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Ēostre - Real Goddess or Bede's Invention?

Updated on May 12, 2015
Dawn by Alphonse Mucha
Dawn by Alphonse Mucha | Source

*Disclaimer* This article is in no way intended to proselytize for or against any religion, or to prove Ostara literally exists as a spiritual entity. This is a historical analysis of evidence that is often overlooked in the assessment of the historicity of the "cult" of Eostre/Ostara - i.e. was she worshiped historically by the Germanic people of Anglo-Saxon England and the Saxons on the continent.

A colorized version of Johannes Gehrts' piece titled "Ostara," created in 1884.
A colorized version of Johannes Gehrts' piece titled "Ostara," created in 1884.

The Controversy

In recent years a new holiday “war” has been brewing in the blogisphere. Around Eastertime blog posts and news articles spring up arguing either for or against the historicity of the cult of the worship of the Germanic Goddess Ēostre.

Although Northern European indigenous religion was actively repressed by the Church, modern Easter celebrations are still very much intertwined with the old pagan holiday. Since the holiday traditions could not be stomped out, it appears that the best way to combat a resurgence of ancestral European religion is to deny it ever existed.

So, let us explore the evidence, and see just how much there actually is.

The Venerable Bede
The Venerable Bede

Is Bede a reliable source?

The Venerable Bede is the source most often used in arguments both for and against the existence of the cult of Ēostre. The main opposing argument states that Ēostre is a “made up” goddess invented by the Medieval Church historian, Bede.

What this argument neglects to consider is that Bede was a Christian monk who was bent on driving paganism out of Britain. He wrote his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in the 8th Century. This was a time when English Pagan customs still survived out on the outskirts and heaths.The term "heathen" refers to the country folk out on the heath practicing the “Old Ways”.

Eradication of the Old Religion was a main priority of the Church in this period. Why, then, would a Christian monk invent a pagan goddess to encourage pagan practice? His goal would be to downplay any Spring fertility goddesses and emphasize the resurrection of Christ.

Einhard the scribe
Einhard the scribe

But, wait. Bede has backup!

As it happens, another monk recorded a reference to Ostara which corroborates Bede’s claim. Einhard, in The Life of Charlemagne (written in the 9th Century), mentions that the month of April is known to the Saxons as Oster-monath (Ôstarmânot), backing up Bede’s mentioning of April as Ēastermōnaþ (Easter month).

The Anglo-Saxons in England were cousins to the German Saxons in continental Europe. They spoke a related language and practiced variations on the same religion. Ēostre to the English is the linguistic counterpart to Ostara of the continental Saxons. Both groups named the month that roughly corresponds with our April for the goddess whose festival was celebrated then.

In vintage Easter cards, Christ is rarely shown or mentioned. 100 years ago it was far more common to see rabbits, chicks, and, curiously, angelic women.

 Female Easter angels are a common motif in vintage cards. Could this be a memory of our lost Easter goddess?
Female Easter angels are a common motif in vintage cards. Could this be a memory of our lost Easter goddess?

Those monks were sneaky little rascals

Scholars have suggested that the early Medieval Church in England actively studied Anglo-Saxon indigenous religion as a strategy to combat it.

Author and scholar Brian Bates explores this tactic in his best selling book, The Way of Wyrd. The author of this historical fiction novel conducted intense research as the framework he built his story around. Professor Bates is the leading scholar in Anglo-Saxon religion, and has taught courses on it at the University of Sussex. His research for the novel included extensive study of medieval manuscripts in the British Library.

The plot of his story revolves around an aspiring young monk in the Christian English kingdom of Mercia who is sent into Anglo-Saxon pagan territory on a stealth mission to learn the customs and religion of the pagans. The head of the monastery explicitly states that through learning the ways of the pagans, they can better combat the indigenous religion and replace it with the new one.

Granted, this is a work of fiction. But, as previously stated, it is a work of historical fiction written by a scholar and based on heavy research.

It is likely that Bede, like the monks in Bate’s story, was conducting his own research on the heathen people within his geographic vicinity. By understanding the elements of the Easter festival, the Church could incorporate some of the themes into the new Christian festival, thereby making the transition more palatable to the “natives.”

There are many factual examples to corroborate this proposed scenario. It is well known that during periods of conversion, pagan temples were destroyed while Christian ones were erected in their stead. Christian festivals were placed on the old pagan festival calendar, and elements of the original festivals were absorbed into the new ones.

We know that the Catholic Church’s “cult of the Saints” often allowed deities sacred to a locality be adopted as local saints or representations of the Virgin Mary.

There are many examples of this, but one that most people are familiar with is the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is still held in special esteem by Irish Catholics and Celtic Christians today as Saint Brigid.

The Greek goddess of the dawn, Eos, is etymologically related to Eostre.  By  Jean-Marc Nattier.
The Greek goddess of the dawn, Eos, is etymologically related to Eostre. By Jean-Marc Nattier.

Congruence with other known European goddesses

Given that European pagans were so frequently portrayed with gross inaccuracy, it seems odd that a Christian monk would invent a gentle fertility goddess associated with things that elicit positive feelings, such as furry bunnies (more accurately, hares), flowers, fuzzy baby chicks, and eggs which symbolize new life, regeneration, and sustenance.

That Ēostre fits the mold of a gentle pagan springtime goddess perfectly, and is not morphed into some kind of monstrous beast is another testament to Bede’s reliability. Again, his bias would have him demonize pagan religion.

These things are associated with other known pagan goddesses. Brigid, again, serves as good example. She is another goddess who is associated with spring and patron of another pagan festival.

The Celtic holiday Imbolc was celebrated with the first signs of Spring. Symbols associated with Imbolc include newborn lambs, milk, other dairy products, and the flame. These things represent nurturing sustenance and new life, re-birth.

The Catholic holiday Candlemas was set in the religious calendar to replace Imbolc. The patron of Candlemas is Saint Brigid. (Are we seeing any parallels?)

An invented goddess, constructed by someone culturally separated from pagan culture, who has an intrinsic heavy bias, would likely fall outside of the paradigm of what we know of pagan spirituality. Ēostre does not. She is a perfect fit.

Vintage Easter Card, demonstrating a tradition of associating a young woman with the holiday, a remnant of our cultural memory of Eostre.
Vintage Easter Card, demonstrating a tradition of associating a young woman with the holiday, a remnant of our cultural memory of Eostre.

Etymological Connection to Other Spring/Dawn Goddesses

Eostre and Ostara are etymological cousins of the Greek Eos, Roman Aurora, and Baltic Ausrine. If Bede were to invent a goddess, would he scratch his head and make sure his fake goddess lined up perfectly with similar goddesses of other Indo-European cultures?

Further, much work has been done to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European (PIE) pantheon. This is the language/culture group from which most of Europe descends. Aeusos or Ushas is the PIE goddess that the goddesses mentioned above descend from. The linguists show that Eostre and Ostara fit within the paradigm.

Let's review

So, we can see that:

A) Catholic monks of this period, like Bede, were instructed to study local pagan customs.

B) Those local pagan customs were routinely absorbed into the new Christian holidays.

C) Pagans were usually portrayed negatively by Christian writers, so it makes little sense to invent a benevolent, nurturing pagan goddess.

D) The goal of the Church was to make pagans forget their religion - not revive it. So again, it makes little sense for a Christian monk to invent a new pagan goddess.

E) The goddess described by Bede fits within the established framework of other pagan goddesses in Europe at this time, giving strength to the idea that Bede described a deity with a very real local following rather than inventing one out of thin air.

Vintage photograph, perhaps representative of Ostara.
Vintage photograph, perhaps representative of Ostara.
The Brothers Grimm statue in Kassel, Germany
The Brothers Grimm statue in Kassel, Germany

More recent evidence

But let’s not stop there, for there is even more evidence! Jacob Grimm came along in the 19th Century, which saw a revival in local folk legends and mythology. Although the Grimm Brothers are famous for fairy tales, they also conducted important work in the burgeoning field of Folklore.

The brothers surveyed the local people all around Germany and in neighboring German speaking regions. Jacob Grimm analyzed his findings and wrote his masterpiece, Teutonic Mythology, an ambitious and comprehensive study of continental German mythology.

Through his study of oral history he discovered that the goddess Ostara was to be found in nearly all German speaking areas.

Very often folklore exists as the only surviving evidence from ages when there was no written record. The folklore recorded by Grimm demonstrated that people miles and miles apart retained shared cultural memories of the same goddess.

Grimm hypothesized that Ostara was a pan-Germanic goddess of fertility, the spring, and the dawn. If Bede invented her in England, then how did illiterate peasants in Germany know of her over one thousand years later? Either she was genuinely worshiped, or Bede had an excellent PR team!

Another vintage Easter card. The merging of the two religious holidays is demonstrated.
Another vintage Easter card. The merging of the two religious holidays is demonstrated.

What's in a Name?

It is important to note that all other Christianized countries in Europe refer to the Easter holiday with a variation of Pascha - which is related to the word Passover. Only languages where Ēostre/Ostara was honored have retained the word relating to her.

In German, Easter is called Ostern. However, the Norse version of Germanic paganism did not include Ostara in their pantheon. So what do they call the holiday in Scandinavia?

In Danish and Norwegian, it is called Påske – a variation of Pascha! This corroborates with the notion that the name of Easter is associated with the Old English Ēostre and Ostern with Ostara. **There is no other way to explain why English and German use Easter/Ostern while the Scandinavian languages use Pascha.**

Vintage Easter card. Eostre seems to say "I'm baaaack!"
Vintage Easter card. Eostre seems to say "I'm baaaack!"

No evidence? You decide.

We can see there is actually quite a bit of evidence to demonstrate that Ēostre/Ostara was, indeed, legitimately worshiped in both England and Germany.

People have been known to believe that certain other mythological figures literally walked the Earth with much less evidence. Whereas, nobody is debating whether Ēostre was or was not a real person - simply that there was a wide spread cult devoted to her veneration.

Yet, some people who believe so fervently in other modern mythologies, often with no evidence at all to back up their own beliefs, vehemently insist that Ēostre was invented by Bede.

Based on a review of the evidence, the only conclusion for such a heated rejection of fact is that the pagan Ēostre is still considered a threat to those who would appropriate her holy day.

Despite the efforts to erase her from history, she lives on not only in the symbols of Easter, but in the very word "Easter" itself.

Human nature often dictates that if you don't like the truth, just deny it. Fortunately, historians, researchers, and scholars like Bede, Einhard, and Grimm have preserved and revived Easter's origins.

What do you think?

Do you think Eostre was historically worshiped in England and Germany before conversion to Christianity?

See results

© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

Comments

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    • profile image

      Michael Norcutt 

      10 months ago

      Why don't they ask the question about the various fictional characters in the Judeo/Christian writings? After all, "Odinism" along with its gods and goddesses were around long before christianity...if their judeo/christian gods are so all knowing and all powerful then why have they only been around for a couple of thousand years where the Aesir and Vanir have been around so much longer? just something a bit more relevant to think about...

    • profile image

      Inoel Bagueira 

      20 months ago

    • CarolynEmerick profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolyn Emerick 

      3 years ago

      I also just found an account of pagan fertility rites at Easter time being conducted as late as the 13th century! If you have access to an academic journal database such as JStor, unfortunately it's not freely available on the web "Dramatic Aspects of Medieval Folk Festivals in England Author(s): Charles Read Baskervill Source: Studies in Philology,Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1920), pp. 19-87

      Also a lot of GREAT information is available here: http://piereligion.org/easter.html

    • CarolynEmerick profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolyn Emerick 

      3 years ago

      @Philip, well, sources were named throughout, Bede and Einhard's mentions are available online, as well as Grimm.

      I did have Philip Shaw's book in the original version of this article, but I took it out because I want to re-read it and revise. It's called "Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons" Shaw is a university professor who did a linguistic study of Germanic goddesses. It looks like his book is now out of print, but copies are available through the Amazon marketplace. - http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Goddesses-Early-German...

    • Philip Finn profile image

      Philip Finn 

      3 years ago from Decatur, Illinois

      Any chance of you posting a list of recommended reading? There's a lot of murky post-internet crap out there, it would be great to have the opinion of an expert.

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 

      3 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Interesting article - especially about the popularity of Easter Angels... I'd never thought of the correlation before, but it makes sense.

    • SarahLMaguire profile image

      SarahLMaguire 

      3 years ago from UK

      Interesting article - upvoted!

      I'd have to study the evidence a bit further myself before coming down on one side or the other in the debate, but a very thought-provoking argument.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Honestly to answer the question posed at the end, I have no idea. But this was a very interesting article and on a topic I was unfamiliar.

      So I learned some things this afternoon.

      Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps

    • profile image

      Wynni 

      3 years ago

      Honestly, the only problem I have is with people who take her existence to claim the invalidity of the resurrection...nevermind that it is easily corroborated with Passover.

      I mean, how dare he get resurrected one day out of her entire month?

    • profile image

      Jaster 

      3 years ago

      To this day, in Poland there is a town on the Baltic coast on the Hel peninsula named Jastarnia (pron yastarnee) where a pagan cult place was located. The Kashubians of northern Poland worshipped a Jasterbog (or Jaster god, pron yasterboog) which itself is remarkably similar to the all-Polish deity Jassa (or Yassa) celebrated as the All Father of the Gods during the Green Week (at the Pentecost).

    • profile image

      Marolyn Robbins-Guarr 

      4 years ago

      I very much enjoyed reading the various Easter origin articles. I have encountered bits of the information before, but not such a variety and not in such detail. Given my rather limited experience of Bede, I nevertheless do not perceive him as someone who would create a mythology or a folk tradition from thin air. I believe he incorporated existing folk traditions and deities. It is good to read such a strong argument for that very thing.

    • profile image

      Yes 

      5 years ago

      Yes yes yes

    • CarolynEmerick profile imageAUTHOR

      Carolyn Emerick 

      5 years ago

      This makes sense, as it seems that Holle has a large presence in Dutch folklore, and many say Holland is named for her, but I've not read of Ostara being prominent in Holland. I almost mentioned Frau Holle in relation to Ostara in the section about Congruence to other pagan goddesses, and might revise it to add her at some point. She also was seen as a stern but nurturing maternal sort of figure and was associated with woodlands and wildlife. After forced conversion, she was twisted into the Percht or Berchta creature, a hideous monster.

    • Vin Chauhun profile image

      Vin Chauhun 

      5 years ago from Durban

      A definite yes :). In some parts of Germany, Easter may be called Pass, probably in areas near Netherlands . The Afrikaners of South Africa call Easter Pass. Afrikaans spoke by the Afrikaners is nearly identical dutch and brought here to South Africa by dutch speakers

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