Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Goddess “Easter:” Fact or Fiction?

Today (April 12th) is Easter[1] the most important holiday for Christians of all orders and denominations the world over; a celebration of the resurrection of their messiah, Jesus Christ, as recounted in the New Testament.

However, for many both inside and outside the faith Easter is also considered one of the most confusing holidays with its traditions of painted eggs and chocolate bunnies which seem about as far away from the ideas of death and resurrection, sin and atonement as one can get.

So where do the eggs and rabbits of Easter tradition come from? For many scholars the answer to this question seems to have a lot to do with pagan spring and fertility traditions. The only question is exactly how much?

Over the years a number of researchers have put forth the theory that our modern Easter celebrations are actually remnants of an ancient Scandinavian and Germanic cult which worshipped a goddess called Eostre, her name itself being the root of the term “Easter.” Eostre is thought to have been a goddess of springtime and fertility, with eggs and rabbits being her sacred symbols. In recent years this theory has gained a lot of backing in the form of Wicca/Neo-Pagan practitioners looking for a way to appropriate an already popular western holiday into their own faith.

However, it is also equally plausible that at least some of these symbols, such as the eggs, were also ‘home grown’ so to speak. Easter is celebrated around the same time as the Jewish holiday of Passover. The cornerstone of Passover is the Seder, a ritual meal where one of the many foods presented is a roasted egg (the Beitzah) which symbolizes the Festival Sacrifice that Jews used to make at the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the meaning of the egg changed to symbolize spring and rebirth. It is therefore possible that the ‘Easter Egg’ may not be pagan at all but rather Jewish in origin.

The degree of certainty with which scholars approach the theory of the cult of Eostre varies as well. Some, such as author Gabriella Kalapos in her book Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays, states with utter certainty that the holiday of Easter gets its name “from the Teutonic dawn-goddess known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostre, Eostra, Eostur, Eastra, and numerous other variations.” This is in spite of the fact that linguists also posit the possibility that the term “Easter” could be derived from the German word “eostarum” which means “dawn” and has no religious or mythological overtones at all.

An example of a more cautious writer is Paganism/Wicca author Patti Wigington who reminds readers in her article Eostre - Teutonic Goddess or NeoPagan Fancy? that historical evidence for the existence of an “Easter” goddess in extremely slim.

Eostre,” Wigington writes, “first makes her appearance in literature about thirteen hundred years ago in the Venerable Bede’s Temporum Ratione. Bede tells us that April is known as Eostremonth, and is named for a goddess that the Anglo-Saxons honored in the spring… After that, there’s not a lot of information about her, until Jacob Grimm and his brother came along in the 1800s. Jacob said that he found evidence of her existence in the oral traditions of certain parts of Germany, but there’s really no written proof.”

Nevertheless, lack of historical evidence has not stopped the Neo-Pagan/Wicca community from latching onto and championing the idea of an ancient, long forgotten Easter goddess. It has also not stopped fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman from championing the idea either, as he did in his 2001 New York Times bestselling novel American Gods which featured “Easter” as a strong supporting character.

As for scholars, it is sometimes very much the same as with the faithful. Writers and researchers like Kalapos simply feel that Easter, with it’s abundance of fertility ritual iconography, just makes more sense if it was, in fact, originally a pagan goddess festival. Others, like Wigington in spite of her own religious affiliations, would rather err on the side of caution.

And perhaps, as a friend of mine once pointed out, it doesn’t matter. If you buy into the idea that gods and goddesses are only as real as the faithful who follow them then it is possible that Eostre does exist, if not in the past than certainly in the present.

Pictures:

At Top: Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts.

Sources:

Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos

Don't Know Much About Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis

Easter and Passover at History.com
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[1] Unless you happen to be Eastern Orthodox, in which case Easter is April 19th 2009.

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