Ostara and the historical accuracy of deities

Lately I was reminded of this meme from a few years ago:

ishtar-easter-meme

It was apparently sent out by a community of skeptics – mostly to use as a means to discredit the christian celebration of Easter. Pagans fell over themselves to tell how wrong the meme is. And indeed, it’s baffling that skeptics (of all people) didn’t first check their history books before they decided to bash christianity.

However, what was mostly pointed out was the fact that Easter doesn’t come from Ishtar. And the egg and hare certainly aren’t Istar’s symbols for all I know. I mean, they are the symbols of the goddes Ostara a.k.a. Eostre! Right? I find it suprising how many pagans and heathens still stick to this idea – the idea that Ostara is an ancient Germanic goddess (or Eostre an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess) who is associated with dawn and spring and whose symbols are the egg and hare. Ostara having her celebration around the same time as christian Easter explains where the name Easter comes from, or so they say.

Except that the evidence for the existence of an ancient goddess called Eostre or Ostara is very scant, almost non-existent. The only concrete information we have is based on one mention by Bede in his 8th-century De Tempore Ratione. He writes:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” [translation: see under sources below]

That’s it, that’s all the historical information we have on Eostre. It’s not even a direct source. It appears that all the other elements of Eostre were added in the 19th century by Jacob Grimm, who was puzzled by the existence of the goddess, and by other folkloric traditions concerning eggs and hares. He decided that they might have been connected. Grimm also thought that Eostre might have been the same as several Germanic goddesses with names that sounded a bit alike. Thus, the names Eostre and Ostara have become mingled in such a way that it seems that they are all the same deity (for more on that, read Grimm and Shaw – see sources below).

Somehow this has stuck with later folks, and especially with pagans and heathens. I think it has to do with us having so little information about some ancient deities that we latch onto anything that might fill in the gaps. Even the people who *know* that all we have on Eostre is her name, are more than happy to incorporate her in their Ostara/spring equinox celebrations, while dying eggs and telling stories about hares and witches. Why, I’m even guilty of it myself!

This is one of the hot topic discussions within pagan religions. Do we try our best to recontruct the ancient religions, or do we interpret and fill in the grey areas as we go along? To be honest, I think that question has been answered already.

We cannot go back in time. A lot of lore has been lost through the ages and will likely never be  regained. Much of what we do is (post-)modern, whether we like it or not. Even the science that many reconstructionsts base their work on, is again based on theories. Of course, some things are well known and based on facts. Even then I have to wonder: cultures and religions change over time – it seems a part of nature. So why wouldn’t our deities change along?

Ostara and Eostre (if they ever existed as such) were lost to us for a long time, and then rediscovered in one shape or another. The goddess is again worshipped, in a way that befits the 21st century. In our current time, in which human culture has been almost consciously seperated from nature, pagans worship nature deities (among others) in their many shapes and forms. Ostara as goddess of spring, dawn and fertility is one of them.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to learn accurately from history. Of course we have to – and it’s one of the aims of this website. But that means we know what our gods were like 1000+ years ago, it’s historical and perhaps inspirational knowledge. It is only an indication of what experiences with deities in 2016 will be like. Ostara/Eostre is stronger then ever – she is celebrated all over the world and connected with popular fertility symbols. I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as we learn and remember where she comes from.

Sources

Grimm, Jacob. Deutsche Mythologie. (1st edition) Göttingen: Dieterich. 1835.

Shaw, Philip A.  Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons (Studies in Early Medieval History). Bristol Classical Press. 2011.

Wallis, Faith (tr.) The reckoning of time. Liverpool University Press .1988.

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