As midpoints of the solar year, the equinoxes were not typically as widely celebrated as the solstices in pagan Europe. However, there are megalithic sites in Great Britain that align with the Sun on this day, as there are in many other parts of the world.
Many ancient cultures in the Mediterranean region did hold festivals during this time, such as Sham el-Nessim, an Egyptian holiday which celebrates the beginning of spring and can be traced back almost 5,000 years. In Persia, the festival of Nowruz, (meaning “new day”) marked the Spring Equinox, and the Jewish calendar sets the dates for Passover based on where the New Moon falls in relation to this day.
In northern Europe, the Latvian festival of Lieldienas was a pre-Christian equinox holiday before it was absorbed into the Christian Easter. And the Norse pagans are said to have honored their female deities with a festival called Dísablót, though some sources place this holiday at the Autumn Equinox or closer to Imbolc. The Scandinavian tribes and the Anglo-Saxons are where most of our modern Ostara traditions come from, most particularly in the name of this Sabbat. A Saxon goddess named Eostre (also spelled Eostra) is described by an 8th-century scholar who mentions a feast held in her honor at springtime. Little is known about her, and even less is known about her Germanic equivalent, Ostara, for whom the month of April was named in ancient Germanic languages.
However, many place names in some Scandinavian countries suggest that this goddess was fairly widely worshipped before the Christianization of Europe. The name “Eostre” has been translated as “east,” “dawn,” and “morning light,” and so she has seemed a fitting deity to honor at the beginning of the growing season, even if much of the symbolism and lore about her in modern Wicca and other forms of Paganism has essentially been borrowed from other, better-known goddesses like the Norse Freya.
Symbols and customs of Ostara are recognizable to many as being part of the “Easter” season, such as the rabbit or hare and the egg—both symbols of fertility. The hare—a larger, more rural relative of the rabbit—is believed to be an ancient symbol of the Earth goddess archetype. Hares were also associated with the Moon, and in some places with witches, who were thought to be able to transform themselves into these quick-moving animals.
The fertility association is fairly obvious, as rabbits are known for their fast and prolific reproductive abilities. But there is also an element of honoring the Sun through hare symbolism, as these animals are usually nocturnal, but come out into the daylight during Spring to find their mates. Rabbits and eggs have traditionally gone together, both in ancient days and in modern Easter customs. This stems from our pagan ancestors’ observations that plover eggs could sometimes be found in abandoned hares’ “nests” in the wild.
The egg itself was a potent symbol of new beginnings and the promise of coming manifestations in many cultures. Painted eggs were part of the ancient Persian Nowruz celebrations, and egg hunts have been traced back at least 2,000 years to Indian and Asian spring customs.
In Anglo-Saxon England, eggs were buried in gardens and under barns as a form of fertility and abundance magic. Offerings of eggs were made to female deities in ancient Scandinavia and in Germany. Interestingly, the egg also speaks to the theme of balance at Ostara, through the tradition of standing an egg on its end in the moments right around the exact time of the Equinox.
Of all the Sabbats, Ostara is the most clear example of how the Christian Church went about converting the pagan populations of northern Europe. By choosing the spring for its own celebration of renewal (in the form of the resurrection of Jesus) and adopting the name of this older festival, it effectively absorbed and dissolved this and other Spring Equinox holidays. However, as with Yule and Samhain, the old pagan customs and traditions have stubbornly stuck around, and are even widely practiced in mainstream society.