"A hush is over everything, Silent as women wait for love; The world is waiting for the Spring." - Sara TeasdaleToday we have come to the Vernal Equinox. This is the midpoint between the Solstices, the point when night and day are equal. After today, every day will be longer than the night. After today, the Sun rules the year (at least until the Autumn Equinox).
This day has been observed and celebrated around the world since time immemorial, preserved in any number of religions and traditions, and under many names.
For us Neo-Pagans, that name is Ostara.
Read on . . .
"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month', and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance." - the Venerable Bede, De temporum ratione, chapter 15There's not a lot known about the original festivals of Eostre. Bede's reference is one of the very, very few, and none of them give us much more than the name. Some of the surviving Germanic traditions - already relics in Bede's time - may give us some hints, but not much: you can find scattered references to bonfires and maidens in white, similiar to May Day, but also to some sort of sword-dance and what one later writer described as "pastry of heathenish form" (No details are given - which is, frankly, a shame. That's something I'd like to see).
The goddess herself, Eostre/Ostara, has been connected with a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn. Like the festival, the goddess is largely a mystery - though she seems to endure in the dawn-goddesses of the Greek (Eos), Roman (Aurora) and Vedic/Hindu (Ushas) mythologies, among others. The Gylfaginning - part one of the three-part Prose Edda of 13th-Century Iceland - mentions a "spirit of light" bearing the name Austri, who may also be related.
"Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you." - Maori ProverbBut while the history of Eostre/Ostara may be sketchy, the long spiritual pedigree of the Vernal Equinox is not. This is a significant celestial event - the point of balance between night and day - and peoples around the world have marked it in stone.
The ancient passage tomb at Knowth in County Meath, Ireland is lit by the rising sun on the Vernal Equinox, as is its contemporary, labeled "Cairn T", at nearby Loughcrew. Stongehenge, of course, includes alignments with the Equinox. The Great Sphinx at Giza faces directly toward the Equinoctorial sunrise. At the great temple complex of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, the sun rises over the central tower on the Vernal Equinox - the New Year for the Khmers that built it.
At the Chaco Canyon site in New Mexico, the Equinox sun rises and sets in aligment with a specially marked wall of the Pueblo Bonito. Solstice alignments are to be found at nearby Fajada Butte, as well. The Mayan temples of Tika, in Guatamala, and Dzibilchaltún ("Temple of Seven Dolls") in Yucatan align with the rising sun, while at the the pyramid of Kukulcan, in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, the rising Equinox sun creates an undulating pattern of light, like a serpent, moving down the temple.
"Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!" - Sitting BullBut the Equinox was more than just special mark on the celestial calendar - it has been seen in many places as the true start of Spring (and sometimes the New Year), while in others it was a special time for connecting with the Dead or with the "Other".
The feast of Shamo ("renewal of life") was celebrated in Egypt from the end of the 3rd Dynasty. The festival endures to this day, through faulty translation, as Sham el-Nessim ("breathing the wind"). Traditional foods for Shamo included colored boiled eggs, which were also hung in temples as symbols of regeneration - a tradition which, by a meandering path, has survived in Western culture's Easter celebrations.
The Vernal Equinox was also Nowruz, an ancient Persian that stretches back into Zoroastrian times. Marked today with feasts and fires, Nowruz ("New Day"), is believed to be the day the Universe began its motion. The Vernal Equinox is also the date of Shunki kōreisai in Japan, a Shinto festival to bring a good harvest. A Scandinavian Dísablót was held on the Equinox for the same purpose.
"Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in Springtime." - Martin LutherAs Spring is a time of rebirth for the world, and the Vernal Equinox has always been a time for the honoring of gods in the life-death-rebirth cycle. Shamo dovetailed with a celebration of Isis, the mother-goddess who gave birth to Horus. Romans celebrated the Hilaria, a festival in honor of their own mother-goddess Cybele, whose grandson/lover Attis died and was resurrected.
For the Babylonians, the Equinox was the resurrection of Tammuz, god of vegetation (and likely forerunner of Attis and the Greek Adonis, who have similar resurrection myths). The Equinox was also the celebration of the Aztec god Xipe Totec, a god of agriculture, who flayed off his own skin to feed mankind and was reborn as a golden being. Christianity, of course, has preserved the Equinox celebration with its Easter celebration, timing it to the Sunday following the first full moon after the Equinox.
"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." - Charles DickensThe Equinox is a time of light and dark, the point of transition from past to future, Winter to Spring. It's when we look forward to what the new year will bring. The darkness may still cling to us, but today we step into the light.
So today, take a moment to feel the arrival of Spring. Take a moment to feel the rebirth of the world. Then, take a moment to feel the rebirth of you. This is the start of Spring, the start of a new cycle - the first day of the rest of your life.
What will you do with it?