Easter or Pasch Sunday is one of the most important religious festivities in Roman Catholicism and some Christian denominations. This event marks the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Note that the New Testament describes this resurrection as having occurred on the third day of his burial after his crucifixion by Romans at the Calvary.
Several documents have traced the celebration back to the early Christian church. For example, the “On the Passover” written by Archbishop Melito of Sardis during the second century documented the celebration of a Paschal homily that revolved around the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But there are elements of the festivity that are allegedly derivative and it appears that several cultures and traditions that predated Christianity celebrated some sort of Easter. For instance, some scholars and writers have traced the roots of Easter from the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The Goddess Ēostre from Old Germany
In “The Reckoning of Time” published in 725, English monk Saint Bede wrote that the Paschal month was an English month that corresponded to April. He added that early traditions from Germany involved a festivity dedicated to the pre-Christian German goddess Ēostre. This goddess became the namesake of Easter.
Who was Ēostre? According to several accounts from writers including Jacob Grimm, Ēostre or Ostara was a divine figure in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This figure was the personification of the rising sun and was the goddess of fertility. They also suggested that the old German equivalents of the month of April were derivative of the word Ēostre or Ostara and translatable to “Easter-mōnaþ” or the “Month of the Goddess Ēostre.”
It is also interesting to note that modern Easter celebration involves images of bunny or hare. Hares have been associated with Ēostre—though there is no substantial evidence supporting this popular notion.
There are several contentions against the origin and existences of Ēostre however. Bede was the only source for this Germanic goddess and subsequent literature were mere derivatives of his claims. It is also important to take note that Bede simply mentioned Ēostre as a namesake of Easter. He did not provide a thorough description.
Some scholars also believe Bede merely invented Ēostre. English historian Ronald Hutton, in his book, mentioned that the Anglo-Saxon “Estor-monat” simply meant “the month of opening” or “the month of beginning.” He argued that Bede might have simply connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season.
Nonetheless, Austrian Germanist and philologist Rudolf Simek cautioned against the complete rejection of information from Bede. He argued that Ēostre should be understood as a fertility goddess, further arguing that Germanic goddesses are generally associated with prosperity and growth.
Linguistic Basis for the Existence of Ēostre
There is also the linguistic basis for Ēostre. Dr. Philip A. Shaw, a senior lecturer in English Language and Old English, has been credited for establishing the association between this Germanic goddess and some practices in early Europe.
Shaw said Ēostre seems to relate to the reconstructed Indo-European word “aus” that means “shine” and the root of the word “east” that means “dawn” and “brightness”.
Take note that there were more than 150 votive inscriptions from the second or third century AD discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany. The inscriptions referred to the matronae Austriahenae, which according to Shaw, loosely translated as “the eastern matrons” or “the matrons of the easterners”.
There are also linkages between the name of Ēostre and series of English location names and Germanic personal names. Shaw said that “eastor” is an Old English word with several derivatives including place names such as “Eastry” and “Eastrea” and personal names such as Easterwine, Aestorhild, and Austrechild.
Remember that the name Austriahenae came from the same Germanic root as Ēostre, thus suggesting that this was a root used in naming goddesses
With regard to Eastry, an area within Kent where Bede received much of the material he used for his book “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” Shaw thought that a sub-tribal group in the area might have been a worshipper of Ēostre. He concluded that Ēostre was probably a local goddess and not a pan-Germanic deity.
Other historic linguists have referenced “Hausōs,” the Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn and spring. These scholars argued that Hausōs was a progenitor of other goddesses, including the German goddess Ēostre.
Conclusion: The Relationship Between Ēostre and Easter
The most obvious similarities between Easter celebration and the goddess Ēostre are etymology and festivity date—although Easter also occurs in March because it is a movable feast based on the lunisolar calendar.
While there are contentions against Ēostre and the veracity of the brief claim made by Bede, there is a reason to believe the veneered English monk. Dr. Philip A. Shaw provides a compelling reason.
He said Bede was a careful researcher. The English monk simply described Ēostre as a goddess whose name was attached to a month by the Anglo-Saxons. After converting to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons transferred the name of Ēostre and the corresponding month to the Paschal festivity.
Shaw also said that Ēostre provides clues on how Anglo-Saxon paganism worked. The word from which her name derives means “eastern”, and is found in place names in England. This suggests that she might have been a local goddess. Common conceptions about pagans center on having specific roles—such as a god of war or a god of fertility. However, with Ēostre, Anglo-Saxon goddesses might have been defined instead by their relationship to a local community.
But it is still hard to deny that both the goddess Ēostre and Easter celebration share a faint similarity relating to birth or rebirth. The goddess represented the rising sun. Sunrise or dawn epitomizes the arrival of a new day. On the other hand, Easter represented the “Risen Son.” The observance of Easter and the month traditionally associated with Ēostre mark the spring season—the time of the year when flowers bloom and plants regrow from dormancy from the previous winter season.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Hutton, Ronald. 1996. The Station of the Sun: A History of Ritual in Britain. Oxford University Press
- Simex, Rudolf. 1984. A Dictionary of Modern Mythology. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
- Shaw, Philip A. 2011. Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of Matrons. Bristol Capital Press