he earliest written records describing the Osterraeder phenomena at Luegde date back to 784 C.E. It is believed, however, that the tradition is far older, with its origins in the pre-Christian religions of the German and Celtic tribes. Wheels and wheel crosses have almost universally appeared in the ancient world's mythologies, symbolizing the sun rolling across the heavens. The ancient Indo-European world held a vision of the sun as a celestial warrior king drawn through the sky in a war chariot. This view was drawn in part from a nomadic dependence upon the horse. It is not difficult to make a connection between this sun symbolism and the images of the fire wheels of Luegde.
Votive Sun Chariot from Trundholm, Denmark
As the Germanic tribes evolved from a nomadic to a more settled pastoral existence their relationship with the forces of nature also changed. We find in their primordial and polytheistic world view the emergence of a sophisticated cyclic conception of time and space.
Sensitivity to the cycles of nature, the moon and the sun, gave rise to the idea of a "Wheel of the Year". The pagan calendar was conceived as an endlessly turning wheel divided into quarters defined by the summer and winter solstice and the vernal and autumn equinox, known to Folklorists as the quarter days.
The Celtic "Wheel of the Year"
Megalithic sites such as Stonehenge are indicative of the importance ancient people gave to the marking of time, by the alignment of these structures to the quarter days in their calendar. Other prehistoric earthworks align to the sun's position at the mid-points between these quarter days, indicating a calendar based upon an 8 spoked wheel. The corresponding system of festivals and rituals, many of which survive down to the present day, were performed and celebrated to ensure the proper passage of time, and the success of the emerging agricultural economy.
Stonehenge: megalithic calender
The Osterraederlauf is celebrated on one of these key points in the pagan calendar, the Vernal Equinox, when day and night are equal in length. This quarter day marks the full return of Spring, the "birth" of the new year following the "death" of winter.
Jacob Grimm, of the famous Grimm brothers, indicates that there was a widespread practice of rolling burning wheels over cliffs, and recorded descriptions of the burning wheel phenomena at Luensberg in Ramesdorf.
He put forth the following views in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835).
"All cultures living in temperate (or winter dominated) climates celebrate the coming of spring with major rituals and festivals. One of the most important of the spring festivals among pre-Christian Germanic tribes apparently was dedicated to the Teutonic Godesss of fertility, Ostara, whose name suggests "east" and thus "dawn" and "morning light."
Quoted from Ostara's Home Page by D.L. Ashliman
Victorian folklorist H.A. Guerber describes other rites with apparent pagan origins known to be practiced in Germany at Ostara.
Altars, called Oster Stones "were once crowned with flowers by young people, who also built bonfires nearby, and danced at the left hand about them."
Quoted from the Druidheachd
The sight of people enjoying fires burning in the fields of Westfalen around Luegde is still commonplace at Easter time.
It has been concluded that the original meaning of the Osterraederlauf lies not in the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection, Easter, but in Ostara's festival.
The name Oster (Easter) was adopted by the Christian church when German pagans were converted to Christianity. As a result of the christianization of the German people many of the pagan mysteries were driven underground, remembered only by the country folk who continued to believe that their livelihood literally depended upon performing the right ceremonies at the right times and seasons.
It is a remarkable testament to the people of Luegde that they have succeeded in preserving this tradition down through the centuries.