Jacob Grimm and the Creation of Ostara

Jacob GrimmJacob Grimm, one of "The Brothers Grimm" was a linguistic researcher as well as an avid fan of folk literature. In 1835 Grimm noted that a series of ancient Germanic feast days were called by a plural name similar to the name Eostre. Grimm took this to mean that Bede was correct in his 725AD report that the Saxons once worshiped a goddess named Eostre. That was a big step in itself, since there was no other ancient evidence of Eostre, or another goddess Bede mentioned, Hrede.

Saxon and "Old High German" shared much vocabulary, although most of the word endings were different, and some of the vowels had "shifted." Keenly aware of the most common differences, Grimm went looking for other evidence that a Teutonic or Germanic goddess similar to Eostre had left traces in the German language. Based on a few traces he found, Grimm then 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.)

Grimm and his contemporaries also hypothesized that Eostre (and by extension, Ostara) would probably have been a spring fertility goddess. After all:

Frankly, that reasoning so far makes sense. By the mid-1800s, based on those hypotheses, 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). Grimm even hypothesized that Ostara-worship was so important to the ancient German-speaking peoples that the church deliberately chose the name "Ostara" for its Easter ("Ostern") celebrations - in spite of the fact that, before 1835, no one had ever heard of 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 and transcendentalists. Instead of examining Grimm's hypotheses, 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.

The following quote is from Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, Vol. 1, in a translation by Stallybrass. I have spelled out some of Grimm's abbreviations.

In Deutsche Mythologie, Volume 2, Grimm added colored eggs to his list of widespread European traditions that "must have had" pagan origins.

In other passages, Grimm added sword dances to the list of ancient European spring celebrations that "must have" originated in Eostre/Ostara worship. He also was the first to suggest that Eostre's companion "was probably" a hare, though that suggestion doesn't seem to have got much traction until 1870 when another writer republished it. But by the early 1900s, a wide range of sources report all of Grimm's hypotheses as facts, including and especially Eostre's supposed relationship to colored eggs and March hares.

How did all of the "must haves," "might have beens," and "probably weres" turn into "now we know"? No new evidence had come to light. In fact, no new evidence for the existence of Ostara or any of Grimm's hypotheses about Eostre have come to light since Grimm's original publications.

Like today's "urban legends," attractive fictions were repeated so often that they came to be perceived as facts. I'm okay if you believe Bede was reporting on a real Saxon belief. I'm even okay with you thinking Eostre was probably a spring fertility goddess - that's at least likely.

But if you believe that Eostre really had anything to do with hares or bunnies or eggs, you'll love the urban legends about the lady who microwaved her poodle or the one about the $50 Neimann-Marcus cookie recipe. They're equally fact-based.

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