So I’m writing this one week after Easter and all usual annual discussions about the goddess Ostara have died to be revived in about a year. I don’t want to wait that long however, so here you are with a long(ish) read:
It’s that time of year again where we talk about Easter, what it stands for and where it’s traditions come from. Inevitably, the name of Easter and it’s connection to Ostara or Eostre will pop up. Ostara, or Eostre is a goddess connected to dawn and spring. When modern pagans celebrate spring equinox, or Ostara, they often also celebrate this goddess. It also has become a bit of a meme amongst atheists, some pagans and other people who are critical (or downright antagonistic) towards christianity and the celebration of Easter- they post how Easter was only stolen from the ancient heathens who worshipped this old pagan goddess called Eostre (or from the goddess Ishtar, but that’s should be a post all of its own), and do you also know that it’s really all about sex and fertility?
Except that it isn’t. Or well, as far is we actually know, it wasn’t. As in, there are no traces.
What I like about the way that pagans celebrate Ostara and honor the goddess is that this is actually quite a modern celebration, based on possible older traditions that we actually don’t know anything about. What I’m trying to say here is that we could probably call Ostara a ‘new’ goddess.
It al starts with the only sort of authentic historical source that we have of Eostre. This source is a text called De Temproum Ratione (‘On the reckoning of time’) by the Venerable Bede, an Anglosaxon monk and historian who lived from 672/3 to 735. In chapter 15, Bede discusses the names of the months, and here we find the following passage (translation taken from Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 49, see sources below):
“A dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit”
“Called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”
And this is all we have.
As you can see, I’m talking about Eostre, not Ostara. Ostara , the goddess as we now know her, comes in much later. In the 18th and 19th century, inspired by Romanticism and nationalism, folklorists started to write down al sorts of old pre-christian local myths and legends. This is how we ended up with the wonderful fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, for example. They are famous for their fairytales, but Jacob Grimm also wrote a large tome filled Germanic lore and his interpretation of it: Deutsche Mythologie. And look who he also describes: it’s Ostara. He conflates Ostara with Bede’s Eostre based on how much the names sound alike. Etymologically, Eostre and Ostara mean as much as ‘dawn’. Ostara according Grimm must be a goddess of dawn and spring, based on the time of year her feast is being celebrated and also based on a comparison between the names Ostara and Eostre.
There are still other traces of comparable names. There’s the circa 150 altars that were found in Germany in the fifties of the last century, that were all dedicated to the Matronae Austriahenae. Are they the predecessors of our Ostara, a Germanic version of Eostre? There is definitely a connection between these names, but that doesn’t mean that Eostre and Ostara are one and the same. Consider that there’s a whole area between Eostre and Austriahenae where the name, or a comparable name hasn’t been found (yet). There is an etymological link, but that still doesn’t mean that these goddesses are the same (though there may be a link). Another possible source is a mention of another month name in the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, “Aprilem Ostarmanoth”, but it’s not clear at all that this refers to a goddess.
As you can see, the original souces of Eostre/Ostara are quite scarce and unclear. What’s more, the connection between Ostara/Eostre and symbols such as eggs and hares simply don’t seem to exist before Romantic times – or at least I haven’t found them (yet). The Matronae are generally considered goddesses connected to certain tribes or places, and we don’t know anything about Eostre but that a month is named after her. Here, we go back to Grimm again. In his Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm was convinced that Ostara was a goddess of dawn and spring, and he therefore connected several German folkloric traditions to her – such as Easter eggs. So if someone tells you some ‘ancient’ story about Easter, a goddess, eggs and hares…it’s probably not that ancient at all.
Ostara, or at least the way we now know this goddess and celebrate the feast, may not be that old … but so what? Well, nothing really.
I’m all for ‘standing on the shouldersof giants’ and bringing forth new traditions. I think it’s needed actually. We don’t live in the 19th century, and we certainly don’t live in ancient times. We live in the 21st century and I think a way of life that sees nature as sacred and values myths and legends as more than quirky tales is sorely needed in an age where humanism and rationalism reign supreme. If we can summon ancient goddesses (or goddess names) and give her a role in modern life then that’s awesome. Remember, many gods are not that static either – they fulfill different roles in different times and cultures. Many gods die in myth, and naturally they can be born too and grow into gods for a new generation.
Grimm, Jacob. (Transl. James Steven Stallybrass), Teutonic Mythology. London: George Bell and sons. 1892.
Shaw, Philip A. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World. Eostre, Hreda and the cult of the Matrons. Bristol Classical Press. 2011.