Celebrating Easter as a Pagan

It’s Easter time! Modern pagans usually call it Ostara to distinguish it from the Christian celebration of Jesus’s resurrection. This is an easy holiday for me, because unlike Imbolc or Lammas, and more like Samhain and Yule, here in America we have a popular secular version of the holiday. Despite growing up in a nonreligious household, we still celebrated Easter hunting candy-filled plastic eggs the Easter Bunny hid in the yard on Easter morning, coloring boiled eggs with store-bought PAAS kits, a ham dinner, and a cake of some sort. The house was also decorated with bunnies and eggs, and there might even be some Easter cartoons on TV to watch. Not quite Christmas, but I would say probably an equal amount of fun to Halloween.

Like with Christmas and Halloween, once I became pagan, it merely added a spiritual element to a day I was already used to celebrating. This is usually the last holiday when it’s still nice outside. They say we only have two seasons here in Texas: Summer and Not-Summer. Easter is the last holiday of Not-Summer. Beltane comes next, and by then it’s definitely Summer, with highs in the 90’s common.

It also seems like there’s always some spoil-sport on whatever pagan or heathen message boards or mailing lists I’m on that feels it’s necessary to remind us all that Ostara isn’t a real goddess, that she was made up by Bede, and celebrating the spring equinox with eggs and rabbits is not an authentic heathen custom.

Let’s see what a historian has to say about this, Ronald Hutton. He loves debunking claims of pre-Christian origins of all sorts of things. In Stations of the Sun, in the chapter entitled “The Origins of Easter”, Hutton mentions how odd it is that in most countries of Europe, the feast of Jesus’s resurrection is called by some variation on the name “Passover”, but in modern German it’s “Ostern”, and in modern English it’s “Easter”. Bede said the word comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre, and the month her feast day falls in is called Eostur-month in the old Anglo-Saxon calendar (roughly corresponding to April). Hutton doesn’t go quite so far to say Bede made the whole thing up, but he says that the word Eostre might mean “spring”, and not actually be the name of a goddess. Hutton does mention how the word is cognate with other Indo-European goddesses of dawn, like the Roman Aurora, and the Greek Eos (not to mention the word “east”, the direction of dawn), so maybe there really was an equivalent Germanic dawn goddess, but he then concludes, “With the removal of this shadowy deity from the canon of historical certainty, there evaporates any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April.”

Well, I’m perfectly happy with honoring the goddess of dawn at the spring equinox, the dawn of the year, the tipping point between light and dark. It makes perfect sense. Jacob Grimm was completely sure there was a German goddess named Ostara associated with dawn, spring, rabbits, and eggs. He’s not mentioned by Hutton since he wrote about Germany, and Hutton writes about Britain, but it would make sense that the Anglo-Saxons could have known about the same goddess too. Though maybe Hutton is right that the word Easter comes from a word for spring, and not for a goddess, and Grimm got it wrong.

Stations of the Sun goes on to talk about the various Easter customs from Britain. He says that Easter eggs came about because it was forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, so there were a lot of eggs around by Easter. Easter was also the time of another trick-or-treat like ritual where kids would go from house to house begging for eggs. Interestingly, he says the Easter Bunny was originally German, which got to America through German immigrants, and then was imported to Britain from there. That sounds similar to how the Christmas tree got to Britain, and makes me wonder where that rabbit came from originally. Some pagan custom, perhaps? Or maybe the rabbit is just as obvious a symbol of spring as an egg is. Hutton mentions nothing about the Easter Bunny hiding eggs and children going for egg hunts, which here in America is the main secular Easter ritual. Where does that come from?

In the end, I confess that I don’t really care that much. Like with Charming of the Plow, Easter just seems pagan-in-spirit enough for me, regardless of whatever the historians say. Maybe if I was a historian I would care more, but I’m not, I’m a biologist. Why not celebrate spring with flowers, eggs, and bunnies? It makes perfect sense. When I look at the seasonal aisle at the grocery store this time of year, it’s full of chocolate eggs and bunnies, symbols of fertility and new life. There are chocolate crosses as well, but they’re usually few and number, and down on the lower shelves.

As for the goddess Ostara herself, she’s real enough for me. She holds the position of being the only deity so far that I’ve “aspected” in a public ritual.

Aspecting is a practice that goes back at least as far as Gardnerian Wicca, where it’s called “Drawing Down”. The High Priestess “draws down” the Wiccan Goddess into herself, while the High Priest draws down the God. They then embody the Goddess and God in physical form during the ritual. Back when I was a member of the Pagan Student Alliance in college, still a Wiccan but starting to get an interest in Germanic heathenism, I decided to lead an Ostara ritual for our group, taking on the role of the High Priestess, and drawing down the goddess, except in this case the goddess was specifically Ostara. As I’ve mentioned before, I never felt close to the Wiccan Goddess, so I wanted to do a ritual for a specific goddess from my newfound pantheon.

To be honest, I really wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen. I guess I thought of drawing down as acting, mostly. I was acting out the part of Ostara for the ritual. At the time I didn’t know anything about “deity possession” and I’m still skeptical of claims that deities fully possess people to the point where the “horse” doesn’t even remember what they did when they were possessed, but in that ritual I learned there was at least a bit more to aspecting than just play-acting.

I actually don’t remember the ritual that well. I know it involved something with Easter eggs, but I was deep in Flow, that state where you’re concentrating on a task so much that you actually enter a different state of consciousness. I get into Flow when I’m teaching, and apparently leading a ritual has a similar effect on me. It was only later, after the ritual was over, that participants came to me telling me about how awesome it was. One of the participants had brought her pet rabbit with her to the ritual. It was allowed to freely hop around the room as we did the ritual, but she said at the moment when I invoked Ostara, the rabbit left where it had been exploring the perimeter of the room and went straight for me in the center of the room, and sat at attention at my feet the whole time. I had no idea that had happened until people told me about it later.

I guess it worked! Pulling off a successful public ritual is not an easy task. I’ve been to enough rituals that fell flat to know that a lot of things can go wrong. This Ostara ritual, ten years ago this year, was the first public ritual I led, so I’m grateful to the Goddess of Dawn for showing up to make the ritual work for a newbie.

Since Christian Easter comes on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, I consider any time between the equinox and Christian Easter to be time to celebrate Ostara. Since this year the equinox was yesterday, I haven’t gotten a chance to celebrate it yet, but I plan to soon. The fireplace mantle is already all set up with bunnies and eggs and an Ostara candle. Most of the time I just go ahead and celebrate it on the same day as Christian Easter, because most employers allow people to have a three day weekend for Easter.

Edred Thorsson, in A Book of Troth, has a nice invocation for Easter. I don’t remember if it’s the one I used ten years ago, but it might have been.

Hail holy Easter!

Hail the daughter born at Delling’s Door,

At the gate of Day who bears the light!

Hail Easter, lady of the dawn!

Eastre by Jacque Reich, 1909

Eastre by Jacque Reich, 1909

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Sacred Plants: Texas Mountain Laurel

I think that pagans who want to get more in touch with their local environment would do well to learn more about local sacred plants, especially native plants, which I think are often overlooked, though cultivating an herb garden is also a good idea.

I used to lead a native plant workshop at a local pagan festival, until the festival became prohibitively expensive for me to keep attending with my current financial situation. We went for a short hike around the festival grounds while I pointed out the plants and talked about each one. The workshop was well-attended, but I was somewhat disappointed at how often I got the question, “What kind of spell would this plant be useful for?” as the person snatched up a forb growing in the meadow. Giving people lists of “correspondences” for native plants was not exactly what I intended that workshop to be about. If you just want an herb for your money spell, you would probably do better grabbing a jar of dried basil next time you’re at the grocery store.

What I was really intending for the workshop was to get people to learn more about the native plants of Central Texas. I want them to learn about the plants themselves. What kind of environments they grow in, when they bloom, what sort of mundane things did the Indians or pioneers use them for, as well as any magical properties they might have. I guess I’m too much of an animist to feel right about just pulling off some leaves to use for some spell, without getting to know the plant’s spirit first.

So here’s my first post highlighting a local sacred plant that all people living in the Hill Country should be familiar with, and all pagans living in the Hill Country should revere: Sophora secundiflora. They are in full bloom sometime between Imbolg and Ostara, which is right now.

mountain laurel

Mountain laurels in my front yard

The common names for this plant include Texas Mountain Laurel and Mescal Bean. It is a small evergreen tree in the legume family. There are other small flowering trees in North America also called “mountain laurel” that are unrelated, hence the “Texas” part of the name. It lives in the Hill Country, all the way west to a small area in New Mexico, and south to Central Mexico. I tend to call the trees themselves “mountain laurels” and their seeds “mescal beans”. They’re one of my favorite trees, and I was delighted that most of the trees on our property we moved to a year ago are either live oaks or mountain laurels.

A mountain laurel bloom

A mountain laurel bloom

They bloom in March with these fantastic purple inflorescences, which give off a strong, sweet, mouthwatering fragrance most people liken to grape soda or Kool-Aid. They’re fairly popular as a native ornamental plant. The parking lot where I work has a lot of them in the medians, though many people choose not to plant them, complaining that they grow much more slowly and don’t bloom for as long as that popular Chinese native, Crepe Myrtles.

The thing is, most native plants here grow slowly. It’s how they survive the lack of water. Mountain laurels grow in poor, rocky soil and can take just about anything Texas throws at them. And personally, the short bloom time (the blooms only last two or three weeks) seems to make them more special to me. I guess in a culture where we can get ripe strawberries in winter, people just don’t appreciate these brief, seasonal events that you have to enjoy right then until they’re gone for another year.

mescal beans

Mountain laurel pods and seeds

The purple flowers soon give way to peanut-like pods with bright orange-red seeds that litter the sidewalks and parking lots next to the trees. Maybe that’s another reason why some people are reluctant to plant them, because the seeds are listed everywhere as deadly poisonous. What I’ve heard is that plenty of kids have swallowed the seeds with no ill-effects, because they have very hard seed coats, so they pass through the digestive system unscathed. The toxin is inside the seed, and is only released if the seed is crushed or chewed up. Of course, caution is still warranted, but I’m certainly not going to chop down all my mountain laurels when I have a kid.

OK, so now we come to the part all the pagans are waiting for. What are the magical properties of the Texas Mountain Laurel? Well, to figure that out, you should think about why their other common name is Mescal Bean, those “poisonous” seeds. You see, they’re also hallucinogenic, and were used as an entheogen by the Native Americans living in this area. The Indians would crush them up and ingest them in rituals, though the dosage is a bit tricky, and they can make you very sick or even kill you if you take too much. Once peyote cactus was imported from further south, using mescal beans as an entheogen was abandoned, since peyote gives a better high with fewer side effects.

However, the mescal beans were still considered sacred, and even today Indians wear necklaces made of beads of mescal beans with holes drilled through the middle during their peyote rituals. I must say, they make a very pretty necklace too, and I’m considering making one myself some day.  I certainly have enough of the seeds here in my yard.

So I don’t recommend actually ingesting the seeds unless you’re under the supervision of a trained native shaman (and even then you’d probably do better with peyote or ayahuasca), but the seeds or strings of the seeds made into beads could be useful if you’re doing any sort of divination or trying to receive visions or contact the Otherworld in some other (safer) way.

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The biggest mountain laurel I have in my yard is right behind the sacred circle. I thought it was an oak tree at first, since it’s as big as a lot of the smaller oaks in my yard. They seldom get that big, but I think it’s a good sign that it’s there. Who knows, maybe that’s why I got such good “vibes” about putting my ritual circle in that spot.