Before researching Ostara, I made a poll for my patrons: Are you more interested in the history of the holiday, or modern worship techniques? My patrons voted for the holiday’s history. In the Wheel of the Year, Ostara is one of the biggest holidays. I thought that I would find a lot of interesting history.
But when I started researching, I was shocked at how many people made incorrect claims. Claims that Ēostre was a major Goddess, that She is equivalent to Astarte and Ishtar, that the holiday had been going on for centuries–all of which are wrong. I am gobsmacked by how much misinformation is out there.
Before I explain why these concepts are wrong, I want to provide some advice. If you want accurate historical information on Pagan holidays, don’t trust the top Google results. Look for museums, universities, and historians who will provide nuance. Even Wikipedia has more accurate information than many of the top blogs listed. And, as I will show later in this article, even university websites can be wrong!
How Significant Was the Goddess Ēostre?
Pre-Christian Germans did not write much down, so even the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda were written later by Christians.
When reading these works, you must keep bias in mind. Although monks were well-educated, they did not know everything about history. Many scholars believe that some of these monks made stuff up, such as the “blood eagle” execution method (seen in Midsommar), which has no evidence in archaeology.
But back to Bede. In all of his writings, Bede only mentioned Ēostre once: in The Reckoning of Time (725), which analyzes medieval and ancient cosmic calendars. In the work, Bede claimed that the holiday came from a spring festival celebrating Ēostre. He also said that the date of Christian Easter was calculated by the Roman monk Dionysus Exiguus, who timed it with the full moon.
This is the only evidence we have of Ēostre. She was only mentioned in passing, and although archaeologists have found evidence of ancient spring celebrations, most did not point towards a specific Goddess. This has lead many scholars to doubt that Ēostre existed.
But if that’s true, where did the names Easter and Ostara come from? In a 2008 paper, linguist R. Sermon provided one possible explanation:
“More recently it has been suggested that Bede was only speculating about the origins of the festival name, although attempts by various German linguists to find alternative origins have so far proven unconvincing. Nevertheless, there may be a more direct route by which Ostern could have entered the German language. Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface (C.AD 673–754), who could have introduced the Old English name Eastron during the course of their missionary work. This would explain the first appearance of Ostarun in the Abrogans, a late eighth-century Old High German glossary, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.”
To be explicitly clear: I’m not trying to invalidate people who work with the Goddess Ēostre. Personally, I don’t think that deities have to be ancient in order to be valid. That’s why I’m capitalizing Her pronouns. I’m bringing this up because so many blogs claim that Ēostre 100% existed, and that She was historically and spiritually significant. If She existed, She was likely a minor deity.
Ēostre, Astarte, and Ishtar
This time, it was Scottish protestant minister Alexander Hislop. In his book The Two Babylons (1853), Hislop claimed that the name Ēostre was a twist of Astarte, whom he incorrectly equated with Ishtar:
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Ninevah, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. This name as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.”
All of this is wrong, by the way. Linguists quickly debunked this theory back in the 19th century. If you’re wondering where the word Easter actually comes from, there’s a succinct article in Time that examines the most popular theories.
Despite this, people are still writing about Astarte and Ēostre as if They’re related. And even if the theory were true, Hislop did not say that Astarte and Ēostre were spiritually similar. He claimed that the names were similar, not the Goddesses.
Can we stop repeating these “facts” without researching them first?
One quick tangent before we continue: While writing this post, my husband asked if naming holidays after deities has historical basis. Although it was not common, it has happened. The Roman festival Saturnalia is an obvious example. But it’s much more common for holidays to be named after Catholic saints, such as Brigid’s Day, which I discussed in my Imbolc post.
Did Ancient Spring Celebrations Exist?
All of these misconceptions aside, the core of Ostara is not Ēostre. It’s the spring equinox and the changing of seasons. Did the ancients really celebrate the spring equinox?
Yes, many ancient civilizations celebrated the spring equinox. Shintoism and Hinduism both have holidays around this time: Vernal Equinox Day and Holi, respectively. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, lands on this day. And despite the spread of Islam, Nowruz is still a national holiday in the Republic of Iran.
Remember that changing seasons were especially important for rural communities. By the time spring began, many new livestock had been born, and new seeds had been planted. There was plenty to celebrate.
I also want to note that Ostara, specifically, is part of the Wheel of the Year. This calendar was inspired by ancient Scottish and Irish calendars, with some other traditions thrown in. Gerald Gardner, who founded Wicca and helped establish the Wheel of the Year, believed that Wicca was the ancient religion of the British Isles. Although his theory was incorrect, it inspired a lot of people to revive ancient festivals and holidays.
In the British Isles, not much is known about ancient spring festivals beyond Easter. But some theorize that Stonehenge likely played a role. Druids have been celebrating the spring equinox since the 18th century, which might have inspired some Ostara practices.
Despite being one of the most popular modern Pagan holidays, Ostara has the haziest history. Little is known about it, and what is known is widely debated.
Where Did Ostara's Symbols Come From?
You can’t research Ostara without running into popular Easter symbols such as eggs and bunnies. Many have questioned where these symbols came from. I’ve seen a few people theorize that they were Ēostre’s symbols.
Although historians don’t have a 100% definitive answer, it is widely believed that these symbols were pre-Christian. But they might not have been linked to any specific deity. More likely, they were symbolic representations of spring, namely the land’s fertility.
Fertility is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Wheel of the Year. When talking about fertility celebrations, we’re not focusing on human fertility. It’s the fertility of the land. I’m sure you’ve heard that the soil becomes fertile during spring. Livestock also become fertile and give birth to baby animals.
Despite what some people say (mostly on anti-Wiccan rants), fertility celebrations are not inherently sexual. In some cases they can be, such as in a fertility spell. But remember that we’re talking about seasonal holidays. The Earth’s ability to grow crops was especially important in ancient times.
How Do We Celebrate Ostara?
If you’re like me, all of this information probably made you more confused about Ostara than before. With such limited historical information, some might wonder whether we should celebrate the holiday at all.
Personally, I think the lack of information frees us to celebrate Ostara however we’d like. Although the ancient traditions disappeared, the core of the holiday is still present. We’re honoring the fertile land, warming weather, equal days and nights, and fruitful days to come.
I haven’t performed a traditional Wiccan ritual in years. It’s hard to even call myself a Wiccan at this point. But I still follow the Wheel of the Year because it forces me to slow down. These holidays remind me to pause, spend time in nature, and be grateful for the Earth that I often ignore.
The spring equinox is a holiday of hope and gratitude. Do whatever reminds you of your blessings and provides hope for the future. If painting eggs gets you in the spring mood, paint. If you want to go on your first spring hike or picnic, do that. If there’s still snow on the ground and you want to stay inside, draw or journal. Just take some time to slow down and thank the Earth.