March 12, 2013 by
(This is one of my oldest articles at Patheos and was originally published on The Agora, refurbished a year later on Raise the Horns, and then updated a second time on March 9, 2017-jason)
Pagan holidays with an equivalent in the overculture often just feel bigger than the ones that don’t. It’s easy to get swept up in Yule or Samhain when everyone else is celebrating Christmas and Halloween-the decorations are essentially the same, and often times some of the bigger themes of each particular holiday. The Wiccan sabbat of Ostara (and as a “Pagan” holiday it’s celebrated far outside of Witchy circles too!) is one of those holidays that comes with an equivalent Christian celebration, Easter, and since the two basically share a name they are in many ways intertwined.
Many of the things I did as a kid to celebrate Easter have been moved over to my Ostara celebrations, and since I usually have nothing better to do on Easter morning I sometimes celebrate that holiday too! Any excuse for a celebration is fine by me, though I’ll admit that the overtly Pagan ones are usually far more fun.
Holidays are a great time of year for misinformation, and without fail every Ostara I run into some sort of crazy meme equating Easter with Ishtar and lots of other nonsense. What follows is my attempt to share factual information about Eostre, Easter, Ostara, Eggs, and Bunnies.
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD “EASTER” AND THE NAMING OF THE SPRING EQUINOX OSTARA
The word “Easter” is problematic for many reasons. In non-English speaking countries the commemoration of Jesus’s return from the dead is called something else entirely, we simply translate it as “Easter” out of laziness. In Greece for example, “Easter” is called “Lambros” which translates as “shining” or “bright.” This is problematic because many Pagans like to make the argument that Easter is a specifically pagan holiday, because of the alleged origins of the word Easter. According to the British historian Bede (673-735 CE) the word “Easter” comes from the name of a Germanic fertility goddess named Eostre, whose name was given to an entire month “Eostur-month,” and then eventually to one specific holiday occurring in that month, the one we now call Easter.
The problem with all of this is that the only source for the goddess Eostre is Bede. There aren’t any tales of Eostre throwing eggs to all of the good little Germanic pagans, or of her riding a giant rabbit, so it’s hard to say with certainty that she existed and is the source for the word “Easter.” While evidence of the historical Eostre is a bit scanty, there are some tantalizing ideas about where the goddess might have come from (assuming she was worshipped historically). Eostre shares a likely linguistic origin with various Indo-European goddesses of the dawn (like the Greek Eos for example). The questions then becomes whether the dawn was named after the deities in question, or if the deities were named after the rising sun. The word Easter then could be linked directly to a pagan goddess, or simply mean beginnings (1).
Anotehr candidate for the “historical Eostre” is a a localized goddess worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons in present day county Kent in Southeastern England. It’s in Kent where we see the oldest references to names similar to that of Eostre (Eastrgena appears in 788 CE). It’s recently been argued that perhaps she was a Germanic Matron Goddess . Linguist Philip Shaw (see his book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World) links a localized Eostre to the German Austriahenea, a matron goddess connected to the East. Shaw downplays the connection to “dawn” and focuses on linguistic evidence linking the two deities to the East (though the dawn connection might still exist even there since the sun rises in the East). If Eostre is indeed linked to goddesses like Austriahenea she might not even be a single goddess. Matron goddesses were often worshipped in triplicate.
In German Easter is called Ostern, and according to Jakob Grimm (yup, one of the fairy tale brothers) who was writing in the 1830’s the name derives from the German goddess Ostara. Sadly though, there’s less evidence of Ostara than there is of Eostre! It seems to be something Grimm pretty much concocted on his own for whatever reason.
A century and a half later an American Witch and poet named Aiden Kelly went looking for sabbat names more interesting than Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, and Autumn Equinox. He ended up adopting Ostara for the Vernal Equinox and we’ve been using it for over 40 years now. It just feels right for the holiday, and considering the equinox’s associations with fertility, the rebirth of the Earth, and new beginnings it all fits in comfortably with the themes of the Christian Easter.
JESUS AS A DYING & RESURRECTING GOD
For many years I believed that the most pagan element of Easter was probably Jesus himself as a dying and resurrecting god. The term dying and resurrecting god was first popularized by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) who wrote of such gods in his seminal work The Golden Bough. (Though popular today as a one volume book, the original Golden Bough was nearly the length of an encyclopedia set and included multiple volumes.) Frazer saw gods such as Dionysus, Tammuz, and Adonis as all being related to the Christian Jesus, and argued that such deities were caught up in a never-ending cycle of death (often involving crucifixion) and rebirth, often in tandem with the seasons of the Earth.
Unfortunately most modern day scholars of religion disagree with much of Frazer’s analysis, but that hasn’t stopped movies like Zeitgeist from repeating the ideas of Frazer and those who were inspired by him. The simple truth is that ancient pagan gods were never crucified and after dying they usually stayed dead, perhaps to rule the underworld in the case of a god like Osiris. There were certainly deities who went from the underworld back to the living world, but they didn’t use death as a vehicle to do so. (They are gods, why would they need to.)
But just because the myth of the dying and resurrecting god is a bit suspect doesn’t mean that the Christian Jesus wasn’t influenced by the deities of pagan antiquity, just the opposite. Second Temple Judaism didn’t believe in god-like figures rising from the grave, but pagans of the era certainly did! To be taken seriously as a deity Jesus had to match up with the other gods of the era miracle for miracle. I don’t think it’s honest to suggest that Jesus turned aside the grave because he was a vegetation god in the tradition of Tammuz, but to be seen as a figure as powerful as Dionysus or Isis he needed to claim some power over death. (If you are interested in this topic I’ve written extensively about it here.)
EGGS & BUNNIES
While I think that there’s a clear link to Jesus and the gods of pagan antiquity and that Eostre was probably a real goddess, the other trappings of Easter, the egg and the bunny, are far more problematic. I’ve been conditioned to always think of them as ancient pagan practices, but researching this article has brought up more questions than answers in that regard. I can say with certainty that eggs as a symbol of fertility and rebirth have a long pedigree, but they were also very common items whose symbolism and role certainly could have changed and evolved over time.
In the Greek Orphic tradition the god Phanes was said to have hatched from a “world egg,” illustrating that the Ancient Greeks believed in the egg as a symbol of rebirth and new life. A direct link to Easter Eggs and Pagan Rome can be found in a legend surrounding the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The day when Marcus was born his mother’s red hen is said to have laid an egg spotted with red. That speckled egg was seen as a sign that young Marcus would become a great Emperor. When Marcus eventually assumed the throne colored eggs began to be passed around throughout the Empire as a symbol of congratulations (2). Later Christians adopted the custom. It’s hard to say with any certainty if that Marcus Aurelius legend is the origin of the Easter Egg, as it’s likely that eggs were being passed around before Marcus assumed the throne.
While colored eggs were shared in the Ancient World, there’s no continuous history linking the colored egg of pagandom to the Easter Egg. Eggs were relatively common in the Middle Ages, and an important source of nutrition in a society where meat was a rare treat. Monks and priests were often given “presents” (payment) on important Christian holidays, with Easter being one of those. Eggs were a common gift, and they were often given to priests in baskets. In Russia it was common for priests (and later, members of the nobility) to give out eggs as gift, especially around Easter. Eventually the eggs that were passed out were elaborately decorated, and the custom spread throughout the country. Eggs were also generally banned during the period of Lent, so people sometimes would decorate them as they waited on their Easter feast and the return to eating eggs.
Eggs were also begged for by children in Great Britain during the Seventeenth Century. Before important holidays it was common for the poor to “trick or treat” for food, and at Easter children begged for eggs. (3) It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to picture poor children begging for eggs to put in a basket transforming into the modern Easter basket full of sacred goodies like waxy chocolate bunnies and stale jelly beans.
Rabbits have been associated with fertility from pagan times into the present. (I have friends who like to say “they go at it like rabbits” when discussing the sexual habits of others.) It seems likely that the Easter Bunny is an ancient pagan tradition (though the association of the bunny with the myth-less Eostra is most certainly a modern invention), but the first references to the Easter Bunny only date back to the 1500′s. That doesn’t mean the Easter Bunny didn’t exist before those first references to the Germanic Oschter Haws (or Osterhase), it just can’t be documented.
There’s a part of me that believes human beings have a natural tendency to venerate “Pagan things,” and tend to be drawn to things in the natural world that correlate to what is going on in their own environments. Venerating a rabbit in April during the Earth’s annual period of rebirth makes complete sense. That doesn’t mean it’s pagan in the sense that people worshipped a rabbit in the year 100, but it’s Pagan in the sense that it taps into the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s also possible that now forgotten myths transformed into now lost folk tales and then into the egg laying rabbit we now call the Easter Bunny.
I think what’s most important at this time of year is how we see things in the present day. If the Easter (or Ostara Bunny) speaks to a family all the better! Jesus may not be an ancient pagan god in the traditional sense, but his myth was most certainly influenced by those very same gods. And I can tell you from experience that there’s a very real presence behind the goddess Eostre. Blessed Ostara and if you celebrate it, Happy Easter.
1. “The Stations of the Sun” by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press, 1996. Page 180
2. “An Egg at Easter” by Venetia Newall. Indiana University Press, 1971. Page 268
3. “The Stations of the Sun,” Hutton pg. 198