Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Fact or fable?

This article is in response to the current debate on the enigma and origin of the name Easter.

I am wondering if Jacob Grimm in his 1835 'Deutsche Mythologie' [1], derived at least some inspiration for his reconstructed Ostara goddess from Bede's mention of Eostre in the 8th century Common Era? Grimm claimed that there were Old High German versions of the name Ostara yet a similar name was introduced for the month of April in the Germanic Frankish kingdom a millennium before Grimm, so these alleged OHG names could also be the result of cultural contacts over centuries? But returning to Bede, how much could he know about the folk traditions of ancient Britain having spent the greater part of his life, since the age of seven, in cloisters? One man writing in Northumbria cannot possibly have a firm grasp on what is happening the length of breadth of the British Isles; but in any case, was this Bede's intention in writing the 'Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum', the first history of the English People?

Bede was a pioneer for the Roman Catholic faith which was poised and on the very brink of converting Britain to Roman Catholicism [despite the Celtic Church which was already established in Britain] therefore Bede's motives and words should be considered with this in mind. Francis Pryor [2] suggests that Bede actually invented the pagan Anglo-Saxon nation to give Rome a good excuse to convert it, and the rest was history according to Mr Pryor. Therefore I support the notion that Bede could be somewhat creative on occasion. The question remains though, where did Bede get the notion for the person of Eostre in the first place and is there anything at all to suggest he didn't just make her up?

It could be argued that a wayward people needing spiritual guidance would have notions of pagan gods and goddesses that they needed to be divested of, and there's your reason for inventing Eostre. But Bede specifically states that Eostre was no longer worshipped in his own day, so why mention her at all? [3]

The etymology for the word 'east' is Proto Indo-European so German as a language wasn't even being spoken when it was coined, let alone Old English. So if we are seriously looking for the source for Eostre, and also if this name represents an actual deity, we need to look back thousands of years before Bede's time from what I can discern.

There is though a genuine 'east' goddess but not the person of Grimm's nineteenth century reconstruction. The lady is called Ausrine and is thought of as the easterly rising Morning Star which the Romans called Venus and it presages the rising of the sun.

Baltic paganism is ancient indeed and resisted Christian conversion right up until the Middle Ages so a lot of genuinely pagan lore has survived in the Baltic which may have submerged beneath layers of subsequent cultural overlay elsewhere. The Baltic also had and has an actual sun goddess. I doubt very much if Bede knew much about the Baltic so we might ponder what an easterly oriented goddess perhaps associated with the spring and dawn is or was doing in Britain around the time of the 8th century CE?

During this very time Charlemagne, staunchly Christian king of the Germanic Franks renamed all the Frankish months and changed the name of the month of April to 'Ostarmoniath'. That may seem surprising to modern pagans, why would a Christian monarch go out of his way to rechristen a month name after a pagan goddess? The corollary may well be that there was no such Germanic pagan goddess and Charlemagne was merely using the term Easter as it is used in the Christian Church today, to denote a Christian festival because "there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this [Eostre] Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe" [4] and that includes Charlemagne and the Franks. But nevertheless, Bede picked up on this name and the 'east' aspect of it is parallelled in the Baltic (above) and it references a goddess, a documented deity. Ronald Hutton [5] thinks that Bede may have mistaken references to a spring goddess and that 'the month of opening' was the actual translation for Anglo-Saxon 'Eostremonath' but is it likely that Bede was so distanced form the tongue of 'his nation' (he calls the Anglo-Saxons this in his 'On the Reckoning of Time', c.730) that he was at a total loss to understand the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon verb 'to open'? I find that somewhat fantastic seeing that the Venerable Bede is celebrated with the writing of an ecclesiastical history of the Anglo-Saxons. But if no Old English or Saxon spring goddess existed to cause the name Eostre to be remembered in eastern Britain, where had Bede picked up on it, what else could explain her presence or her origin - if indeed such a goddess did exist at all?

Concerning spring in the British Isles there may be no evidence for pre-Christian spring festivals hard on the vernal equinox but there is some evidence to suggest that this time of the year was noted. Burl [6] gives at least two instances of equinoctial alignments, one at the Stipple Stones on Bodmin Moor and one at the Sanctuary circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and also at Avebury there is an apparent equinoctial alignment for the South Circle within the greater henge there. Slightly further afield in Ireland we have Cairn T of Loughcrew unarguably aligned with the equinoctial sunrise, alignment of unknown significance but certainly of some profound significance to the people who both built and carefully decorated the cairn. So it does look as if something was being observed or perhaps someone was celebrated at the time of the equinox in pre-Christian Britain and Ireland?

2. Francis Pryor, 'Britain AD', 2004
4. Ronald Hutton, 'The Stations of the Sun', 2001
5. ibid.
6. Aubrey Burl, 'Stone Circles', 1995.

See also:
[accessed 11.07.2012]
[accessed 11.07.2012]

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