Who is the Goddess Ostara anyway?
This is taken from the transcript of the 2019 Moonpath CUUPs class with the same title, delivered by Birch V. Baum at the UUCFL.
A long time ago there was a goddess of the spring, called Eostre, who came late one winter and failed to bring the spring back in time for a little bird to migrate north. The bird came to the cold winter plains of Germany and her wings froze off, leaving her unable to fly. Feeling sorry for the poor creature, Eostre transformed the bird into a rabbit and she hopped away. In memory of her former life as a bird, Eostre allowed her to lay eggs once a year on the Spring Equinox.
Many pagans who look up information on Eostre or Ostara online will find this story and depending on the source, are led to think that this is an ancient story of Pagan lore dating back centuries. And it may be. Yet the first printed documentation of the story linking it to her is from the 19th century, and Eostre, or Ostara, herself has no surviving pagan sources about who she was or how she was worshipped, and we don’t even know if she existed at all until the 19th Century.
The oldest reference to Ostara is from Bede, a Christian Monk who was describing the origins of the months as they were called iin England. She is referenced in his book, “De Rationon Temporum” or “The Reckoning of Time” as the origin of the month we now call April.
“Eosturmonath 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 that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day…” That was it. Even in his own time there was debate over whether there had been such a goddess or if the Christians had taken the name Easter with them to England and given it to the month of April. And this was in England, not in Germany, where many pagans now believe Eostre was worshipped by the Teutons. That belief comes about because of two German mythology scholars in the 19th century: Jacob Grimm and Adolf Holzmann. Jacob Grimm, best known for writing fairy tales, also was a scholar and researcher of ancient Teutonic myths from pagan Germany. By the time he wrote them down in the 1800s, the practices had not been observed openly and without Christian influence for almost 1700 years. His book, Teutonic Mythology, gave her name as Ostara, taken from the word for east. He delved into the linguistics of Ostara, linking it to the Sanskrit word for morning daylight, Vasta or the latin Aurora, both about the dawn. Her name is also closely related to the modern German word for East, Ost. (Teutonic Mythology, p1371) He described her feast as a “time of great rejoicing” but gives no other details. Grimm even speculates that there may have been a goddess of the West, Westara, whose time was the sunset.
According to Grimm, there were many hills sacred to her in Germany including Austerkopp, Osterbrunne, and a cave called Osterstube. Those places had already been given over to Christian worship centers and were closely linked to the Christian Easter holiday just as they probably had been linked with Eostre in the earlier times.
Adolf Holzmann in 1874 gave us the story of Eostre and the Bunny for the first time but he was describing a folkloric tradition centered around Easter and guessing that it was older than the Christian holiday.
In his Deutsche Mythologie he writes that the Osterspiele (a sort of Easter play) has a story of a bird who becomes the Osterhase, or Easter Bunny. He speculates that the Germanic Easter play tradition of a Hare who used to be a bird came not from the Christian Easter traditions but from older German Mythology just as the Indian mythology story from Hinduism told of a rabbit or a hare in the moon. His literal decision to decide that Eostre was linked with Hares was the fact that there was an ancient Celtic goddess shown with a statue of a Hare, that goddess was linked with the Spring, therefore, Eostre had a hare. And since there was a hare of sorts in the German Osterhase tradition, it must have been Eostre’s hare.
Just like in the American tradition that the Germans brought over when they immigrated, the German children would wake up on the morning of Easter and find the eggs that the bunny had left behind on the previous evening hiding in its nest.
By my own translation he was puzzling over the possible links between the better known Norse Mythology and the largely lost German mythology, and speculating that there may even have been certain links between the beloved Spring goddess Eostre and Freya further north.
He also links her name to many places with Ost across Germany. This is quite common in a lot of scholarly discussion about who Ostara was but it has also led to some debate - was there even a Goddess Ostara or was she just invented by Bede and supported by Germans describing things as “East?” And if she did exist, did the mysterious and long-lost Westara exist too?
Most of what Holzmann wrote was speculation, part of a broader cultural movement across Germany to bring the German history to the forefront of German scholarship. Nationalism was sweeping across the country, Wagner was composing the first Operas to be performed in German, and the country had only unified for the first time three years earlier out of the princedoms and kingdoms that had dominated Germany since the beginning of the Teutonic people.
So he wasn’t writing this from a perspective of being pagan and discovering the old gods and goddesses, but from a culture steeped in Nationalism and a renewed German identity, not a foreign identity. He had, whether consciously or not, a strong bias toward taking things that may not have been German and turning them into German ideas, including tracing gods, goddesses, and religious symbols out of surviving ancient stories from other religions known to be distantly related to the Teutonic myths, such as Hinduism and the British Celts.
By the time the pagan movements of the 20th century caught on and placed Ostara as a holiday in their new wheel of the year, they found this story and latched onto it, creating a new religious tradition where one may or may not have existed previously.
Eostre or Ostara?
Nor can pagans even agree clearly on whether her name was Eostre or Ostara. Grimm speculated that Eostre was a localized goddess of a broader Germanic Ostara goddess of the Spring, but even then there had been very little evidence pointing one way or another.
As Bede himself writes, Eostre had mainly, if she had been worshipped at all, been worshipped in England and not in Germany. Many Germans had traveled and settled in England by the 600s and it appears that Grimm believed they brought Eostre with them sometime before the Christian bishops appeared.
Bunnies, Eggs, and Birds
One thing is clear. Spring is a time when chickens again start to lay eggs after their winter hiatus, rabbits are very fertile creatures, and nothing says springtime in the far north quite like the sound of birds returning from their winter migrations.
So, if the Goddess of Spring, whether she is called Eostre or Ostara, were to have had any animals symbolizing fertility, spring, and new life, birds, eggs, and hares would be very obvious symbols. Those symbols exist across many cultures and places so the German scholars of the 19th century were not entirely making things up. As Holzmann pointed out, the Norsemen had Freya who was very much a goddess of spring, and Frigg too, so why shouldn’t the Germans just south of them, sharing a common culture, not have had the same?
And by now, the new generations of Pagans have adopted Ostara, her Bird turned Hare, and her holiday into their wheel of the year, so regardless of whether or not it is truly historically accurate, it is now accurate today. Traditions are not stagnant, and are even less stagnant when they are being reconstructed after almost 2000 years of non-existence or semi-existence as folklore and stories from a hundred generations past.
When we celebrate Ostara now, wondering whether we stole parts of the holiday from the Christians or whether the Christians stole parts of the holiday from us first is like asking which came first, the Bunny or the Egg?