the wheel of the year, part 5: ostara

in the spirit of moveable feasts, here is my ostara post….very late.   the only problem with this, of course, is that while easter, ostara’s namesake, is indeed a moveable feast, the spring equinox (ostara’s current date) pretty much stays put 🙂 i  dropped the ball on this one folks!  —but as always, there are reasons for this, and i plan on tucking those reasons handily into my exploration of the nature of the holiday.

the goddess ostara

ostara’s history isn’t as neat and tidy as that of some of the other holidays that i’ve explored so far.  all of the information that we have about the anglo-saxon holiday (spelled eostre) comes from the writings of bede, a 7th century northumbrian monk and scholar who first recorded a great deal of early britain’s history—especially its ecclesiastical history.  according to bede, the pre-christianized anglo-saxon calendar included a month called eostur-monath, so named as it was a time of reverence for the goddess eostre.  there is much debate as to whether eostre was a fertility goddess or a dawn goddess (or a figment of bede’s imagination), but etymologically, her name is related to a proto-indo-european linguistic root common in words meaning “to shine.”

at the period in time in which bede was writing, however, eostur-monath had already been taken over by the “paschal month”—-the time of passover—in the minds and hearts of the people, and although thematically similar, the resurrection of christ had already trumped the coming of the dawn and the emergence of new life in spring as the main symbol of the season.

ostara calendar page

as i mentioned earlier, though ostara (whose anglicized name was actually the invention of a grimm brother) was once the entirety of the month of april (roughly), it has, through the neopagan movement, been pinned down to one day in particular—- it is the spring equinox.  ostara always sneaks up on me because i still associate it very deeply with easter, and that date is wildly variant.   the formula for finding the date of easter is so complicated that one website offers an “easter algorithm computer program” for those interested in future dates, and another offers an “easy way” to calculate the dates that includes three mathematical steps which reference no less than five alphanumeric charts.  i think i’ll stick to checking my datebook, thanks!

the spring (or “vernal”) equinox is easy enough though—it is the day when the earth’s axis is neither pointing towards nor away from the sun, giving equal amounts of light and dark.  you can test this equilibrium by standing an egg on its end on any flat surface—because the earth isn’t tilted, the egg will stand straight. if you think about the year as a circle, or more specifically as the face of a clock, the equinoxes (fall and spring) fall at :15 and :45, while the solstices (winter and summer) stand at :00 and :30.

speaking for my local region only, the spring equinox roughly correlates to the first massive bloom-fest of the year (much to the chagrin of allergy sufferers). unless it’s a particularly cold year, the spring equinox is one of those days where you wake up and say “oh, everything grew leaves overnight!”  it’s the time in the south when the world is painted a fresh spring green—not nearly the deep blue-green of lush early summer vegetation, but a distinct change from the bare brown branches of winter.  where i live, cherry blossoms, dogwoods, and azaleas paint the yellow-green landscape with a healthy smattering of white and pink. (and our cars are painted with a healthy smattering of pollen and sap—or “tree spoo” at it’s lovingly called around campus).  fields are blanketed with bright purple henbit and dotted with sunny dandelions—-wildflowers abound.

henbit---a common yard weed that's great in salads!

ostara, which usually falls around march 20 or 21, is a time of renewal and rebirth. in the christian tradition, the time is marked by the death and rebirth of christ, and thus the dawn of a new era for mankind.  in anglo-saxon and in modern pagan traditions, it’s the point on the wheel of the year that marks the earth’s transition into a time of fertility, transformation, and rebirth—it’s the time of rising sap, when the energy stored so long in the roots of plants once more moves up and out, transforming a nutritional storehouse of starches into energy-catching leaves and vibrant eye-catching flowers.

big, juicy carpenter bees (the embodiment of physics defied) hum in the trees and deer scamper along nighttime roadsides, signfiying that, day and night, the earth is hard at work coming to life.  but of course the real animal stars here  are the iconic bunnies.  rabbits, understandably enough, have always been associated with fertility.  ever heard the phrase “mad as a March hare”?  in the early spring, male rabbits become so….in the words of bambi…. twitterpated that they can seem almost mad—dancing around and strutting their bunny stuff for females.  the females, not to be outdone in their association with fertility, are actually capable of superfetation, a phenomenon in which an animal can become pregnant while already pregnant.  so before round one is finished, little bunny uteruses can actually start working overtime and cooking up round two (thank goddess we’re not rabbits, although once in a blue moon this does happen to human women).

while the association between rabbits and the spring sprang from classical and pagan religions, the icon hasn’t relinquished its hold on our imaginations.  every year, the easter bunny visits even the devoutest of christian households, leaving candy and sometimes presents in a basket of grass. (listen to this bit from comedian bill hicks for a hilarious analysis of this tradition.  language warning!)

ok, so maybe it seems totally unrelated to the christian celebration of easter, but you have to admit that the themes of fecundity and birth as captured by bunnies and eggs (also symbols in classical and pagan rites of spring) are at least loosely related to the theme of resurrection and life everlasting—-at least they’re more closely related than goldfish and lincoln logs…work with me here!  as for the chocolate and candy, i can’t imagine that americans need much of an excuse to throw that in!

a 1907 easter postcard

so ostara, in any and all of its incarnations, is fundamentally about the manifestation of the continuation of life.  at imbolc, we hoped beyond hope that life would return, and as we make our way around the wheel, we see that it has.  our ancestors would have enjoyed melting snows, which meant exposure of ground for planting, and warmer weather, which meant both the opportunity to safely leave shelter and an abundance of plant shoots rich in precious vitamin c and flavonoids.  they would have watched the local flora bloom, promising the return of vibrant life and abundant sustenance.

as usual, i like to think about what, in a world where grocery stores and amazon.com mean instant gratification no matter the season, spring and ostara might symbolize in my life.  to me, ostara marks a time to stop planning and start doing.  it’s a time when the warm weather stirs our bodies and minds into activity, asking us to shake off the dust that’s accumulated over the long, hard, introspective winter.  we no longer have to worry ourselves with the “hows” and “what ifs”; rather, we can begin to bring to life the plans that we’ve been brewing.

my facial cleanser! 🙂

for me, this meant launching a very small-scale natural body care line.  everything’s made by me, by hand, on demand, and i choose the best ingredients around.  i’d been toying with the idea over the winter (the first trial run was a set of christmas gifts for the family) and i had made numerous promises to myself about when i’d get some sort of (semi)formal operation up and running.  i tried january….nope.  i tried february….nope.   march? uh-uh.  for some reason, everything needed to wait.  i was jumping the gun and putting unnecessary pressure on myself.  i finally decided that the best thing to do was to set a date of april 1 for my artfire store opening—and that was the ticket!  around the time that the trees started to rain sap down on the world, spawning their offsping, i decided it was time to spawn my store (and let me tell you, with all the honey and coconut oil i use, it’s been just as sticky!).  for everything, there is a season.

mother and son

even more so than the theme of manifestation, though, the darker side of ostara has weighed heavily upon me this year.  admidst all of the birth and rebirth, amidst all of the formation and transformation, has been a great deal of pain, reminding me that transitions are not always easy.  we tend to focus on the rebirth aspect of easter, but what about all of the suffering that christ had to endure before his death?  put yourself in the position of mary, his mother, sitting at the foot of the cross, paying witness to the utter deconstruction of her own flesh and blood.  or for a more earth-based example, think of the laboring woman.  we all ooh and ahh over chubby pink babies, but how much transformative pain did that mother have to endure to bring about the wonderful end result?

"my daddy donates big bucks---i OWN this class lady! now give me my A!!

long story short, don’t think for one moment that your life is falling to pieces if it’s hard work bringing new things into being.  don’t lose hope!  in my case, i’m in my last semester of college teaching before my move to maine for midwifery school.  what should be a wonderful final opportunity to savor the joys of teaching has turned nightmarish to say the least.  i find myself powerless against a manipulative student who is “working the system,” so to say, and who will be ushered through yet another semester of class-unattended.  i have a class of 20 students where the average attendance is 12, meaning that each day is an endless sequence of questions that i’ve answered a thousand times before.  in this college class i have a discipline problem you’d expect out of fifth graders, and for the first time ever, i have ONE “a” student—-just one.

add to this the facts that a) i’ve had to pick up a second job working with elementary school students (who i love!!) just to pay the bills, b) i sit up late at night every night grading and lesson planning for students who can’t even be bothered to come to class or behave, c) i’ve had a gruesome upper respiratory infection for weeks (or months?) because i’m not used to working with the little ‘uns, and d) i’ve not had the time or energy to blog in a month, and you have someone who is screaming—-

blaaaaaaaaarg!

OOOOOOKAAAAAAY!!! I GET IT!!!  THIS IS WHY I’M LEAVING COLLEGE TEACHING!!! ENOUGH ALREADY, UNIVERSE!!!

i don’t need another bit of validation in my choice of career change, but i seem to keep getting it anyway.  mom reminds me that when i feel overwhelmed in my work as a midwife, i’ll need this kick-in-the-pants to look back on, so that i will remember why i left.  i know she’s right, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck!  my husband is going through the same thing in his final semester of college (while working a job that eats days whole)—the shear idiocy he encounters on a day to day basis, combined with the red-tape-covered hoops that he has to jump through, makes not succumbing to “senioritis” a full-time job.

nevertheless, my transformation from southern college teacher into northern midwife is underway, as is my husband’s from mail carrier to history teacher extraordinaire.  it feels like taking months and months to tear out of a cocoon—so much effort, but worth it in the end.  when i pull myself out of the depths of despair and look at the big picture, i am heartened.  in my end is my beginning (and oddly enough, i’m teaching t. s. eliot tomorrow!).

every time a seed blows off of a dandelion and roots itself into your yard, mother nature goes "HA, HA!" in the voice of nelson from the simpsons

so moving forward with your own year, focus on those things what need doin’.  drink more water, plant something, clean your house, and dust off that old project you laid down last fall—-or start a new one.  get active!  one of the things that has really helped me through my trials has been walking at a local river-side park.  although the park is to a great extent landscaped, medicinal herbs are popping up like crazy.  nothing helps you forget crummy students like walking down a path, sun peeking through the trees, water lapping against the shore, and noticing the uncontrollable life that abounds in the spring.  mow the dandelions back and the very next day, like a big, yellow middle finger to your cultivation efforts, it’s back.

despite possible growing pains, you just can’t be blue, stagnant, or exasperated when the sap rises and ostara blooms into being.

blessings!

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