Ostara has become one of the best known goddesses within paganism, since a whole spring festival has been named after her. 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.
First of all we have to ask the question: could Bede actually be right? Was there really a goddess called Eostre who was worshipped by the Saxons? This is the only time we find her in history, after all. I tend to think that Bede’s text points towards the actual existence of Eostre. Mostly (and this point has been made before) because why would a christian monk and historian mention a pagan goddess if it wouldn’t be necessary for his text? There are also scholars who think that Eostre’s existence isn’t certain at all, so keep that in mind when you read on.
Note that this passage is linked to the Latin month of April (the system that we still use), not March! Bede calls March ‘Hredmonath’- which is a reference to the goddess Hreda. Still, it is Eostre, not Hreda that has been connected to the spring equinox and in the text below there are all sorts of hints and arguments that may tell us how that came to be. I’m not claiming to have THE answer, but it’s a very interesting story all on its own, from a historical and folkloric point of view.
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 time filled Germanic lore and his interpretation of it. 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 the 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. This is really not such a strange idea, since there are many dawn goddesses in Indo-European mythology.
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. 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.
Cusack, Carole. “The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s).” In: The Pomegrenate. Issue 9.1, 2007. P. 22-40.
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.