Eostre: the Myths Behind the Myth

Well folks, it’s that time of year again. Bunnies, tulips, painted eggs, enough chocolate to make you consider a post-Lent Lent… and oh yes, a hundred and one well-meaning yet slightly angry posts about the appropriation by Christianity of a pagan holiday. Makes for a nice turn of the tables, right? Being able to say that this time, there’s a war against someone else’s faith. Except… it’s all about as true as the idea that a human-sized rabbit hides eggs in your garden, unless you see them, and travels around the world to do so at the speed of something very fast. I don’t know; I’m not a physics-defying rabbit or for that matter, the man with the flying reindeer.

Who bears a striking resemblance to Odin, I’ll admit, but the Christmas/Yule debate is one to have in a couple of months. Time may have lost meaning since early 2020, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Eostre is the root of our misconceptions this long weekend. There’s only really one surviving mention of Eostre in any historical texts; a passing mention in 8th century Northumbrian monk Bede’s “The Reckoning of Time”. It talks a lot about the religious calendars of a number of ancient cultures, including directions to calculate the Easter full moon (I assume through astrology, though I’ve not read the text myself). But being a Christian text written by a Christian monk... you may have already picked up the first problem with connecting a Christian holiday to a “heathen practice”. If anything, this is more connected to the Jewish holiday Passover; the Jewish calendar being lunar, and not solar, and Passover being a week before Easter.

Bede mentions that the lunar month of Eosturmonath was named “for a goddess… named Eostre”. But it may also have just meant “the time of opening”. You know - flowers blooming, eggs hatching, the world reopening again after the winter. Which makes a lot of sense, with Anglo-Saxon months largely being named for agricultural practices. (Another example would be the survival of an October holiday from school in the UK, which was traditionally the week where everyone was needed for the potato harvest).

So who is Eostre? Well it’s hard to say because there’s no inscriptions, next to no texts, no carvings, no practices… yet the internet would tell you very differently. Ok, you say - what about Ostara? Is Eostre just a misunderstanding or misspelling of Ostara? Also no! But it’s likely that they’re both versions of the same 19th century popular idea of paganism as a forgotten and silenced path, overtaken by Christianity. We have the works of people like Jacob Grimm to thank for the prolific spread of this narrative.

While we’re at it, Eostre isn’t Ishtar, either. This weekend is not a very confused pagan celebration of sex (unless you want it to be, in which case, you do you). Ishtar - while a real goddess - is one of love, war and sex, and her symbols are the eight-pointed star, the lion and the gate. If your Easter has lions in it, you’re having a lot more fun than I ever did as a child!

The thing is though, to an extent, this very misunderstanding has kind of brought Eostre into being, by one belief. To name something, to tell tales of it, to make it a “household name” gives it power. This is a good thing and a bad thing. While it means that Eostre is on everybody’s lips this time of year, it also screws over businesses who find their brand name synonymous with the generic product. But without getting too far off the topic, there are plenty of pagans who celebrate Eostre or Ostara with the coming of spring… and who’s to say that we haven’t made her real, today?

So what Eostre is not is a pagan goddess that Christianity appropriated to tell the story of their messiah rising from the grave after being killed for the sins of his future followers. The Easter hare or bunny was not stolen from pagans, and neither are the chocolate eggs (that idea from the 1971 “An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study” by Venetia Newell, while we’re at it).

What Eostre could be, these days, is a goddess of Spring. Such a goddess almost certainly existed, even if we’ve forgotten her exact name, or we’ve been calling them by the wrong one for years. Modern pagan correspondences for Eostre include hares, eggs, the colour pink, flowers, bees, baskets, lambs, and the new moon. (Generic spring stuff, but I’m trying not to be cynical, here, so bear with me.) She is evoked for manifestation, rededication, spring cleanings and blessing of the home. Her holiday is a pagan alternative to the Easter weekend. By welcoming Eostre into your life and rituals as spring is sprung, you can rinse your mind and prepare it for the year ahead and all the new opportunities that your metaphorical basket now has space for.

And I think that’s pretty beautiful. Creating new traditions, reclaiming a mistake and making it ours. But for goodness sake, stop trying to convince me that we’re reclaiming a truth. Or I might send my six foot bunny to your house to drive the point home. Happy long weekend, folks.

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