Old English Ēostre (also Ēastre) and Old High German Ôstarâ are the names of a Germanic goddess whose Anglo-Saxon month, Ēostur-monath (Old English “Easter month”), has given its name to the festival of Easter. Ostarmanoth is attested as the month-name equivalent to April that was decreed by Charlemagne, but the goddess Eostre is attested only by Bede, in his 8th century work De temporum ratione, where he states that Ēostur-monath was the equivalent to the month of April, and that feasts held in her honour during Ēostur-monath had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the “Paschal month”. The possibility of a Common Germanic goddess called *Austrōn- was examined in detail in 19th century Germanic philology, by Jacob Grimm and others, without coming to a definite conclusion.
Linguists have identified the goddess as a Germanic form of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, *Hausos. Some scholars have debated whether or not Eostre is an invention of Bede’s, and theories connecting Eostre with records of Germanic Easter customs (including hares and eggs) have been proposed. Eostre or Ostara are sometimes referenced in modern popular culture, and venerated in some forms of Germanic Neopaganism.
Ēostre derives from Proto-Germanic *austrō, ultimately from a PIE root *au̯es-, “to shine” and closely related to a conjectural name of Hausos, the dawn goddess, *h2ausōs, which would account for Greek Eos, Roman Aurora and Indian Ushas.
The modern English term Easter is the direct continuation of Old English Ēastre, which is attested solely by Bede in the 8th century. Ēostre is the Northumbrian form while Ēastre is West Saxon.
Bede states that the name refers to a goddess named Ēostre who was celebrated at Eosturmonath, one of the months of the Anglo-Saxon calendar. In the 19th century Hans Grimm cited Bede when he proposed the existence of an Old High German equivalent named ōstarūn, plural, “Easter” (modern German language Ostern). There is no certain parallel to Ēostre in North Germanic languages though Grimm speculates that the east wind, “a spirit of light” named Austri found in the 13th century Icelandic Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, might be related.
In chapter 15 of his work De temporum ratione, Bede describes the indigenous month names of the English people. After describing the worship of the goddess Hretha during the Anglo-Saxon month of Hrethmonath, Bede writes about Eosturmonath, the month of the goddess Eostre:
Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes.
|Modern English translation:
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.”
Writing in the late 20th century, Rudolf Simek comments that, despite doubts, Bede’s account of Eostre should not be completely disregarded, and that a “Spring-like fertility goddess” must be assumed rather than a “goddess of sunrise” regardless of the name, reasoning that “otherwise the Germanic goddesses (and matrons) are mostly connected with prosperity and growth.” Simek points to a comparison with the goddess Hretha, also attested by Bede.
Writing in the late 19th century, Charles J. Billson notes that scholars prior to his writing were divided about the existence of Bede’s account of Ēostre, stating that “among authorities who have no doubt as to her existence are W. Grimm, Wackernagel, Sinrock [sic], and Wolf. On the other hand, Weinhold rejects the idea on philological grounds, and so do Heinrich Leo and Hermann Oesre. Kuhn says, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Eostre looks like an invention of Bede;’ and Mannhardt also dismisses her as an etymological dea ex machina.” Billson says that “the whole question turns […], upon Bede’s credibility”, and that “one is inclined to agree with Grimm, that it would be uncritical to saddle this eminent Father of the Church, who keeps Heathendom at arms’ length and tells us less of than he knows, with the invention of this goddess.” Billson points out that the Christianization of England started at the end of the sixth century CE, and, by the seventh, was completed. Billson argues that, as Bede was born in 672, Bede must have had opportunities to learn the names of the native goddesses of the Anglo-Saxons, “who were hardly extinct in his lifetime.”
Jacob Grimm, Ostara, and German Easter customs
In his 1882 Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm cites comparative evidence to reconstruct a potential continental Germanic goddess whose name would have been preserved in the Old High German name of Easter, Ôstarâ. Grimm is willing to take Bede’s accounts of three pagan goddesses at face value, stating, “There is nothing improbable in them, nay the first of them is justified by clear traces in the vocabularies of Germanic tribes.”
Specifically regarding Eostra, Grimm continues that:
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 […], it is mostly found in the plural, because two days […] were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in 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.
Grimm notes that “all of the nations bordering on us have retained the Biblical ‘pascha’; even Ulphilas writes paska, not áustrô, though he must have known the word […].” Grimm details that the Old High German adverb ôstar “expresses movement towards the rising sun”, as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon eástor and Gothic áustr. Grimm compares these terms to the identical Latin term auster. Grimm says that the cult of the goddess may have worshiped an Old Norse form, Austra, or that her cult may have already been extinct by the time of Christianization.
Grimm notes that in the Old Norse Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, a male being by the name of Austri is attested, who Grimm describes as a “spirit of light.” Grimm comments that a female version would have been Austra, yet that the High German and Saxon tribes seem to have only formed Ostarâ and Eástre, feminine, and not Ostaro and Eástra, masculine. Grimm additionally speculates on the nature of the goddess and surviving folk customs that may have been associated with her in Germany:
Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy […]. Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing […]; here also heathen notions seems 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 on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess […].
In the second volume of Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm picks up the subject of Ostara again, connecting the goddess to various German Easter festivities, including Easter eggs:
But if we admit, goddesses, then, in addition to Nerthus, Ostara has the strongest claim to consideration. To what we said on p. 290 I can add some significant facts. The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate : I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people’s amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.
Grimm comments on further Easter time customs, including unique sword dances and particular baked goods (“pastry of heathenish form”). In addition, Grimm weights a potential connection to the Slavic spring goddess Vesna and the Lithuanian Vasara.
Hares and Freyja
In Northern Europe, Easter imagery often involves hares and rabbits. Citing folk Easter customs in Leicestershire, England where “the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the ‘Hare-pie Bank'”, late 19th century scholar Charles Isaac Elton theorizes a connection between these customs and the worship of Ēostre. In his late 19th century study of the hare in folk custom and mythology, Charles J. Billson cites numerous incidents of folk custom involving the hare around the period of Easter in Northern Europe. Billson says that “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”
Some scholars have linked customs and imagery involving hares to Ēostre and the Norse goddess Freyja. Writing in 1972, John Andrew Boyle cites commentary contained within an etymology dictionary by A. Ernout and A. Meillet, where the authors write that “Little else […] is known about [Ēostre], but it has been suggested that her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. And she certainly represented spring fecundity, and love and carnal pleasure that leads to fecundity.” Boyle responds that nothing is known about Ēostre outside of Bede’s single passage, that the authors had seemingly accepted the identification of Ēostre with the Norse goddess Freyja, yet that the hare is not associated with Freyja either. Boyle writes that “her carriage, we are told by Snorri, was drawn by a pair of cats — animals, it is true, which like hares were the familiars of witches, with whom Freyja seems to have much in common.” However, Boyle adds that “on the other hand, when the authors speak of the hare as the ‘companion of Aphrodite and of satyrs and cupids’ and point out that ‘in the Middle Ages it appears beside the figure of Luxuria’, they are on much surer ground and can adduce the evidence of their illustrations.”
Modern popular culture and modern veneration
Jacob Grimm’s reconstructed *Ostara has had some influence in popular culture since. The name has been adapted as an asteroid (343 Ostara, 1892 by Max Wolf), a Mödling, Austria-based German nationalist book series and publishing house (1905, Ostara), and a date on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year (Ostara, 21 March). In music, the name Ostara has been adopted as a name by the musical group Ostara, and as the names of albums by :zoviet*france: (Eostre, 1984) and The Wishing Tree (Ostara, 2009).
In some forms of Germanic Neopaganism, Eostre (or Ostara) is venerated. Regarding this veneration, Carole M. Cusack comments that, among adherents, Eostre is “associated with the coming of spring and the dawn, and her festival is celebrated at the spring equinox. Because she brings renewal, rebirth from the death of winter, some Heathens associate Eostre with Idunn, keeper of the apples of youth in Scandinavian mythology”.