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Ostara: Lions, Tigers and Bears?

March 20, 2018

If ever a month came in like a lion, March roared this year. In fact, there is a lot of animal symbolism associated with the Spring, not truly surprising as Ostara, the second fertility festival of the year approaches.

Several theories exist about why lions are associated with March, including one implausible one that links the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, whose sacred animal is a lion, with the word Easter. (It’s much more likely that the word Easter refers to the germanic goddess Eostre, though the origin of that idea is Bede, and there is no historical evidence to back it up.) According to The Guardian, the reason that lions were first associated with March had to do with astronomy not mythology — the constellation of Leo (the lion) is on the eastern horizon at sunset in the beginning of March and the constellation of Aries (the ram) is on the western horizon by the end of the month. Hence, in like a lion, out like a lamb not only refers to weather, but also to the stars.

Rabbits are traditionally associated with the goddess Aphrodite, so how did they get the job of laying eggs in the spring? Sir Thomas More is credited with first connecting madness and March hares in his writings, but it’s likely that the idea predated him. Certainly rabbit antics in the spring can seem mad as they get ready to repopulate the earth with their fecundity. The association of Easter bunnies with eggs and the goddess Eostre is a Victorian era idea that may have come from folklorist Jacob Grimm. The story that seems to be widely accepted by non-Pagans has a couple of versions. One suggests that the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, of whom we know very little, in kindness turned a bird whose wings were frozen into a rabbit that laid eggs. Another version has Eostre, in a fit of pique, turning a bird with a hubris problem into a hare that was allowed to lay eggs once a year in honor of her festival. There is speculation that the Easter bunny is an ancient pagan idea that was co-opted as part of a pagan festival that became Easter as Christianity took hold (Source).

Snakes were also associated with this time of year, as a symbol of fertility. The legend of St. Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland is an unlikely tale from the Middle Ages. No fossil evidence exists that snakes have lived in Ireland in thousands of years. “Animals that reached Ireland before the sea became an impassable barrier included brown bears, wild boars, and lynx—but snakes never made it,” says Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Scholars believe the tale is allegorical, referring to Christianity’s influence overwhelming local pagan traditions.

Some of the other animals that have been associated with Eostre, though the sources are vague, include the owl (wisdom), dove (victory), ram, eagle, tiger, leopard, and other cats. As to bears, no evidence seems to exist that they have anything to do with Ostara. But as a modern religion of reconstruction, current pagans can associate bears with Ostara if they can come up with a reason to do so. Why not?

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