alaric albertsson, backyard chickens, bee keeping, divination, eggs, Eostre, Ostara, pagan books, read along, to walk a pagan path
Welcome back to the Read Along of To Walk a Pagan Path by Albert Albertsson–Catch up here with Chapter 1 (part 1), Chapter 1 (part 2), Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 5 (I’m still skipping Chapter 4 for now), and Chapter 6. Today’s commentary will be for Chapter 7, “The Birds and the Bees”.
This holiday is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In Latin it is called Pascha, the French call it Paques, the Spanish say Paschal, and the Swedes say Pask. The only two languages that have preserved the name of the goddess who was once praised and honored in mid-spring are German, which names this holiday Ostern, and and the English language, where it is known as Easter.
Very little solid information about the goddess Eastre (or Eostre) has survived. Her name is cognate with our word east, and so we can surmise that she is a goddess of the Dawn and, because of her feast date, of the spring–a goddess of beginnings. Her moon marked the beginning of Eostre’s month, which later became to be known by its Roman name, April. In the pre-Christian era, Eostre’s feast was one of the three great festivals of the Germanic world.
Now, I’ve not read A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick (the book that the author references for at least the last portion of the above quote), but I’ve read enough in my 20+ years as a Pagan to have some doubts about Albertsson’s choice of openings to this chapter. Of all the Wheel of the Year holidays, Eostre is the one whose provenance has always been a bit thin:
Our sole authority for Eostre is Bede, who says that she was the Anglo-Saxon goddess after whom the month of April is named. He did not associate her with hares, and modern scholarship finds her name cognate with many Indo-European words for dawn, which presents a high possibility that she was a dawn-goddess, and so April as the Eostre-month was the month of opening a new beginning which makes sense in a North German climate.
So, we have a holiday whose first historical written reference is by the Venerable Bede in his 8th century De ratione temporum, later followed by some commentary by Joseph Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie from the 19th century–these two bits of source material seem to the reference material for all modern claims of the goddess Eostre. We also have a preponderance of folk-festivals and custom involving bunnies, eggs, and other spring things. And last, but certainly not least, there’s the proposed proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word (a reconstruction of a theorized goddess name), Hausos (also *h₂ewsṓs, Aeusos, or Xáusṓs). My problem with this introduction to the chapter is my problem with how this holiday is generally addressed among Pagans–as fact.
There may have been a goddess of the dawn named Eostre that was largely lost to time (I find this odd, when so much of Germanic myth was preserved) but can still be found through the tracing of linguistic evidence back to the cultural group from which most Pagan religions descend. There were definitely a number of springtime festivals throughout Pagan Europe, and bunnies and eggs certainly play a role in the symbols and customs of a number of European folk traditions that undoubtedly have Pagan roots. And, most certainly, the Eostre-as-goddess idea is true by simple fact that itis what (most) Pagans celebrate–its what we do, what we believe, etc. My objection to it is treating it as historical fact when, in fact, we don’t know that it is historical fact. We hope it might be, we believe it might be, and we think we have evidence that supports it…but there are other plausible, evidenced (and more parsimonious) hypotheses out there*.
The problem is this–when one belongs to a tradition that has often used inaccurate or outright manufactured claims for as a bid for legitimacy, I think its fairly safe to say that one loses their credibility. This, like many things in Paganism, becomes a conflict over authenticity vs. validity. We like the idea of Eostre, Goddess of Spring, because she “fits” our narrative–but what we “know” of her (everything but her possible name) as been our creation to fill avoid in that narrative. Since this is a topic I’ve already broached, I’ll leave my criticism with one last general thought, as it has effectively become longer than the two paragraphs it is addressing: Validity without historical authenticity is better than validity with false historical authenticity; with the former, you at least keep the validity…and with the latter, you have neither.
Then came spring’s promise. First came the lambing season, which meant fresh milk as the ewes began to lactate. And by this time, the chickens were produing more than an occasional egg…
…For early Pagan people, the spring eggs were life; they were much-needed sustenance and nourishment after the hardship of winter.
Albertsson continues to draw upon other commonalities and to discuss spring (and the symbols of spring) as a gateway to discuss additional customs, rituals, and activities to incorporate an observation of the seasons and a more natural way of living (the *actual* point of this book anyhow). Among these topics, he addresses the following (not necessarily in order):
- Natural Egg Dying–Of all his suggestions this one (and egg divination) are probably the easiest for people in a variety of living situations. There are actually a number of ways to dye eggs (if you Goggle “natural egg dying” everyone from Better Homes and Gardens and Martha Stewart to CrunchyMomBlog (I’m making this one up as a summary of every “natural” parenting blog ever) has a website about it. Basically, simmer any colored plant matter til it turns a few shades darker than you want your eggs, toss in a tablespoon of vinegar per cup of dye, and then soak the eggs in the cooled dye til they reach the preferred color. You can rub some oil onto the eggs to deepen the color and make them shiney. Albertsson suggests a slightly different method of boiling the eggs and the ingredient for coloring at the same time…but its been my experience dying other things (like cloth and yarn) that sometimes it takes longer than the length of time required to boil eggs to get the desired shade.
- Keeping Chickens–I’m a huge fan of keeping chickens. I know a number of people that do, I love fresh eggs, and when I eventually have a yard, I’m totally down with this. As an apartment dweller, its just not practical. With that being said, if keeping chickens is something you want to do, there are some excellent print and online resources. Albertsson’s synopsis of chicken-keeping is an excellent overview to introduce someone that is unsure or has never thought about it to the idea. For more information (if its something that interests you) I would recommend starting with BackyardChickens.com’s forums, which are full of helpful individuals and some good resource lists (I’ve been lurking there for years). If you want to keep chickens, the big things that I’ve learned that you need to consider are 1) local ordinances, 2) breeds suitable to your climate, 3) suitable habitat for your chickens (you’re gonna need a coop, a place to put it, and a way to keep them safe from whatever your predators are–for me, that’s hawks, eagles, osprey, gators, foxes, snakes, coyotes…also, I like the idea of a mobile coop), and 4) the time to properly research their needs and care for them appropriately. Most of what Albertsson says here is a summary of what you can find more fully developed elsewhere. The biggest novel idea that he presents here is in using magic and ritual to bless and protect your coop and/or flock.
- Egg Divination–“With your own eggs, you can practice one of the oldest forms of divination. It is a practice known variously as oomantia, ovamancy, oloscopy, or oomancy…” Basically, egg divination involved hot water, and cracking one of your freshly laid backyard chicken eggs (just the white) into the hot (not boiling water) and interpreting the shapes it creates (not unlike reading tea leaves). Albertsson is quite adamant about this only being *truly* significant if its a nice fresh egg out from under your own chiken, and not from the grocery store. Personally, I’d hate to waste good fresh eggs like that (they are SO much tastier than store eggs)…unless I was doing oomancy while making egg drop soup.
- Bee Keeping–Albertson recommends bee keeping for honey, beeswax (good for candles, salves, etc), a way of being part of the Earth’s cycles, supporting pollination, and for pure entertainment (also as a social topic of interest). He talks a little bit about bees (from human history to bee behavior), of keeping bees (taking bee keeping classes, hive maintenance), and “making it Pagan” (deities amenable to bee-oriented magic). He also mentions that even if you aren’t going to keep bees yourself, you should plant with a mind to the bees. And this is true–bees are immensely important to our way of life, to our agriculture…and they are in trouble from that same way of life (CCD, or colony collapse disorder, is a terribly threat to honey bees, with a complex etiology). But it is important to remember, whether you keep honeybees or not, that there are other pollinators–pollinators that are actually native to our ecosystems (unless you are reading this from Europe, honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not a native species), that you should also be planting for and can also make homes and shelter for. Native bees may not make honey, but they are still important!
Next time, Chapter 8: Making Food.
* I’m quoting Wiki here only because it has the most complete explanation that I’ve been able to find outside of a book (and yes, its footnoted):
In 1959, Johann Knobloch proposed a different etymology. Writing of “the relationship between dawn and springtime, between night – or early morning – and daybreak in the Christian Eastern rituals of the East and the West”, he proposed that the Old High German name for the feast, Ōst(a)rūn, as a Gallo-Frankish coinage, drawn from Latinalbae in the designation of Easter Week as hebdomada in albis and in the phrase albae (paschales). The Germanic word is connected with an Indoeuropean word for the dawn (uşás-, Avestan ušab-, Greek ἠώς, Latin aurora, Lithuanian aušrà, Latvian àustra, Old Church Slavonic za ustra), and Knobloch links this derivation with the word albae in the phrases in Church Latin, with which are associated the French and Italian words for the dawn, and connected it with the dawn service of the Easter Vigil in which those to be baptized faced east when pronouncing their profession of faith. Jürgen Udolph, himself a proponent of a different view, says that, although the theory that the words “Easter” and “Ostern” come from the name of a Germanic goddess reconstructed by Jacob Grimm as Ostara is the most widespread at a popular level, Knobloch’s proposal enjoys most support.