If you’re curious about modern holiday beliefs and calendar customs, you might be reading or doing research about them online. Chances are, you come across some stories that the presenters claim are ancient, and reach into the pre-Christian past. One popular story you might have seen recently involves the origin of the Easter Bunny. Essentially, the tale is that Ostara, the ancient Germanic goddess of the spring, transformed a bird into a hare, and the hare responded by laying colored eggs for her festival. Some online sources, such as Goddess Gift, claim this story is very old indeed. Others, such as Family Christmas Online, say it was invented in the 1980s.
So whom should you believe? As it turns out, neither one! I’ve traced the story back to the late 19th century. So it may not be ancient, but it’s not that new either.
Let me back up a moment to set the scene. On Easter Sunday 2016, I had the pleasure of appearing on CBS Sunday Morning as a folklore expert in a segment on the Easter Bunny. The resulting story can be viewed at this link. The interview gave me an incentive to organize my thoughts on the matter and publish two blog posts, which you can view here and here. In the comments section of the first of these posts, reader Holly B. asked about the story of Ostara and the hare.
As I detailed in the first Easter Bunny post, Ostara herself is a shadowy figure in Germanic folklore. Her story begins with Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess who is not documented from pagan sources at all, and turns up in only one early Christian source, the writings of the English churchman Bede. Bede may have been right that there was such a goddess, or he may have been spreading the received wisdom of his era, and scholars have debated this point for years. Jacob Grimm, the brilliant linguist and folklorist, is one of many scholars who took Bede at his word, and in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, he proposed that Eostre must have been a local version of a more widespread Germanic goddess, whom he named Ostara. It’s impossible to tell if Ostara as a goddess ever existed outside Grimm’s proposal. As for Eostre, there’s no evidence of her worship except in Bede’s book, and possibly in place names (which could, however, just mean “east”). There are certainly no ancient stories in which she transforms a bird into a hare. 
In 1874, in another book also titled Deutsche Mythologie, Adolf Holtzmann speculated about the already-popular German tradition of the “Easter hare” (the tradition from which our Easter bunny derives) by associating it with the goddess, thus claiming for the first time a connection between Ostara and the hare:
The Easter Hare is inexplicable to to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba.” [My translation from German.]
More developed stories have since emerged connecting Eostre/Ostara and the hare, one of which was the subject of Holly B.’s question:
I have been trying to track the origins of Easter rabbit myths, and of course very little primary source material exists for oral traditions. There seem to be two versions of the story of Eostre and the hare: that she found a bird with frozen wings and saved it by transforming it into a rabbit, which retained the ability to lay eggs; and that a bird who laid beautiful eggs was so proud that Eostre was irked and turned it into a rabbit, but she was so moved by the rabbit’s despair that she allowed it to lay beautiful eggs once a year. These stories are attributed to Anglo-Saxon folklore, and so it makes sense for it to appear in Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, but I can find no sources for either story, modern or otherwise. As a librarian, it is driving me batty. This article and the comments have been helpful.
Holly B’s question is particularly interesting because recent years have seen a backlash against these stories, and modern authors seem eager to claim they are very recent indeed. As an example, the popular blog Family Christmas Online calls the story “a modern-day hoax popularized by ‘New Age’ circles,” and further asserts that “no such myth was ever associated with Eostre or any similar goddess before 1987.”
Family Christmas Online goes on to describe their belief as to the origin of the story:
As far as I can tell the Eostre bird-bunny story dates back to an article published in a K-12 school resource by feel-good writer and frequent Oprah guest Sarah Ban Breathnach. In 1990, she incorporated the article’s content in Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions: Reviving Victorian Family Celebrations of Comfort & Joy. Then, in 2002, Jean-Andrew Dickmann published a version of Breathnach’s story as “The Coming of Eostre” in Cricket Magazine a “Weekly Reader” sort of publication.
In response to Holly B, and contrary to Family Christmas Online, a few weeks ago I traced versions of the story back to the June 8, 1889 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries, page 64:
The Hare and Easter –Whence comes the legend of the Hare in connection with Easter?
–RWH PHILADELPHIA PA
In Germany and among the Pennsylvania Germans toy rabbits or hares made of canton flannel stuffed with cotton are given as gifts on Easter morning. The children are told that this Osh’ter Has laid the Easter eggs. This curious idea is thus explained: The hare was originally a bird, and was changed into a quadruped by the goddess Ostara; in gratitude to Ostara or Eastre, the hare exercises its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her festal day.
Unfortunately, this reference was given as an answer to someone’s question, with no source cited. So although I had traced it back over a century, I still didn’t know where it came from with any certainty. Nevertheless, I expressed my “best guess”:
If I had to guess, I would say it probably came from a German scholar writing in the wake of Grimm. As we have seen, Holtzmann’s speculation seems to be the first direct connection between hares and Ostara, so the story, in a form that includes Ostara, cannot predate Holtzmann (1874). Wackernagel, by 1882, already had a specific story in which Ostara “rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares.” So it’s not too surprising that, seven years later, someone would have come up with a more developed narrative. I’ll continue to look for a more definitive source.
Now I’m able to report some more definitive sources. First, a very similar report to the one in American Notes and Queries appeared as a note by H. Krebs in the first volume of the English journal Folk-Lore in 1883, but this time with a citation:
Easter-Eggs and the Hare.—Some time ago the question was raised how it came that, according to South German still prevailing folk-lore, the Hare is believed by children to lay the Easter-eggs. I venture now to offer a probable answer to it. Originally the hare seems to have been a bird which the ancient Teutonic goddess Ostara (the Anglo-Saxon Eàstre or Eostre, as Bede calls her) transformed into a quadruped. For this reason the Hare, in grateful recollection of its former quality as bird and swift messenger of the Spring-Goddess, is able to lay eggs on her festival at Easter-time (r. Oberle’s Ueberreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, 8vo, Baden-Baden, 1883, p. 104.)
As we can see, Krebs was reporting a new explanation citing a German book by K. A. Oberle, which was at the time brand new. Looking at that book, we see that Krebs’s passage is a word-for-word translation of a sentence by Oberle:
Der Hase scheint vorerst ein Vogel gewesen zu sein, den die Göttin in ein vierfüssiges Tier verwandelte; darum kann er in dankbarer Erinnerung an seine frühere Eigenschaft als Vogel am Feste der Göttin Eier legen.
But where did Oberle get the idea that the goddess transformed a bird into a “four-footed animal?” He does not give a specific source for the story of the goddess changing a bird into a hare, but he does give a general source for his information about Ostara: Holtzmann, who (as we have already seen) is the origin of the idea that Ostara and hares were connected. Looking back at Holtzmann, I found the following sentence:
Uebrigens ist doch der Hase ein Vogel gewesen, da er Eier legt….
This translates to:
By the way, the hare must once have been a bird, because it lays eggs….
This simple statement seems to be Oberle’s source for the idea that the goddess Ostara changed a bird into a hare. As in English, the German sentence CAN mean that an individual hare used to be an individual bird—or in other words that a bird was transformed into a hare. But it can also mean that the role of the hare in the story used to be occupied by a bird. In my reading, Holtzmann seems just to have been speculating that a previous version of the story featured a bird, but Oberle made the leap to a tale in which a physical transformation occurred, and then ascribed that transformation to the goddess Ostara.  He likely did this because his book was specifically intended to argue for survivals of paganism in Christian Germany, and giving the Easter Hare a definitively pagan origin served this scholarly agenda. In adding this element, Oberle provided the essence of the current popular stories.
Shortly after these stories began to appear in academic venues, they were imported into popular books, newspapers, and magazines. The November 1896 issue of Popular Science Monthly carried an article by Walter James Hoffman called “Popular Superstitions,” which stated:
The association of the hare with eggs is curious and the explanation is found in the belief that originally the hare seems to have been a bird which the ancient Teutonic goddess Ostara turned into a quadruped. For this reason the hare in grateful recognition of its former quality as a bird and swift messenger of the Spring Goddess is able to lay eggs on her festival at Easter time.
Quite early, the story began to be prefaced by statements about how very ancient it was. For example, Michigan’s Crawford Avalanche of April 12, 1900, tells us that the story is “one of the oldest in mythology,” despite the fact that it was then less than twenty years old:
ORIGIN OF EASTER RABBITS
According to Teutonic Tradition Bunny Was Once a Bird
One of the quaint and interesting features of our modern Easter carnival is the appearance in shop windows, side by side with the emblematic colored egg, of a pert tall-eared rabbit, and those who cannot understand why bunny should have a place in our Easter decorations shrug their shoulders and think it a trick to please the children. But the legend of the Easter rabbit is one of the oldest in mythology, and is mentioned in the early folk lore of South Germany. Originally, it appears, the rabbit was a bird, which the ancient Teutonic goddess Ostara–goddess of the east or of spring–transformed into a quadruped. For this reason the rabbit or hare is grateful, and in remembrance of its former condition as a bird and as a swift messenger of spring, and of the goddess whom it served, is able to lay colored Easter eggs on her festival in the spring time, the colors illustrating the theory that when it was a bird the rabbit laid colored eggs, and an egg has always been a symbol of the resurrection, and therefore used as an illustration at Easter.
A story in the Richmond (Virginia) Times from March 30, 1902, claims the story reflects the blind and barbarous nature of the heathen Saxons:
Easter a Relic of Pagan Days
Strange as it may seem, Eastertide, like Christmas, is a relic of pagan days. In former days, when the dawn of civilization was just beginning to break, that time of the year when winter was passing away and summer approaching, was made a period of festivity. The people in their blind fashion thanked the unseen beings who ruled the world for the breaking up of the frost-time and prayed for plenteous harvests and fruitful flocks and herds. When Christianity pushed its way further and further into the then barbaric world the early missionaries, not wishing to antagonize their prospective converts, took this festival and consecrated its observance to the new form of faith. In England the festival became known as “Easter” from the goddess Eostre, and in the eggs so widely looked upon as typical of Easter is a mark of the old legend of a bird that was changed into a hare in the spring.
As time went on, the story was sometimes blended with other tales or beliefs about Ostara, none of them older than Grimm’s 1835 book. The Warren, Minnesota, Sheaf of April 13, 1911 ran the following version with a new detail about Ostara’s chariot, drawn from the already growing (and already fanciful) literature about the goddess:
The Easter bunny is said to have been the bird which at one time drew the chariot of the Goddess of Spring and was turned into a hare. Every year however, at the coming of spring the hare remembers, and in commemoration of its original bird nature lays eggs as an offering to Spring and Youth it symbolizes.
Sometimes the story grew even more in the telling. The detail that the goddess changed the bird into a hare specifically to help it endure the cold appears in a version printed in Ohio’s Fulton County Tribune for April 13, 1922:
WAS MESSENGER OF GODDESS
Pretty Legend Which Connects the Hare With the Symbol of the Awakening of Life.
It appears from a very ancient, but little known tradition, that the rabbit, or rather the hare; sacred to Ostara, was originally a bird, very possibly the swallow. The goddess finding her winged messenger was not fitted to endure all toils and climates, transformed her into a brisk, quick-footed little quadruped with long ears, a warm furry coat, and no tail to speak of, ready and able to summon belated spring from wherever she might be lingering, and to guide her safely, even among the icebergs of the frozen north. Thenceforward the hare, the emblem of fertility, was known as the friend and messenger of the spring goddess; and in memory of her former existence as a bird, the hare once a year, at Easter, lays the gaily colored eggs that are the symbol of the awakening of earth and the renewal of life. This is the mythological explanation of the connection of Easter eggs and bunnies, but there are many other stories telling why the sportive hare is responsible for the bright-hued eggs at this spring festival.
It’s interesting to note the clear debt that many of the more popular stories owe to the versions first published in academic books and journals. The 1896 article in Popular Science Monthly, and the newspaper account from 1922, both use the word “quadruped,” first used in the very first English-language version from Folk-Lore in 1883, itself a translation of the German “vierfüssiges Tier” from Oberle’s account. It’s also interesting that Family Christmas Online dismisses Sarah Ban Breathnach’s claim, made in the book Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions, that she found her source material in Victorian magazines. In fact, given its origin in 1883, and the fact that it was recounted in Popular Science Monthly (a Victorian magazine, albeit an American one with academic leanings), her story seems quite plausible.
The above was a just a brief rundown of early versions I turned up in books, magazines, and especially newspapers. I haven’t come across a version in which the bird was transformed as a punishment for pride, which is one of the stories recounted by Holly B., That may indeed have a more recent origin. Searching the Library’s Chronicling America collection for more versions of the story might fill in even more details. One thing is clear, however: while the story of Ostara turning a bird into a hare is not ancient, it’s also not new.  It is, like most things about Ostara, a 19th century German idea affected by the Romantic Nationalist movement. Since the story arises from the work of Jacob Grimm, it’s also interesting as an example of folklore that arose from the work of folklorists.
 As a reader of the previous posts pointed out, local shrines in Germany have turned up with the somewhat similar name “Matronae Austriahenae,” but again since both “Eostre” and “Austriahenae” are etymologically related to “east,” it’s impossible to tell if there’s any relationship or if we have several goddesses understood as in some sense eastern.
 Many thanks to my Library of Congress colleague Sybille Jagusch for helping me understand the German texts.
 Whether the story can be considered “New Age,” as Family Christmas Online suggests, is another question. Depending on how we define the New Age movement, it may itself not be that new. Although many define New Age proper as having begun in the 1970s, it clearly has roots in the blend of Western esotericism and Eastern religion that emerged in the nineteenth century. The Ostara story is mostly popular in Neopagan communities, which usually hold themselves distinct from New Age thought. But there is overlap among all these ideas.
Right before the excerpt from the Warren, MN Sheaf, it says, “As time went on, the story was sometimes blended with other tales or beliefs about Ostara, none of them older than Grimm’s 1935 book.” I think that should read “1835.”
Mona, thank you! I’ve made that change!
Do you have any indication as to who the illustrators of any of these are? These images in the context of their other work in this kind of mass publishing.
JoAnn, thanks for your query. There is no obvious information attached to any of the illustrations. Since all of them were published prior to 1923, we believe that they are all in the public domain now. There is a link to each newspaper page and you may be able to find out more there.
Dear Stephen, thank you for this beautifull article (and those related to it). As a practicing neo-pagan I often come across wild claims concerning the origins of stories, names, customs and practices. For some reason many members of the neo-pagan community feel the need to validate their practices by inventing “ancient” roots. I like to get thigs straight however and can really appreciate the work you’ve done here.
I miss two things however;
1: That the Hare does not burrow but creates a “nest” called a form in tall grass to bear its young. Here is a connection to birds that might have had a role to play in the forming of the idea that the hare was once a bird?
2: that the hare undergoes a striking change of behaviour during march making it a much more obvious candidate for being a mascott to spring festivities than any other mammal.
I have a conjecture of my own to make: That the changing of the easter hare into a rabbit happened around the time of industrialisation, when masses of people hardly ever left the cities and many probably couldnt tell the difference between a hare and a rabbit (which is sadly still true in many cases).
I would love to hear your opinion, and I hope I may refer my own students in Wicca and paganism to your articles by placing a link on my own blog (which is in Dutch as I live in the Netherlands)
Thank you in advance, your work is very valuable!
I have in the meantime found several stories that pheasants and partridges sometimes acually choose a hares form to lay their eggs in.
It could even be possible that a hare might chase a bird out of its form that had just laid an egg there, thus creating a situation where one might find a hare “sitting” on an egg…
Thanks for your comments, Stéphanie. Those are intriguing connections between hares and eggs that might well account for some aspects of the “Easter hare” story!
I think it’s really all because eggs and bunnies are fertility symbols also typical of fairly early spring, and I suggest that Ostara is a fertility goddess. Probably the association is to fertility, with no actual sorry ever told of any such transformation.
All of this being said, research into UseNet in alt.gothic for a thread titled “kill the wabbit”. It’s a rather different take inspired by then-current efforts by certain fundamentalist Christian to try to rid the observations of besides of paganism.
Thanks for your comment, Klaatu. The idea that Ostara is a fertility goddess is part of the whole “dawn goddess complex” that we’ve discussed at length in the comments to this previous blog post. As you’ll read in that post, there’s no contemporary evidence that Eostre was such a goddess, and no contemporary evidence of belief in any goddess called “Ostara” at all. Finally, there is no documented association between Ostara and bunnies or eggs until the nineteenth century when such an association was suggested by Holtzmann. Clearly, some form of the “fertility goddess” explanation was in Holtzmann’s mind when he suggested such an association, so the modern speculation that she was a fertility goddess is the source of the association between her, hares, and eggs. To conclude because of the association that she must have been a fertility goddess would be purely circular reasoning.
The evidence does support an association between hares and eggs (without Ostara) going back to the seventeenth century at least. Fertility and the Spring season are certainly parts of that association, but other comments here have pointed out other interesting connections, too!
Thanks again: I will look for that thread on alt.gothic!
First thing that popped in my mind is the Chinese zodiac which you will notice the rooster/bird with eggs is opposite the hare. This has to do with a shift either in seasons or night to day would be my guess? Maybe even eclipses?
I just read something about Ishtar, an ancient goddess of fertility, and her symbols of eggs and rabbits. I’ve come across her in modern interest in feminine theology. Is there truth in that?
No, there’s no evidence Ishtar was related at all to Easter, and no evidence at all of eggs and hares being associated with her. It’s become a common meme on the internet in the last few years, but it has no basis in archaeology or mythology.
Good articlde, thank you. Appreciate someone who tries to get at the truth.
Thank you so much for researching this so thoroughly. I love the story of Easter and Her bunny and was dismayed when I came across articles proclaiming it as a hoax. Then again, perhaps all mythologies (even those of prominent religions) could all be dismissed as hoaxes.
I truly appreciate all the effort that went into this article. I also enjoyed the comments from everyone. I do have one question for Stéphanie Sheen; you mentioned a noted change in a hares behavior moving into Spring. What is it exactly, is it a due to mating? Thank you in advance!
Hares are nocturnal animals, but will appear in the day in Spring to mate. They also nest on the surface, which might contribute to the depiction of a bird-like nest.
Thank you for the excellent article and historical research. The comments are thoughtful. Over time, all legends and myths change, and this is likely true with Ostara and the hare. When I was in India and as I researched Hindu myths for my book on stories from different religions, I was struck by the many versions of every myth. People are perfectly happy with that. They tell whichever version they prefer and nobody complains that it isn’t accurate, because it all amounts to the same thing: life is a mystery, let’s explain it with stories! Myths are not hoaxes, they’re a rich hodge-podge of what people are taught and need to believe. Happy Spring to all.
‘Ishtar'(Easter) needs to be researched far more deeply I read about this 7 yrs ago & by responses from others in reply I find it comes from the East, poss mythology, but as you know rabbits were not original of UK they were brought to UK by the invading Roman Armies to feed them I could go on but I won’t Hares are indigenous of our Isle only sent this as you state that this ISHTAR is balderdash please explain or books I can obtain to seek truth regarding the matter …thank you.
As you will see from reading this post and the previous ones on Easter, the “Easter bunny” is first recorded as a hare, not a rabbit, so that would not be a bar to an English origin. But in any case the tradition turns up in Europe first in Germany, and in America among German Americans, so it seems to be an indigenous German tradition, not an English one. There is no shred of evidence for an English tradition of a hare or rabbit associated with Easter until relatively modern times.
Also, to clarify, no one would say that “Ishtar” is “balderdash.” Ishtar is a Mesopotamian goddess. However, there is no evidence of any connection between her and Easter. Ishtar was worshiped by speakers of Akkadian, a Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) language, and Ostara, if her cult existed at all, was worshiped by speakers of Germanic (Indo-European) languages. The resemblance between the names is a coincidence. Claims like this, spread mostly by internet memes, cannot be “disproven.” There never was any evidence for a connection between Ishtar and Easter in the first place. The burden of proof rests with the person making the claim, not the person who disbelieves it. It’s hard to recommend books because as far as I know few reputable books have taken the claim seriously enough to argue against it. The claim is another product of 19th-century speculative scholars which has not stood the test of time.
Ostara is Oestre, Easter which is the Eastern star. The morningstar. Venus. She awakens the sun in the morning, just as she awakens the spring from the dead Winter. The Easternstar/morningstar can also bee seen as Aphrodite, Lucifer, Lucia, Prometheus and ishtar. Ishtar, Inanna, Venus, Aphrodite, Ostara and Freyja are all the same fertillity goddess. She is the goddess of spring, of Life, light and love. To understand this one has to have a holistic perspective, one has to read alot of different myths and see how they intertwine. “As the Germanic languages descend from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), historical linguists have traced the name to a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn *H₂ewsṓs (→ *Ausṓs), from which descends the Common Germanic divinity from whom Ēostre and Ostara are held to descend.” -Wikipedia
Although you’ve quoted Wikipedia at the end of your comment, Wikipedia does not agree with most of the assertions you have made. While it does say that historical linguists trace the name from proto-Indo-European, it also notes, “In his 1835 Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm cites comparative evidence to reconstruct a potential continental Germanic goddess whose name would have been preserved in the Old High German name of Easter, *Ostara. (Emphasis mine.)”
In other words, there is no confirmed existence for the goddess name “Ostara” in any language. It is a theoretical suggestion of one historical linguist, and as the discipline developed, further historical linguists traced that theorized name to the equally conjectural Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn *H₂ewsṓs. This is a purely linguistic exercise, and only shows that the name Grimm proposed was historically plausible–that is, if the Germans worshiped such a goddess it is likely she was called by a name similar to *Ostara. It doesn’t prove whether they did in fact worship any such goddess.
Even if *Ostara was a goddess worshiped in Germany, and even if she was descended from a goddess *H₂ewsṓs worshiped by proto-Indo-Europeans, she would not be related to Ishtar or Inanna, whose names are not Indo-European. This suggestion was made by a Scottish minister named Alexander Hislop in an 1853 anti-Catholic tract called The Two Babylons. As Wikipedia notes: “Because Hislop’s claims have no linguistics foundation, his claims were rejected, but the Two Babylons would go on to have some influence in popular culture. In the 2000s, a popular Internet meme similarly claimed an incorrect linguistic connection between English Easter and Ishtar. (Emphasis mine.)”
I know I’m four years late to this party, but thank you for doing this amazing research. I learned alot that I can pass on to my students.
You write, “He likely did this because his book was specifically intended to argue for survivals of paganism in Christian Germany…” Should that be “… for the survival of …”?
Thanks for the suggestion, Mark, but I did mean “survivals.” This was a particular theory popular in folklore studies at the time, most associated with the English scholar Edward Burnett Tylor. Tylor suggested that elements of then-current culture might be “survivals” of previous, more primitive phases of culture. By this he meant that the idea or practice survived, but the original meaning had been forgotten. So the Easter Bunny would be a “survival” in this sense if it had originally been associated with a Germanic goddess but most 19th century Germans were unaware of this and thought of it as a secular folklore figure. Oberle used the word “Überreste,” “remains,” but he meant much the same thing as we call (or used to call) “survivals” in English folkloristics.
Wow, great article! I’m writing a sermon on Easter, and wanted to investigate some of this Easter Bunny background. Your article was by far the most thorough expose on the topic. Well done and God bless you.
p.s. Are you aware of how the rabit has been associated with virgin Mary since the 1500’s? For example in the painting “Madonna of the Rabbit” by Titian.
Thank you so much for this most interesting posting with such amazing old illustrations and utterly precious links.
By the way, you may probably already know of this but I thought I had better share this link just in case, since it´s a rare opportunity to get such an old English translation of the iconic work:
A free PDF with an English translation by James Steven Stallybrass from 1882 of Jacob Grimm’s first volume of “Teutonic Mythology”:
Thanks for a wonderful source of fact on this curious topic. Can you tell us, though, what you make of the lack of evidence to support either Ostara or the bird/hare connection? In your experience, should such evidence if it exists have been found by now? In its absence, can the speculation of researchers fill the gaps just as scientific postulates can pre-date yet predict discoveries?
Thanks for your comment, JLJones. It’s always possible new evidence will turn up. For the existence of Ostara, we would just need an inscription to her by that name in any Germanic-speaking country. Such sites do turn up from time to time, so it’s not impossible we will one day find one. For the bird/hare connection, it’s much less likely that a text with that degree of detail about pagan Germanic deities will turn up from pagan or early Christian times, so the story is unlikely to be corroborated. In any case, I think this post shows that the evidence begins with speculations by 19th century German scholars, over a thousand years after the story would have to have existed in oral tradition, so it also seems unlikely on those grounds.
Speculation can fill gaps in the record, but in this case there may not be a gap at all. The only reason Grimm thought it likely that the cult of a goddess named Ostara had existed in Germany was that Old High German used cognate names for Easter and April to the English ones: Ostarun and Ostermanoth. But the use of a pagan deity’s name for the holiday is otherwise idiosyncratic to England, so it would be a great coincidence for the same thing to have happened in Germany, since they adopted Christianity at different times. And as later scholars pointed out, Germany was largely converted by English clerics like St. Boniface, so it would be natural for them to have gotten these words for a Christian holiday from the English, when they got Christianity. Thus there needn’t have been a Germanic goddess in Germany named Ostara to explain the word Ostarun; they simply called Easter “Ostarun” because they adopted its English name. Many scholars feel that’s a more likely explanation for the Old Germanic words for Easter and April. There also isn’t a “gap” in the Germanic pantheon to be filled by Ostara…like Celts, Germanic peoples had hundreds of local deities, and no clear hierarchy that would allow us to determine if one were somehow missing from the record.
For more on my own approach to this, and that of a scholar who doesn’t fully agree with me, see the comments on this previous blog post.
I wish Stephen Winick had devoted one last paragraph summarizing what he said above. It needs a concise summary or conclusion.
I really enjoyed and learned a lot from both of your Ostara/Easter Bunny articles after coming across them this Easter.
However, Grimm did not come up with the belief that the ancient German tribes believed in a goddess named Ostara/Ostera. That belief was around for over a century prior to Grimm’s 1835 book. The earliest example I could find for this belief was the 1702 pamphlet De Ostera Saxonum (The Saxon Ostera) by German historian, genealogist and chronicler of noble families – Luneburg Mushard. Here’s a link to the pamphlet on Google Books:
On page 10 Mushard’s pamphlet he cites a 1649 book on the history of Noblemen Germanics by Johann Schild de Caucis. This book is also on Google Books and a link to the page in question just shows a reference to Bede’s work:
This 1649 book spells Eostre as “Oostera”, it’s possible the first “O” may be some type of printing error in place of a beginning “E”.
After Mushard’s pamphlet there were many different works which mention the putative German goddess Ostera throughout the 18th century. I don’t know how much of this backstory they were aware or even if they had even heard of Mushard, but it seems unlikely that Grimm brothers had never heard of Ostera before. Ostera had already became linked to some “Oster-” related placenames. So maybe the Grimms misstook some name traditions related to Ostera which only may have only been about a century old and misinterpreted them as have deep pre-Christian roots?
Thanks, Steve! Those works were unknown to the scholars I cited in my original posts on this five years ago. A lot of old books are being added to text-bases such as Google Books, and I imagine a lot more will turn up, which is exciting!
You say it’s unlikely Grimm had not read other writers claiming that Ostara was worshipped in Germany, but in fact he cites no previous scholar on this and admits that “The Anglo-Saxon historian [Bede] tells us the names of two beings [Hrede and Eostre], whom he expressly calls ancient goddesses of his people, but of whose existence not a trace is left amongst other Germans.” (Emphasis mine.) Grimm thus makes it clear he was aware of no evidence for Eostre anywhere except Bede, and was either unaware of or discounted claims that “Ost” place names were related to her worship since those would certainly have been “traces of her existence left among other Germans.” If Grimm was aware of any previous claim such as de Caucis’s or Mushard’s, he felt he didn’t need to cite it, possibly because these claims were based on no evidence other than Bede, and therefore just as speculative as his own. But these are also obscure works, and it’s entirely plausible Grimm didn’t know them.
It’s not clear to me whether de Caucis is claiming that “Oostera” was worshipped on the Continent, or if he is merely repeating Bede’s claim that she was worshipped in England. Mushard seems to suggest she was worshipped among Saxons on the Continent as well as in England. Grimm appears to have added the idea that she was worshipped generally among Germanic tribes, with a proto-Germanic name, *Ostara.
These are exciting discoveries, but as you suggest they don’t change the main contours of the history: Bede mentioned Eostre being worshipped in England, and no-one suggested she was worshipped on the Continent until about 1,000 years later, when antiquarians raised the idea. They based their speculation entirely on Bede and on the Germanic names for Easter and April. Grimm either independently had the idea that Eostre was worshipped on the continent, or at least popularized it, adding most of the details about *Ostara being a goddess common to many Germanic peoples, representing the Dawn.
My husband & I just finished watching a 6 episode miniseries on Netflix called “Equinox.” You have probably seen it.
It’s an engrossing, yet disturbing in some ways, story of Ostara and the hare. It takes place in Denmark, and is a mysterious story of a girl investigating her older sister’s disappearance and discovering bizarre facts along the way.
I read that a Season 2 is being made.
I would like to start by saying how much I appreciate the author’s time and dedication this task. The research alone must have been daunting. I am doing research of my own and appreciate cited, well-written, gathered and sharing of information like this. Bless the internet!
However, I was thrown off whilst reading the third or fourth paragraph where the author states simply that there are “no” ancient stories where “x” or “y” is mentioned.
Perhaps I am underestimating the research done by and/or education & experience of the author, but to definitively claim that there are “no ancient stories” about ANY myth, legend, story, folklore, etc. seems to me like a nearly impossible claim to validate. In my opinion it would be difficult for even the most educated and dedicated researcher of myth, literature, legend, folklore, history, etc. to accurately make such a claim. The span or reach of myth, legend, folklore, stories, texts, literature is literally global and with the inclusion of the myths, legends, stories, etc. that were passed down exclusively orally and never documented… The task becomes perhaps impossible?
I would love to constructively criticized if I am incorrect or missing important information.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for your comment, Faeryn. To be clear, I didn’t say there WERE no ancient stories in which “x or y is mentioned,” I said there ARE no ancient stories in which Ostara transforms a bird into a hare. Construed as I intended it, this means the Germanic goddess Ostara as proposed by antiquarians based on the evidence of Bede. We don’t need to revisit all of history or travel everywhere on earth, because no claims were made about anything outside of the places and times where people spoke Germanic languages. Proto-Germanic existed by about 500 BCE, but there is no extant text in Germanic until about 200 CE. If we generously assume the “ancient” world to last until 1000 or so, I’m saying there aren’t any such stories about Ostara in the Germanic languages before 1000 CE. I also used the present tense: there ARE no stories, not there WERE no stories. That is to say, if there WERE ancient stories, none survived.
Disproving this claim would not, as you suggest, be an impossible task: one would just have to find a Germanic text from before 1000 CE which contains this story. It’s not impossible that an unknown manuscript will turn up, which will prove my claim wrong. Until then, though, I think it’s a viable statement!
Seeking provenance on ancient paganism among the ‘ Pensylvanian Dutch’ is a bit odd. After all, they were Christian puritans who actually left the old world to be rid of everything they considered heathendom.
It’s not really odd at all. The Pennsylvania Dutch weren’t “puritans who actually left the old world to be rid of everything they considered heathendom.” I think you may be referring here to the Anabaptist groups like the Amish, but the majority of Pennsylvania Dutch settlers weren’t in those groups. The majority were Lutherans, but there were also Moravians, Reformed, and other protestant denominations, and Catholics as well. So the majority of Pennsylvania Dutch are just as likely to have pre-christian elements in their belief and practice as any other Americans.
In general, Pennsylvania Dutch settlers came for a variety of reasons, including religious persecution during counter-reformation movements in Europe, but also simple economic opportunity. Early Pennsylvania Dutch were for the most part mainstream Americans, taking part in daily life, commerce, and politics just like other ordinary Americans. In fact, the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was a Pennsylvania Dutch Congressman from Trappe.
You are missing a very crucial detail that while everyone thought Bede wrote the earliest references, Eostre was found later in a matron record… I apologize but I do forget the name of it.
Thanks, Samantha! I’m not sure what you mean by “a matron record,” but I think you may be referring to the Matronae Austriahenae. This is a group of goddesses to which a group of inscriptions was found in Germany in 1958. Although some scholars proposed a connection between these goddesses and “Eostre” as mentioned by Bede, there really isn’t any evidence of such a connection. Both the “Eost” in “Eostre” and the “Austria” in “Austriahenae” simply mean “east,” but we don’t know exactly what “Austriahenae” means. It is likely a place (think place names like Eastham), or a social group (think nationalities like Austrians). So the Matronae in that case would be “the mothers from the place called Austriahenae” or “the mothers of the people called Austriahenae,” neither of which would connect them naturally to a goddess worshipped in England. In other words, the similarity in names could easily be purely coincidental.
There are, however, good reasons to think the Matronae are NOT connected to Eostre. According to Bede, Eostre was celebrated in April, but “Matronae” were celebrated at Modreniht, in December. Further, the Matronae Austriahenae are triple goddesses for whom it was customary to leave votive inscriptions on stone, while Eostre is a single goddess to whom no inscription has ever been found. In other words, these two goddess concepts have no known attributes in common, and therefore don’t seem to be closely related. Therefore, most scholars are not convinced of the connection.
I love this article! I do wonder though— have you ever read this passage by Julius Ceasar from the Commentarii de Bello Gallico;
“The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”
Either way thank you for sharing your research!
Thanks, Ash! Yes, it is well known that some of the Celtic Britons considered the hare sacred, and as you can read in one of my other posts on the Easter Bunny, the idea that the “Easter hare” started out as an animal sacred to Ostara was a conjecture by Adolf Holtzmann in 1874, who used similar customs among the Celts as his model:
“The Easter Hare is inexplicable to to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba.” [My translation from German.]
Thank you for such an interesting article! I live in Norway and this is what I found in a local newspaper:
“Det er ikke lett å finne gode, skriftlige kilder om påskeharen, men vi kjenner til at den dukker opp i en sveitsisk barnesang fra 1789. Og denne sangen er referert til i andre kilder fra 1682, kan Ørnulf Hodne fortelle. Han er gjesteforsker ved Det humanistiske fakultet i Oslo og har skrevet bok om norske påsketradisjoner.”
“It’s bot easy to find good written sources about the Easter hare, but we know it is mentioned in a Swiss children’s song from 1789. And that song is found in another source in 1683, according to Ørnulf Hodne. He is a guest researcher in the Faculty of Humanities in the University of Oslo and wrote a book about Norwegian Easter traditions.” My translation.
What a great find! I had been curious about the origin of the bunny/egg tradition since I was a wee one.
I would just be a bit hesitant to take Family Christmas Online’s statement against the bunny/egg thing too seriously. Their reaction of the bunny egg thing not being connected to Ostara or anything Pagan for that matter seems like just more lashing out against contemporary Pagan traditions pointing out the obvious (but not always getting it completely right themselves either). Having gone to their site, it was pretty evident that it was essentially a home spun style Christian oriented site. And there is nothing wrong with that. I actually found the site pleasant, fun, and nostalgic.
However, there has been quite a bit of kick back from various Christian groups over the years, when it is pointed out that so many pre-Christian traditions have been borrowed or appropriated by the Church back in the day. And that practice is nothing unique to the Church. Every religion has done this, especially when the followers of one religion had at one point invaded the country of a completely different religion.
Yet, in our day and age, this is happening between Christian’s and NeoPagan’s As far as the folklore itself, I think one of the best remaining ways to gather information on this (if any is left to be had by this time), is to talk to the old folk in some of the smaller less modern towns in Germany. There may still be traces of folklore still being passed around. But if my guess is true, from reading through folklore books of the late 19th century and early 20th century, folklorists of that time were already noting that the old traditions were fading fast as a result of modernism and doubting if anything would be left in a generation or two. That was over a century ago!
It’s a sad situation, really, when we lose so much of our heritage in this way. But, it is the story of humanity since the beginning of written history.
Thank you that was a wicked story. Really cheered up an already hugely successful easter dog walking through some woods with my dog a lurcher saluki and danced on some carved wooden mushrooms…..true paganism lives on Just wanted to say Thank you. X from issybella morgan. X feel free to email me a reply to my reply if you get bored. And ill email you a photo of the wooden mushroomsin uk. X
Why is the resurrection of Christ called Easter? The Venerable Bede wrote about Eostra in 725 I believe. One source refers to this goddess as the “goddess of spring” saying “There is also an etymological link to Ostara or Austra, the spring goddess worshipped by the tribes of northern Europe, after whom the month of April, Ostermonat, was named, and whose existence was verified in 1958, when more than 150 Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the matronae Austria-henea were discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany..” hares have been fertility symbols for some time. Is it really so far fetched that a spring goddess was celebrated during the spring equinox using commonly held fertility symbols?
It’s not farfetched, but we don’t assume something is true just because it’s not farfetched. There’s no evidence of any association between Eostre and the matronae Austriahenea, nor between either of those goddesses and “fertility symbols” such as eggs and hares. As I wrote in another answer about the Matronae:
It’s always difficult to trace folklore to their origins, especially when they’re connected to religious belief in some way.
I can say the story of Ostara changing the bird to a rabbit/hare has been confirmed to me, personally, as a very ancient story (before modern man) through spiritual means. But I am aware that today’s society demands physical proof all things before they can be accepted.
It can be acceptable to search for a personal truth, when no other options exist. Ostara walks/walked the Black Forest to bring spring to the forest.
It is possible that the story was remotely, regionally shared orally for centuries, and it wasn’t shared in written form until the Grimms traveled looking for stories to write.
Easter is around March when hares display and mate, thus march hare.
Hares do not burrow they often live in open fields, Leverets can be found quietly hiding in the day in small groups in a field, like many ground nesting birds.
Associations therefore are presented in hare behaviour, and as the agricultural labourers voice is hardly represented in the literary tradition it is unsurprising you have found little written evidence.
Thanks, Jon B! A few other comments have pointed this out too–thanks! It is absolutely true that the hare is a natural animal to associate with Spring, and I can see the association of hares with ground-nesting birds being a source for the Easter Hare idea. But there is no goddess necessary for either of those ideas to be influencing modern traditions.
In looking for a folk tradition in only the written record, it is possible to see the intrinsic bias of the modern academic,
First there is a presumption that access to writing was universal. It was not, the class which could write and record excluded, the very people we would call the folk and very little interest in that class’es traditions was recorded until the nineteenth century.
An American academic may class me as English, but entirely overlook that my culture is not of all the things an American may class as English, as few Americans are aware of English working class culture.
Thus an academic from your culture, which it seems to me wants to suppress notions of class, not only in American culture because of a mantra ‘all are equal’, but extends this mostly without thought to its ideas of other peoples.
The American Academic thus starts with a bias that cannot properly categorise information.
Then we have the idea that the truth will be found by studying texts is not being examined, and it is being extended, to the only proof is by showing a text which records a fact.
If we are to accept the festival now called Easter that we know has pagan heathen roots in time immemorial, a question leaps out-
Why is this the only such festival in human history that has not got a god or goddess associated with it?
Without an answer this idea that a testified goddess is not associated with a festival of the same name I would say is an untenantable academic position.
Further that animals exhibiting unusual behaviour around the time of the festival would not become associated with it by a people who live off the land would be unusual.
We have hares behaving like ground nesting birds.
Yet no eggs are found, so they must be magical.
There is a very similar tradition from Slavic peoples.
The fern flower,
Unlike other plants ferns do not flower, but in the Slavic traditions, it is said that to find a flowering fern is very lucky, and the flower is the most magical and beautiful of all flowers.
I think the connection is obvious in the two stories and points to a way of thinking which would naturally create such stories, in fact it would be odd if they did not arise.
The association of Easter with a particular moon of the year is recorded, and even now is still adhered,
Thus a personification of the festival or goddess, and animals that are associated, will all be associated together, one would need hard evidence to say they are not associated, more than I can’t find a reference in a book written by people of a different culture.
Jon B., I’m very aware of English working-class culture. Folklorists have historically studied mainly rural working-class culture, and my studies took me in that direction; I read an awful lot of social and socialist histories of the British working class in my studies, and particularly studied traditional song of both agricultural and industrial laborers in Britain.
Folklorists are also fully aware of the issue of oral tradition vs. writing; it’s exactly what we study. But just because people couldn’t write about (say) an annual “Feast of Frogs” in ancient Britain, it doesn’t follow that such a “Feast of Frogs” existed. It’s a true problem that sometimes no evidence survives, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t require evidence before accepting claims.
Just one other point of disagreement: there is no such thing as “hard evidence” that any two things are NOT associated. There can only be hard evidence that they ARE associated. So it’s always up to people claiming an association to provide the hard evidence of that association.
You sound like a typical jealous Christian .
I am neither–but apologies if I do sound like one!
This examination of both archaeological and text from latin texts on the ancient British points to a strong link with hares and a goddess, and the reverence which the ancient Brits treated the hare,
Jon B, I don’t know what examination you refer to. But the ancient British were not Germanic, so if they had a goddess associated with a hare, it could not have been a version of the putative Ostara, whose cult would have been brought over to Britain later. For example, the problem with recent archaeological finds involving hare-shaped brooches in Britain are:
(1) There is no explicit association with any god or goddess, and even the scholars who think they had a religious significance admit that it’s possible they’re simply brooches shaped like hares, which would have been appropriate iconography at the time for a romantic gift between spouses or lovers.
(2) The brooches predate the invasion of Britain by Germanic settlers, so if there WAS a god or goddess associated with the brooches, it couldn’t be a widespread Germanic goddess like the proposed Ostara, whose cult had yet to arrive; it would have to be a Celtic or Classical god or goddess. To the extent that the locations of the brooches overlap with the areas of Eostre-related place names, they create more problems than they solve for advocates of the existence of a widespread Ostara, since they suggest Eostre (if such a goddess was worshipped) was not Germanic in origin but Celtic. Eostre would thus a be a Germanic name for an earlier British goddess worshipped in Britain before the Germanic settlers arrived–which would mean she was NOT derived from a proposed continental goddess called Ostara.
Thanks for your comment!
You set up there is no proof by looking at the written record, but the people who would take part in an such festivities and make these connections were excluded from the written record until the nineteenth century.
Thus not finding anything by looking in the wrong place proves nothing.
However, that both Celts and Germans had Easter festivals is testified.
Further that Caesar states the Belgic tribes were German, and the tribes of southern Britain were Belgic undermines your argument. Genetically it is accepted that the English are 80% related to pre Roman populations, and only 20% post roman migration, so a continuity of culture would be hard to disprove. Especially if we consider this pagan festival has lasted beyond the christian era.
If my link did not come through look up
Prof Naomi Sykes from the University of Exeter
‘Historical evidence suggests Britons of the period associated the animals with deities and considered them too special to eat. Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of the Gallic wars, says “the Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”
Radiocarbon analysis of hare and chicken skeletons from a number of sites in Hampshire and Herefordshire backs up that assertion, showing that the two species were introduced simultaneously to Britain between the fifth and third centuries BC. Excavation has previously revealed the animals had been carefully buried without being butchered.’
An assertion that there is no connection to an ancient festival and a god or goddess, is extraordinary, as it would be the only such festival that is not personified by a divine figure. And an extra ordinary assertion requires extraordinary proof, a lot more than looking in the wrong place and not finding anything.
Jon B, Caesar doesn’t state that the Belgic tribes were German, he states that they lived near the Germans (but across the Rhine from them), and were constantly waging war against them:
Caesar also says that when the Belgae took up arms, the Germans on their side of the Rhine joined them, showing that that Belgae and the left-bank Germans were not the same. Caesar does say that some of the Belgae “sprang from” the Germans, so maybe this is what you mean. James McKillop in the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology writes that scholarly consensus is that Caesar simply meant some of them had come from east of the Rhine, not that they spoke Germanic languages. Scholarly consensus also holds that the Belgae spoke what we would now call a Celtic language, and that the word Belgae is itself a Celtic word. The Oxford Dictionary of English calls them “an ancient Celtic people inhabiting Gaul north of the Seine and Marne Rivers,” and the Oxford dictionary of World History calls them “An Iron Age Celtic people of north-west Europe.”
I know Naomi Sykes’s work; nothing here disagrees with it in any serious way. In fact, the Easter Origins project (EasterE.g), on which she was Principal Investigator, cited this very article as “exciting new research.” Her teammate Adrian Bott called it “Stephen Winick’s brilliant analysis of how the now-famous ‘Ostara and the Hare’ story emerged from a misunderstanding of a text,” and EasterE.g retweeted that opinion!
She and her team state that archaeological evidence tempts us to imagine a hare goddess, but that there is no conclusive evidence…exactly my position: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00438243.2018.1515655
As an American you might look at the subject: Puritans and Easter festivities,
Given how late a date in American history christmass became a public holiday, are people even going to write about pagan traditions openly in that strict atmosphere.
Boys whipped for skipping to school on christmass day for instance, let alone having the day off.
Simply even if the traditions are remembered or observed it will only take place in secret.
That once there is a more liberal America traditions so like ancient festivals come back so quickly of itself points to a greater affinity to ancient customs than would be in the written record.
As an American I was fascinated to learn that the Easter Bunny was a German tradition which became part of American culture through the Pennsylvania Dutch! You can read about that in another of my blog posts:
Adrian Bott, who is English, likes to point out that in nineteenth century British newspapers, the “Easter Hare” is referred to as a German tradition which needed to be explained because there was no Easter hare or rabbit tradition in England yet. It seems to have become popular in America first among German-speakers, then among English-speakers, and then in England as an import from America. As Dr. Sykes’s team at Exeter points out, in a British context, “Links between the hare and Easter only started in modern Britain.”
Is a celebration the same in every village?
I can point to not just Easter, but christmass, lent, Mayday, Midsummer, Haloween/bonfire night etc,
and say that as so many villages have celebrations that differ from each other they must all be modern inventions, but we both know that would be mad.
To say there was no ancient original starting celebration, because it can’t be shown in text that there was no variation over 2500 years would also be mad.
We might say Bede was wrong, but we have no evidence he was wrong. If you do please show it.
What we do know is there was an ancient festival the time of which was and is dictated by the moon, not a date of the year. We also know that the ancients used a Luna/solar calendar, which the months shifted and some years even had thirteen months.,
Easter caused the church great problems in trying to calculate, Irish church differed from Rome over this and it nearly caused a split, as it was an alien way of calculation to the leaders of the church at that time, but natural to western Europeans they were trying to convert by overlaying christian festivals over heathen festivities.
I suggest you read the full text not just snippets before you try to quote Caesar.
Are you looking for truth, or to just defend a position?
I notice you are silent about the Celts also celebrating this festival.
We know every pagan festival had a goddess or god associated with it, or was a personification of it.
We know an agricultural folk would take great notice of the behaviour of animals and nature, and an animal that entirely changed its behaviour at one time of year, say from a timid nocturnal habit to open displays in the sun would draw attention, and strong associations.
Thus it is right to say Easter is an ancient heathen festival there was a goddess associated with it, and also associated with the moon and animals that were held in reverence by those ancient folk.
Variations from place to place and over 2500 years including periods of intense religious bigotry does not alter that.
Thanks again for your comments, Jon B. Nobody did say there was no “ancient starting celebration.” Even Bede didn’t say it was associated with the moon and animals, though.
The only story this post specifically treats is the idea that a goddess called Ostara changed a bird into a hare. That arose in the 19th century. My previous post points out there is no evidence of a hare associated with either Easter or its pagan antecedents in Germany until the 17th century, or in Britain until the 20th. In this I am in agreement with the Easter Origins team led by Dr. Sykes, as I have pointed out in previous comments, though of course we probably differ on some details, as do the individual members of her commission.
I hope you are having a lovely Easter!
This may be relevant:
“In chapter 15 (De mensibus Anglorum, “The English months”) of his 8th-century work De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), Bede describes the indigenous month names of the English people. After describing the worship of the goddess Rheda during the Anglo-Saxon month of Hrēþ-mōnaþ, Bede writes about Ēosturmōnaþ, the month of the goddess Ēostre:”
Germanic names for places dating back much earlier can be translated as “Place of Eostre” and similar. So your “18th-19th century” thing might be a bit off.
Justaguy, the “18th-19th century” thing as you call refers only to the story of Ostara changing a bird into a hare, which is not in Bede or any of the other sources you mention. I do discuss Bede and the other evidence in this article, and even more in the previous one, which you can find at this link:
If you have evidence of a story about Eostre or Ostara changing a bird into a hare before the nineteenth century, please let me know. Otherwise, this article’s dating remains accurate. Thanks!
Thank you, this is a fun read for Easter morning. Folklore and origins of stories and myths are really fascinating. It’s also interesting that this was posted seven years ago and seems to generate a new discussion every spring.
Your arguments seem to me pretty sound and objective. You state many times that while there is no evidence for these ideas existing in pre-christian times, we can’t say with certainty that they didn’t exist. All we know is that there is no evidence in the record. There is nothing more we can say on that without stepping beyond the realm of logic.
Beyond that, if those stories speak to modern people, that’s fine. The stories don’t have to be ancient to help us make sense of the world or feel a spiritual connection to it. You aren’t saying anything that negates anyone else’s belief system (although of course some people put more value on certain things if they can be said to be “ancient”)
I’m not Christian or Neo-pagan, so I’ll just enjoy this nice day in early spring in my own way, having had the pleasure of learning a little history while enjoying the fact that there are still some mysteries to be solved. Thanks, and happy Easter!
Thanks, April Bee!
Thank you for this post, and for returning to it so faithfully over the years to answer comments! I found it while searching for sources on the connections between pagan and Christian festivals/holy days.
Having done some casual researching of that connection, I’m starting to think the original biblical version of Christianity was helped greatly by the later appropriation of pagan customs. Those appropriations meant pagans did not have to give up their many traditional festivals, and by the invention of saints, they were provided equivalent replacements for all those many gods people had been fond of praying to prior to the emergence of Christian monotheism. In my casual reading, I had assumed the hare was simply Ostera’s symbolic “accessory”, in the vein of Minerva’s owl. Very interesting to learn from your post the hare is evidently an 19th C add-on to our ancient English goddess of spring. She got along fine without it for many centuries, so I don’t mind seeing the hare demoted to recent addition status
I wish you a very happy Easter, and I hope I haven’t given you any ideas about demoting Minerva’s owl!
Minerva’s owl is our favorite here at the Library of Congress, and I frequently wear an owl pin to work! No demotion is contemplated!
What does your evidence depict.
That the lower classes were hardly referred to before the nineteenth century in text.
That you place text above all other information, we can tell this in that you state-
”Even Bede didn’t say it was associated with the moon”
yet we know the very timing of Easter was and still is set by the moon. So the association is fixed and a proven thing.
However what your information depicts is that when America was finally thinking about holidays (sorry vacations) for the workforce, writers felt the need to emphasise the Lutheran Germanic traditions of Easter, presumably because other traditions of Easter like Irish, or those of other catholic immigrants would make such a holiday unpalatable to wasps.
I don’t think wasps vs. Catholics had anything to do with it–it’s just hard to predict what will catch on. St. Patrick’s Day was for many years a larger celebration here than in Ireland, so it’s not as if no Irish catholic celebrations are observed here. I just think there are more Germans in the United States than most people realize, and sometimes their contributions become very mainstream.
As for the moon, yes, Christian Easter is governed by the moon. But Bede doesn’t say that the Pagan celebration of Eostre was. He just says it occurred in April. So being associated with the moon is not a thing that Bede’s description of Eostre’s festival and Christian Easter have in common.
Remember, we know Christian Easter did not have its date set according to an ancient English festival–the date of Easter is governed by the moon because the Church was beginning with the Jewish lunisolar calendar, not European pagan celebrations. The paschal computus used in England at that time was the one devised by Dionysus Exiguus in Rome before 540; it is described by Bede in the same treatise in which he mentions Eostre. So the calculation of Easter had nothing to do with Eostre or any English goddess, and there’s no evidence Eostre’s festival was associated with the moon, as only Bede mentions her and he does not mention the moon in connection with her.
All we know of Eostre is what Bede tells us, and he says nothing of the moon or of animals. Anyone is free to speculate about what her celebration might have been like, but as we have no evidence, it will remain speculation.
Incidentally, your first usage was correct: in America Easter is a holiday, not a vacation. Holidays are specific days observed as religious or secular celebrations. Vacations are time taken away from work. They may coincide, so many people take a vacation around Christmas. But no one would say “Easter is an important vacation in American culture,” and indeed most Americans don’t take a vacation at Easter. So I think there wasn’t much thought about “vacations for the workforce” involved in our selection of Easter symbols.
Edited snippets of text alone does not tell a story.
Bede also wrote about the traditional English calendar of the time which was luna/solar not just solar which Rome had adopted.
Æftera Geola, After Yule.
Sōlmōnath. wet sand or mud, the month of cakes.
March Hrēðmonath. a goddess named Hreða, or Rheda. Her name eventually became Lide in some southern dialects of English, and the name Lide or Lide-month was still being used locally in parts of southwest England until as recently as the 19th century.
Thrimilce, the month of three milkings.
In some years a “leap month” was added to the calendar at the height of the summer, which was Thriliða, third-mild.
Weodmonath, plant month.
Hāligmonath, holy month.
Winterfylleth, winter full moon.
Blōtmonath. the month of blood sacrifices.
Ærra Geola, before Yule.
The nineteen year cycle known as the ‘Metonic Cycle’ means the month is kept in phase with the moon. And month in old English means cycle of the moon and is derived from the word moon.
Bede in talking about this is telling us exactly what you say he does not say. I again advise you to read the full text rather than picking out snippets to try to support an erroneous argument.
The Metonic cycle is very old and testified as early as 1000 to 800 bce by the use of symbols on the Berlin golden hats, which is long before the Metonic cycle was first found in Babylon. Also ‘rune sticks’ in Scandinavia show it was still being used in the nineteenth century by farmers as Romes old calendar had become completely out of phase with the year and the new calendar we use now had not yet been introduced there till long after other parts of Europe.
So in Anglo- Saxon England at the time of Bede month was not an abetory number of days like our modern caloendar
Thanks Jon B.
I have, in fact, read all of Bede. His work on Easter was an extension of Dionysius Exiguus tables, not based on the English months. It’s true he placed both his account of the English months and his Easter table in the same book, but he is not at all saying that the date of Easter is based on Eostre’s festival. In fact, he does not tell us or claim to know when during the month of April Eostre’s festival occurred or why a given day was chosen. In a general sense of course you are right that the months themselves were lunar months, and all dates were based in some sense on lunar calculations. But since he is not specific as to when or how Eostre was worshipped, her festival might not have been lunar, that is, it might not have occurred on a specific defined “date,” at all. It might have occurred according to an agricultural or natural occurrence not directly tied to the moon–for example, when the cherries bloomed, which was usually in April. We just don’t know, and he doesn’t claim to know either, except that April was named for her. Claiming she is a lunar goddess or that her festival was a lunar festival goes beyond what we know, as does claiming she was associated with eggs or hares.
Easter might have been on a specific date in the solar calendar.
No it is set by the moon now, as it has always been.
All spring festivals were set by the moon, even Jewish and Islamic, which disposed of the solar reckoning entirely, as the middle east is not as seasonally affected as it is further north.
All ancient Europeans use a Metonic system of one form or another, even Rome started with this form of calculation, but it became corrupted by dictators adding and taking away days from the months. As you can see in the modern calendar with Caesars July and Octavius’s August both being given extra days 31 to show the Emperors importance.
No, there is absolutely no foundation for your assertion.
What you are doing is imposing your culture and understanding on a different culture without referencing what they mean by a word or phrase.
To you it seems a month is just a way of dividing a 365+ day year. It seems you do not know what a month is based on, either using etymology or by studying the culture you are lifting snippets of text from. You ignore or do not know of the disputes the Irish church had with Rome over the setting of Easter and even Bede’s part in it.
It seems you just want to be right rather than even making perfunctory checks working out how a purely solar reckoning for dates would lead to leap months as Bede tells us there are.
Yes, again, Easter is set by the moon because of its roots in the Jewish calendar. That’s exactly what I said in my comment of 2023/04/09 at 10:28.
But there is no evidence Eostre’s festival was set by the moon, because Eostre’s festival has a separate history from Christian Easter, which was already celebrated by other names by the time Christianity reached England and the holiday’s name became “Easter” in English. Bede is the only source who mentions Eostre’s festival, and he does not say it was based on the moon. As I pointed out, it could have been based on agriculture or nature–the blooming of the cherries or something similar. There is as much basis for saying that as there is for saying it was a lunar festival.
I know all about the debates about the dates of Easter, thank you. I have read all of Caesar and all of Bede in Latin, thank you. It is very kind of you to be concerned about other cultures!
But this post isn’t really about any of that. It’s about the story that Eostre changed a bird into a hare; this story arose in the 19th Century. The rest of the argument involves people wishing to read a lot into ancient sources which isn’t actually there, including a connection between Eostre and hares. Although some archaeological finds have been deemed “suggestive” or “tempting,” there is still no real evidence of such a connection.
When is Easter in an Anglo-Saxon year with 12 months, and when is it in an Anglo-Saxon year with a leap month so thirteen months, as Bede tells us they used.
How are those months affected?
Thus on what date would Eostremonath start in our modern calendar?
You’re clever you read latin just answer that!
Ha, that’s a tricky (or trick) question in many ways. The most obvious correct answer is that Easter didn’t occur in an Anglo-Saxon year with a leap month, because Christians didn’t use this calendar. Bede is specifically describing the ancient English calendar of Pagan or Heathen England, not the Christian English calendar of his own time. The first words of that chapter are “Antiqui autem Anglorum populi…,” “The ancient English people, however….” There’s no evidence to indicate that anyone ever tried to reckon the date of Easter according to this calendar.
The second way it’s tricky is that, if you were to match up the dates of Easter with this calendar, the thirteenth month probably wouldn’t affect Easter in its own year because Bede tells us it was added in the summer, which is after Easter. It would affect subsequent Easters.
A third trick in the question is that the whole reason for an Easter computus is to reconcile a lunisolar (Hebrew) calendar with a solar (Julian or later Gregorian) calendar. The pre-Christian English calendar WAS lunisolar, so if that 13th month was doing its job properly, you could celebrate Easter on the same date each year if you wanted to and it wouldn’t move around much compared to Passover, which was what the computus was trying to achieve, broadly speaking and within certain parameters. So the likely answer is that Easter would fall on the same date each year, especially if the calendar were associated with its own branch of Christianity not associated with Rome.
In general, though, Bede didn’t give us that level of specificity, so we can’t really say. His whole chapter on the English calendar is about a paragraph long and doesn’t tell us basic facts like whether the lunar months were sidereal or synodic, when a month began (full moon, new moon, etc.), whether the months had the same number of days, etc. He also contradicts himself, saying for example that they had four seasons of three months each, and also only two seasons of six months each. So people attempting to reconstruct this calendar have had to extrapolate quite a bit.
You don’t seem to know what the Metonic cycle is, please look it up.
The phases of the moon, do not run in synchrony with a single solar year. which is why a full moon or new moon does not fall on the same day every year. However over a nineteen year period, to a great accuracy the phases of the moon and solar year come into alignment and a new moon will be on the same solar date as it was nineteen years before. To do this in some years one might have to add extra months, as there are more cycles of the moon than twelve a year. thus if we look at a calendar that has leap months in other words extra months being added in some years we can be quite sure it is using a Metonic calendar. There are other ways of making sure the sun and moon are in phase for major festivals like having an indeterminate interval at the end of the year where days or weeks can be added to make sure the festivals are in phase the next year.
If a culture is using such a system we can tell it sees both the sun and moon as being very significant to its time keeping.
In stating the above I am not being contentious in any way.
So is there evidence the Germanic calendar was metronic? I will attempt just show that, but that all European first calendars were metronic in one way or another, and in so doing show evidence that the moon would be hugely significant in reckoning any festival. Not just literate societies like the Greeks which talk about the significance of the moon, but from non-literate societies.
So if I can point to this evidence would that be enough to persuade you, that Eostra and the moon would naturally be associated?
I know what the Metonic cycle is, thank you. I also know that Bede doesn’t mention it in connection with the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, so we don’t know if they knew of it. As you say, in general people added leap months to keep the solar and lunar years in phase, but the pre-Christian English method and frequency of adding leap months isn’t known. In general, if they were doing it effectively, there would be no need to change the dates of festivals if they didn’t want to, so it wouldn’t be necessary to move Eostre’s festival to a different date, but they could choose to do so if they wanted it to coincide with (say) the blooming cherries. We have no information about whether they did, so anything we could say on how a leap month would affect it would be speculation.
In general, Eostre is a cultural, not a natural, phenomenon. Any association between Eostre and the moon is cultural, not natural. What you seem to mean by “Eostra and the moon would naturally be associated” is that such an association seems logical to you. You’re entitled to that opinion, although it’s not a mainstream opinion. (See below for the more mainstream position of Eostre being a solar goddess of the dawn.) Even if it were mainstream, holding such an opinion is different from being able to show that the association between Eostre and the moon was part of ancient English culture. We can’t show that.
Showing evidence that some Germanic calendars used a Metonic cycle isn’t really going to change this. We still wouldn’t know if the calendar described by Bede used the Metonic cycle, nor would Bede’s calendar using the Metonic cycle prove an association between Eostre and the moon.
More than this, those who advocate for an international “*Ostara” goddess base their understanding of her worship on the idea that her name means “East” because she represents the dawn or rising sun. The proposed etymology connecting “Eostre” to a wider “Ostara” relies on her being a solar goddess whose name means “to glow red.” Her festival being in the spring is explained as being solar: a celebration of the greening of the earth and the lengthening days. Her festival is usually also thought to be set by the sun, not the moon. Most people suggest the Spring Equinox as the date of her festival; we don’t actually know when it was, but that’s the usual guess. So, even among those who believe Eostre’s cult existed, and that a wider pan-Germanic cult of *Ostara existed, she is explained as a solar goddess, not a lunar goddess. Your position that her festival must have been set by the moon and she must have been associated with the moon is a real outlier in this regard.
Having said all that, it’s probably worth repeating the following, because comments on our blogs are required to be on-topic. These comments focusing solely on the calendar are beginning to drift off-topic:
The only story this post specifically treats is the tale that a goddess called Ostara changed a bird into a hare. This post shows that that story arose in the 19th century. My previous post points out there is no evidence of a hare associated with either Easter or its pagan antecedents in Germany until the 17th century, or in Britain until the 20th.
Thanks again for your comments! On-topic comments are always welcome, as long as they comply with our comments policy.
I had a question, I had heard that pegans also sacrificed ppl on this day, even babies as it was a day of fertility, and would dip eggs in the blood as well as drink it. Is that true?
There is no evidence at all for that. In other words, it’s not true!