The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Saturday, 30 March 2013
Eostre: the lady, the hare and fertility
Easter is, of course, like so many of the Christian festivals, set very close to one of the major turning points of the earth, in this case the vernal equinox (the spring point at which day and night are exactly balanced in length).
Despite the fact that it's associated here with the death and rebirth of the Christ, it is still also a 'feminine' festival – a celebration of fertility, fecundity and new growth; it's easy to see that, given its original name 'Eostre', which the Venerable Bede tells us was the name of the Teutonic dawn goddess, the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon peoples, and from which of course we derive the name for the female hormone, oestrogen.
Variants on her name were Ostern, Eostra, Eostur, Ostare, Ostara, Austron. (It's easy to see here too the connection with the word 'east', being the direction of the rising sun and traditionally the direction of birth and rebirth, where west is the direction associated with death and dissolution.)
In the pagan Mediterranean spring celebrations, other Goddesses with similar roles were seen as epitomising the heart of this fertile time: Astarte (ancient Greece), Ishtar from Assyria, and Astoreth from ancient Israel clearly have resonances in their nomenclature. Demeter, Aphrodite and Kali all have connections, too, with this spring festival and its fertility (and in the case of Kali, at least, the death is intimately connected with rebirth, just as loss to the Underworld of her daughter Persephone, 'reborn' into the upper world at springtime, is intrinsic to the myth of Demeter).
Interestingly, too, the Phrygian fertility Goddess, Cybele, had a consort, Attis, born apparently of a virgin, like Jesus, at the time of year of the vernal equinox.
In Religions of the World, Gerald L Berry tells us about the mystery cults that sprang up in Rome in about 200 B.C., 'just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill... Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection.'
We can see a connection here with the fatally wounded Christ on the Cross on Good Friday being tended by his mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene, his consort/lover, and who then is resurrected on the third day, and Isis, who literally re-membered her broken lover Osiris so that he might be reborn. The great Mother Goddess of Celtic tradition, Ceridwen, had her Cauldron of Rebirth (a precursor of the Grail) in which dead and dismembered warriors would be re-membered and reborn.
Jessica Weston's important book on vegetation/fertility rites, From Ritual to Romance*, in which she explores the fertility rites that underpin the Gnostic roots of the Grail legends, reminds us that the Christ figure is a recurring archetypal motif. Weston 'unites the quest for fertility with the striving for mystical oneness with God'.
All of this is linked with the inexorability of the cycles of birth, growth, fullness, decline, death, decay – and then rebirth. ('Wyrd bid ful araed', chips in TM helpfully at this point: 'Fate is inexorable'.)
As for the association of eggs with Easter, their resonances with fertility and the burgeoning of new life are obvious.
Less easily explained is the association with hares. We know that they are active at this time of year, 'boxing' taking place amongst the bucks†, and we have the idea of being 'as mad as a March hare'. More likely, though, is the long and nebulous association with the hare as familiar, or even consort, of the Goddess.
There are legends associated with Eostre that suggest the goddess was responsible for turning a bird into the hare. The hare too has always been seen as a magical animal, and traditionally associated with moon goddesses and the hunt, and for the Celts hare-meat was forbidden except at Beltane, and for the Anglo-Saxons except at Eostre.
A friend and colleague of mine, Dr Tom Greeves, initiated a project on the frequently-occurring Three Hares motif. Greeves found that the three-hares motif was found in at least four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Here on Dartmoor the Three Hares motif was better-known as 'the tinners' rabbits': there's at least one very extensive human-encouraged warren on the moor, near Grimspound at Huntingdon Warren, to provide the tinners, mining the ore here on the moor since the Bronze Age, with protein.
I'd like to think that the Three Hares represented the three faces, or ages, of the Triple Goddess: from the new-moon Goddess of the Maiden, to the full-moon Mother Goddess, to the dark-moon Crone.
John Layard, psychoanalyst, mentions in his book, The Lady and the Hare, that in ancient Egypt the glyph for hare was associated with the verb 'to be'. How apposite, then, that the hare should preside over this time of things coming into being with such abundance.
I find it useful to continue the inner work begun at the spring equinox into this slightly later festival, lighting candles, paying dues to the inevitable cycles that dream us, and remembering what has to die for the new to be reborn.
* T S Eliot, incidentally, said that this book was crucial to understanding 'The Wasteland'.
† Fiona R tells me this: 're the hares, it's the female hare that 'boxes.' She'll biff any over-amorous males that congregate around her as she comes into oestrus. The 'boxing' behaviour displays the doe's disapproval at unwanted attention.' Thank you, Fiona!
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