Anglo-Saxon · Asatru · blot · folklore · Holidays · reconstructionism

Some thoughts on Ēostre

Recently, in relation to my previous post on Bede’s Spring, a good friend pointed me to an article entitled Ēostre – Real Goddess or Bede’s Invention? It was published in 2015, but it’s still a very good encapsulation of the pro-Ēostre side of the argument, so I thought I’d do a bit of a response/analysis of a two year old blog post. Ahem.

I won’t be reposting the entire article here, but it’s all there in the link at the top. Emphasis in the original, throughout.

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 this very obviously sets up the author in the pro-Ēostre camp, and somewhat disingenuously suggests that the only people who would deny the existence of Ēostre as a pan-Germanic deity are those who somehow have an interest in suppressing a revival of Asatru. I am constrained to point out that there is a lot of variation within contemporary Asatru on a variety of subjects, and that includes very much the question of whether some deities (such as Hreda/Hreða and Ēostre) are legitimate historical pan-Germanic deities, local tribal deities that have been “jumped up” to a higher status, or literary inventions.

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.

Well, no.

First of all, the references to Ēostre come from On the Reckoning of Time, not from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Just to get the facts straight.

But in a more general sense, all throughout Medieval church literature we see references to past pagan practices. The penetentials, Saints’ lives, and sermons are filled to the brim with the Christians telling us what not to do. The Medieval mindset didn’t see such things as encouraging pagan worship, but as a corrective measure.

It is also the case that medieval literature (particularly the Sagas of Icelanders, but examples can be found throughout) made use of presumed pagan practices to emphasize the “otherness” of the pre-Christian world. Thus we see descriptions of children being exposed in pagan times, offerings being made to idols, etc. as examples of how awful things were in the bad old days, before Christianity came to those benighted folk. Hel, even the Bible includes descriptions of pagan worship. In short, Bede wouldn’t have seen a simple reference to the source of a month-name as “encouraging” anything at all, whether or not it was invented or taken from a local tribal goddess,any more than William of Monmouth was encouraging pagan religion when he claimed that the original Britons came from Troy.

Further, if I may be permitted to quote Philip A. Shaw in Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World (p. 65):

As Herren (1998)* has shown, moreover, the early eighth century saw considerable interest in Graeco-Roman mythology and its correspondences with native pagan mythology in southern Anglo-Saxon centres, including Canterbury. Such interests would certainly be consonant with the production of a listing of Anglo-Saxon month-names in relation to their Roman equivalents, as in chapter 15 of De Temporum Ratione.

So there’s really nothing to support the assertion that 8th century scholars in England would be concerned about “encouraging” pagan practices. Ms. Emerick continues:

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.

“Genocide not make one great,”
as Yoda might say

Yes, absolutely. In fact, here’s the relevant passage from chapter 29 of Einhard’s work:

He [Charlemagne**] gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks. He likewise designated the winds by twelve appropriate names; there were hardly more than four distinctive ones in use before. He called January, Wintarmanoth; February, Hornung; March, Lentzinmanoth; April, Ostarmanoth; May, Winnemanoth; June, Brachmanoth; July, Heuvimanoth; August, Aranmanoth; September, Witumanoth; October, Windumemanoth; Novemher, Herbistmanoth; December, Heilagmanoth. He styled the winds as follows; Subsolanus, Ostroniwint; Eurus, Ostsundroni-, Euroauster, Sundostroni; Auster, Sundroni; Austro-Africus, Sundwestroni; Africus, Westsundroni; Zephyrus, Westroni; Caurus, Westnordroni; Circius, Nordwestroni; Septentrio, Nordroni; Aquilo, Nordostroni; Vulturnus, Ostnordroni.

UPDATE (3/22/2017) 

In re-reading the passage above, I realized that, rather than being a “backup” of Bede, the passage from Einhard actually undermines the idea that what Bede is presenting is a pan-Germanic concept. Note that the passage says “He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks.”

Those weren’t the original names the Franks called the months. In fact, Einhard goes out of his way to say Charlemagne replaced the Frankish names with these names. In the specific case of April, he replaced it with a form derived from Bede’s account. Why would the Champion of the Faith replace a “barbarous” Frankish month-name with a pagan Anglo-Saxon month name? Wouldn’t he replace it with a name that was by the early 9th century (Einhard states the month renaming happened after Charlemagne’s coronation) associated with Christianity, rather than paganism? One which was popularized not only by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, but which was ensconced in one of the most widely-distributed works of Christianity at the time? (See below)

No, this doesn’t “back up” Bede at all. It derives from Bede. Charlemagne replaced the “barbarous” (i.e., pagan) Frankish name with a good Christian name, because that’s what the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were calling the celebration of the resurrection, and that would be completely consistent with Charlemagne’s political and social policies of the time.


But note that all that this corroborates is the name of the month (Eostermonath / Ostarmanoth). It gives absolutely no information as to the source of the name. To claim Einhard is “backup” for Bede’s claim that the month is named after the goddess Ēostre is simply untrue.

Ms. Emerick continues:

Scholars have suggested that the early Medieval Church in England actively studied Anglo-Saxon indigenous religion as a strategy to combat it. … It is likely that Bede, like the monks in Bate’s [sic] story [The Way of Wyrd], 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.”

This hardly seems “likely” at all, for a couple of reasons.

First, although Ms. Emerick points out (rightly) that Brian Bates wrote his book based on a lot of historical research, he is himself a practicing Anglo-Saxon pagan, and thus comes at his subject from a certain point of view that is naturally inclined towards sympathy towards the pagans. This isn’t disqualifying by any means, but it must be borne in mind.

Second, Brian Bates’ book is set in 674 CE, already in the twilight of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, which was largely complete by that time. Bede wrote his On the Reckoning of Time fifty years later, long after the “official” conversion process had been completed. Even Wessex, the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain proper, had a Christian law code in place by 695. Pope Gregory’s famous letter to Mellitus, in which he encourages Mellitus and Augustine to make use of existing pagan practices, was written in 601 CE. Nearly three generations had passed, and although pagan practices may have endured under Christian guise, actual paganism was largely wiped out by this time, except perhaps in the remotest hinterlands, and even then, it was known to be on its way out. And Bede was writing in 725 CE, several decades even later into the Christianization process. In short, the missionary work in Anglo-Saxon England was well over by the time Bede was writing. What was left was just cleanup; there wasn’t any “research” needed.

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. … 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.

Again, it must be pointed out that Bede did not do anything of the sort. He only supplied a name; all the associations with bunnies (which probably come from the release of rabbits during the Roman Floralia in late April) and the rest aren’t mentioned in Bede at all. All he does is give a name. Any other associations are either later imports from other sources, derivative from the etymological meaning of the name itself (more on that below), or, as I suspect, from the character of the celebrations in the month of April, which still survived in folk-memory and very likely folk-custom, in a Christianized form. The key is that those celebrations don’t necessarily have to be linked to Bede’s goddess.

Bede names the goddess Ēostre. He never gives any details other than “in [her] honour feasts were celebrated in [April].” That’s it.

If there are pagan practices and iconography that have crept into Christian Easter celebrations over the years (and I think there very definitely are), then all that tells us is that there were pagan celebrations that had those same qualities at around roughly the same time as Easter. It does not necessarily mean that Bede’s identification of Ēostre as the object of those pagan celebrations is accurate.

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. …

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.**

To my mind, this is really the heart of the argument, and the one which might have the strongest weight. But it should be pointed out that the commonality among all those goddesses is not spring, but rather dawn. A lot of people sort of hand-wave the “dawn is symbolic of spring” thing, but there really isn’t anything to point to that in the sources. Eos, Aurora, Aušrinė, etc. aren’t specifically celebrated in the springtime, as far as I’m aware.

But as for the last statement, I am once more constrained to point out that just because a month of the year had a given name, and that name was appropriated for the Christian celebration that happened around that same time of year, does not necessarily mean there was a goddess by that name!

But later on, Ms. Emerick invokes Jacob Grimm, who was admittedly both a founding light in the field and a proponent of the Ostara-as-pan-Germanic-goddess theory.

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!

In point of fact, there is a school of thought amongst scholars that the popularization of the name “Easter” instead of “paschal” in Germany was due to the presence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries, who were regularly sent there to finish the job that Charlemagne so vigorously pursued. They spoke a very closely related language, and if they were instructing their new charges in Christian celebrations, they would naturally use the term they knew back home, and precisely because it had appeared in Bede’s work, which was “one of the essential ecclesiastical textbooks of the early Middle Ages” according to Philip A. Shaw in Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, p. 69. So what Ms. Emerick dismisses with a joke is actually a scholarly theory for precisely what happened.

It is worth pointing out that in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Old Norse sources, variations on “paschal” are used for Easter. It’s only in English-speaking countries and Germany (where those Anglo-Saxon missionaries were employed at exactly the right time to imprint their native term on a new Christian holiday; at the moment of conversion) that we see terms relating to Easter/Ostar/etc.

But let’s explore Grimm’s work in this context as well, since it seems to figure largely in this part of the essay:

In the Edda a male being, a spirit of light, bears the name of Austri, so a female one might have been called Austra ; the High German and Saxon tribes seem on the contrary to have formed only an Ostarâ, Eástre (fern.), not Ostaro, Eastra (masc). And that may be the reason why the Norsemen said pâskir and not austrur : they had never worshipped a goddess Austra, or her cultus was already extinct. (Teutonic Mythology Vol. I, p. 291)

In volume II, p. 781, Grimm unfortunately seems so enamored of a connection between a hypothetical Ostara and various well-attested goddesses that he makes an unwarranted leap, inferring absence of evidence as evidence of absence:

May we then identify Ostara with the Slav goddess of spring Vesna, the Lith. vasara (aestas), Lett, vassara, and with ver and ȇap in the forms ascribed to them on p. 754? True, there is no counterpart, no goddess answering to Marzana; but with our ancestors the notion of a conflict between two male antagonists, the giants Summer and Winter, must have carried the day at a very early time [to the exclusion of the goddesses].

In short, he’s saying that Ostara should be held as equivalent to those other goddesses, without any sort of real evidence, based entirely on the hypothetical construct that there was a such a myth that would justify doing so, but it was replaced early on with a myth involving male giants. No real justification at all, just wishful thinking and saying “it must have been so, because it would make my theory work.”

I’m a huge fan of Grimm’s work, but sometimes his 19th century roots are showing, and don’t hold up to the standards of modern scholarship. This would seem to be one such place.

Ms. Emerick leaves us with yet another parting shot attempting to speak at motive:

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.

Yeah, not remotely a Christian here, but very much an Ēostre-skeptic. Let’s not try to ascribe nefarious motives to what you claim is an “historical analysis of evidence that is often overlooked in the assessment of the historicity of the “cult” of Eostre/Ostara.”

Let us review.

  • Bede and Einhard both agree there was a month (April) with the name cognate to “dawn” in many languages. 
  • Doubtless many pagan things happened in April, like they do in all months. 
  • The Christian Easter most often happened around that same time. 
  • There are a lot of obviously pagan practices and iconography that are associated with Christian Easter. 
  • Bede claims there was a goddess from whose name the month-name came.

None of that adds up to “the goddess that Bede names is connected to the practices that got associated to Easter.” I think it’s far more likely that there was some sort of April/spring celebration with all the symbols and associations of fertility and the like in Germanic culture, and those associations got connected to the Christian Easter celebration in order to assist the transition from pagan culture to Christian culture, but ultimately the only evidence for a Germanic goddess of the dawn, celebrated in the spring, is Bede, and he was writing generations after the conversion, and centuries after the month itself was named, so it’s entirely likely he gave a folk-etymology of the name of the month, either creating it out of whole cloth, or connecting it to a genuine local tribal deity who happened to have a linguistic connection.

The truth will, ultimately, never be known, but let no one say it’s a done deal that Ēostre existed as some pan-Germanic goddess. The evidence  is strong supporting the idea that some sort of spring celebration with a lot of our modern Easter trappings once existed. It is also evident that the name of the month was cognate to our modern Eostre/Ostara/Easter. But the leap becomes the notion that this month got its name from some pan-Germanic goddess (unknown in the Germanic lands of Scandinavia) whose existence was completely forgotten until Bede recalled it and wrote it down in his book, which happened to be highly influential at the time the Christian Easter celebration was introduced in exactly the lands outside of England where the name was later recorded.

I’m frankly inclined to go with Shaw’s explanation of the origin of the goddess Ostara; that she was associated with a local Saxon tribe in Kent, and Bede, having obtained much of his information from the region, associated the goddess with the month name, without any real cause, in order to provide an explanation for it. The meaning of “shining” or “golden” (Proto-Germanic *austrōn) could very well make sense to a month (April) which sees a retreat of winter weather and the start of sunnier days. An association with a personified “dawn” is superfluous.


* The reference as given in Shaw is; “Herren, Michael W. 1998. “The Transmission and Reception of Graeco-Roman Mythology in Anglo-Saxon England, 670-800”, Anglo-Saxon England, 27: 87-103.

** Many of us prefer to call him Charles the Butcher, for his genocide against the Saxons who refused to give up the worship of the gods of their Folk at the Massacre of Verden, but I use the common term here for ease of understanding.

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