Ostara, as it is known by pagans today, is a spring festival which falls every year on the day of the vernal equinox and must be the only sabbat on the Wheel of the Year to incite so many opposing opinions about its origins and the validity of its namesake the elusive Goddess Eostre; a goddess who may or may not have existed before the nineteenth century. Up until recently, I believed wholeheartedly that Eostre was not a goddess at all, but simply the misunderstanding of an early Christian monk who had witnessed the first days of Britain’s conversion to Christianity; a misunderstanding which, across the centuries, flourished into an elaborate whimsical tale of a spring goddess who transforms a dying bird into a hare to save its life. However, with the spring equinox upon us, I decided to revisit this subject once more and I have discovered that things are not as clear cut as I had originally believed. So is it actually possible that Eostre was indeed a goddess that was honoured by the Anglo Saxons? Let’s look at the evidence.
The first piece of evidence begins with the Venerable Bede, a 7th century scholar and monk of the early Christian church who wrote of the Anglo Saxons; ‘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.’ This is the only record we have that mentions an Anglo Saxon goddess named Eostre and this has led some scholars to understandably question Bede’s credibility because no other myths or images exist of her. Even though Bede lived at a time when he must have had direct contact with people who practiced the old ways and would have surely been aware of what gods and goddesses were being honoured, why then is his writing so vague? It is extremely unlikely that he would have fabricated a goddess, considering the Church would have wanted to discourage any worshipping of pagan deities. Is it that he did know more about the Goddess Eostre, but did not want to offend the Church?
The Anglo Saxons named all of their months, apart from the two that Bede believed were named after goddesses, after seasonal weather conditions, customs or calendar events. Bede wrote that not only Eosturmonath (April) was named after a goddess, but also Hrethmonath (March) was as well. If these goddesses were so important, in the eyes of the Anglo Saxons, to have had months named after them, then why don’t we know a single thing about them apart from a couple of lines written by Bede himself? Perhaps these months were actually just like all of the others and their names simply reflected the time of year as well. The word “hrethe” can mean fierce, harsh and rough, which does describe March’s weather extremely well, so could this be the case or is “Hretha” an actual war goddess, as suggested by Kathleen Herbert in her book ‘Looking for the Lost Gods of England’? There is written evidence of a tribe called the Hrethgotan or Hreda’s Goths, but I believe that this name means ‘fierce Goths’ rather than a tribe that called themselves after a supposed war goddess. As for Eosturmonath, Ronald Hutton believes it is not named after a goddess of spring . In his book ‘Stations of the Sun’ he says. “Estor-monath” simply meant the ‘month of opening’, or the ‘month of beginning’ and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all or was never associated with a particular season but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with Dawn itself”.
In his book “Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World”, Philip Shaw explains that both Hretha and Ostara were goddesses local to Kent, a county in the south east of England, where Bede gathered most of his information from. If this is the case then it might explain why no other traces of Eostre have been found. He then goes on to say that Anglo Saxon missionaries took these names with them when they travelled to what is now France and Germany. I’m not too sure about that.
Another piece of evidence comes from Einhard (770-840) a Frankish scholar, historian and close advisor to Charlemagne. His work entitled “The Life of Charlemagne” chronicles his twenty three years of service in the powerful king’s court, a king who succeeded in uniting most of western and central Europe under his rule and who fought against the Saxons. Charlemagne Christianised the Saxons on penalty of death and destroyed all of their idols, even changing the Saxon names of the months of the year. So if Eostre was really a pagan goddess then why would a fanatical Christian king name the month of March ‘Oster-monath’ when all he would have wanted to do was to wipe everything pagan off the map? Perhaps he was not aware?
Many centuries later Jacob Grimm, of the famed ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, who thought very highly of Bede’s work, published his book ‘Teutonic Mythology’ in 1835. In it he gives Eostre the name ‘Ostara’ and calls her a goddess of dawn, which he derives from the etymology of her name (‘eos’ being the Greek word for dawn). He writes, ‘the divinity of the radiant dawn…whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.’ He continues, ‘This Ostara, like the Anglo Saxon Eostre, 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.’ (meaning Easter). So from the pages of ‘Teutonic Mythology’ Ostara as we know her today was brought into being.
However, the name ‘ostara’ is a plural noun and its singular form is actually ‘ostarun’ which Grimm explains away by saying that the spring festival lasted for several days. He assumes this is the case because Bede wrote ‘feasts’ and not ‘feast’ when discussing the honouring of Eostre.
Whatever festival Bede was describing it would have been a grand affair and a very large undertaking. There are Christian writings that describe oxen being sacrificed for pagan feasts that stretched over three days. Now oxen are very large creatures so there must have been many people gathered during these celebrations. We know that Snorri Sturlusson when writing about Olver of Eggja mentions that there were three sacrificial feasts a year, of which one was in the spring. So did the Anglo Saxons at least celebrate a spring festival the same as the Heathens did? In Germany today, some people still light a bonfire on Easter Sunday. Could this possibly be a remnant of an ancient pagan spring ritual?
The Grimm brothers, who were nationalists, lived at a time when Germany was not yet a country, but instead was made up of several different principalities. Their fervent research and writing of myths and folk tales was a way for them to reclaim their people’s ancestral culture which they believed had been lost to them for centuries under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. We could say that the creation of the modern day ‘Ostara’ was a brilliant attempt at pagan evangelism.
I find it extremely unlikely that pagans of northern Europe honoured a goddess called Eostre at the spring equinox due to the fact that April is the following month after the equinox takes place. If Heathens did honour a goddess around the time of the equinox then it would have been the goddess Hrede whose month Bede explains was called Hrethmonath, the Anglo Saxon name for March. So to call the spring equinox ‘Ostara’ in my opinion is actually quite confusing.
Since the nineteenth century, many tales and myths pertaining to Ostara have been told and sadly there is no great age to them. They are just simply modern day fairy tales. There has also been no evidence found, whatsoever, that associates rabbits, hares, eggs or spring with Ostara, despite what some pagans are led to believe.
Some pagans have also been misled to believe that the Christian holiday of Easter superseded Ostara and that Christianity is to blame for taking it away from the early pagans, but from what I have read and understood, the early Christians only took the name Ostara and never actually replaced a pagan festival because there never was one to replace. Bede insists that it was the English people that wanted to keep the old name (In German it’s Ostern) while interestingly enough other European countries accepted the Hebrew ‘Pesach’ which means Passover which was exactly what the Church wanted (Paques. Pasqua, Paske, Pascua, Pastele etc).
Historically, the equinoxes only became major pagan festivals due to the practice of Wicca and its Wheel of the Year. I don’t believe that our ancestors, who would have been preoccupied with sowing or harvesting, would have honestly had the time for organising a three day celebration.
We do need to be extremely mindful of modern pagan literature where opinion is stated as fact. This can be demonstrated with the origins of ‘painting eggs’ at this time of year for example. There is no actual pre-Christian evidence for this custom. The first mention of the Easter Rabbit and painted eggs dates back to sixteenth century German literature where it is written that good children were rewarded with painted eggs if they decorated their hats with nests. We also need to remember that eggs were one of the things that Christians were forbidden to eat during Lent, so Easter Sunday would have been an even greater cause for celebration when eggs were abundant once more. This time of year also coincided with chickens laying eggs again after the long winter.
A writer that comes to mind is Nigel Pennick who is one good example of fabricating facts. In his books he has claimed that Ostara was celebrated at the Vernal equinox, that her name comes from ‘estrus’ linking it etymologically to oestrogen and also that Saxon poets likened Ostara to the goddess Kali! This is pure unsupported nonsense and dangerous to those who believe this as truth.
After all I have read over these past few months, a seed of Ostara’s existence has been planted in my mind and perhaps there is a possibility that she was once a local goddess and that people did actually honour her. I don’t believe though that she was a goddess of spring nor that she was celebrated at the spring equinox. However, the wonderful thing about history is that it is not set in stone and archaeologists are discovering new finds every day that are constantly changing what think we know of the past. So who knows, perhaps one day an intrepid metal detector enthusiast will dig up a little piece of jewellery with Eostre’s image on it in the middle of a field in Kent?
I would love to know what your thoughts are on the existence of Ostara.
The Pagan Book of Days and Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Nigel Pennick
The Stone Men of Malekula 1942 and The Lady of the Hare 1944 by John Layard
Teutonic Mythology first published 1835 Jacob Grimm
Looking for the Lost Gods of England 1994 Kathleen Herbert
Stations of the Sun 2001 Ronald Hutton
History of the Goths 1990 Herwig Wolfram
Life of Charlemagne early 9th century Einhard (can be found for free online)
Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World 2011 Philip A Shaw
The Moon, Myth and Image 2003 Jules Cashford
Heimskringla Snorri Sturluson 13th century (can be found for free online)
The Saga of Icelanders 2001 Penguin Edition