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Friday, March 4, 2016

Ostara versus Easter - or Lets All Just Color an Egg

Every year there's a lot of commentary that floats around the pagan community claiming several things about the holiday of Ostara, most of them untrue. So lets take a look at the urban legends and the realities, shall we?

 Firstly the idea that Easter is related to the Goddess Ishtar. Ishtar is not pronounced 'easter'; it's a pretty straightforward name actually and is pronounced 'ishtar' just like it looks. Her symbols were not rabbits or eggs but rather storehouse gates, lions, and stars with different numbers of points (Ishtar, 2016).  The Christian holiday itself was not stolen from or dated based on the pagan holiday; it developed on its own based off of Jewish traditions and was originally known as Pascha in Latin, only later becoming known as Easter; as late as the 8th century the holiday was still known as Pascha in England. So I can say conclusively that the idea which goes around that Constantine in the 4th century C.E. speaking Latin was calling the holiday Easter (for the record it still isn't called Easter in most languages that aren't English) is false and he didn't invent the holiday itself. As a Christian holiday Pascha (Easter) seems to have been well established by the mid second century (Melito, 1989).This is at least 200 years before Constantine's lifetime.
original meme author unknown: "bullshit" label courtesy of Ian Corrigan

So that's that one.

Now the other main idea that get's tossed around is that Easter is stolen from or based on a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon holiday or Goddess named Ostara/Eostre. I can't even give an example of this meme because honestly most of them are blatantly offensive in the way they are worded but the gist of it is claiming that Ostara/Eostre was an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess celebrated in spring whose symbols were rabbits and eggs and Christians stole it all, etc., etc.,

Let's start with the rabbits and eggs because that keeps showing up in all of these memes. The concept of "Easter" bunnies (originally hares, "Osterhase") cannot be dated before the mid-1500's and the eggs appear to have started in the 1600's, both in Germany (Bauer, 2016). In 1682 Georg Franck von Franckenau is the first to explicitly mention the rabbit bringing eggs in De Ovis Paschalibus where he describes the folk practice and the way people get sick overeating the eggs. This appears to have been because eggs - like meat and milk - were on the Lenten 'don't eat' list and so eating them on Easter was a treat (Newell, 1989). Unlike milk and meat however eggs could be preserved more easily and a hard boiled egg played a role in the Jewish Passover meal making eggs both abundant, desirable, and symbolic at Easter (Newell, 1989). Coloring eggs was also a widespread folk custom in many cultures, and while it was surely used by pagans it was easily adapted to Christian symbolism as well. There doesn't seem to be any certainty of exactly where the idea of hiding eggs for kids to find came from, but there is evidence that it began in Germany and spread from there to England and America. 

 The name of the holiday is likely derived from a word that means "east" and may be related to the name of an obscure Germanic or Anglo-Saxon goddess about whom we know virtually nothing. The name of the goddess - Eostre to the Anglo-Saxons and Ostara to the Germans - is probably related to the same root as the word east: both etymologically come from the proto-Indo-European root aus- meaning 'to shine' and likely relating to the dawn. Our only source of information on Eostre is the Venerable Bede who wrote in the 8th century: Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes (Giles, 1843)
[Eostre-month, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month, which was formerly called Eostre and celebrated in that month: now the Paschal season is called by this name calling the joys of the new festival by the ancient name of the old]
From this we know that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre who had a holiday celebrated for her around the same time as Easter/Pascha but basically nothing else. And we already know that Pascha as a Christian holiday was well established long before this. So we appear to have a case of the new religion's holiday being called by the name of the old one in part due to a coincidence in timing. 

About a thousand years later Jacob Grimm would go on to write about a hypothetical German goddess he called Ostara who he reconstructed based in part off of the German name for the Christian holiday of Easter, Ostern, and a name for April of Ostermonat (Grimm, 1835). He further supposes based on this a connection between this name and the direction of the east and the idea of dawn and spring, as well as widespread connections between Ostara [the goddess] and contemporary Christian Easter celebrations including bonfires and drawing water at dawn which had special properties (Grimm, 1835). Although it is possible that Grimm was noting genuine pagan folk practices that had survived his connection of these practices to a goddess named Ostara are impossible to prove*

So in the end we have the name of a goddess which is etymologically connected to the word east as well as the dawn, and likely related to other Indo-European dawn or spring goddesses. But basically there is no real information about her, no known symbols, no myths**. As with the Ishtar claims we can say that this holiday was not taken and turned into the Christian Easter, which as we've mentioned already existed many centuries prior and with a different name. It is true that English and German speakers use a name for the Christian holiday based on the pagan one and it is possible that some pagan folk practices were maintained but that was not a matter of intentional theft by the Church - rather it was the people converting to the new religion themselves refusing to give up certain things. 

While these practices and names may or may not be originally pagan,  why does it matter? These are fun folk custom that we can practice today, pagan or Christian, whose origins are more or less lost to history. So lets stop arguing over whose holiday is whose and what traditions belong to who - color an egg, make a little nest for the Osterhase and put the eggs in, jump a bonfire, and have a great holiday whichever one you celebrate.

*that story about Ostara and the bird getting turned into a rabbit which then laid eggs is entirely modern
**I am not however arguing that Eostre/Ostara never existed, just that Grimm's evidence of her folk customs in 19th century German is pretty shaky. 

Ishtar (2016) Encyclopedia Britanica 
Melito of Sardis (1989) "On the Passover"
Bauer, I., (2016) Der Osterhase
Giles, J (1843) The Complete Works of the Venerable Bede
Newell, V., (1989) Eggs at Easter; a folklore study
Grimm, J., (1835) Deutsche Mythologie


  1. Again, many thanks Morgan for bringing the real story out. I don't use any Christian holidays or holidays from other religious practices in my own as I feel that there are plenty in mine (and more to discover via archaeology and literature) to keep me well occupied ;-). May you have a blessed new year.

  2. Really interesting.... What I always wonder about is the link between Oestara and Oestrogen. The pagan holiday was a fertility holiday, right? Although, to be fair, pagan holidays tend to be about fertility...when they're not about death...

  3. Thank you for the blogpost. Your post follow some of the same arguments as I have used for years debating this Meme. I thought to make a blogpost about it for my own blog “The Heathen Mythbuster”, but your blogpost are better than mine would have been. I might still do it with you as the main source.

  4. We Mexicans don't celebrate the Easter as neither Anglo-Saxons nor Germans brought us such a holiday. So, for me, a Mexican, Easter/Ostara is one of those American impossible-to-understand holidays, like Thanksgiving. :(

    We have the Good Friday instead (before Easter, which is on Sunday), and it's not a holiday "per se", but rather derived from a thing imposed by the Catholic Church, but mixed with beliefs that appeared from unknown sources. There still are lots of Mexicans who think the Good Friday is somewhat, somehow magic. xD

  5. i wales it is know as pasg