Ostara’s Sacred Birds

Tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, and it looks like in my household it will end up being a low-key affair because my husband and I have both been very busy and under a lot of stress lately. We haven’t had the time or energy to make a lot of plans for it. But I have to do something because in theory anyway, Ostara/Easter is one of my favorite holidays. Probably because when I was a kid, our secular celebration of Easter was tied with Halloween for second favorite holiday (after our secular Christmas, of course). After all, Easter is when the Easter Bunny came! That was always very exciting. I tend to make the date I actually honor Ostara flexible. I do it some time between the actual Spring Equinox and Christian Easter. That gives me some wiggle room in some years, but unfortunately this year is one of the ones where Easter comes at the end of March.

I’ve written here before about how Ostara, Goddess of Spring and the Dawn, is definitely a real goddess to me, no matter what anyone else says. So I was very happy when I found out that she’s definitely a real goddess in Urglaawe. They seem to have more information about her than any other Heathen group I’ve come across.

The Spring 2015 issue of Hollerbeer Hof was all about Ostara (or should I say Oschdra?), including a myth about how she brings color to the world. In the story, she’s one of a trio of sisters, the others being Nacht (“Night”) and Helling (“Daylight”). I know that in Norse myth there is a male deity named Delling associated with Dawn, while Nott is the goddess of Night in Norse mythology. Hmm, that’s interesting.

But what’s more interesting is the role of the Goldfinch (Distelfink) in this myth. Oh yes, there’s a Hare too, but I already knew that hares and rabbits were Ostara’s sacred beasts (like goats are to Thor or cats to Freya), but the goldfinch being her sacred bird is new to me. It makes a lot of sense though! For one thing, she just should have a sacred bird. Odin has ravens, Freya has falcons, so why shouldn’t Ostara get a bird too?

And the Goldfinch is a perfect bird for her, because it’s so colorful, and Ostara is the goddess who brings color to the world. It’s why we paint colorful Easter eggs for her holiday (or her Lagomorph helper brings them and hides them for children to find). I already associate Ostara with spring blooming flowers, so why not colorful birds as well? Especially migratory ones that leave during the winter and return in spring.

The original Distelfink was probably the European goldfinch. When European colonists came to the New World, they had a bad habit of naming North American birds that kinda sorta looked like birds from Europe with the same names, even if they aren’t the same species or even the same family, much to the annoyance of ornithologists! The American robin vs. the European robin is a notable example. At least American goldfinches and European goldfinches are both finches.

So when the Pennsylvania Germans came to North America, the American goldfinch became the Distelfink. They have a lot more gold coloring on them anyway, so they actually make a better Distelfink.

I only occasionally see American goldfinches around here. That’s why I was really happy to read in Hollerbeer Hof that there is conflation between the American goldfinch and Painted Bunting when it comes to the identity of the Distelfink. It also notes that Painted Buntings are uncommon in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

But guess where they are common!

male painted bunting 1

A male Painted Bunting at my birdfeeder

Painted Buntings are actually in the Cardinal family, but unlike their red cousins who are here all year, they spend the winter in Mexico and the summer here in Texas. That makes them a good Ostara’s bird because they don’t arrive until Spring.

They’re also the most colorful birds we have here. It looks like a kid’s drawing of a bird come to life, a kid who used every crayon in the box.

 

I started getting them at my bird feeder when I discovered by accident that their favorite food is millet. I had been putting nothing but black oil sunflower seeds in the feeders, thinking most birds like them better than millet. Then one day the grocery store had this seed mix on sale, so I went ahead and bought some, even though it had lots of “filler” seeds like millet. That’s when the buntings started showing up.

female painted bunting

A female Painted Bunting

Female painted buntings are less colorful. They’re more of an olive green, which makes them camouflage really well with green leaves up in the trees.

I haven’t seen any Painted Buntings here yet, but I know they are coming soon. When they get here, the feeders are ready for them

There is one more Distelfink that we actually have here in Texas, the Lesser Goldfinch. It’s a close relative of the American Goldfinch. I wish it had a better name. It’s called Lesser Goldfinch because it’s smaller than it’s cousin, but that makes it seem like it’s not as good of a finch or something. They’re very cute birds, though the Painted Bunting is much more colorful and Easter egg-like. The Lesser Goldfinch is still a striking bird. It looks like its back was colored with a black Sharpie, while its belly was colored with a neon yellow highlighter.

Lesser Goldfinch

A Lesser Goldfinch at the bird bath

So unlike the Groundhog, this is one sacred animal that we do have a Texas version of. If we had a Texas version of Urglaawe, we could have a version of the Oschdra myth with a Painted Bunting in the role of the Distelfink and a Jackrabbit as Haas (the Hare). They can bring color to the world by causing the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes and Texas Redbuds to bloom. Someone needs to write that!

Advertisements

The Goddess of Spring and the Dawn

Here is a neat myth I just found: Urglaawe Myth of Die Oschdre

It tells a tale of how the spring goddess brings bright colors to the world. This resonates well with spring here in Texas, with the Texas Mountain Laurels, Texas Redbuds, and now the Texas Bluebonnets starting to bloom.

Winter weather in Texas is gray. We only rarely get the pretty parts of winter: the snowflakes and icicles. No, we get gray clouds, fog, and drizzle. We do get some freak warm weather through the winter. I’ve had Yule parties where I needed to turn the air conditioner on. But most plants and animals know it’s not spring yet when we have those warm periods in December, January, or February. They wait, because the next week it could be below freezing again.

But by the Spring Equinox, it’s safe to assume we’ll get no more freezes again. At the same time, colorful flowers start to bloom and colorful summer migratory birds like warblers, painted buntings, and hummingbirds start to arrive. Our non-migratory birds like mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees start building new nests and soon you can hear the chirp of this year’s chicks up in the trees.

So yes, the idea of Ostara bringing color to a gray world fits very well here. I’m glad I found this myth.

There’s so little about Ostara out there. Some Heathens don’t even think she’s a real goddess and say that Bede just made her up. Others ignore her because she’s not found in the Scandinavian lore which they base their religion on. Some say she’s the southern name for a known Scandinavian goddess like Freya or Idunna and substitute accordingly.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think she’s one of the “other” Vanir. You know, one of the ones besides Frey, Freya, and Njord who weren’t involved in the peace negotiations between the Aesir and Vanir. I also think that England and Central Europe knew the Vanir better than Scandinavia, because it’s a warmer, more fertile climate. I think that Frau Holle and Nerthus also may be Vanic deities that were better known in these more southern areas, and this is why their lore has been better preserved in the folklore of these areas than it was in Scandinavia.

I try to follow a Germanic version of the standard Neopagan Eight Holidays, using English, German, and Pennsylvania Dutch sources for inspiration. One thing I have observed is that the holidays opposite each other (that is, the ones that are exactly six months apart) balance each other in a nice way. They end up acting like Ying/Yang counterparts to each other.

The Autumn Equinox comes in September, and that’s usually when we get our first cold front that finally breaks the summer heat. The temperatures go from the high 90’s or low 100’s every day to a relatively refreshing high 80’s or low 90’s. Trust me, after getting through another Texas August, a high of “only” 92 is a sign the Wild Hunt and the Frost Giants are on their way! There’s a definite sense of seasonal change, of flipping a switch, and now we’re finally done with the suffocating 100 degree heat.

The Spring Equinox is the opposite of that. By January and February, we’re getting a little sick of the dreary drizzle with occasional freezes. But when the goddess Ostara arrives, we know it’s really Spring this time. It’s flipped to the light half of the year. It’s really unlikely we’re going to get any more freezes, so it’s safe to start planting out warm-weather plants. The trees know it’s safe put out their buds and flowers and the birds know it’s safe to start laying eggs. We know for sure that winter is done with.

Ostara is as real to me as any other deity I’ve encountered. One of the first group rituals I ever led was an Ostara ritual where the goddess actually showed up. I did it in a Wiccan style since most of the people there were Wiccans, with a “Drawing Down” of the goddess. And apparently, it worked! I was never completely possessed, since I remember everything that happened. I felt like I was in a state of “flow”, and the whole ritual went perfectly smoothly, and afterward the other participants told me how great it was and how they really felt the presence of the goddess.

So if she’s not a real deity, then I don’t know what is.

There’s a good reason why Ostara is the goddess of both Spring and the Dawn. If Yule is the midnight of the year, and Groundhog Day is when you start to see the first glow of sunlight on the horizon, then Ostara is daybreak when the sun comes up over the horizon and bathes the land in morning light. Ostara is the goddess of new beginnings, of chicks and bunnies and other baby animals, of flowers and bees and seeds. When she arrives, it’s an exciting time of year, full of potential.

I don’t care if the Scandinavians didn’t know her. I know her.

It’s Spring

This past week was Spring Break, so I was off work, though I didn’t have any fun plans. I spent most of Spring Break doing Frigg-type things around the house like cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking big batches of stews and casseroles to go in the freezer for days when I’m too tired to cook dinner when I get home from work. But the weather was so gorgeous Thursday that I decided to till the back garden.

My acre of land is mostly wooded with more live oak and mountain laurel trees than we can count. It’s nice, but fruits and vegetables require full sun, so I’ve got them stuck in whichever sunny spots I could find. I ended up with one vegetable garden in the back, one in the front next to the driveway, and a row of dwarf fruit trees (consisting of a pomegranate, Meyer lemon, satsuma, kumquat, loquat, and fig tree) lining the street under the power lines. All the rest of the yard is in shade.

The front yard vegetable garden consists of four 4’x20′ raised beds framed with cedar with 3 foot paths between. I felt it was more important to get that garden looking nice since it’s in the front yard. I’ve got nothing but compliments from neighbors about it. It sure is nice to not have a homeowner’s association.

The back garden is messier. Raised beds back there is further down on our to-do list, but I really should do it some time. Since I live in the Texas Hill Country, the ground here is like “would you like some soil with that limestone?” and our back yard is even rockier than the front. My husband is working on building a pond back there, and he dug down about a foot before he hit solid rock. He’s had to rent a jackhammer to work on the rest.

However, the advantage of the back yard is that the deer don’t go back there. They could if they really wanted to. We only have a short chain-link fence they could easily jump over, but so far they haven’t bothered. Our deer are still picky and only eat the really tasty, easily-accessible stuff. For example, over the winter I tried to grow a mixture of salad greens in the front garden, and the deer ate all the lettuce, but left the arugula.

I planted peas in the back this winter because deer find legumes especially delicious, but the rest of the back garden became horribly overgrown with weeds over the winter, especially this one particularly nasty weed that gets these sticky burrs on it.

So this week I finally decided I would just till up the whole thing, hopefully uprooting all those weeds before it’s time to plant warm-season crops.

But when you’re an animist, tilling the garden isn’t that simple. Before I got out the noisy machine with whirring blades that chops up the soil, mutilates plants, and will probably kill some earthworms and insects in the process, I felt I should give an offering to the land spirits first. A combination of thanks and apology for the havoc I’m about to wreak. I poured out a cup of milk for them, and sat there for a bit listening to the songs of the mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees for a while.

Then it was time to let the rototiller rip!

tilling back garden 006

The high that day was 78, so it turned out to be sweaty work, but I finally got it done by late afternoon. All that is left back there now are the two rows of peas on their trellises.

I hope those sticky plants don’t grow back.

As I sat on the back porch resting, a flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the tree above and preened themselves for a while.

Cedar waxwings in oak tree

Live oak trees keep their leaves all winter and lose them at this time of year, right before growing catkins and new green leaves. So the oaks aren’t looking too good right now, and my porch is covered with fallen oak leaves.

Meanwhile, the second most common tree in my yard, the Texas mountain laurels, are blooming and filling the air with their sweet, grape kool-aid fragrance.

blooming trees 001

Friday morning, I went out to look over my work in the back garden again, before sitting on the porch to drink my coffee and listen to the dawn chorus. A chickadee landed in the tree above me and starting singing. It’s amazing how loud such a small creature can be. I listened to him for a while, and then a second chickadee flew over and landed right beside him. They started twittering frantically, and at first I thought they were fighting, since chickadees are somewhat aggressive little birds. But then I looked more closely and noticed that they weren’t fighting after all!

Apparently that second chickadee was a female who really liked his song!

The mockingbirds have already got chicks. I heard them chirping in the oak trees in the front a few days ago, and saw one of the parents catching bugs and bringing them up there. A couple of days later I saw a male cardinal picking out sunflower seeds from our bird feeder and giving them to a female cardinal perched above it (the bird version of giving your girlfriend a box of chocolates). Now there were chickadees gettin’s busy right above my head!

It’s definitely spring.

Hail Ostara!

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