Sunday, March 24

A Timeline of the Goddess "Ostara"

Is Ostara an ancient goddess from Europe?  Is she actually named Ester/Eostre and of Norse heritage?  Was there a goddess at all?  Or was this actually just an old word for "springtime"?  Was she just a smudge of ancient sarcasm that was taken too seriously by some?   

Mama Stacey took a dig through some history and invites you to take a look.



725 BCE

The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, publishes a work titled "De Temporum Ratione" (On the Reckoning of Time).  Within this work, he features a chapter that attempts to explain the origins of the names of English calendar months.  This chapter features two sentences regarding the Easter season:   

“Eosturmonath [April] 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 the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

And that’s it.  That’s the first written record of Eostre.   

Since it's writing, Bede's comments have been dashed by scholars from the age of medieval academia through to today’s anthropological researchers.  Why?  Well, for starters, the conversion to Christianity had been complete for over a century when Bede wrote his book, and yet De Temporum Ratione is littered with the names of obscure Pagan goddesses.  Researchers have performed scholarly acrobatics in an attempt to trace the existence of these goddesses, but have had very little success. 

In general, although Bede seemed to enjoy writing about Pagan practices and rituals, the information he provides is considered questionable.  It is now viewed by some in the academic world as either a tongue-in-cheek reference or a whimsical flourish at best.

Supporters of Bede, however, point to the surviving linguistic fossils within English and German language, citing that the word for the Christian Resurrection holiday in both languages (Easter and Ostern, respectively) could viably be descendent from the word 'Eostre'.  For some scholars, it makes sense that an Anglo-Saxon (a blend of early British and German peoples) term would filter solely into modern English and German language, especially in light of the fact that the word for the holiday in most other languages and cultures is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach (think Passover). 


1835 CE

Jacob Grimm (yes, that Grimm) wrote a piece which tried to trace the origins of the German Ostern.  He decided Bede’s goddess Eostre was the root word, however reconstructed the word in German to be “Ostara”.  Yes, Grimm himself invented the word we use to this day.

Grimm was a firm believer in Bede’s goddess and wrote to support it, although he makes some pretty severe academic leaps while doing so.  His writings used many phrases such as “must have”, “probably”, “might have”, and “seems to”.  Grimm’s works were notoriously willy-nilly in their fact checking… so much so that when Grimm put out the second version of his book on German grammar he noted in the preface that he had gladly torn the first version to pieces and that the new version was a complete rewrite.  

Ultimately, Grimm supports Bede’s goddesses by noting that a devout Christian probably wouldn’t have been in the business of creating Pagan deities on a whim. 



This idea is supported by modern scholars like Audrey Meaney who wrote that Bede was probably surrounded by older monks who had a wealth of information regarding the Pagans.  However modern decriers, like that of Raymond Ian Page, cite the act of historical romanticism as probable evidence that Bede was not inaccurate only in his writings of Paganism, but also in his writings of Christian history.  Page cites evidence that Bede romanticized the ousting of Pagan priests, mass baptisms and forced conversion when historical documentation shows the process was far from bloodless, easy, or pleasant for most.  


1859 CE

Georg Zappert, an unaccredited literary scholar, announced that he had found a portion of a 9th or 10th century manuscript which included five lines of an Old High German lullaby on it.  Translated, the fourth verse reads “Ostra for the child leaves, honey and sweet eggs.”  

"Althochdeutsches Schlummerlied", the Old High German Lullaby
 Unfortunately, Zappert had been suspected of previous literary forgeries and this one was no different.  It is generally agreed to be a forgery, although Grimm believed so much in the lullaby that he was to write a defense of the piece, but never did.  Zappert died that same year and the matter has been left to scholarly debate.


1882 CE

Jacob Grimm puts out another revision of his work “Deutsche Mythologie” (Teutonic Mythology) which includes an etymological analysis of the word Ostara.  He links the word to the Norse ‘austr’, the Old High Germanôstar’, and the Gothic ‘áustr’.  These words all correlate to the rising sun.  

Trying to relate this back to the existence of an ancient goddess, Grimm quotes from the Prose Edda, a collection of Icelandic poetry which includes the Gylfaginning (The Tricking of Gylfi).  The story includes a character named Austri, one of four dwarves or spirits in Norse mythology who hold up the sky.  Austri is most commonly placed in the East, where the sun rises.  Grimm suggests that there may have been a feminine version of Austri named Austra and that she was an Old Saxon goddess of the dawn.  He proposes no other backing for the claim however and further suggests that she is little known because her cult would have died out before Norse culture was in full swing.



1959 CE

Scholar J. Knoblach links the word Eostre to the name of a regional Christian feast in the spring and not a goddess.


1970s CE

Modern Germanic Heathery is revived in Europe, Iceland, and America.  The reconstruction relies heavily on historical fact checking and verifiable manuscripts from Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon antiquity.  Ostara is rejected as a goddess and holiday in favor of the more historically accurate Sigrblót and/or Sumarmál.


1981 CE

Gale Owens-Crocker, a professor of Anglo-Saxon culture at University of Manchester, published a work wherein she included the name Eostre in a listing of Indo-European deities representing ‘dawn’.  The linguistic links between dawn goddesses of many cultures is fairly convincing and generally accepted etymology: the Hindu ‘Usas’, the Hellenic ‘Eos’, the Roman ‘Aurora’, and Bede’s ‘Eostre’, etc.


1989 CE

Friedrick Kluge’s dictionary of German Etymology traces the word Ostern to the root words for “orient” and “dawn” instead of Bede and Grimm’s Eostre. 


Mama Stacey's Thoughts

Modern Paganism is largely romanticized.  Really, it’s a string of reconstructed faiths and re-written and Disney-fied cultural practices.  So, on occasion, inventive flair goes too far, flying in the face of facts and actual history.  We Pagans are pretty light on the discussion of blood sacrifices (Capacocha ceremonies anyone?), but we'll talk your ear off about the historical use of comfrey right?  It's our faith, we're making it up as we go, and that's okay.  Just know that Eostre/Ostara is no different.  

Previously, I’ve written on the invented mythology of the Goddess Ostara and her transformation of a bird into a hare.  Similarly, Eostre is erroneously cited as the ultimate root-word for femininity, so much so that it is the namesake of the female hormone ‘oestrogen’.  This is simply untrue.  

But, in the end, was Eostre a goddess?  Personally, I feel that she was not.  I feel that these words (Austra, Eostre, Ostara) were more the embodiment of the spring season.  The linking of the word to the dawn and the coming of new light are reflected in the season for me.  Spring is a new beginning, a fresh "day" as it were.  

Do you have to come to the same conclusion?  Nope.  But I hope you got a little something out of this research and that maybe it answered some questions for you.


Sources for those who wish to know more:

1-      Sermon, Richard.  "From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?".  Time and Mind, Volume 1, Number 3, November 2008 , pp. 331-343
2-      Cusack, Carole.  “The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s)”.  The Pomegranate, Volume 9, Number 1, 2007, pp. 22-40

Free Google Document = The Goddess Eostre/Cusack
3-      Grimm, Jacob.  Deutsche Mythologie”.  1800’s

Free electronic document of the 1882 English translation = Teutonic Mythology/Grimm

2 comments:

  1. First off, I would just like to say that I am SO glad to have found your blog! Being a pagan mother is new to me (ie I have a 4 month old baby girl at home ^_^) and all of your posts have been fantastic reads!

    My comment for here is just to share my view really quick on the Gods and Goddesses. I personally believe that they are all ultimately symbols for the natural world around us. And I also believe that they all had to start somewhere. I also believe in the great power of the mind and what it can do. In a way, I believe that the Gods and Goddesses that we have and worship are something of a human creation, but no less real for that. So while Eostre might be a relatively new deity, I think that for as long as people have been recognizing her as a real being, that she may have become one. I see no harm in worshiping her now if anyone chooses to do so. Though I do agree that for the most part, I just think of Ostara in terms of the coming of spring, and don't necessarily tie it to any particular God or Goddess.

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    1. So glad that you enjoy the blog posts Sabrina! I'm also very happy that you are comfortable with celebrating Ostara using your own take on the Goddess. Paganism is a living faith and I love when people actively work to interact, learn, and mold it to shape of their heart.

      Congratulations on the baby girl!

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