A Brief History of Ostara

Perhaps the most misunderstood holiday of the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is Ostara.  Many Pagans would be surprised to learn that the popular notions of its history and imagery are based upon Nineteenth Century conjecture and the scantest of historical evidence.  This shouldn’t matter in terms of actual spiritual practice; just because something isn’t historical doesn’t preclude it from being the basis for meaningful spirituality.  But understanding the development of the holiday should matter, if only to dispel commonly-held misconceptions about its’ history.

“Ostara”, by Johannes Gehrts (1884, public domain)

“Ostara”, by Johannes Gehrts (1884, public domain)

The history of the modern Ostara is a knotty one.  Its roots stretch back into the distant Proto-Indo-European past, while its practice has been influenced by the Christian Easter, Jacob Grimm, and the Neo-Pagan movement of the mid-Twentieth Century.  But before we can begin examining its’ origins and development, we must mention the beliefs commonly held about Ostara.  The most prevalent is that Ostara is named after Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, and that she may have been a variant of Ishtar or Astarte [4]. Another popular claim is that the Easter bunny and the Easter egg are re-appropriated Pagan symbols of fertility associated with Eostre and Her holiday, and that they can trace their roots back to Ishtar. Still another holds that the Easter bunny is derived from a lunar hare seen in both far- and near-Eastern mythologies [4]. Following this view, the modern Ostara seeks to honor Eostre and the arrival of Spring by celebrating the fertility now showing itself in the land around us, often appropriating the “bunny and egg” imagery used by the modern western Easter.

The problem with this interpretation is that much of it is historically unfounded.  So what, then, do we know about historical Ostara and Spring Equinox traditions?  Where did our popular ideas about Ostara come from?  And how did we come to develop them into the holiday that is familiar to so many Pagans today?

Historical Origins

There is no doubt that the Spring Equinox held significance amongst a number of ancient Indo-European and near-Eastern religions, with the Romans, Persians, and Babylonians all beginning their calendar years around that time [1][5][6]. The Salii, an order of priests dedicated to Mars, would hold public festivals on March 1 in ancient Rome [9]. In Babylonia, this was the time for the Akitu, a spring festival centered on the imprisonment then escape of the God Marduk and His subsequent marriage to the Earth Goddess Ishtar [7][8],

Arriving at “Bet Akitu”, god Marduk begins to celebrate with both the upper and nether world gods (the statues of gods were arranged around a huge table such as in a feast) then Marduk returns to the city at night celebrating his marriage to goddess “Ishtar” where earth and heaven are united, and as the gods unite so is this union arranged on earth. Thus the king personifies this union by playing the role of marrying the highest priestess of the Esagila where they would both sit at the throne before the population and they recite special poems for the occasion. This love is going to bring forth life in spring. [7]

 

But we know very little about the historical Ostara or the pre-Christian Spring Equinox holidays of Northern and Western Europe.  The pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles likely observed the Spring Equinox, as their surviving megaliths are oriented on a solar basis.  But there is no clear evidence that the Spring Equinox received any special attention by the pre-Christian Celts [3], and no reference to Ostara itself can be found before 725 C.E.  It was this year that Bede, a Christian monk from Northumbria, briefly described the holiday and its namesake Deity as part of his De Temporum Ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”). Bede gave the name Eosturmononath to the fourth lunar month, which ran from mid-March to mid-April:

Eosturmononath has a name which is now translated as “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor 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. [2]

 

Nothing else was written on either Ostara or Eostre for more than a millennium, until they captured the imagination of the famed German folklorist Jacob Grimm.  Writing in his Deutsche Mythologie (1839), Grimm postulates that the Old High German name for Easter (Ostern) must be derived from Bede’s Goddess [2][10]. It is also from Grimm that we get the theory connecting Eostre to eggs,

To what we said on p. 290 I can add some significant facts. The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate : I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people’s amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences. [11]

 

There are two problems with Grimm’s interpretation.  First, it must be noted that the only pre-modern references to either Ostara or Eostre are in Bede’s De Temporum Ratione.  While this doesn’t mean that Eostre was never an Anglo-Saxon Goddess (as we will see), it leaves us very little concrete foundation for the historical Ostara.  The second problem is that Grimm’s association of Teutonic Easter customs in [10] and [11] to an earlier Pagan holiday is largely conjecture.  While he uses what sounds like a solid rationale (that all of the folkloric Easter elements that aren’t obviously of Christian origin may well be from an earlier Pagan festival), there is little concrete historical evidence to back his claims.  Furthermore, there are problems with associating the egg and the hare with Eostre and Ostara.  The Easter hare doesn’t appear in recorded history until 1678, and was only found in Southwest Germany until the Eighteenth Century  [2].  Its late discovery and localized observance throw doubt on its origins as an ancient Pagan custom.  The Easter egg is a bit trickier, as such imagery fits well into a Pagan worldview.  It is known that a number of ancient religions employed some form of a “Cosmic Egg” myth [12], including the Celts [3].  However, the egg imagery fits just as well into a Christian cosmology as it does into a Pagan one:

The egg is probably the most well known symbol of Easter, and was of great significance to the early Church…  Spring eggs heralded the beginning of new life after the cold winter months, and so symbolized the resurrection of Jesus.  By the Middle Ages, it was customary throughout Europe to give decorated eggs on Easter Sunday, when they could finally be eaten after the long lenten fast…  [2]

 

Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn

One of the most popular misconceptions about Eostre is that She is a Teutonic derivation of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar [4].  While Ishtar can loosely be connected to Easter, there is very little evidence that would otherwise connect Her to Eostre.  As was discussed earlier, the Spring Equinox was the time for the Babylonian holiday of Akitu, and that part of the festivities honored Ishtar’s marriage to the sky God Marduk.  This is significant for Easter because Akitu served as one of the templates for what would become the Christ myth [7][13], but the connection ends there.  Connecting Ishtar to Eostre Herself is more of a mental stretch.  The only evidence supporting this claim is a devotional shrine to Ishtar (as Astarte) found among the ruins of a Roman fort near Bede’s abby [2].  It is possible that memories of Astarte could have stayed among the local population and eventually corrupted into Eostre, but trying to justify this requires some big leaps of faith.  For starters, a single altar to Astarte does not a cultus make.  All it proves is that there were one or more Roman soldiers honoring Astarte in the area of Bede’s monastery some 400 years before he wrote De Temporum Ratione.

What is far more likely is that Eostre was derived from the Proto-Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn, *Xáusōs.  It is possible to trace “Eostre” to the Proto-Germanic *austrōn (“dawn”) and to the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-(“to shine”).  Its also telling that from *Xáusōs it is possible to use comparative linguistics to derive not only the name Eostre, but also the Greek Eōs, Roman Aurora, Vedic Uṣas, Avestan Ušā, and Lithuanian Aušrine [14].  Because we can prove linguistically that Eostre is cognate with this family of Dawn Goddesses, it is likely that Eostre was indeed an Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the dawn.

Development of the Modern Ostara

The folklorist Ronald Hutton describes the development of the modern Ostara as part of his work chronicling the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year [1].  The Wicca described in Gerald Gardiner’s original Witchcraft Today(1954) celebrated only six Sabbats a year: the four Celtic Fire Festivals, plus the summer and winter solstices.  Gardiner adopted the two equinoxes at the request Doreen Valiente, who wanted to use the solar festivals as a means of concealing her involvement in Wicca from her family [15].  These were treated as minor holidays until 1958, when Gardiner’s London coven requested that they be given equal importance to the other Sabbats.

The creation of a recognizable modern Ostara finally came in 1968, when Aidan Kelly was writing the liturgy for the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn.  Likely drawing on Jacob Grimm’s writings [16], Kelly chose the name “Ostara” for the ceremony and developed for it liturgy emphasizing renewal and rebirth.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Personal Opinions on Ostara

Until I sat down to write this article, I had never been a fan of Ostara.  I had always felt that it as little more than some Pagan garnish placed atop a blatantly appropriated Christian festival.  Considering how Neo-Pagans tend to feel about Christian appropriation of the ancient Pagan festivals and Deities, I felt that it was wrong for us to do the same to Christians, no matter the rational.  Coupled to this was the rumor I had heard that Eostre might not have been a historical Deity at all, and all of the bad information that gets spread on the internet about Easter and Ishtar.  Needless to say, I had little patience for the holiday.

Writing this article has caused me to change my opinions on Ostara.  The fact that we can linguistically prove that Eostre is a cognate of a Proto-Indo-European dawn Goddess gives Her likely historical roots.  And admittedly, the “bunny and egg” imagery works very well for many Neo-Pagan cosmologies.  If we as a community can begin to acknowledge that our modern Ostara traditions are modern creations of our own intent based on historical conjecture, then I think I could set aside my reservations about Ostara.

I’d like to end with a quick summary of what components of Ostara are historical, not historical, or we just don’t know.

  • Eostre is an Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn – True
  • Eostre is a Teutonic derivation of Ishtar/Astarte – False
  • Easter is named after Eostre – Unknown, but likely
  • Eostre is associated with bunnies and eggs – False
  • The Easter Bunny is a stolen Pagan tradition – False
  • The Easter Egg is a stolen Pagan tradition – Unknown, but unlikely
  • The rabbit and egg are associated with Ishtar/Astarte – False
  • The Easter Bunny is related to the Lunar Hare – False
FOOTNOTES
  1. Hutton, Ronald. “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition”. Folklore 119 (2008): 251-73. doi:10.1080/00155870802352178.
  2. Sermon, Richard. “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture 1 (2008): 331-44. doi:10.2752/17519708X329372.
  3. Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003. 209-19.
  4. Ellison, Robert Lee. The Wheel Of the Year At Muin Mound Grove, ADF: A Cycle of Druid Rituals. 6th ed. East Syracuse: Dragon’s Keep Publishing, 2013. 143-4.
  5. Wikipedia contributors. “March equinox.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
  6. Wikipedia contributors. “Roman calendar“. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
  7. Wikipedia contributors. “Akitu.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Mar. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
  8. It should be noted that this is considered to be a template for the Christ myth.
  9. Lempriere, John. Bibliotheca Classica. 15th American ed. New York: W.E. Dean, 1851. 588.
  10. Grimm, Jacob. Trans. James Steven Stallybrass. Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol. I.London: George Bell and Sons, 1882. 290-2.
  11. Grimm, Jacob. Trans. James Steven Stallybrass. Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol. II.London: George Bell and Sons, 1883. 780–1.
  12. Wikipedia contributors. “World egg.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
  13. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “The Tribulations of Marduk the So-called “Marduk Ordeal Text””. Journal of the American Oriental Society 103.1 (1983): 131–141.
  14. Serith, Ceisiwr. “Proto-Indo-European Deities: Xáusōs.” Ceisiwr Serith Main Page. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
  15. Drudic orders were widely known and socially accepted in England at the time, and observed a festival cycle based on the four solar feasts.   By adding these high days into the Wiccan cycle, Valiente could simply tell her family that she had joined a Drudic order.
  16. This is conjecture on my part, as I have no proof that Aidan Kelly got the name Ostara from Grimm.  According to Ronald Hutton, Kelly drew inspiration from a number of literary sources when writing his NROOGD liturgy.  I find it hard to believe that he was reading Bede directly, so he was likely getting it either from Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie itself, or from the popular and academic literature that drew on it as a basis.  Aidan Kelly is today a Patheos blogger, so there’s always a chance he’ll read this and correct me if I’m wrong.
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About D.C. McBride

A Unitarian-Universalist since 2009, Dan McBride is a practicing Devotional Polytheist, a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, and the former Coordinating Officer of Binghamton CUUPS. His spiritual interests are in Neo-Pagan religions and Irish folklore and mythology, as well as in inter- and intra-religious dialog. Outside of the grove, he enjoys technology, hiking, camping, skiing, history, photography, and adventuring with his wife. A fifth-generation downstate New Yorker, Dan traces his roots back to the Italian region of Calabria and County Waterford in Ireland. He currently resides near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers in Binghamton, NY, where he makes his living as a technology professional.


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