Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,

Figuring out when Eostre's feast days really took place

Neopaganism really is its own worst enemy sometimes. If you wanted to celebrate the feast of the Goddess Eostre as attested by Bede but all you had to go on was the modern-day pagan Internet, you’d probably end up thinking that there was a festival called ‘Ostara’ that took place on the day of the Spring Equinox. You might even convince yourself that this ‘Ostara’ festival was the natural and obvious forerunner of the Christian Easter.

Unfortunately, you’d be completely mistaken. ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern celebration and was created in the last century by neopagans. The Spring Equinox was not celebrated in the Anglo-Saxon pagan calendar.

So, if we want to get all reconstructionist, when WERE Eostre’s feast days?

Going by Bede’s testimony, we know that the Anglo-Saxons divided the year into two halves, winter and summer. They employed a lunisolar calendar. Each year was bracketed by the winter solstice, falling approximately at December 25th on which a festival called Modranecht (Mothers’ Night) was celebrated. Each solar year contained either twelve or thirteen lunar months, with the new moon signalling the beginning of a given lunar month. Because you can’t neatly fit lunar months into a solar year, it was necessary to count an extra month in some years, a 'third Litha'; this was referred to as an embolismic month.

This article is one of the best breakdowns I’ve seen of how the Anglo-Saxon calendar worked.

The intriguing thing about the Anglo-Saxon summer and winter periods is how they were separated. We know from Bede that the formal beginning of the winter half of the year was the full moon of the month of Winterfilleth. Modern people might tend to imagine that the Autumn Equinox would be the natural point at which to mark the switch, but Bede explicity says otherwise. The very name ‘Winterfilleth’ refers to the tradition of marking winter’s beginning by the full moon of a given lunation.

Now, one thing we can readily observe about the Anglo-Saxon calendar is its symmetry. In the midst of the winter half of the year are two months called ‘Fore Yule’ and ‘After Yule’, while in the midst of the summer half are ‘Fore Litha’ and ‘After Litha’. (One month is not before a given event and the other after it; the sense is more that the former month is the first half of a given timespan, the latter the second half.)

Therefore, given that winter began with the full moon of Winterfilleth, we can speculate that summer began with the full moon of the month diametrically opposite to Winterfilleth in the calendar; and fortunately for our speculative reconstruction, the month in question is Eosturmonath, the month in which Bede claims feasts were held in Eostre’s honour.

This gives us a rather exciting platform from which to work. If Eostre’s festival took place during the full moon of Eosturmonath, we immediately have an explanation for why it involved ‘feasts’ as opposed to a single feast; the full moon lasts for multiple days. In addition, the festival would be in celebration of a calendrical event – the formal beginning of summer – as well as being in honour of a Goddess whose name is cognate with terms meaning opening and dawn.

It is also possible to see an Eostre-festival in a sceptical light, as the celebration of summer’s beginning with no reference to a Goddess at all (outside of Bede’s habit of imaginative speculation). Bede tells us of Winterfilleth only that it was observed, without reference to any deities. The full moons of Eosturmonath and Winterfilleth may therefore have been two calendrical events that were marked in a wholly secular way.

Personally, however, I like to imagine that the full moon of Eosturmonath really did signal the feast of a Goddess called Eostre and the beginning of summer; if nothing else, it is always fun to brandish such things in the face of those who celebrate an unhistorical and artificial Spring Equinox festival called Ostara. Much like the Roman Church of old, which was furious at the Ionian Church for celebrating Easter on the ‘incorrect’ date, we can lift up our voices and cry as one: you’re doing it wrong!

Next Easter Rant: The Case for Eostre, part 1 - The Eostur Sacrifice
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For this pagan soul, it's always been the start of the planting season, so yes, the bringer of the light. Because the witches in my family mostly descended from Germanic/Romanian origins (with some Italian thrown in just to confuse everything), the name Ostern turned into Ostara was what I was taught. But yes, the goddess of light, Eostre was a big part of that. As this year has brought lots of family lineage research, there's some references that perhaps the northern Germans had emigrated in the first century into the Norse countries and merged their beliefs with some of the Norse beliefs as well. It's all a pool of light and dark, I suppose. Regardless, it's a great marking of longer days, the big first plantings for summer, and time to slaughter the old chickens, new lambs, and big sows to feed your village. All this back and forth from it's right, it's wrong reinforces in my heart that people's stories are important and we need more than just one Bede to record it all.
Hot sun and cider. That is all. X