Many modern Pagans celebrate the Spring Equinox (March 19 this year) as Ostara, one of the eight sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. Unlike some Pagan holidays with well-documented ancient precursors, Ostara is entirely or perhaps mostly a modern invention. The ancient English chronicler, the Venerable Bede, wrote that the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of March, eostur-monath (which lent its name to the Christian holy day of Easter in English), was derived from the name of a dawn goddess, Eostre. There is no other evidence of this goddess, and we know of no celebrations associated with her. As an educated cleric, Bede may have been inferring a relationship between the word eostur and the Greek Eos, goddess of the dawn.
Jacob Grimm took up this remark of Bede, taking the German name for the month, Ostara, as the name of a Germanic fertility goddess. The Icelandic sagas, our primary source for Germanic paganism, make no mention of such a goddess.
There is also no record of the spring equinox being observed by ancient pagans in northern Europe. Beltane, or May Day, at the beginning of May, was the primary celebration of spring. Finding the precise day of the equinox, without modern timekeeping instruments, is actually quite difficult. Early Pagans instead celebrated when the weather was warm and spring was in full bloom, which happens considerably later in northern Europe.
Nonetheless, many of the symbolic elements associated with the spring equinox (eggs, rabbits, flowers) reflect an association of this season with rebirth, which may be quite ancient. It is no wonder, in fact, that the Christian celebration of the resurrection comes at this time of the year. It is a variation on an ancient theme, that of a fertility deity who dies and is reborn each spring. Like much of our culture, it goes back to ancient Sumer, where the role of the dying and resurrecting god was taken up by Dumuzi, consort of the goddess Inanna.
We often hear the equinox described as a time of balance, because the days and nights are of equal length. Balance does not seem an apt description to me, though, since it implies a kind of motionlessness. This is actually the time of the most rapid change in the length of the days. Rather than resting serenely at a balance point, the Earth is actually plummeting headlong into light and warmth.
That’s something worth celebrating!