stands an inviolate grove, in which, veiled with a cloth, is a chariot that none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her with deepest reverence as her chariot is drawn along by cows. Then follow days of rejoicing and merrymaking in every place that she condescends to visit and sojourn in. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every iron object is locked away. Then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and welco ned, until the goddess, when she has had enough of the society of men, is restored to her sacred precinct by the priest. After that, the chariot, the vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself, are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.
According to a newspaper article from 1797 (Wernigerödisches Intelligenzblatt), people started going back to celebrate some kind of pagan Easter festival in the rural area around Wernigerode in central Germany in 1797, lighting fires on hill-tops in veneration to the goddess “Ostra.” So the memory of Ostara may have lived very long in unofficial folk belief. We have thus another piece of evidence of Ostra-Ostara existing on the continent. The fact that the pagan Germanics conveyed basically all their festivals with bonfires adds up to this. The custom of jumping over fires, which is often still done today, is among others performed at the Easter Fire. The rolling down of burning wheels from hilltops seems to reflect how the sun floods the valleys with her blissful solar power.
In the Lithuanian Velykos, the old fire of the winter is put out, and a new spring fire is lit up. The fire (Ugnis) is brought home from the fire of a sacred altar, the spring Perkūnas fire. According to P. Dundulienė, the first day of Velykos use to be called Ugnies (of fire) – when lalauninkai (singers) traveled through the towns. The second day, Perkūno; the third, Gegužės (May or cuckoo), and the fourth day, Ice Day, when no one should move on the earth.
In Lithuanian Velykos, the painted egg (margutis) is a symbol of nature’s rebirth and holds the sacred force of life. Margučiai are decorated with meaningful ornaments – for rites, gifts, games, rolling. The color of the black symbolized the earth, the red – light and the heat, the green – spring greenery, the blue – sky, the yellow and the brown – riped crops. Velykos fir trees are decorated with them as well. The old woman Velykė brings an egg for the child, early in the morning, and puts it on the windowsill.
In Germany, children are given eggs and candy, which are put in nests that the children prepare at the day before with baskets, moss and flowers. Fountains are decorated with painted Easter eggs. The Easter bunny is a fertility symbol. An 8th century Saxon church law by St. Boniface and the pope prohibited eating rabbit meat in spring, which could indicate that it played a role in folk belief.
This is a custom from East Prussia, Silesia and some region in Hesse and was called Schmackostern (literally, “smack-Easter”). Similar customs were already done in the 15th century. It is about going around the houses of neighbors and relatives, who have to let the party in. If they are still asleep, they are woken up and whipped on the legs, arms or behinds with rods of willow, birch or juniper. In other regions this was done by the young males to the young females and vice versa on the following day, sometimes by children to their parents. The whipper also could say a chant while whipping his victim, after which they were given candy or other food and drink. One of the chants for example translates to:
Colorful Easter, Schmackostern
five eggs, a piece of bacon,
a piece from the cake,
otherwise I won’t go away!
In Lithuania something very similar happens: During celebrations, everyone tries to get up early and whip the sleepy ones with a holy branch (verba), for which they must repay with a margutis, a painted egg. That, which is touched by a verba, receives the force of life. The holy branches are also brought home for decoration. Branches of osier and willows are tied with a red thread or an ornamented tape. Verba is the magical green branch, which gives one the power of life and growth, protects him from diseases. Rivers are purified by sticking a sacred branch on each side of the river. They are also placed at graves of the ancestors and the aspect of ancestor veneration is reflected in the name Velykos, which is related to the vėlės, the spirits of the ancestors. After supper, the table is not cleaned up, or at least some food is left for the dead. The time of Velykos is a meeting and parting with the vėlės of the close ones. They visit holy places, temples, and leave, for the whole summer, into the newly flourishing nature. The thorns of the verba branches are stored in a bag, and are later burned as incense for Perkūnas, or upon someone’s death. Songs of lalavimas are sung. Horns, pipes made of osier/willow, and drums are played to signal the beginning of spring. They help Perkūnas chase away, and lead away all ghosts and spirits.
In Sweden, there is a custom where females go to a well at Easter morning silently to get Easter-water and if they manage to wet their loved one without being seen, the love is said to become fulfilled. Easter-water is a folk custom in general, also outside of Sweden. Buračas describes the tradition of pouring water in the Easter morning in the surroundings of Betygala, when the boys were pouring water on girls early in the morning. As they went, they carried the bottle of water, they greeted the guests with the festivities, and when they reached the house where the girls lived, they shook their hands to the host, and greeted the women and girls with water in their palms, and then dried water immediately with the towel. Afters the hosts invited them to sit by the table with meal.
Water is a general symbol of fertility and life, and similar customs certainly go back to pre-Christian times, since the well-veneration of Germanic pagans can be found everywhere. Christian Baptism was at the beginning only done around the time of Easter, because it derived of previous customs linked to the year cycle. The red of the dawn itself is explained by science as a visual effect caused by the humidity rising in the air (before becoming rain). The moment of Vernal Equinox shows a macro-level parallel to the moment of morning on the micro-level. They start the light half of the day or year, respectively. We can conclude from this that both Easter-water and Easter-smacking have to do with sneaking around in the morning, i.e. before dawn, and ultimately performing a form of fertility rite.
The Osta Stone and stone formations
In Lower Saxony, there was in the 16th century found a votive stone of fired clay with what apperently is an Old Saxon runic inscription and an illustration. Neither is there a clear reading of the inscription nor is the original stone preserved. We only have a roughly drawn copy, so that the authenticity could never be confirmed by scholars. The stone might go back to the 10th to 8th century and possible readings of the inscription are:
thu ga ut thatr os ta
louse isin frosta
You go out, that’s Osta
loosen icy frosts (“os” could also refer to Os in the sense of the Aesir)
dhu gautar osta,
ous il sin grosta
You good Osta (male),
from your face shines
The fertility of nature that is revived in spring would be fittingly represented in the overflowing horn, the cornucopia. Solar symbology may refer to the Vernal Equinox, lunar symbology to the moon’s link to fertility. The wavy shapes between what are probably sun and crescent moon leave room for interpretation. Is it maybe the steam of earthy moisture that causes the red of the dawn, or is the rising of the sun over the mountain peaks symbolized here? The bird left of the probably female figure looks like a hen, although drawing a line form that to the Easter egg might be too much of a stretch.
If the horseshoe-shaped symbol on the lower right is not a cresecent moon however, we’d have to search for other solutions. In Neolithic stone circles in Iberia we find not only formations in the shape of a horseshoe that are aligned with the sun, moon and specifically the Equinox (Val d’El Rey, Portugal), but also carvings that display a similar shape (Almendres stones). As we know, there were many stone circles in Germany as well, so the horseshoe on the Osta Stone could refer to the same concept as depicted on the Iberian stones, like the course of the sun between East and West. We know that the moon had a major importance to German people as well, since new undertakings where always started with the waxing moon and fullmoons were used for counting and favoured for celebrations, which would especially include Easter.
Myths and Archetypes
The abduction and imprisonment of the dawn goddess, and her liberation by a hero by slaying the dragon that imprisoned her is an archetype that can be found all across the Indo-Germanic mytholinguistic area, from the Edda over Greek mythology to the Rigveda. In the latter, Indra is the dragon slayer, the event is tied to early Indo-Aryan new year celebrations. The archetype of the capturing and return of the Dawn Goddess is of course reflective of the whole year cycle, but Easter would refer to the moment where the goddess returns from the underworld and surpasses the point between the two realms.
In the Poetic Edda there is the song where Sigurd slays the dragon, but there is another song where he meets Brynhild after this heroic deed. That song is called Sigrdrífumál (after another name of Brynhild) and it contains an invocation by Brynhild that is quite interesting, particularly in relation to the already mentioned Old Saxon Eostar-blessing from Corvey monastery and Æcerbot:
heilir dags synir
heil nott oc nipt
litiþ ocr þinig
oc gefit sitiondom sigr
heilar asynior heil
sia in fiolnyta fold mal
oc manvit gefit ocr męrom tveim
oc lęcnishendr meþan lifom.
Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.
Hail to the gods!
Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
We can hear similarities in content and wording. It is also very interesting that, according to Calvert Watkins, the already proto-Indo-Germanic formula of ‘slaying the dragon’ is connected to another formula that means as much as ‘to overcome death’. This confirms the notion that the dragon with his hoarding of the treasure/water symbolizes the dark forces of ice, winter and death. The serpent is often connected to ancestral spirits as well, so it could symbolize the spirits of the dead ancestors in the underworld (the dragon in his lair), which must be fought against in order to inherit their lifeforce and reincarnate. So it would make sense that after his overcoming of the dragon/death, Sigurd would find Brynhild and get engaged with her.
The rescue of the Goddess of Dawn is apparently linked to the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Both show the same archetype of life and fertility being captured and locked away by winter. Another myth that might be connected to Easter is that of Thor regaining his hammer, as passed down to us in the Edda (Þrymskviða). In spring the thunderstorms and lightning return and this is seen as a sign of Thor striking against the frost giants again. Thor is the god of farming, for which the main activity starts again in spring, just like the Eostar-chant and Æcerbot are a kind of field blessing, benison or prayer for the growth of the crops. The fight of Thor against the giants might be ritualized in the Sword Dance, which a variant of still takes place at Easter in many regions today. Contemporary sword dances are said to drive out winter, so there is a clear reference to the year cycle.
The rescue of the dawn goddess might be ritualized in the customs around Troy Town maces that can be found all over Europe. The bride race custom is about running into the middle of the mace, fetching the bride and bringing her back outside. These maces are very old and go back to the Megaithic in many cases. Links to Greek mythology, like the Minotaurus labyrinth, are possible.
Alvim, Pedro: De Nascente para Poente. Reflexões Sobre a Sintaxe da Arquitectura Megalítica no Alentejo.
Article on Easter Monday. https://www.t-online.de/leben/familie/id_53747346/derostermontag-diese-spektakulaeren-braeuche-feiern-wir.html
Buračas, Balys: The Customs of Lithuanian Countryside, Vilnius 1993.
Indo-Germanic reflex chart for the Pokorny etymon auues-. https://lrc.la.utexas.edu/lex/master/0141
Asentr.eu: Frühjahrsblót. http://www.asentr.eu/f_fruehjahrsblot.html
Beda Venerabilis: De temporum ratione. http://www.nabkal.de/beda/beda_15.html
Fredsven: The abduction and imprisonment of the dawn goddess, and her liberation. https://aratta.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/the-abduction-and-imprisonment-of-the-dawn-goddessand-her-liberation/
GardenStone: Eostre Ostara Eostar. Facts, assumptions, conjectures, speculations, guesses and nonsense; oder die deutsche Ausgabe: Ostara Eostre Eostar. Fakten, Annahmen, Vermutungen, Spekulationen, Mutmaßungen und Unsinn, Usingen 2015.
Grimm, Jacob: Deutsche Mythologie, Bd. 1, Berlin 1875, S. 239-242. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=85GLFD-dUEoC&hl=de&pg=GBS.PA242
Hocker, Nikolaus: Deutscher Volksglaube in Sang und Sage, Göttingen 1853.
Neményi, Géza von: Die Wurzeln von Weihnacht und Ostern: heidnische Feste und Bräuche, Holdenstedt 2006.
Neményi, Géza von: Die Göttin Ostara. https://allsherjargode.beepworld.de/ostara.htm
Niles, John D.: The Æcerbot ritual in Context, in: Old English Literature in Context, Cambridge 1980, p. 44-56.
Oertel, Kurt: Göttin Ostara? https://eldaring.de/2019/03/20/goettin-ostara/
Article on Velykos: http://samogitia.mch.mii.lt/KULTURA/Velykos.htm
Trinkūnas, Jonas: Of Gods and Holidays: The Baltic Heritage, 1999.
Wandering Lusitanian: Ataegina: Goddess of the Underworld. https://herminiusmons.wordpress.com/2018/06/24/ataegina/
Watkins, Calvert: How to Kill a Dragon. Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, New York 2001. https://smerdaleos.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/151964305-how-to-kill-a-dragon-by-calvinwatkins.pdf
Wernigerödisches Intelligenzblatt 19, 9. Mai 1797, S. 72.