Celebrating Eostre

The handout for our March 2012 meeting.

Celebrating Eostre

Literature:

Bede (The Reckoning of Time 15, Wallis trans.): “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.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

Grimm (Teutonic Mythology Vol. 1, Stallybrass trans.): “On the other hand. the Anglo-Saxon historian tells us the names of two beings, whom he expressly calls ancient goddesses of his people, but of whose existence not a trace is left amongst other Germans. A clear proof, that here as well as there, heathenism was crowded with divinities of various shape and varying name, but who in their characteristics and cultus corresponded to one another . . . The two goddesses, whom Beda (De temporum ratione cap. 13) cites very briefly, without any description, merely to explain the months named after them, are Hrede and Eástre, March taking its name from the first, and April from the second . . .

It would be uncritical to saddle this father of the church, who everywhere keeps heathenism at a distance, and tell us less of it than he knows, with the invention of these goddesses. There is nothing improbable in them, nay the first of them is justified by clear traces in the vocabularies of other German tribes . . .

We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (temp. Car. Mag.). The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG. remains the name ôstarâ gen.-ûn; (79) it is mostly found in the plural, because two days (ôstartagâ, aostortagâ, Diut. 1, 266ª) were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the AS. Eástre, 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. (80) All the nations bordering on us have retained the Biblical ‘pascha’; even Ulphilas writes paska, not áustrô, though he must have known the word; (81) the Norse tongue also has imported its pâskir, Swed. påsk, Dan. paaske. The OHG. adv. ôstar expresses movement toward the rising sun (Gramm. 3, 205), likewise the ON. austr [[east]], and probably an AS. eástor and Goth. áustr. In Latin the identical auster has been pushed round to the noonday quarter, the South. In the Edda a male being, a spirit of light, bears the name of Austri, so a female one might have been called Austra; the High German and Saxon tribes seem on the contrary to have formed only an Ostarâ, Eástre (fem.), not Ostaro, Eástra (masc.).(82) And that may be the reason why the Norsemen said pâskir and not austrur: they had never worshipped a goddess Austra, or her cultus was already extinct.

Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, (83) whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter, and according to a popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy (Superst. 813). Water drawn on the Easter morning, is like that at Christmas, holy and healing (Superst. 775. 804); here also heathen notions seem to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.”

Linguistic and Physical Evidence:

Etymology of Eostre: Eostre seems to be related to the reconstructed Indo-European “*aus,” meaning “shine.” It is the root of “east” and is related to words meaning “dawn” and “brightness.” Shaw argues that the Old English “east,” while related to a reconstructed Old Norse “*austra,” is not identical to the Old Norse; he also suggests that Eostre’s name should be seen as related to Old English “*eastor,” a word which may be found in place names such as Eastry and Eastrea as well as in personal names such as Easterwine, Aestorhild, and Austrechild.

Matronae Austriahenae: Over 150 Romano-Germanic votive stones dated to ca. 200 AD dedicated to these matrons have been found. Because the first element of the name Austriahenae can be connected etymologically to the name Eostre, some have argued for a connection between the stones and the goddess Bede mentions.

Theories, Speculation, and Modern Worship:

Eggs and Rabbits: Websites describing Eostre/Ostara as a Heathen/Pagan goddess from whom nearly all modern Christian Easter practices (minus the actual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus) derive are extremely common. Many attest that Eostre’s sacred animal, because of its fecundity, is the hare (and so the Easter Bunny), that eggs symbolizing new growth and fertility were eaten at her feasts or hidden for children to find, giving the symbol of youth bringing out new life (and so Easter Eggs), and that sweets were given and consumed in abundance for her festivals (and so chocolate bunnies and the like). While the idea of the Easter Bunny does appear to have originated in Germany, and while, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Karl Simrock argued that “the rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility” in his Handbuch der deutschen Mythologie, there does not seem to be any evidence specifically linking the goddess to most modern customs.

Despite this lack of evidence, many modern Heathen groups include in their celebrations of the season customs taken from modern Easter celebrations, including decorating eggs, having egg hunts, placing treats in children’s baskets (the treats are brought by Eostre’s rabbit companion, of course), and making hot cross buns, which are sometimes called gebo buns to make them more Heathen (while some Pagans assert that the cross on the bun represents the four seasons of the year or the four phases of the moon).

A popular modern tale about Eostre (often presented as an old Saxon or Celtic myth) has the goddess turn a wounded and/or freezing bird into a rabbit; this rabbit afterwards lays eggs, often multi-colored ones, and becomes the origin of the Easter Bunny. In “Eostre: The Making of a Myth,” the author traces this story to a Ukranian folk tale in which a girl convinces the people of her village to save many golden birds dying in the snow; the following spring, the girl discovers that the birds have left the gift of several beautifully decorated eggs as thanks for their rescue.

Kent: Eastry is located in Kent, a county in the southeast of England. Because Bede received much of the material he used for his Historia Ecclesiastica from Kent, Shaw thinks it possible Eostre may have originally been a goddess specific to a distinct sub-tribal group in the area.

Ostara: Grimm initially speculated on a connection between the goddess Bede mentions and the Old High German name for the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus; Ostara has since become a very popular name outside of Germany to refer both to the goddess Eostre and to various Pagan spring celebrations, which may or may not actually involve worship of the goddess.

Some Heathens observe Ostara as a Summer Finding, celebrating the first spring flowers, the spring equinox, or other signs of the ending of winter. They may ask for the blessings of Eostre or other gods for seeds that will be planted. Others may have a sigrblot around this time, feeling that Ostara marks the beginning of summer and that a blot for victory is more appropriate at this time than Midsummer.

Ostara is one of the spokes of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, usually set around the spring equinox. Those Pagans whose religion is more Wiccan in nature may invoke at this time a variety of powers associated with spring, fertility, and new growth, celebrating renewal. Some seek to connect the Goddess with the word estrus. According to Oak and Mistletoe, a Wiccan website, Ostara is a Sabbat that “marks an equal balance between male and female energies . . . there is spiritual balance in all things. The young Oak King, who’s grown to a young man, now courts the maiden Goddess.”

Other Indo-European Goddesses: Aurora (Roman), Ausrine (Lithuanian), Eos (Greek), and Ushas (Vedic) can all be related to the same root that is in the word “East.” These goddesses are all associated with the dawn, leading many to speculate that Eostre is also a goddess of the dawn (or, due to her having April named after her, a goddess of the “dawn of the year,” which is to say, spring).

In his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Simek cautions against totally disregarding Bede’s information and suggests that Eostre should be understood as a fertility goddess, arguing that Germanic goddesses are generally associated with prosperity and growth. Additionally, in Our Troth Volume 2, the authors speculate that Eostre is an Indo-European goddess of the dawn and/or spring. As such, she may have been seen as being related to the sun, the sky, or the night; as driving a chariot drawn by shining or golden horses; as young, beautiful, and prone to love affairs; and as being a somewhat martial goddess. Gundarsson also sees a link between Iðunn and Eostre.

Summer versus Winter: In much of Northwestern Europe, large fires are lit at dusk to celebrate the Easter season. Gundarsson argues that this is a surviving pre-Christian tradition that may symbolize Summer’s victory over Winter, chasing away darkness and cold while promoting fertility. Some areas have competitions to see who can create the highest fires.

Some Heathens have a ritual battle between personifications of Summer and Winter, while others burn or throw a corn dolly Old Man Winter. Still others may stage a ritual drama, often based on Skirnismal or Svipdagsmal.

Vanic Processions: Based on the procession of Nerthus described by Tacitus and the arrival of Ing from the east in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, some modern Heathens see the spring as a time for having similar celebrations. In May 2011, for example, a Texas Heathen drove about 600 miles around his home state towing a goddess statue; at each location that he stopped, people could make offerings that would be deposited when the drive was complete. Other Heathens have similar processions, though usually on a smaller scale.

 

References:

Bede (1999). The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis.

“Catholic Encyclopedia: Easter” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05224d.htm Accessed February 2012.

Davidson, H. (1998). Roles of the Northern Goddess.

“Eostre and Easter Customs.” http://www.manygods.org.uk/articles/essays/Eostre.shtml Accessed February 2012.

“Eostre Never Existed: Why Easter is not a Pagan Holiday.” http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/eostre-never-existed-why-easter-is-not-a-pagan-holiday/  Accessed February 2012.

“Eostre: The Making of a Myth” http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/502368.html?thread=7943520  Accessed March 2012.

Grimm, J. (2004) Teutonic Mythology Volume 1. Translated by James Stallybrass.

Gundarsson, K. et al.  (2006) Our Troth 2nd Edition Volume 2: Living the Troth.

Raven Radio Episode 62. http://www.ravenradio.info/podcasts/raven62.mp3 Originally aired August 2011, accessed September 2011.

Shaw, P. (2011) Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World.

Simek, R. (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.

“Spring Equinox, Eostre, Ostara Sabbat – The Pagan Origins of Easter.” http://www.witchology.com/contents/march/ostara.php  Accessed March 2012.

“Spring Equinox/Ostara/Eostre” http://www.oakandmistletoe.com.au/useful-articles/spring-equinoxostaraeostre Accessed March 2012.

“Texas Goddess Procession.” http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=189740451074234  Accessed February 2012.