Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.

Ostara – Seeds of Love

I’m going to start posting a sequence of articles about the Sabbats that I wrote for another website. This entry has been lightly edited to bring it up to date. Please note that this entry in particular was meant to focus on inter-religious connections between Wicca and Christianity for an audience that was not very familiar with Wicca.

In my yoga classes, one of my teachers has been emphasizing the metaphor of resting at the end of a practice as a time of germination. In his words, we choose the seed by setting an intention, then we prepare the soil – the body – by doing our practice, and then we rest and reaffirm the intention, planting it within the body and spirit. After planting it, we have to give it time to germinate, to begin to grow. That waiting period can be difficult, and that’s the way I’m experiencing it this year.

Ostara, the name of the Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox, comes from an old Anglo-Saxon goddess of the springtime or of the dawn named Eostre. The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede noted that during the process of Christianization in England, the people had transferred the goddess’ name to the new Christian celebration of Easter, which occurred at about the same time as the older spring festival.

The Christian celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred at this time of spring because it was immediately after Passover, the Jewish celebration of the exodus from Egypt. The date of Passover is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, and as a result, Christians celebrate Easter on approximately the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.

The equinox itself is the time when day and night are of equal length, in perfect balance. Days have been getting longer ever since the winter solstice, of course, but now they finally catch up with and overtake the nights. But the celebrations around this time of year aren’t very much about the sun and moon; they’re actually very earthy, with all the imagery of bunnies and eggs and things growing and bursting forth.

The celebrations are much more about agricultural concerns and very human needs and desires than about where the sun is.  (Of course, this is all from a Northern Hemisphere perspective; in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the autumn equinox, celebrated in Wicca as the harvest festival of Mabon. With such earthy, personal matters, though, I’m going to write from my own perspective.)

Depending on your latitude and climate, Ostara might be the time of preparing the fields, doing the planting, or the time that the first shoots start to show the promise of later bounty. In Wicca’s mythological cycle, these processes are all celebrated at Ostara, along with the cheerfully reappropriated bunnies and eggs.

Wiccan mythology places a lot of emphasis on fertility, both literal and metaphorical, after all, and most Wiccans aren’t shy about the bunnies and eggs being blatant fertility symbols, nor about celebrating the feeling that like the ground and the plants and the animals, our bodies too are waking up after a long winter’s sleep. The larger metaphorical theme of life’s renewal makes the Jewish celebration of being freed from slavery and the Christian celebration of Jesus coming forth from the tomb a natural fit with the seasonal imagery of budding and germination and hatching.

Of course, everybody’s so excited about this – and it is exciting! – but in the flurry of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs, even nature-oriented Wiccans often miss how much dramatic change is going on. Chicks have to break the shell of their eggs to hatch, and seeds that germinate don’t just break rocks – they have to split their own hull first.

We’re all happy about the increasing sunshine, but sometimes the accompanying changes are harder for us to accept. Sometimes it feels like we’re not just the chick that’s hatching – we’re the eggshell. Or, at least, the shell is a part of our life or our mindset being pecked at and cracked apart, and even if we want the result, the process isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable.

This is how love works. Love transforms us from the inside out. It makes something inside you swell and move and never give up until it cracks open the old you and something new and full of life emerges.

It’s like when you’ve been having an awful, furious argument, and then the other person finally gets through to you that your comfort comes at the price of afflicting him. The new realization blossoms inside you and splits open your prejudice, your stereotyping, your assumptions, until they fall away like the chaff they are. Your understanding and your empathy and ultimately your love change you, from the inside out.

My teacher is right about the importance of the rest phase, though: usually this process of germination happens much more slowly. There’s another Christian celebration, a less well-known one, that’s actually tied directly to the vernal equinox: the Annunciation, which was a life-changing piece of news for Mary if ever there was one. The process of pregnancy isn’t just about birth: it lasts nine months, and likewise, although germination happens quickly, the growing wheat also takes more than that glorious moment of the hull splitting open to get all the way through to the harvest. But now, at Ostara, we celebrate because we know that process is starting again, and that’s what matters. We know, too, that change in our lives isn’t easy and is rarely instantaneous, but we know that it happens, and maybe we can feel it starting again right now.

The occurrence of the Annunciation in the middle of Lent is one of the few times that the Christian liturgical calendar really seems like a cycle. It’s a reminder that Easter and Christmas are deeply, intimately related. Wicca, on the other hand, characterizes sacred time as explicitly cyclical: the Sabbats make up the Wheel of the Year, after all, and it is constantly turning and constantly coming back to the same points.

We know that the days will become shorter than the nights again at Mabon, but we know that after the Mabon there is also another Ostara coming. That knowledge gives me hope that even when the transformation of love seems to have stalled halfway, when it seems like the shell is too thick to crack, that even then I can believe in the process continuing, and I can work for it and with it.

Ostara is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, of life over death, of that which is moving and growing over that which covers it up and holds it down. Ostara challenges us to believe that love can make huge transformations and even new life possible. It isn’t easy to believe that. Sometimes it’s hard not to reinforce the shell and ignore the chick, and it’s hard to go down deep into yourself and plant the seeds and nurture them rather than staying on the surface and making more mud bricks to build the Pharaoh’s walls. And it’s even harder to do that for others.

As Mavis Staples sings, “Isolated and afraid / Open up, this is a raid. / I want to get it through to you: / You’re not alone.” We know that germination and hatching have destruction as the necessary accompaniment to change, even positive and amazing change like new growth and new life. We resist that change, often times, even when it comes from people who want to help us. And when we’re struggling through those changes ourselves, and trying to offer help to others, and we keep getting rebuffed, it’s easy to become jaded and give up.

But Ostara teaches me another response: planting seeds. My worship is a way of planting the seed of deity, and deity’s love, within myself. I want deity to grow within me, to transform me from the inside out. And then I want to go out into the world and be a seed myself, a seed of deity’s love that will transform the world from the inside out.

I want to be a chick making a change. Ostara teaches me that even when the shells of intolerance and cruelty and fear seem too tough for me to crack, deity is within me, and within the world, and that deity’s radical, transformative love is how I work in the world, pecking away at that shell, a little bit at a time. And the more that I celebrate deity in myself, and in everyone as I do at Ostara, the more I grow, the stronger I get, to peck a little bit more.

So for now, I’m planting seeds, in myself and in the world, that will grow, with each Ostara, even though there are winters in between. I believe in the chick, and I believe in the seed, and I believe in the love I’m trying to embody. Ostara reminds me that even when it’s scary and transformative, that love is the beginning of new life, of something beautiful and wonderful and worth every bit of effort.

Ostara Ritual To Find the Sun

Eggs are strongly associated with Ostara and its images of fertility and growth, and dyeing hardboiled eggs is a wonderful tradition to use for this Sabbat. This ritual uses the egg in a slightly different way to symbolize the release of restraints in order to promote growth and development.

Personally, I am so very, very tired of winter here this year that I am going to use this ritual to break away the snow and cold and ick in order to usher in a reasonable, gentle summer.

Materials:

  • Hardboiled egg. Whether you dye it or not is entirely up to you. If you do, you can spend time while the egg is submerged to meditate on the way that snow melts and begins to reveal the colors of springtime.
  • Plate or bowl and knife to cut the egg. (Be careful when handling knives, especially if there are kids involved.)

Ritual:

Cast the circle as you chant

The earth, the air, the fire the water
return, return, return, return

Call the Quarters with words like these or your own:

East, Powers of Air, blow through me with the winds of a fresh start! Hail and welcome!

South, Powers of Fire, burn in me with the energy to grow and change! Hail and welcome!

West, Powers of Water, flow through me with the courage to ride the waves! Hail and welcome!

North, Powers of Earth, ground me with the strength to break free! Hail and welcome!

Pick up your egg, and visualize its shell as the constraints that have been holding you back, especially anything that has been restraining you this past winter. Put all of your feelings about those situations into the shell (just the shell, not the egg!). Visualize your new energy as the egg itself, ready to be set free from that shell.

When you are ready, crack the shell with a sharp rap against the plate, and visualize your the constraints breaking. Peel the egg, and visualize all that has held you back falling away, allowing you to break free and emerge into a period of new growth and development.

Cut the egg in half. See the golden yolk inside as the sun, which is returning to its strength and bringing energy to fuel the growth and change of spring. Say, “The sun returns!” and celebrate!

Eat the egg to take that energy into yourself.

Thank the Quarters for their presence and blessings.

Open the circle.

PS – if you’re looking for something different, there’s also a more meditative ritual that uses seeds as a metaphor that I wrote a while ago, or a salt scrub.

Balancing, moving to the light

This week the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about striking down DOMA and Prop 8 in favor of marriage equality. I concentrated some of my Ostara work on this subject, and I will be taking part in an interfaith event to show support for marriage equality. There will be another event the night before. If you can come out and show support, that’s wonderful. If not, please consider directing some energy to this important event. Here are three ways you might join in this work:

Include support for marriage equality in your intention for either Ostara or the full moon:

The world is poised at the turning of the year towards increasing light, with warmth that will nurture many new lives. Let our symbols of new life in seeds and eggs remind us not just of physical fertility, but the possibility of new life brought about by love. In our own lives, let our love make space for new arrivals and open the way for new possibilities.

Pray to Columbia:

Hail Columbia, matron goddess of your district and of our government! You represent our highest ideals of freedom and liberty, calling us to fuller expression of equality. Columbia, help us change our laws to honor all forms of partnership, giving all acts of love and pleasure equal status under law.

Pray to Justice:

Justice, be not blind, but look into our hearts with piercing gaze to discern the ill intent of those who would rule over us with theocratic mandates full of hate. Redress the wrongs and balance the scales to provide equal recognition for all partnerships formed in love.

Bonus: as Hecate suggested, if you’re in the area, you might also consider visiting the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the first human rights documents in history, and empowering it as a symbol of the progress we’ve made and hope to continue making.

Ostara salt scrub

Happy Ostara!

I haven’t developed this into a full ritual yet, but here’s an idea you might try: an Ostara salt scrub. Why not try a little “spring cleaning” on your body as well as around the house?

Seriously, though, when I look at the imagery of Ostara, all those eggs and seeds, there’s a piece of the story that is seldom told. The first thing a chick does is break out of its shell. The first thing a seed does in order to sprout is split open. My beloved cherry blossoms start as buds that burst open to unfurl their tender petals.

And for all that vigorous language – breaking and bursting – it’s often made possible by a softening. We see this in the plant life. With many seeds, with many kinds of buds and blooms, the prerequisite is a change in the surrounding tissues, which become thinner and softer, so that the opening is more gradual and gentle.

A salt scrub is a simple way to experience this in your own body. Take relatively coarse-grained salt, like kosher salt, and mix it with a little oil, just enough to make a paste. When you start your shower or bath, before you turn on the water, rub the paste gently across areas of your skin that you want to exfoliate and soften. The coarser the grain, the stronger the scrub will be, and you can scratch yourself with this, so go slowly. When you’re done, wash with soap and water, and the skin should be refreshed – it might even be tender.

That tenderness has something to teach us. Think about how the new buds feel when their coverings are peeled away for the first time – they are tender and delicate, easily hurt. The transformation of Ostara isn’t just a process of scrubbing away or breaking through, it’s a process of softening into the change, and continuing that softness, that gentleness, afterwards as part of nurturing the new things that are coming into being.

If you want to make this into a ritual, I suggest you do it for your hands and feet. You might want to soak your feet to soften the calluses, then dry them off and do the scrub. Think about what you’re scrubbing away, but also think about how you can soften, how you can open to new possibilities in gentle ways. Take care of your softened, renewed skin by putting a little moisturizer on it, and think about how you’ll need to care for whatever this new thing in your life is.

When you’re done, ground and center – and if possible, go outside and put your scrubbed feet on the ground to do it. Feel how the refreshed, softened skin is much more sensitive. Maybe you’ll feel a new ability to root down into the ground, growing a few more tentative tendrils like the new shoots of springtime seeds.

Feel the new sensitivity in your hands, too. Think about the new possibilities available there. What are you aware of when you touch the world around you that you couldn’t feel before? Maybe you will put your hand to a new task. Maybe you can reach out in a new way. Whatever you do, be gentle with it. Remember the tenderness you feel; remember that other kinds of new life, new possibilities, new alternatives, feel just as tender and tentative in their own way.

Ground, gently, and renew yourself. Reach out, gently, and nurture the newness around you. Blessed Ostara!