I’ve spent six months now actively pursuing a reconstructionist-style paganism, and it’s been both interesting and enlightening. I did it because I’ve always felt strong ties to my Scandinavian heritage, I love history and research, and I was growing a little tired of wandering through general paganism (not that there’s anything wrong with doing that, I just felt the need for something more specific).
For those unfamiliar with reconstructionist paganism, it’s based on the idea that pre-Conversion faiths have merit. For example, the belief that Native American faiths are/were just as valid as the Catholic faith the missionaries attempted to convert the American natives to could start someone on a path of pursuing a reconstructed, say, Inca faith. Reconstructionists strive to understand and recreate the religious workings of a particular culture whose faith was, through ways fair or foul, changed. We gather information using first and second hand accounts and the latest archaeological evidence, and then implement as best we can (taking into account modern lifestyles, of course!). It takes a lot of reading, a lot of research, a lot of analysis, and then, just like any other belief system, it requires a leap of faith that the way you’re putting your homework together will resonate with the divine.
So far, I love it. For me it brings a closeness with a part of my history that resonates very deeply. Plus, the values of the Teutons (Germanic and Nordic peoples), like loyalty, honesty, courage, and self reliance,* are ideals I already held dear, but challenge me to grow as a person (kindness and hope come more naturally to me than courage and diligence). It’s also interesting to discover commonalities across ancient faiths world-wide, from the Americas to Europe to Asia, but that’s another post!
On the other hand, resurrecting a faith that’s been dormant for centuries has its challenges, and the holiday of Ostara is a perfect example of this.
Ostara is one of two holidays Wicca (which is not reconstructionist) borrows from heathenry (Yule is the other one). If you do a cursory search on the ‘net it’s easy to find information on the spring equinox celebration of Eostre (in Anglo-Saxon, called Ostara in German), shining goddess of the East whose symbols are the egg and the hare and from whom we get the name of the Christian holiday Easter.
Except… there’s very little evidence this holiday was celebrated in ancient times, and even less that a goddess called Eostre was worshipped. In fact, the entire modern holiday is based on one attestation in one source, Medieval historian Venerable Bede’s De temporum ratione, a book he wrote about the Anglo-Saxon heathen’s calendar system.**
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. 1
Unlike Yule, which has many references throughout what modern heathens call “The Lore,” nobody else in any history from the time period mentions Ostara/Eostre. There is mention in Snorri’s Heimskringla of a “summer/spring” feast in Norway:
…in the interior of the Throndhjem land almost all the people are heathen in faith, although some of them are baptized. It is their custom to offer sacrifice in autumn for a good winter, a second at mid-winter, and a third in summer. In this the people of Eyna, Sparby, Veradal, and Skaun partake. There are twelve men who preside over these sacrifice-feasts; and in spring it is Olver who has to get the feast in order, and he is now busy transporting to Maerin everything needful for it. 2
The Teutonic people only recognized two seasons, summer and winter (kinda like in Texas we only have two seasons: summer and not quite summer). Winter started in late September and summer started in March/April, so it’s possible this passage is referring to an Ostara-time-frame celebration (though Bede implies it would occur in April, not at the equinox, and the passage from Snorri is set “after Easter” which would also mean after the equinox). But above and beyond that, agricultural societies built their holidays around the changing seasons (plus it’s fracking cold in Scandinavia), so it’s more than reasonable to assume they did in fact have a “welcome back summer” holiday. And Bede called it Eostre. And in the end, reconstructionism is about gathering as many facts as you can and then forming a logical conclusion (until new facts come to light!).
It’s an interesting thing being a part of a group that’s trying to, quite literally, bring the dead to life. Most reconstructionists I know realize we’re never going to get it “right” – but we also know there is no such thing as a static faith. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism – no faith is the same now as it was 1,000 years ago, and this is a good thing. Humanity continues to change its understanding of the universe, and we the faithful need to shift with it. But for us reconstructionists, learning from the past is an important part of making sense of the present.
For our part, the Pagan Princesses will observe a reconstructed Ostara, and we will greet the spring with a feast!
* This isn’t to say other religions don’t recognize these values as well, but each religion does have their “focus values,” the ones they hold “more dear” than others. For example, traditional Christianity has the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity and the Seven Heavenly Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Whereas the Nine Noble Virtues of modern Ásatrú are typically recognized as courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. It’s not that Ásatrú doesn’t recognize charity and kindness as good things, or that Christianity doesn’t recognize courage and self reliance as good things, but the stories each faith tells are weighed more heavily towards their core virtues. Another way of looking at it… Most Christians I know don’t consider hospitality towards guests as a religious duty but as a socially conscious value. Whereas for heathens, it’s a religious imperative. On the other hand, most pagans I know see temperance as a healthier lifestyle, but we don’t think it’s a “sin”to be intemperate or believe the gods care about our indulgences or lack thereof like Christians (traditionally) do.
** Heathenry, the paganism that worshipped Odin, Thor, Freyja, etc., at one time stretched from Eastern Europe to France, and from Northern Italy to Scandinavia, as well as parts of England (and there’s some evidence it was practiced in parts of Ireland). Bede is specifically writing about Anglo-Saxon, or southern English, heathenry, as that’s where he was from.
1 Bede, The reckoning of time, tr. Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.54
2 Snorri Sturlason, Heimskringla, tr. ? Gutenberg Press, King Olaf Haraldson’s Saga, Chapter 115