Ostara, as it is known by pagans today, is a spring festival that is celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. There are many opposing opinions about its origins as well as the validity of its namesake the elusive goddess Eostre; a goddess who may or may not have been honoured 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. Across the centuries, this misunderstanding 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 celebration of Ostara 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 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 some of us to question Bede’s credibility because no other Germanic or Scandinavian myths, images or Medieval texts exist of her. Even though Bede lived at a time when he must have had direct contact with people who practised 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. Bede may have known more about the goddess Eostre, but wanted to stay clear of any pagan associations. Or perhaps it truly was a misunderstanding and Eostre was actually the name of a festival and not a goddess. We do need to keep in mind, however, who Bede’s audience was, the censorship involved and any assumptions or personal opinions he may have had.
The Anglo Saxons named all of their months, apart from the two that Bede says 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 Hrethmonath (March) 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 few lines written by Bede himself? Perhaps these months were in fact just like all of the others and their names simply reflected the time of year.
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 possible 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 am doubtful that was the case.
Another piece of evidence comes from Einhard (770-840) a Frankish scholar, historian and close adviser 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 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 genuinely a Saxon 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?
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 the 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’. 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. 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 at the same time? In Germany today, many people celebrate traditions that have been passed down from pre-Christian times. The town of Lugde and its famous Osterrader is one of them.
The Grimm brothers, who were nationalists, lived at a time when Germany was not yet a country, but was made up of several different principalities. Their fervent research and writing of myths and folk tales were ways 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. The creation of the modern day ‘Ostara’ was a clever attempt to incite a pagan revival.
I find it extremely unlikely that pagans living in northern Europe honoured a goddess called Eostre at the vernal equinox due to the fact that April is the following month after the equinox. If the early Anglo Saxons did honour a goddess around the time of the equinox then it would have possibly been the goddess Hrede.
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 is 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 invention of the 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 at these times of year.
We do need to be extremely mindful of neo-pagan literature where opinion is stated as fact. Some neo-pagan writers have great difficulty with staying impartial and their personal beliefs naturally influence their writing. 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 Saxon poets likened Ostara to the goddess Kali! This is pure unsupported nonsense and dangerous to those who believe it 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 minor goddess and the Anglo Saxons of Kent did indeed honour her. There is no evidence that she was a goddess of spring nor that she was honoured at the vernal 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 we 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.
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
De Temporum Ratione, 725, Bede
The painting is by Marie Spartelli Stillman