The first mention of the goddess Ostara (Old High German), or Eostre (Anglo-Saxon) comes in Bede's De Temporum Rationale, in which the christian cleric tells us only that she is a Heathen goddess after whom a month (April, roughly) was named and that during this month a holiday was celebrated in her name. The Frankish Ostarmanoth (recorded in Einhard's Life of Charlemagne) and the surviving Modern German name for the festival, Ostern, support the belief that she was known among the continental Germans as well. Not only was she known, but she must have been well-known and firmly rooted, since her name had to be kept even for the christian feast. The name Ostara does not seem to have been known in Scandinavia at all; though we have no evidence for it, it is quite tempting to suggest that Iðunn may have stood in her stead.
Her name is closely related to the word "East". The same Germanic root is seen in the folk-name "Ostrogoths", which means "the 'Goths of the rising sun' - hence 'East Goths' - or the 'Goths glorified by the rising sun'" (Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 25). It may ultimately derive from the Indo-European *aus- ("shine"), from which the Latin aurora and Greek eos (both meaning "dawn") came; its general range of connotations are brightness/dawn/East/glory. This suggests strongly that Ostara was seen as a goddess of dawn, as well as a goddess of the spring.
The time at which our forebears held this feast is not at all sure, except that it was sometime in April for the Anglo-Saxons and Continental Germans. It has been suggested, by Grimm among others, that the original feast may have been the one at the beginning of May, the customs of which were then pushed back to fit the christian feast. However, the designation of April as "Ostara-Month" by both English and Germans may tend rather to show that the feasts were separate. Yule and Midsummer, which both fall near the end of the month, have their respective months December/January and June/July designated as Fore-Yule and After-Yule, Fore-Litha and After-Litha; and if the Ostara feast had been the same as May Day, we might have expected to see a matching Fore-Easter and After-Easter. Still, there does seem to be a great deal of overlap between the customs practiced for both of them (fires and fire-leaping, driving out of Winter and welcoming Summer), especially in Scandinavia, where summer does not really seem to begin until May Day and the earlier Easter-feast is less a celebration of the Sun's sig than a promise that the weather will start warming soon. It is quite possible, as well, that the Scandinavians, who did not know Ostara and for whom summer came later in the year, only held the one festival at the beginning of May, and that some of the feast's traditions (for instance, the belief in the witches holding their revels at this time) were simply displaced to the christian Paschal celebration.
In modern practice, the two favoured dates for Ostara are either the spring equinox or the first full moon (sometimes new moon) after the spring equinox. This may be modified by where you live and other circumstances; for instance, spring comes much earlier to Dallas than it does to Ottawa. In general, we would suggest holding Ostara's feast during the waxing Moon, as there are some hints that the Moon may have been important to her festival (for instance, the "Ostara-Moon" pastries cited by Grimm, below) and because this is the time of new-springing and growing might.
Today, we see Ostara as being dressed in white. This may go back to early times; German folklore, for instance, has white-clad women appearing on rock-clefts and mountains at dawn on Easter morning, a belief which Grimm suggests is related to the goddess Ostara (Teutonic Mythology, I, p. 291). One of these is the white maiden of Osterrode, who appears with a large bunch of keys at her girdle (the sign of a married woman in our forebears' times), who goes down to the brook to wash every Easter Sunday before sunrise. Similar tales are told throughout Germany (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, III, p. 963); Grimm also mentions that hills were particularly holy to this goddess (IV, p. 1371).
Diana Paxson has suggested that the hare may well have been Ostara's holy beast, slain and eaten only at her festival. The Tuvasgården bracteate (Hauck, Goldbrakteaten, Tafeln 2, p. 137) shows a single, rather stylized hare, which strengthens the understanding of this beast as especially holy; very few other bracteates have single natural animals, and when they do, it is usually birds of prey or something of similar mythic resonance. The hare is especially a beast of springtime, since it is in March and April that they are seen "dancing" on their hind legs (fighting and courting) in the fields. This is usually seen at dawn (since hares are night-beasts) which offers another reason for linking them with Ostara. The belief in the "Easter hare" bringing eggs was first written down in Germany, and seems to have stemmed from that country; German children still build nests for the hare to lay its eggs in. In Germany, also, a rich buttery bread decorated with almonds and currants is often baked in the shape of a hare at this time, and bakery windows are full of hare-breads, cookies, and cakes. The Ostara Hare is certainly Heathen; to the christians, the hare was especially the symbol of lust and not to be encouraged. Hares mate when very young, and the does can produce several litters each year, hence the common vulgar expression, "to fuck like a bunny".
Squirrels are also part of the Easter rites in the Harz mountains of Germany: the people of Bräunrode go into the nearest woodland to hunt squirrels "by throwing stones and cudgels, till at last the animals drop exhausted into their hands, dead or alive" (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, II, p. 616).
The use of eggs as signs of life goes back to early times; clay eggs painted white with red and black stripes were found in a child's grave in Worms, and may have served a purpose like that of the apples given to the dead. The hunting of Easter eggs is common throughout America, Germany, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, and parts of France. In Germany, the eggs are often placed among nettles or thornbushes so that the children who want them have to show either bravery and hardiness by plunging straight into the thorns, or cleverness by figuring out how to get them without getting pricked. This may also be kin to the mock switchings which are carried out at this time: the sting is the thorn of waking, the bright counterpart to the dark sleep-thorn, bringing both fruitfulness and wakefulness.
In England, it was especially traditional to go up on a hill and roll coloured eggs down the hill (Christian, Country Life Book of Old English Customs, p. 114).
In Germany, eggs are blown out, painted, and hung on flowering trees outside; flowering branches are also brought in for making "egg-trees" within the home. Such blown eggs will keep indefinitely, and are often decorated very elaborately and packed away safely every year. Blown eggs are very fragile, and eggs which have been painted and hung outside tend to run in the rain, but it has been found that a few coats of clear spray-on polyurethane will make painted eggs waterproof and their shells very difficult to break.
Gunnwar Skaðadóttir recalls customs of her husband's family, passed down from his Russian-born grandmother (whose family came from Lake Ladoga, originally settled by the Swedish Rus):
On Easter, a "pile" of food, vegetables, fruits, etc. of the previous year's harvest would be made up. Added to it would be a fresh ham. It was extremely important, according to Ken's grandmother, that the ham be freshly killed that same day. In fact, she and her husband kept pigs at their home for this exact purpose each year.
The food had to be kept undisturbed until the priest came around to "bless" it. The priest did not wear his normal garb, but what Ken's grandmother called "robes". Since she's nearly 80 now, her memory on this point wasn't quite clear.
"A special bread would be made out of particular grains (another point she was rather shaky on - this bread is available commercially - it's flat, thin, and white - looks a bit like styrofoam, actually) and blessed, and then it would be "shared" at the holiday meal with everyone else. You would go around and take pieces off everybody's piece and eat them, and everyone would come around and take pieces off yours to eat.
"Their egg custom, however, was the one that caught my eye. Everyone would take one of the eggs that they had personally dyed and would try to smash everyone else's egg. Sort of an 'egg war' - you smash them on the ends like you're jousting almost (she adds later that they would actually put thorns or other "stickers" on the business ends of the eggs). According to Ken's grandmother, when your egg got broken, the essence of the egg (its might) would be released on the person."
Another means of giving egg-might has been taken up by Ásatrúar in South Texas: the making and breaking of "cascarones". These are blown eggs which have been filled with confetti (a small circle of shell is removed at one end and the egg filled; a piece of tissue-paper is then glued over the hole). These eggs must either be decorated before the hole is opened or spray-painted after filling. The cascarones are then broken on other peoples' heads as a blessing. This is a much nicer way of releasing the egg-might on someone than is breaking a raw egg upon them.
You should eat as many eggs as you can at this time, and especially encourage your children to eat them as well. Various collections of folklore from Germany, Scandinavia, and Orkney tell us that the eating of Easter eggs is said to bode strength, health, and good growing.
In A Book of Troth, Thorsson mentions that it is traditional to toss an Easter egg high in the air and try to catch it with shell unbroken; those who do this get great luck for the year to come (p. 185).
It is traditional in many places, especially Germany, to keep Easter eggs and shells all year to ward the family and cattle against harm, and they are also used very specifically as a charm against hail and lightning. In both Germany and Czechoslovakia, an egg which was laid on Thursday was taken, coloured green for fruitfulness, and buried in the largest wheat-field. After burial, the egg was flanked on either side with a burning "hail cross" (Newall, An Egg at Easter, p. 248). The Thursday egg is an obvious remnant of the worship of Þórr, here invoked in his fertility aspect to bless the fields, and as the God of Storm to protect the new crops against the springtime hailstones, while the burning cross is a christianized remnant of the old Sun-wheel. Charred sticks saved from the fires were kept and taken home to protect the home against hail, fire, and lightning, and the ashes of the fires were often spread in the fields for fertility.
Fires were very important to the Ostara rites of our forebears. Among the German-descended inhabitants of Fredricksburg, Texas, as Gunnora Hallakarva recalls, the inhabitants still light bonfires on the tops of nearby hills on Holy Saturday. In Germany, sun-wheels were made from oakwood, straw, and green branches, and brought to the tops of the highest hills. There the wheels were set aflame, and the burning sun-wheel sent rolling down the hill and through the fields of the village below, literally bringing the might of the Sun and the warmth of its rays into the fields which were to be ploughed and sown (Newall, An Egg at Easter, p. 326). One common belief associated with the fire festivals was that the men alone were allowed to take part, and women were kept strictly away from the vicinity of the fire, suggesting that men will absorb the might and fruitfulness of Fro Ing or Thonar when they take part in such a rite. Gunnora Hallakarva suggests that today's Ásatrúar might adapt these spring fire rites to modern use by using one of the "Catherine's Wheel" type of fireworks, or actually construct a small sun-wheel, placed high atop a pole to be lit. Rather than taking the burning wheel around one's home or apartment, burning candles or torches might be lit from it, and be used to carry the flame around instead.
In Hildesheim, the Easter fire was particularly struck with a steel, and Grimm also mentions the tradition of lighting it with a burning-glass or piece of crystal (Teutonic Mythology, II, p. 616). The latter would be particularly mighty for this day, drawing in and concentrating the very fire of the Sun, though as a single element in ritual it might be thought rather tedious and difficult. Possibly someone could begin the process during the main dawn rite, and when the fire finally does start, use it for blessings or the procession afterwards.
Ostara is the time for the Wanic wain-procession of fruitfulness; the Nerthus procession written of by Tacitus took place in the spring, and the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem's verse for Ing has the god coming "from the East", which also suggests the likelihood of a connection with this festival. Gunnwar Skaðadóttir mentions her grandmother-in-law's recollection of how the "Christ-child" would be brought about in a little wain at Easter - hardly anything having to do with the christian feast, but bearing more than a slight resemblance to the fruitfulness-rounds of Freyr. In modern times, such a procession can either be done with a Wanic god/ess image set in a wagon decorated with flowers, apples, cakes and so forth (or perhaps even done up to represent a ship) that is pulled about the grounds or the neighborhood - or those who wish to spread their blessings more widely might decorate their cars as if for a wedding, with the lead-car carrying the god/ess image, and drive about the borders of their town.
In Sweden and southern Finland, the Easter-season is especially thought to be a time when witches are abroad: they were thought to fly off to the mountain Blåkulla to "consort with the Devil" on Maundy Thursday and come back on Holy Saturday. "People did everything they could to protect themselves from the evil powers at play these days. They lit bonfires, shot off fire-arms into the sky, painted crosses, stars, and other holy symbols over their doors, buried psalters under their thresholds and hung scythes and axes criss-cross over their livestock" (Liman, Traditional Festivities in Sweden, p. 9). Some of these rites are clearly meant as wardings, and will remind us of the crosses and knives used by christians at Yule-time; others, such as the bonfires and perhaps fire-arms, are likelier to stem from Heathen celebration.
It is also traditional in these countries for young maidens to dress up as witches, often with brightly coloured kerchiefs over their heads, and go about in a manner similar to the American Trick-or-Treat. In southern Finland, as observed by KveldúlfR Gundarsson, the "Easter-Witches" pluck pussy-willow branches (the pussy-willow is the first tree to bud at this time, and the Finns think of its soft gray blossoms as the first sign of spring), which they decorate with ribbons. The girls go about with the branches they have adorned, giving them to passers-by in return for coins and sweets; those who have nothing to give to the witches must listen to verses of mocking.
In the old days, of course, these "witches" might well have been travelling spae-wives, or perhaps followers or godwomen of the Frowe bringing her blessings. This may still happen today; or the young girls of a kindred might be decked out in white dresses and red scarves, and carry decorated birch or pussy-willow branches around to the grown members, perhaps with apples as well, giving their blessings and getting money and candy in return (the boys, we will remember, had done something similar at Yule as "Yule-Swains").
One of the most common elements throughout the Germanic lands was the ritual battle between Summer and Winter, ending with Winter being either slain or beaten out of the village, while Summer often claims a fair maiden for his bride. Grimm mentions the Middle German ôsterspil (Ostara-play) which seems to have been a sword-dance for twelve men and showed Summer beating Winter out of the land. He adds that a particular type of sword, the "Ostara-Sax" was used, which "leads us to infer that a sword of peculiar antique shape was retained; as the Easter scones, ôsterstuopha, and moonshaped ôstermâne indicate pastry of heathenish form" (Teutonic Mythology, II, pp. 780-81). This battle is an excellent source of ritual drama, and several of the poems in the Elder Edda (for instance, Svipdagsmál, Skírnismál, and Sigrdrífumál) seem to hold elements of such a rite, with Svipdagsmál probably being the best example. In Teutonic Magic, Kveldulf Gundarsson has a script for a ritual drama roughly based on Svipdagsmál and Sigrdrífumál. Modern Ásatrúar often see Summer as the bright Fro Ing coming to bless the lands.
Even without a full-combat drama, the beating and burning or drowning of an effigy of Winter is a very common Germanic folk custom. One way in which this may be done is - if you had a "Last Sheaf" which you hung outside at Winternights or a like sheaf-offering "to the birds" at Yule - to take the winter-sheaf and make it into a tomtegubber or "corn-dolly" which embodies Old Man Winter. If this is done a few days before Ostara and the tomtegubber kept in a warm place, he will be very dry and burn easily. Whether you are going to burn Winter or toss him into the water, be sure that he is of an organic material which will burn or fall apart in the water easily. For the latter purpose, a figure made of bread might be the best idea. A human being can also play Winter, being switched and then ducked three times in a pond, lake, or river.
Ostara was called "Sig-Blessing" by the Norse, and we must also remember that her feast marked the time at which battles could begin again. It is fitting to hail Wodan as Sig-Father at this time, and also to bless Thonar for his sig over the rime-thurses. Swords and spears are by no means unfitting to this rite, though it must be remembered that the Wanic procession is always one of frith, during which no weapons may be drawn.
The "Hail Day" section from Sigrdrífumál is almost always spoken somewhere in the course of an Ostara rite.
Usually, we try to hold an all-night watch on Ostara. This can be livened up with symbel, ritual dramas, the procession of the "Easter Witches" - and, most of all, communal egg-painting, confetti-egg making, and so forth. The contents of eggs that are blown out this night can be saved and made into omelettes for breakfast. Some of the painted eggs can be hidden for an egg-hunt the next day.
The rite itself should be done at dawn, outside if possible or with the windows open. The tools needed will be Hammer, horn with drink (mead or cider would be best, but ale or wine are all right), water drawn from a running spring at sunrise the day before, blessing-bowl and sprinkling-twig (birch and pussy willow are the two best choices for this rite), a Winter-effigy or person with a dark cloak and straggly gray wig and beard, three candles (white, red, and black or deep purple/blue), a bowlful of golden apples and a bowlful of painted eggs (one for each person there). Everyone will also need a flexible young branch, by choice birch or willow, for whipping Winter. The Godwo/man should be dressed in white, perhaps with a red, green, or golden belt. Her/his hair, if long enough, should be brushed down to flow freely. If the rite is led by a Godman, there should also be a white-clad idis to bear the horn, apples, and eggs.
I. The folk are gathered in a ring about the harrow. Winter stands or is propped up at the North. The Godwo/man does the Hammer Rite.
II. The Godwo/man faces Eastward, speaking.
Hail to Ostara, eastwards lighting,
white maiden, in thy might.
Step through the door of Delling, glimmering,
lifting the lance of day,
offering eggs of day,
giving the gifts of day.
Hail to Thonar! home come from thurse-realm,
thy winter warring done.
Shining in sig, striker of etins,
Storm-god, we hail thee here!
Hail thee, Fro Ing! ride here in thy wain,
to drive winter from our doors.
With stag-antler shining, sig-sign uplifted
we see thee, summertime king,
beat out all Winter's bale,
no longer linger he here!
III. The folk fall upon Winter, whipping him three times about the circle (if an effigy is used, he must be carried by someone). As they do this, they cry out:
Now death must die and dawn have sig,
now winter ends and woe is fled.
Ice-melt flowing, fetters loosening, fair-shining Fro fells winter's dark.
If Winter is to be drowned, the folk whip him along to the pond or stream into which the image may be cast or in which a human Winter is ducked thrice, coming up the third time without wig, beard, or cloak. If Winter is to be burned, he is now set on fire - preferably by need-fire or flint-and-steel, if there is someone in the company who can make either of these reliably and fast. The pyre should already be set with plenty of fuel so that it will continue burning until after the rite is over.
If Winter is drowned, the folk should dip their branches in the water and lash each other lightly; if he is burned, they should pass them through the smoke and do the same, saying,
"Awake, awake! Frith dawns, and a fruitful year."
IV. The Godwo/man says,
Hail to our Fro, who's freed the earth,
the shining Summer King!
Now Sunna treads the sky's blue rim,
the sig-queen takes her stead.
V. All raise hands above heads, looking upward and chanting together,
Hail, Day! hail, Day's sons!
hail to Night and her daughter!
With loving eyes look you upon us,
and sig give to those standing here!
Hail to the gods! Hail the goddesses,
hail the all-giving Earth!
Fair speech and wit to famed ones here grant,
and healing hands, while we live.
VI. The Godwo/man takes the white candle and lights it, saying,
Burn ever brightly, blithe candle white,
dawn-flame on threshold of day.
Set for us sig strong in the morn-light,
fire blessed by Norns fair!
S/he takes the red candle and lights it, saying,
Burn ever brightly, brave candle red
day-flame on threshold of day.
We shall win sig through Sun's long faring,
fire, be blessed by Norns bright!
S/he takes the black candle and lights it, saying,
Burn ever brightly, black candle, wise,
dusk-flame on threshold of day.
We shall hold sig at summer's ending,
fire, so deemed by Norns dark!
VII. The Godwoman or idis lifts the baskets of apples and eggs. The Godwo/man says,
Iðunn awesome! Ostara's fires
burn to brighten thy way.
Green aye new-growing from ground 'neath your footsteps,
holy frowe, fare here!
To apples and eggs all give your blessing,
Iðunn and Ostara fair,
bearing in blitheness buds of our new life,
bearing the blessings of dawn.
S/he sprinkles the two baskets with the holy spring-water. The Godwoman or idis bears the baskets around, sprinkling each person with spring water as they take an egg and an apple and saying, "Iðunn and Ostara bless you." If this burden has proven to be unwieldy when you practiced the rite, she may draw the baskets in a small wain behind her, or more than one woman may help in carrying.
KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson and Gunnora Hallakarva, from "Easter", in Mountain Thunder