A Brief History of Ostara

A Brief History of Ostara March 17, 2016

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]

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  • Pretty good article, but if you are going to write about Eostre and Ostara I’m surprised you didn’t cite Philip Shaw’s “Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World”. I’ve included one of my own citations of that text below.

    I’m also not much of a believer in the “Christ Myth,” certainly the story of Jesus was influenced by what was going on in the greater pagan world at the time (and by extension the pagan gods of the era), but the dying/resurrecting god has been dismissed by a most mainstream scholars.

    I’ve always believed Kelly got Ostara from Bede, but your guess is as good as mine!

    And I know I know, everyone’s a critic!

    “The most likely “historical Eostre” is a a localized goddess worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons in present day county Kent in Southeastern England. It’s in Kent where we see the oldest references to names similar to that of Eostre (Eastrgena appears in 788 CE). It’s recently been argued that perhaps she was a Germanic Matron Goddess . Linguist Philip Shaw (see his book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World) links a localized Eostre to the German Austriahenea, a matron goddess connected to the East. Shaw downplays the connection to “dawn” and focuses on linguistic evidence linking the two deities to the East, but the sun also rises in the East. If Eostre is indeed linked to goddesses like Austriahenea she might not even be a single goddess. Matron goddesses were often worshipped in triplicate.”

  • There were soooo many articles to chew through on this one, and never came across Shaw’s article (I’ll have to read it). I chewed through what I could, but there was a real danger that I was just going to get pulled under in the flood.

    The article I relied heaviest on was Richard Sermon’s “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?”. I’ll admit that it was the first one that came up on my Google Scholar search, but I liked how much content he covered in it. If I understood it correctly, he proposes that the word “Easter” got adopted by the Paschal holiday in English and German because a number of Christian missionaries in that area were originally from around Northumbria, and that the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons just happened to apply the pagan name for their Spring Equinox rites to the new Christian holiday. The other thing that influenced me was a talk by Ceisiwr Serith that I got to hear this past weekend, where he discussed how Eostre’s name is cognate with a whole bunch of other Indo-European dawn goddesses. I wish I understood the linguistics better, but I know that he spends a lot of time studying this sort of thing and I’m willing to trust him on this.

    I can also agree with what you said about the “Christ Myth”. I picked that one up from the Wikipedia article on comparative Spring Equinox traditions, but the idea made sense to me. If scholars reject it today, then I’m willing to accept that; I had to draw a line on how deep to dig as I was fighting a deadline. In retrospect, it does seem pretty flimsy, especially as Marduk doesn’t appear to be dying and resurrecting. I’d be curious to hear why its being dismissed by mainstream scholars these days.

    Now as to Kelly, I did reach out to him yesterday to get his thoughts on this, but haven’t heard back yet. Someone today was saying that “Ostara” was word that Grimm made up, and looking back on Richard Sermon’s paper, he did claim that Grimm reconstructed the word from “Ostern” (the German word for “Easter”). In other words, it was a word that Grimm made up, and if Kelly was using it he either got it from Grimm or from somebody who got it from Grimm.

    I did come across an interesting note in the Ceisiwr Serith article I footnoted that’s worth pasting here, “[A]lthough it has been argued that Eostre was a name for Easter first, and that Bede is the one who create a goddess from the name (Polomé, 1989, 57).” Also, “A possible reconstruction of the Proto-Germanic form of this goddess’ name is *Austrōn (Friedrich, 1979, 292).”

    So if Friedrich is right, then Eostre’s name is really something like Austrōn, and that Bede was just misreporting it. Or Polomé could be right, and Bede could have just assumed that there was a goddess associated from the name.

  • I feel your examination of Ostara is incomplete without some discussion of pysanka – an Eastern Slavic ornamented egg decorated with Pagan symbols (sometimes at least). Ceramic eggs have been found in excavations dating to 5th to 3rd millennium BCE, which is well within the Pagan period. This tradition spread to Russia and could have easily reached Germany.

  • I actually hadn’t come across that. Do you have any articles you can recommend on pysanka?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call my examination of Ostara “complete”. As I said above, there was just so much material that I thought my head would explode. In other words, I’m not surprised that I missed stuff. By letting me know in the comments, it lets everybody reading this know that there’s more stuff to explore, so thank you 🙂

  • What I learned about them, I learned from some Slavic Pagans that lived in my area for a while. I don’t have any reference books on Slavic Paganism in my library, so the only other source I have is the internet. Google “pysanka pagan” to avoid the “Ukrainian Easter Egg” articles.

  • My wife actually suggested that I try doing a series on Ostara, with a new article each year. So maybe one year do an article comparing different Indo-European Spring Equinox traditions, and then the next year compare non-IE Spring Equinox traditions. I’ll admit that the Pysanka eggs sound interesting, and I would love to hear the theories on how they may or may not have influenced the German Easter egg.

    One thing I would change in the article if I could go back would be to classify “The Easter Egg is a stolen Pagan tradition” as unknown.

  • GrandmotherMuhawt

    The biggest limitation in the scope of your scholarship is the fact that you so badly want to find a historical connection between the word ostara and the other traditions that have become accepted as part of Easter, but only want to look at Indo-European (mainly European, really) sources. Although I have no idea if that scholarship includes Egyptian beliefs or not in your mind, you don’t seem to recognize how vast the network of humanity extended in the Eastern Hemisphere, with the Norse people clearly making regular contact with the people’s of the Mediterranean and beyond. I recommend examining Maria Kvilhaug’s work (such as her videos on YouTube under LadyoftheLabyrinth, but also her scholarly book) to find deeper connections between the peoples of that hemisphere. But you could also have better Hindu sources about the “world egg,” instead of using Wikipedia.

  • I did focus mainly on European beliefs, but for two reasons. (1) I’m working towards the ADF Dedicant’s Path and so have been focusing most of my attention on Indo-European beliefs, and (2) so much of what I’ve personally experienced in the way of “standard Ostara liturgy” pulls heavily from a Germanic and sometimes Celtic worldview. As I mentioned in another comment, I’m hoping to revisit this topic next year with a more focused take on some subarea (say, just Germanic beliefs, or just Indo-European beliefs, or just non-IE beliefs, etc.).

    Thank you for recommending Maria Kvilhaug to me. Are there any particular resources that you think are worth reading on this subject?