The manner in which variant languages descend from a common ancestor is reminiscent of the evolution of species. Languages are arranged into ‘families’, with each family sharing common descent from the ‘proto-language’. So, the common ancestor of the Germanic languages, such as English and German, is proto-Germanic; the common ancestor of the Celtic languages, such as Irish and Welsh, is proto-Celtic; and so on.
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the common ancestor of all the Indo-European languages, and would have been spoken from approximately 4500 to 2500 BCE. You can read more about it, and listen to what experts think it would have sounded like, here.
It is possible to attempt the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European myths by comparing the common elements of known myths that were told by speakers of the Indo-European languages, and also by analysing the names of characters in those myths to discern their original meaning. For example, we can attempt to reverse-engineer the creation myth of the Proto-Indo-Europeans by comparing the myths of Romulus and Remus (the mythical founders of Rome), the Norse creation myth, and the creation myth in the Rig Veda. This article explains how the process works.
The common elements in these creation myths are the sacrifice of one being by another, the creation of the world from the dismembered body of the sacrificed being, and twins. What is fascinating to me in the above is that the Norse myth, which involves the death and dismemberment of the giant Ymir, says nothing about Ymir being anyone’s twin. However, the name Ymir can be shown to derive from a root meaning ‘twin’, providing a depth of additional meaning to the story that had been lost over time.
From comparing cognate elements in related languages, we can postulate earlier ancestral forms of the mythic figures we already know about, and thus reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European pantheon and their myths even in the absence of any documentary or archaeological evidence.
One such reconstructed figure is the Proto-Indo-European Goddess of the dawn, Hausōs. This Goddess is considered to be the ancestor of known dawn-goddesses such as the Vedic Ushas, the Greek Ēōs and the Roman Aurora.
As the ever-helpful Wikipedia informs us, the name Hausōs derives from a root meaning ‘to shine’ and which has cognates meaning ‘east’, ‘gold’ and ‘springtime’.
The identification of the PIE deities is significant not only for what it can tell us about the distant past, but for the light that can be shed upon the myths of the daughter societies, as with Ymir above. Even though Bede’s mention of Eostre is the only textual evidence we have of her, a Goddess with a major springtime festival and a name cognate with other dawn-Goddesses would fit the existing pattern perfectly. If Bede was speculating, he was doing so with exceptional insight.
The Anglo-Saxon Eostre would have had to derive from an earlier Germanic form, which is where Grimm’s proposed reconstruction ‘Ostara’ comes in. The lack of any primary evidence for Ostara, however, along with the lack of any further evidence for Eostre, is somewhat daunting and we are obliged to admit that the reconstructed PIE myths do not prove the existence of such a deity. Dr Philip Shaw, whose research into Eostre has energised the pagan sphere perhaps more than he knows, in fact rejects the pan-Germanic Ostara proposed by Grimm.
For the purposes of my layman’s essay, however, I find the PIE material convincing and inspiring. When the enduring cultural impact of the Eostur festival - which I cannot believe was wholly secular – is also taken into account, the case for Eostre is solidly made.
There still remains the unpleasant task of clearing up the midden heap of self-serving nonsense that has been spouted about her over the years, from ‘Eostre’s Bunny’ to the ‘Celtic Mother Goddess of the Spring Equinox’ and beyond. And don’t even get me started on Ishtar.