By Kim Rendfeld
The Venerable Bede probably did not realize he would create a controversy for centuries when he wrote about the months of the year. In De Ratione Temporum (The Reckoning of Time), he mentioned the English used to call April Eosturmonath.
“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.” (Translated by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press, 1988)
Eostre might have been a goddess of spring. Or of the dawn. Or both. Worshipers might have lit bonfires, drawn healing waters during her festival, and have maidens wearing white. (Tales of Eostre, also known as Ostara, transforming a wounded bird into an egg-laying rabbit are from the 19th century, apparently from Germans influenced by the Romantic Nationalist movement.)
The problem is, Bede’s mention of Eostre is the only one in historical records. Even scholars have debated whether she existed among the deities pagans worshiped. Some argue Bede got it wrong.
Bede (672/3-735), a monk at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria, penned the famous Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation) about the English peoples’ conversion to Christianity in the seventh century. Anyone who has studied the Middle Ages will tell you the writers of that time were far from objective observers and would have been less than meticulous about how they portrayed pagan beliefs, especially if the followers of those religions officially converted about 100 years before.
Despite the lack of evidence, it is possible Eostre was real to early medieval pagans in today’s England and Germany. There is a dearth of information about anything that early medieval pagans believed and how they worshiped, much to the frustration of a novelist trying to depict pagan characters in eighth-century Saxony. The faithful didn’t write their mythology down. In fact, the Continental Saxons had no written language as we know it, and among cultures that used pens and parchment, only a select few could read. Even fewer could write—that task was often left to clerks employed by aristocrats, the only people who could afford book. So, there might be a lot of god, goddesses, and other supernatural beings that we’ll never know about.
|"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts|
Paganism Not Completely Dead
A lot of what we do know about Saxon mythology comes to us in remnants such as poems, folk tales, rituals, and what their literate enemies had to say. On top of that, the eighth-century Church made every effort to obliterate a religion it believed to be devil worship when Charlemagne conquered territory in Saxony and Avaria and used increasingly harsh measures to get the indigenous peoples to convert.
Even after a populace accepted baptism, pagan practices did not vanish. In fact, they continued for generations. The Church officially prohibited what it called sorcery, but the faithful, including the clergy, still turned to white magic—vestiges of paganism. It was common for Christians to wear amulets beside their crosses. A priest might employ someone to interpret his dreams. A manuscript copied by a monk might have a magical square with the letters of a patient’s name and the number of the day on which they fell ill. The epic poem Beowulf has both Christian and pagan elements. The monsters, Grendel and his mother, are descendants of Cain, but human warriors wear helmets with boar figures, a symbol of a pagan god.
Keep in mind that the practice of a religion differed from region to region. Even Christian rites varied with geography. So it would not be a surprise if Eostre was revered in one place but ignored in another.
In arguing for Eostre’s existence, Jacob Grimm, one of the Grimm brothers who collected German folk tales, takes a look at the language. The holy day to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection is Easter in English and Ostern in German. Other languages, including French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and even Latin, are a variation on Pasch. Easter comes to us through Old English and is akin to Old High German. Pasch originates in pesah, the Hebrew word for Passover. Eostre is also similar to the Austri, mentioned in the Norse Edda. The gender is different, but both are spirits of light.
|"Frigg as Ostara" (1882)|
If You Can’t Beat Them ...
Like other pagan practices, the rites associated with Eostre were probably so much a part of the culture that rather than ban them, Church leaders used them to celebrate a holy day occurring about the same time. The reason would be to celebrate Jesus conquering sin and death rather than the arrival of a goddess. It wouldn’t be the first time a seasonal celebration was adapted to a new religion. And it was a happier and more peaceful way to get converts to accept their new faith.
In other words, I conclude that Bede got it right. As Grimm states, Eostre “seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the Christians' God.”
At this time of year, life returns. Birds are singing again, flowers bloom, green shoots emerge from the earth, and gardeners can start planting crops. And isn’t that a cause for celebration, no matter what religion?
“Bede, on ‘Eostre’”
Ostara’s Home Page
Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1, pp. 288-291
“The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s)” by Carole Cusack, The Pomegranate 9.1 (2007) 22-40
Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
“Ostara and the Hare: Not Ancient, but Not As Modern As Some Skeptics Think” Folklife Today by Stephen Winick
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Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.
Kim is working on her third novel, Queen of the Darkest Hour, about Charlemagne's influential fourth wife, Fastrada, and his rebellious eldest son, Pepin.
kimrendfeld.com, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.