After several years of excellent research by Adrian Bott, we now know the following things. Spring Equinox was not actually celebrated by ancient pagans in the British Isles; nor was it a fertility festival. There was probably a festival at the fourth full moon of the year, at which cattle were sacrificed. Eostre was most probably a goddess local to Kent, although her name is cognate with various other goddesses of dawn and light, such as Austriahenea and Ausrine.
Various animals are associated with the festival of Easter in folklore (none of them are associated with the goddess Eostre): the Easter Hare, the Easter Fox, the Easter Stork, and the Easter Cuckoo, all of which bring eggs. None of them are particularly cute and fluffy, so didn’t work too well on Easter greetings cards, unlike chicks and bunnies. And none of them are fertility symbols.
So where does that leave contemporary Pagans who want to celebrate the Spring Equinox? Well, you could continue with the modern symbolism of Eostre (just don’t tell people that it’s ancient, because it isn’t), or you could go back to the Anglo-Saxon practice of eating roast beef or lamb (or substitute a feast of nut-roast, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan). You could celebrate the Roman festival of Hilaria. Or you could draw on the astronomical fact of day and night being equal.
There are also frequently high tides at the spring equinox, which gives rise to the fascinating phenomenon of the Severn Bore, so you could inject some much-needed sea mythology and symbolism into contemporary Pagan ritual. It could be a time to honour Njörðr, or Rán and Ægir.
It also occurs to me to wonder when the sacred cart of Nerthus set forth on its annual journey from the sacred island to bless the land – wouldn’t this have taken place in Spring, when the crops are coming up? A similar custom was practised for Freyr.It is all too tempting to claim that the Christians stole, or overwrote, the ancient pagan festivals, but the story is much more complicated than that, as ancient pagan religions didn’t all celebrate the same festivals, and there was no festival of the Spring Equinox, and it was not associated with eggs and bunnies. The most similar ancient pagan festival to Easter seems to be Hilaria, which celebrated the dying and resurrecting god Attis. I will continue to enjoy my chocolate Easter egg, of course, but I like the idea that it was brought by the Easter Fox.
I’ll leave the last word to Adrian Bott, who has become an essential part of the Pagan Eastertide:
“I think we have to reaffirm the importance of the local, the personal, the particular. Don’t just accept the stories you’re told uncritically and circulate them. Embrace the uncertainty and tell your own stories. I have no interest in the rosy-cheeked smiling flowers-and-ribbons choccy-box Eostre with basket of decorated eggs and fluffy rabbit that you see all over the place on the pagan Internet.
“But a wild-eyed Eostre, a survivor, young and rangy and half-starved from winter, clawing her way up a barren mountainside with her fox at her heels towards a blood-red Spring dawn, grinning in triumph, alive, unbroken, unbreakable? I’ll drink to her any day.”
- Adrian Bott (2009), Eostre: the making of a myth (part 1)
- Adrian Bott (2010), Eostre: the making of a myth (part 2)
- Adrian Bott (2011), The modern myth of the Easter bunny. The Guardian.
- Adrian Bott (2013), Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
- Adrian Bott (2013), No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.
- Adrian Bott (2014), Eostre, Ostara, and the Easter Fox
- Yvonne Aburrow (2015), Move over Easter Bunny, here comes the Easter Fox (interview with Adrian Bott)
- Adrian Bott (2015), On what we mean when we say ‘pagan fertility symbols’
- Adrian Bott (2015), Figuring out when Eostre’s feast days really took place
- Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons (Studies in Early Medieval History)
- Adrian Bott (2016), The Case for Eostre, Part 1: The Eostur Sacrifice
- Adrian Bott (2016), The Case for Eostre, Part 2: Bede Revisited
- Adrian Bott (2016), The Case for Eostre, Part 3: Meanwhile, Six Thousand Years Ago…
- Karen Jolly, Father God and Mother Earth: Nature Mysticism in the Anglo-Saxon World (PDF) – text of the Aecerbot Charm.