A Brief History of Ostara

A Brief History of Ostara March 17, 2016

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]


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