Twice each year, as the sun traverses across the sky crossing the Earth’s equator resulting in a celestial alignment we call the Equinox – a day with light and dark of nearly equal length. In the prevailing over-culture the Sunday following the ecclesiastical full moon after the northern Vernal Equinox has been used since medieval times to calculate the date of the celebration of Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus and bringing conclusion to the forty day period of penance and fasting which symbolically marks the biblical account of Christ’s temptation found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For those who fall outside the Christian over-culture, today also marks Eostre – one of the four cardinal festivals in the Wiccan-derived Wheel of the Year and a strange syncretism of a syncretism of many other minor syncretisms.
Apocryphally Eostre derives from a Germanic goddess celebration attested only by the seventh century English monk Bede and further fleshed out by the nineteenth century linguist and folklorist Jakob Grimm. Whether or not there was a goddess called Ostara as supposed is up to debate, especially since pre-Christian polytheism was anything but universal and based more in smaller regional cult practices only rarely intersecting with other cultic practices except where cultural cross-pollination happens. Drawing on Frazer, this holiday is often connected to a sort of mono-myth theme of death and resurrection that, while problematic, is convenient for those of us who have apostatized and still hold onto the memories of a golden, youthful time that may or may not have existed to begin with.
Stripped of symbol, we’re left with a celebration of youth: an observation of the heat of the Earth giving rise to plant life, the start of the human and non-human animal mating season, and the return of light causing the specter of seasonal deprivation of pleasure-giving fat-soluble secosteroids responsible for increasing intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphates. The cult of youth is an old one. There’s a paradox here and useful for meditating on the symbolism of this celebration, especially since it is directly related to the sexual theme of this day. When I say “sexual” I’m not referring to the physical act explicitly – though it’s implied – rather the acknowledgement of vitality and finding ways to generate and transmit knowledge across culture and time.
In one of the traditions of which I’m part, we celebrate this festival with the acknowledgement of the archetypal “corn maiden” of which Frazer writes in his Golden Bough:
“[The] corn-spirit is personified in double form as male and female. But sometimes the spirit appears in a double female form as both old and young, corresponding exactly to the Greek Demeter and Persephone, if my interpretation of these goddesses is right… Amongst the marks of a primitive ritual we may note the following: 1. No special class of persons is set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no priests. The rites may be performed by any one, as occasion demands. 2. No special places are set apart for the performance of the rites; in other words, there are no temples. The rites may be performed anywhere, as occasion demands. 3. Spirits, not gods, are recognised. (a) As distinguished from gods, spirits are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature. Their names are general, not proper. Their attributes are generic, rather than individual; in other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are all much alike; they have no definitely marked individuality; no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life, adventures, and character. (b) On the other hand gods, as distinguished from spirits, are not restricted to definite departments of nature. It is true that there is generally some one department over which they preside as their special province; but they are not rigorously confined to it; they can exert their power for good or evil in many other spheres of nature and life.”
Far from the infantilization or sexual fetishism of the maiden, she is viewed as most sovereign and coming into her own power. This, I find, is an important twist on the fertility narrative as in this tradition it’s about power and agency. It’s about the power of youth and wisdom of basic human goodness and the process of sharing this fierce power across time and space with a kind of cautious vulnerability. It’s purgative as we realize that we ourselves are sovereign and whole – something at which our culture seems to be at odds – and learn to share our power and goodness and allow it to be planted and grown in others. It’s ecstatic, a realization that through sharing this power it only grows and is not diminished and is out of the control of even the gods themselves.
In a twist on the themes of the prevailing mythic narrative of this time, it’s also a time of sacrifice – sacrificing that which we’ve held onto in the past as once useful and casting it into the furrows of the field. Symbolically this is done with the last sheaves of wheat from the last harvest, but here it can be the experiences we carry that no longer serve us, the traumas with which we’ve defined our lives, the rituals and gods that now hold us back from full expression. It’s harrowing – it is Hell – to let go of these things, but willingly sacrificing them upon the altars of ourselves we own our own power over the narratives of our lives and are able to find our salvation and joys in this life, on earth, here and now.