Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Eostre and Eostrefest

If you type Easter into a search engine or read about it in any number of popular mainstream or pagan press books, you will find reference to the goddess Eostre or Ostara after whom the festival of Easter is named. These potted histories tend to contain a number of speculations about the goddess, often presented as fact with no references to any sources of information.

So what actual primary historical sources do we have that mention the goddess Eostre? Only one. It's in the 'Temporum Ratione' - the Reckoning of Time by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and scholar who lived between 673 and 735 CE. This is an interesting book (in translation!) that covers the solar and lunar cycles, the basis for various calendars, and how to calculate the date of the Christian Easter ceremony and including a chapter called The English Months, that details the calculations of the lunar months. In it he writes:
"The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April Eosturmonath ..."

And that's all, no description of the goddess or of any feasts for her.

In Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology", he tells us that the Anglo-Saxon name Eostre is related to Old High German adverb ostar expressing movement toward the rising sun.
"Ostara, Eostre seems therefore to have been a divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian's God."

However, this, although it may be right, is based purely on romantic speculation. Eostre/Ostara could equally well be a goddess who, in the mythology of some ancient Germanic tribe, simply came from the east.

What about modern myths being spread on the net and elsewhere?

There are no Norwegian, Icelandic or other Scandinavian primary sources mentions Ostara. In fact, the name Ostara isn't found anywhere in connection with a goddess. Ostara is simply the Old High German name for the Christian festival of Easter. Because the word is cognate with Anglo-Saxon 'Eostre', and because we have Bede's evidence that Eostre was a goddess, Grimm concluded that:
"This Ostara, like the Anglo-Saxon, Eastre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries."

The theory that ancient Europeans worshipped a single 'Great Mother Goddess' has long since been rejected by academics but continues to be spouted in popular books.  All we know from Bede that Eostre was worshipped sometimes in April, Bede also mentions another Anglo-Saxon goddess, Hredhe, who was honoured in March, and for whom the month of March was named. If the heathen Anglo-Saxons actually did worship a goddess at the vernal equinox, then according to the only historical source we have available it would have been Hredhe, not Eostre.

The myths of the hare, eggs, hot-cross buns and chocolate are firmly rooted in modern, post-pagn mythology. There is no evidence for any of these practices, even in folklore, in the pre-Christian west.

In my own heathen tradition, I see Eostre as a joyful goddess associated with spring and new growth, through personal experience and communication. We hold festivals and a ritual/sumbel outdoors if weather permits. We make offerings to the wights of the place and welcome Eostre, usually with mead! We make toasts to Eostre, to spring and to new growth.
I'm pretty sure this wasn't how Eostre was celebrated by our ancestors, but it feels right to celebrate her in this way now. And that, in my opinion, is what is most important to her and all the other gods/goddesses.


  1. I was surprised when a few weeks ago I also started doing the research on the history of Eostre and learned the same thing. Looking at the modern mythos and celebrations they make sense but now I wonder exactly where did they start from?

    Are some of them things that have passed down but were never written about? Or are they more modern constructs?

    As you said that doesn't change a person's relationship or personal view of the holiday. But eh it's the Heathen in me to question. ;)

  2. Nice post. Guess this ties into the idea of whether we 'create' our gods or not. Did modern paganism 'create' Eostre the goddess or did she always exist? Always interesting to ponder.