Eostre: Frequently Asked Questions - from Family Christmas Online™There are many signs of spring - robins laying eggs, flowers blooming, rabbits and hares emerging from their winter hiding places, and the annual plastering of internet blogs and news feeds with stories about how everything about the Christian holiday we call Easter was really stolen from an ancient Saxon goddess named Eostre. If you've never heard of this deity, don't feel bad. In fact, everything we "know" about this "ancient" goddess - except for her name - was invented since the year 1835.
So much misinformation about this topic is annually trumpeted as fact that we thought it would help to document what is actually known about Eostre from historical records, as opposed to suppositions, wishful thinking, and urban legends.
Here's an irony: the more I researched into Eostre, the less I "knew." What I mean is that, in spite of many "authorities" claiming to have detailed knowledge about this goddess, what she was known for, how she was worshipped, etc., I learned that everything but her name was invented - or at best hypothesized - after 1835. The Eostre that people are writing about - and even worshipping in some cases - is not an ancient tradition at all, but a relatively modern fabrication.
That wouldn't bother me or even be worth noticing except that year after year, the same false claims about her myth are recycled by Neo-Pagans attempting to discredit Easter as a Christian holiday. Literally. One headline that frequently appears is "Easter is not a Christian Holiday."
Ironically, some of the same false claims about Eostre are being used by legalistic sects as a reason not to color eggs - a silly and unjustified prohibition.
What Do We Know About Eostre From the Historical Record?We know her name and that some time before 700 AD she was worshipped by Saxons in Britain. The only reason we know even that is that in 725 a Christian Saxon named Bede explained that the Saxon month corresponding to April was named after her (just as our month Mars was named after the Roman god of war). No other reference to her or anyone like her exists in any other ancient writings. In fact, this total lack of evidence outside of Bede's offhand remark has caused many scholars to accuse Bede of making her up or at least of being misinformed.
Why Do People Think They know More about Eostre Than Her Name?
Because of linguistic research done in 1835 by Jacob Grimm (of "The Brothers Grimm"). Grimm noted that a series of ancient Germanic feast days were called by a plural name similar to the name Eostre. Grimm freely admited that "not a trace" of Eostre's existence was known outside of Saxon cultures. But he hypothesized that if there were a Germanic goddess similar to Eostre, her name would be spelled "Ostara." (Pardon me for omitting the little accents, but they look funny on some people's computers.)
That was a big "if," since there is still no historical evidence that any Teutonic or Germanic peoples ever worshipped such a goddess. However, lots of German-speaking writers were glad to have a goddess they could call their own and to "fill in the blanks" with their own suppositions. So, despite never having existed before 1835, the "ancient Teutonic goddess" Ostara has "taken on a life of her own." (Of course to many clueless people, 1835 and 725AD are both "ancient history," so what's the big deal if the goddess they're worshipping is about as old and as historical as, say, Ebenezer Scrooge?)
Grimm and his contemporaries also hypothesized that Eostre/Ostara would probably have been a spring fertility goddess. After all:
Frankly, that reasoning so far makes sense. Sadly, many other authors and publishers of his day published those assumptions as fact. By the mid-1800s, a number of "reference works" defined Eostre as a Saxon spring fertility goddess, as though even that were established fact (it's a good guess, but not established fact).
But things started to get out of hand when Grimm went on to propose that virtually every kind of spring celebration ever popular in northern Europe must have started out as a form of pagan worship, either of the Saxon Eostre or some unknown equivalent (like the hypothetical Ostara).
To give Grimm credit, he may have been hoping to spur further research that would either support or refute his suppositions. But he was writing during an age of romantics. Instead of examining Grimm's hypotheses, many other writers of his generation treated them as facts and went on to build a whole new mythology based on them.
Here's a test for anything you think you know about Ostara - try to find one reference, anywhere, to this goddess anywhere in the world earlier than 1835 - the year Grimm invented her name and people started inventing things about her. (Here's a hint: Books written in the 1960s claiming that Ostara-worship goes back to the dawn of civilization don't count.)
Even stranger, once Grimm invented Ostara, other folks went on a hunt for other goddesses with similar names. An ancient Babylonian goddess named Astarte seemed to fit the bill for some folks. But Astarte-worship was centered in Asia, and it died out many centuries before the earliest mentions of Eostra, 2500 miles from Babylon. There is no historical evidence connecting the two, though many writers have seized on the hypothetical goddess Ostara and invented other hypothetical deities to bridge the gap.
If you want to imagine that there is a connection between Eostre and Astarte, I can't stop you. At the same time, I can claim that Care Bears started the Roman Empire, and we'll both have exactly the same amount of historic evidence to support our claims.
Why is the Christian Feast that Celebrates Jesus' Resurrection Named After a Saxon Goddess?It isn't. In most of the world it isn't even close. It's called "Pasch" or some variation of each language's word for "Passover," since the Bible says Jesus' resurrection occurred the Sunday after the Jewish feast of Passover.
In English-speaking countries, the feast day is named after the Saxon month that approximated our month of April - Eostur-monath. Yes, it seems that Eostur-monath was, in turn, named after the goddess Eostre, just as our month March was named after the Roman god of war. But that doesn't prove that English-speaking Christians based their celebration of Jesus resurrection on old pagan practices.
How was Eostre Worshipped?Nobody knows. If she was a fertility goddess, there were most likely "parties" of a kind not describable in a family-oriented web page. It is possible that these were preceded by a human sacrifice, with the victim's blood being sprinkled over the field.
Grimm and his successors made valiant attempts to connect Eostre to many specific European spring traditions like sword dances, bonfires, colored eggs, and white dresses. But there is no historical evidence that any of those traditions had any relationship at all with Eostre. If Eostre-worship ever took place at all, it's far more likely that it involved human sacrifice than colored eggs or white dresses (or rabbits).
Was Eostre Ever Associated With a Resurrection Myth in Ancient Times?No. This is one of the falsehoods circulated every spring by people claiming that Christians "stole" everything about Pasch (which English-speakers call Easter) from ancient pagan cultures. Since the most important part of the Christian celebration is the resurrection of Jesus, some Neo-Pagans claim that even the idea of resurrection was stolen from Eostre/Ostara/Astarte worship. But neither Eostre, the hypothetical goddess Ostara, nor the unrelated Babylonian goddess Astarte were ever specifically associated with a resurrection myth.
Since the "bird-bunny story" was invented in 1990 (see below), some people have claimed that it is a "resurrection myth" that is really thousands of years old and was the original inspiration for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus. Then again, some people claim that alien space travelers built the pyramids.
Were Colored Eggs Part of Eostre-Worship?No. Jacob Grimm and subsequent writers did include "Easter eggs" as one of the old European traditions that "must" have started with Ostara/Eostre-worship.
But no matter how many "dotted lines" they've tried to draw, or how many outrageous guesses they've made, no scholars have uncovered any credible evidence that colored eggs (or bonfires or sword dances or anything else Grimm suggested) were tied specifically to the worship of Eostra or any pre-Christian European deity.
Yes, "Pasch eggs" (which is what they were called, even in England, before about 1500) were a springtime tradition throughout Europe - far beyond any potential influence of Eostra, but there's no evidence that ties them to any religion of any sort, unless you count the Lent connection (below).
Were Hares and/or Rabbits Symbols of Eostre?No. Hares are important icons of spring in most of Europe. So some of the folks who kept busy imagining connections between Eostre and various European spring traditions thought that it would bolster their case if they could make a connection between Eostre and hares (or rabbits). As far as we know, Jacob Grimm started that effort when he said that Eostre' companion was probably a hare.
Grimm didn't base that assertion on any ancient literature or historical records. Rather, he started with his assumption that all European springtime festival practices traced back to pagan traditions. How to explain the popularity of the German "Easter Hares" in this context? Easy, make the totally unsubstantiated claim that Eoestre hung out with them. Other "add-on" assumptions and myths have strengthened the reputed connection, to the extent that some modern artists paint Eostre with hares or rabbits, or even with rabbit ears.
Subsequent writers have tried and failed miserably to prove a connection between the "Easter Bunny" and any pagan mythology. Outside of the modern, totally fabricated bird-bunny story (below), the closest any of the "researchers" ever came to connecting Eostre with hares (or rabbits) was that Freya's carriage was pulled by cats, and cats are about the size of hares. If that makes your head hurt, it should.
As late as Gehrt's 1884 drawing of Eostre/Ostara (shown right), hares are only one more symbol of spring, along with migrating birds returning to their nests, butterflies, flowers, and - go figure - baby fairies(?).
But What About Eostre Turning a Bird into a Bunny?That is a fairy tale that we can't trace back any farther than 1990, though it has been widely published since it was republished in a children's magazine in 2002. According to the most common version, Eostre saw an injured bird. She realized that if she healed it, it still couldn't fly. So she turned it into a rabbit. But it could still lay eggs.
Like many other suppositions about Eostre, enthusiasts added this story gleefully to her "canon," and began making long explanations for why this centuries-old myth had just now come to light. ("Systemic, unfair Christian oppression of vital Pagan legacies" is the usual suspect.)
The "bird-bunny" story has its charms, but if this fairy tale proves anything, the Wizard of Oz proves that monkeys can fly.
Did Christians Deliberately Schedule Easter to Combat or Coincide with Eostre-Worship?No. Of all the major Christian festivals, Holy Week and Pasch (which English-speaking peoples call "Easter") are the only ones we can place with any kind of accuracy in any particular time of year. Christmas-lovers notwithstanding, we really don't know the month of Jesus' birth. But we do know the month of Jesus death and resurrection, because it synched with the Jewish Passover, which is always between the last week of March and the last week of April.
At first, church leaders tried to honor the Jewish calendar when they scheduled their Holy Week and Pasch celebrations. It didn't take long for them to get out of sync - in fact churches in different regions got out of sync with each other - those Jewish lunar months are hard to figure. But the celebrations have always stayed in April (with only a very occasional detour to the last few days of March).
And this was all settled at least four centuries before Christians had any sustained contact with Saxons. So the claim that Christians deliberately scheduled Holy Week to interfere with - or even to sync up with - Eostre-worship is, frankly, pathetic (if you don't like that word, several stronger could be applied).
Did Christians Steal Eostre's Resurrection Myth when They Created Easter?No. This impossibility is reported as fact on many neo-Pagan sites, and often on sites like the "Huff-Post" that never fact-check their contributors. But Eostre was never associated with a resurrection myth in ancient times, so there would have been nothing to steal.
For another, Christians were preaching Jesus' resurrection in Asia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa centuries before Christians came into contact with any Western European culture that may have worshiped Eostre (or even Grimm's invention Ostara). But if you don't mind introducing time travel into the equation, you still may be able to prove your case.
Here's an irony - not only is this claim ridiculous for many reasons - it's also absurdly ethnocentric. Only English speakers who pay no attention to what's going on linguistically or historically in the rest of the world could ever have invented it. Yes, "Easter" and "Eostre" come from the same Saxon roots. But we're the only folks who call our celebration of Jesus' resurrection "Easter." The rest of the world's Christians call "Pasch" or something similar.
Please explain to me how the fact that Italian, Greek, and Lebanese Christians celebrated Pasch in the second century was a result of eighth-century Saxons calling the festival "Easter."
To fix the time-gap issue, some Neo-Pagans who claim that Eostre and Astarte are the same goddess make the claim that Christians stole the whole notion of a divine resurrection from Astarte. But Astarte was never known for a resurrection myth, either. (Other Neo-Pagans claim that Christians stole the notion of "Easter egg rolls" from Astarte. But Astarte worship is not specifically connected with eggs, either.)
Why Do Eggs Signify Spring to Northern European Cultures?Except for domesticated birds like chickens, most birds lay eggs only in the spring. This is a natural phenomenon, neither invented by, nor exclusively celebrated by any particular cult or culture.
Also, during the Middle Ages, Christians had to give up eggs for Lent, so hard-boiling eggs was a way to preserve them. It's also likely that coloring them was a way to celebrate breaking that particular fast on "Pasch Sunday." Ironically the earliest records of serving colored eggs at Easter come from Eastern Europe and Asia, not from Eostre's "stomping ground."
Coming from a family that used to "pickle" hard-boiled eggs in vinegar and beet juice to preserve them, I also can't help but wonder if some of the ancient "colored" eggs were the result of some attempt at preserving them until Lent was over. Of course, that's just my supposition, and I've never seen it anywhere else, so who knows? On the other hand, my guess is as good as anybody else's, and frankly better than some.
Why Do Hares and Rabbits Signify Spring to Northern Cultures?Because in early spring, wild hares and rabbits are unusually busy and visible, as they try to eat enough to recover from their winter fasts, build nests, and mate, all at the same time. By late spring, they've caught up on all that, and they've also figured out the best times and places to graze without being seen. So if you see a bunch of hares or rabbits out and about during daylight hours, it's probably spring. This is a natural phenomenon, neither invented by, nor exclusively celebrated by any particular cult or culture.
Why Do My Reference Books "Know" so Much More about Eostre that I Do?Sloppy scholarship; passing on "common knowledge" as fact without bothering to "fact-check." The sad truth is that not every weird claim equating Eostre with Astarte, repeating Grimm's guesses about Eostre as fact, or outlining Eostre-worship's effects on European Pasch celebrations comes from New Age materials. I've seen the same post-1835 guesswork-reported-as-fact in respected encyclopedias and - of all things - Bible commentaries by otherwise respectable scholars.
Where do they find support for such ideas? From other scholars who are repeating Grimm's guesses as facts, based on other "reference" works that repeated Grimm's guesses as facts. It's a vicious cycle. But no matter how far you trace it, you can never find a "source" for any of this "knowledge" before 1835.
Why Do New-Agers "Know" So Much More about Eostre than I Do?Because they're not afraid to "drink the Kool-Aid." In addition to accepting "common knowledge" about Eostre from sources that "should have known better," they're quite glad to glom together other traditions from other dozen cultures. To some writers, Eostre represents all spring goddesses, or in some cases "THE Goddess," so anything you do to worship her counts.
To most of the same writers, Easter Bunnies "have always" been part of Eostre's myth. Of course this is only true if you take "always" to mean "since the 1800s." But for some people, there's no difference between a century and a millenium. Or between history and wishful thinking.
Why Am I So "Hard" On Eostre?I grew up reading about the Greek gods and goddesses, and it would never occur to me to write a diatribe against, say, Artemis-worshippers.
But Artemis-worshippers don't flood the internet every spring with silly articles about "The True Story Behind Easter" claiming, among other things, that the 1900-year-old Christian doctrine of the resurrection was "stolen" from an ancient pagan deity that, frankly, nobody "knew" anything about until 1835 (and which, frankly, we still know nothing about save her name). Or that the centuries-old trans-European tradition of giving colored eggs was "stolen" from an English "Easter Bunny" myth that was invented in 1990.
If you want to worship a goddess who is just as much a modern creation as, say, the Jedi religion that some Star Wars fans espouse, you have every right. But please stop using her as "proof" that Christianity is a fraudulent and entirely derivative religion.
What are the Takeaways?If you like dabbling in New Age fantasies and don't mind that the "arcane ancient knowledge" you're pouring your spiritual energies into is really a bundle of unproven suppositions that started accumulating in 1835, feel free to light candles to whomever you want and call her by whatever name you choose. You won't be any worse off for worshipping a goddess that was more or less invented in 1835 than you would be for worshiping one that goes back a couple millennia. Unless you decided to honor Eostre in the way she was most likely honored (if she was honored at all), and revive human sacrifice. In that case, please seek counseling, or at least stay away from my part of the world.
If you are a Christian who has been told that Easter Bunnies and Easter Eggs are evil because they were invented by Eostre-worshippers, you've been lied to. Once again, there is no connection. In fact, both were invented by Christians - German Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox respectively.
Now, it could be that the people who told you this thought they were telling the truth because they'd been lied to as well. So they're just gullible, not deliberately dishonest. But people who pass on urban myths as divine revelation are even more dangerous. In fact, if the list of innocuous things your church prohibits because of some just-discovered connection to some arcane evil keeps getting longer, you may want to consider finding a church where you're saved by grace through faith, not by knee-jerk obedience to one ignorance-based prohibition after another.
If you like coloring Easter Eggs, go for it. It's a wholesome way to celebrate spring, just as making snowmen is a wholesome way to celebrate the first snowfall of the season. (Of course, now that I make that connection, some nutcase will claim that making snowmen was originally a pagan practice that has since been usurped by Christians. Then some other nutcase will fall for that claim and forbid his church members to build snowmen. Stupidity is "the gift that keeps on giving"!)
Outside of the fact that Christians all over Northern and Eastern Europe tend to color eggs during Holy Week, and some groups used to give up eggs for Lent, colored eggs have no religious, occult, or superstitious connotation at all.
If you want to know more about the Easter Bunny, check out our article The Myth of the Myth of the Easter Bunny.
If you want to find out more about the Christian festivals called Holy Week, Pasch, and (in English-speaking countries) Easter, check out our Easter Frequently Asked Questions article.
Finally, if you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you.
Have a Blessed Easter - Thanks for stopping by. God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.
Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online
For more information about Easter, Easter traditions, and related subjects:
Note: Family Christmas Online™ is a trademark of Breakthrough Communications(tm) (www.btcomm.com).
All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul D. Race.
Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.
For more information, please contact us
|Other Christmas resources and affiliated sites:|
|- Christmas Memories and Collectibles -|
|- Family Activities and Crafts -|
|- Trains and Hobbies -|
|- Music -|