Eostre: The Making of a Myth
Note to those who've read it before: Part 2 is now up!
Last Easter and the Easter before that, and for several more Easters, a story circulated both among neopagans and those they wished to educate. It concerned the origin of the Easter Bunny. The story goes something like this:
Once, when the Goddess was late in coming, a little girl found a bird close to death from the cold and turned to Eostre for help. A rainbow bridge appreared and Eostre came, clothed in her red robe of warm, vibrant sunlight which melted the snows. Spring arrived. Because the little bird was wonded beyond repair, Eostre changed it into a snow hare who then brought rainbow eggs. As a sign of spring, Eostre instructed the little girl to watch for the snow hare to come to the woods.
The story is increasingly popular among neopagans, because it provides a solid confirmation of several important points of dogma. Christian traditions are shown to have sprung from Pagan ones; a seemingly innocuous tradition is shown to have a little-known (thus implying that it was repressed) history; and a male God took a festival over from a female Goddess, replacing a celebration of joyous renewal with one of sacrifice and death. Given the ease with which the story has been circulated and the receptiveness of the audience - a version appeared in Cricket magazine, which is targeted at under 10s - it seems likely to pass into the popular consciousness as an unchallenged Easter Fact.
Eostre herself is documented in an abundance of modern sources, as a quick Internet search will reveal. She is said to be
... the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, from whom "East" (where the sun rises) and "Easter" got its name
- as the fertility goddess of the Northern European peoples, her legend was manipulated by the invading Romans - newly Christianised, they merged Eostre's spring legend to coincide with the time of Christ's resurrection.
We can also learn that Eostre is depicted with a hare's head or hares' ears, that her consort is the Sun God, and that her symbols are eggs and rabbits.
She was known as Eostre in Britain, and Ostara in Germany. In short, in Eostre we have a thoroughly rounded and well known Goddess, with a myth that confirms exactly the kind of things that neopagans want confirmed, and which an outsider can readily understand.
This in itself ought to arouse suspicion. The scenario seems just a little too good. How much of the modern doctrine of Eostre, her attributes and her legend, can we deem authentic?
The Facts About Eostre
Given the sheer quantity of modern material, the answer may be shocking to some, but it stands as testimony to the myth-making abilities of neopagans.
The total sum of available information about Eostre amounts to two lines of text.
The Venerable Bede, in his De Temporum Ratione ("On the Reckoning of Time"), explains the naming of the Easter festival as follows:
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.
And that is all there is. There is no hare connection, no suggestion of a bunny story, no link to eggs. Bede's passage is the only evidence we have that there ever was a goddess called Eostre; worse still, he may even have been making it up. Doctor Elizabeth Freeman of the University of Tasmania asserts exactly that, adding that 'Bede was extremely influential and his view has survived until the last 50 years when scholarship developed to the level it could show he was wrong'. Such a fabrication would, allegedly, not have been unknown; some academics propose that Bede made up quite a lot of material, or included his own supposition as fact. Perhaps significantly, Bede also assets that 'Hrethmonath', corresponding to March, was named after a Goddess Hretha, who seems to have been every bit as obscure as Eostre; she, too, is unknown outside his writings.
A contrary position comes from Professor Ronald Hutton, who needs no introduction. He explains that 'modern scholarship finds her name cognate with many Indo-European words for dawn, which presents a high possibility that she was a dawn-goddess, and so April as the Eostre-month was the month of opening and new beginning, which makes sense in a North German climate.' (Personal correspondence).
So, we can at least say that a goddess called Eostre may have existed as a figure of worship. But what of her alleged German version, Ostara? Here there is no primary evidence at all. No sources mention an Ostara, and it is not until Jakob Grimm's Deustche Mythologie, written in 1835, that she appears even as a supposition.
According to Grimm, Ostarâ is the name in Old High German of the Easter festival. Ostarâ is, however, a plural noun, the singular form being ôstarûn. Grimm explains this by saying that the festival lasted several days, which ties in to Bede's account of 'feasts'. The Ostarâ would therefore have been 'the Easterns'. Following this, and without any obvious justification or grounds, he suddenly begins to treat Ostarâ as the name of a Goddess. Her existence begins here. We can thus trace the existence of Ostara to the point where Grimm, for reasons best known to himself, decided to treat the name of a multiple festival as that of a single Goddess. (To get some idea of what this entails, imagine a putative pagan goddess called 'Schoolholidays'. Now reflect on the degree to which 'Ostara' the supposed Goddess is established in neopaganism. This may give you cause for concern. It certainly does me.)
Having created a Goddess where there was none, and admitting that Germanic sources offer no substantiation, Grimm then begins to look for verification. He does not find any, and makes some serious (and desperate) fudges in his attempts to do so. For example, he attempts to connect her name with the Latin 'Auster', which is a masculine noun meaning 'the south wind' - not the most convincing of associations - and suggests that because there is a male figure called Austri in the Eddas, 'a female one might have been called Austra'.
We will never know whether or not Bede invented Eostre, but Grimm's fiddling is evident; the only remaining question is one of motive. Why did Grimm attempt to concoct a Goddess? We can answer that by looking at the cultural context of the times. The Grimm brothers had a clear nationalist and ethnic agenda. In the time of the brothers Grimm, Germany as we now know it did not exist and was essentially a collection of principalities following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Their purpose in amassing folk tales, myths and fragments of oral history was to rediscover the 'real' roots of German culture, beneath the Christian surface, and in doing so to create a German identity along with the German language that tied the people together. In short, the fiction of Ostara was a propaganda exercise.
We have seen how Grimm worked on Bede's two lines and fleshed out the myth further, but how did we come to the present situation, with its egg-laying bunny myth?
One name stands out among Eostre-manufacturers. The modern author Nigel Pennick appears to have carried on the Grimm tradition, making statements about Eostre that are completely unsupported, or in some cases, flat wrong. In The Pagan Book of Days he makes a series of astounding assertions including the
'The original feast of Eostre was celebrated in the Pagan calendar at the Vernal Equinox.' (Untrue, as the Eosturmonath was a lunar month, and thus not tied to the Equinoxes at all; they are solar.) 'In addition to "Easter", this Goddess name is also the source of the word "estrus"- the restricted, recurring period of sexual receptivity in the female mammals.' (Untrue, as the etymology of 'estrus' is well known, and actually refers to the gadfly. There is no etymological link between Eostre and oestrogen.) 'Saxon poets equated Eostre with India's, Great Mother, Kali.' (no comment necessary)
The most stunning of all Pennick's statements is however found in Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, in which he describes an image as "the moon-goddess, Mani (or Eostre in her spring guise), depicted as a woman in a short coat, wearing a hood with two long hare's ears, crescent moon in hand".
The image to which he refers is of a male deity; it is a reproduction of the image of 'Mani', the alleged 'Saxon moon god' from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, and nothing to do with Eostre at all. Here it is.
Neopagans are not the only creators of fake myth. A particular kind of Christian group has been enthusiastically adding to the Eostre myth, with the curious intent of proving it to be completely pagan.
This is because their version of Christianity does not accept Easter, or indeed anything else that is not found in the Bible. Associating Easter with paganism has allowed them to villify secular traditions, and presumably become more truly Christian in their own minds. Christians are thus responsible for some of the more ludicrous suggestions concerning Easter and paganism, such as an attempt to identify Eostre with Ishtar, and the assertion that 'Eostre's hare was the shape that Celts imagined on the surface of the full moon', which manages to garble together Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Chinese myth in one sentence. (Pagan Origins of Holidays). It seems that not a year goes by without more spurious Eostre nonsense being thrown on to the heap, a far cry indeed from Bede's two sparse lines.
So where does the tale of the bird in the snow come from? This is in fact an authentic folk tale, except for the Eostre element, which was added in later. The ingredients can be found in a Ukranian tale, one of many that explains the origin of pysanky, the decorated eggs found in that part of the world. The story was retold as Bird's Gift by Eric A Kimmel, summarised thus:
When winter comes early one year, Katrusya stumbles upon a terrible discovery -- hundreds of golden birds buried in the snow. She begs her fellow villagers to help save the birds, and one by one, the little creatures are gathered into hats and gloves, coats and baskets, until they are all brought safely inside. But toward winter's end, Katrusya knows that the time has come to say goodbye, and the birds are freed. That spring, as Katrusya makes her way to church on Easter Sunday, she finds something wonderful hidden in the grass -- a beautifully decorated egg. And there's another and another! The birds' gift to their rescuers marks the beginning of the Ukrainian tradition of pysanky and provides a reminder of God's endless love for all creatures.
Take this story, add a manufactured neopagan goddess who turns the bird into a rabbit that then lays rainbow eggs, and the quintessential Eostre myth is born.
How did the manufactured myth of the Eostre Bunny come to public attention, and thus to the massive popularity it now has? This seems to have come about via the work of Sarah Ben Breathnach, author of SImple Abundance and similar feelgood new age works. The story appears in her book Mrs. Sharp's Traditions.
Mrs. Sharp is a fictional Victorian woman who dispenses homespun wisdom for modern age people.
Allegedly, the source material for the book came from 'a trunk full of Victorian era magazines' that was discovered by chance; a neat way of avoiding having to substantiate anything that the author presents as old.
From there, the story appears to have migrated via word of mouth and the Internet, until most recently it appeared as The Coming of Eostre in the American children's magazine Cricket.
Pagans and Propaganda
So, a Goddess who may never have existed has been purposefully fleshed out over the years into the 'real meaning of Easter'. As in Grimm's time, there is an agenda at work here. Academic standards and respect for research have given way to stories that tell people what they want to hear. Modern pagans are apparently less concerned with finding out the facts than they are with putting the damn uppity 'festival-stealing' Christians firmly in their place, even if the truth has to be bent completely out of shape in order to achieve this.
There is a bitter irony to this moral high ground, too: if the concocted Eostre story proves anything, it proves that neopagans are just as capable of disseminating lies and propaganda about other religions as the Christians ever were.
(originally published in White Dragon)
On to Part 2