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Ostara and the Hare: Not Ancient, but Not As Modern As Some Skeptics Think

A fairy-like goddess plays a long pipe. A hare sits next to her on a mushroom, and a cherub and three more hares listen to her tune.

This view of Ostara as a fairy-like goddess appeared in South Carolina’s Abbeville Press and Banner, April 18, 1906.

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.

The goddess Ostera between two tall lilies

Stories about the goddess Ostara were popular in newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century. In this illustration from the Valentine, Nebraska Democrat of April 9, 1903, she is called “Ostera.” The newspaper, quite fancifully, tells us: “Ostera was worshiped very generally in northern Germany, and it is believed that the fame of the goddess spread to England, where the Saxons joined in worshiping her. Until the beginning of the present century court was paid to Ostera by the kindling of great bonfires and in other ways, and even to-day in some of the remote districts where many superstitious beliefs are treasured by the peasantry the fame of Ostera still lives.”

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. [1]

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.

The goddess Ostara dressed in a robe, with a woman dressed fashionably for 1898 in front of her.

The caption on this illustration from the April 3, 1898 Richmond Dispatch says: “The 1898 Goddess of Easter Quite Eclipses Conventional Ostara.”

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?

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.)

The goddess Ostera carrying flowers in one hand and a basket of eggs in the other

This version of the goddess appeared in Vermont’s Windham County Reformer, April 8, 1887.

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. [2] 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.

An easter bunny standing on its hind legs, dressed in a young girl's dress and carrying a basket of eggs

This “pert, tall-eared rabbit” was featured in Michigan’s Crawford Avalanche on April 12, 1900.

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:

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.

An Easter bunny dressed as a man, with a monocle, a top hat, and a pipe

Whether the Easter bunny is male or female is an interesting question. German texts tend to use male pronouns, but since the creature lays eggs in this story, it would make sense for it to be female. The Crawford Avalanche provided one of each!

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:

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.

The goddess Ostara floating on a cloud, carrying a sceptre of flowers, with a hare near her feet and two cherubs following after her

This very bipartisan illustration of the goddess with her hare appeared in both the Ohio Democrat and the Republican News Item (Laporte, Pennsylvania), in 1898.

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. [3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Many thanks to my Library of Congress colleague Sybille Jagusch for helping me understand the German texts.

[3] 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.


  1. Mona Terwedow
    April 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    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.”

  2. JoAnn Conrad
    May 4, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    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.

    • Stephen Winick
      May 4, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      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.

  3. Stéphanie Sheen
    March 29, 2017 at 9:23 am

    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!

  4. Stéphanie Sheen
    March 30, 2017 at 5:54 pm

    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…

    • Stephen Winick
      April 10, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      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!

  5. klaatu
    April 9, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    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.

    • Stephen Winick
      April 10, 2017 at 10:14 am

      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!

  6. Uriah
    August 3, 2017 at 5:29 am

    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?

  7. Betsy McGovern
    March 31, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    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?

    • Stephen Winick
      April 2, 2018 at 10:19 am

      Hi Betsy,

      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.

  8. Holmes
    April 16, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Good articlde, thank you. Appreciate someone who tries to get at the truth.

  9. Ruby Ruse
    January 12, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    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.

  10. Nancy K.
    April 9, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    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!

  11. Sing Yee
    April 19, 2019 at 8:24 am


    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.

  12. Marilyn M
    April 21, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    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.

  13. Mick Brown
    April 24, 2019 at 4:57 am

    ‘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.

    • Stephen Winick
      April 24, 2019 at 10:49 am

      Dear Mick,

      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.

  14. Magus
    June 15, 2019 at 5:22 pm

    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

    • Stephen Winick
      June 17, 2019 at 10:07 am

      Thanks, Magus.

      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.)”

  15. Markus Wolf
    April 1, 2020 at 2:21 am

    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.

  16. Mark Hawthorne
    April 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    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 …”?

    • Stephen Winick
      April 13, 2020 at 3:24 pm

      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.

  17. Johannes
    June 19, 2020 at 8:19 pm

    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.

  18. Johannes
    June 19, 2020 at 8:34 pm

    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.

  19. Jo Alex SG
    June 22, 2020 at 8:52 pm

    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”:

  20. JLJones
    March 17, 2021 at 7:21 am

    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?

    • Stephen Winick
      March 17, 2021 at 10:46 am

      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.

  21. Bob Hall
    April 6, 2021 at 8:35 am

    I wish Stephen Winick had devoted one last paragraph summarizing what he said above. It needs a concise summary or conclusion.

  22. Steve Williams
    April 18, 2021 at 3:56 am

    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?

    • Stephen Winick
      April 19, 2021 at 1:42 am

      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.

  23. Susie Heald
    October 13, 2021 at 1:57 am

    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.

  24. Faeryn
    November 3, 2021 at 1:58 pm

    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!


    • Stephen Winick
      November 3, 2021 at 3:29 pm

      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!

  25. Natasha Gerson
    February 3, 2022 at 8:06 am

    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.

    • Stephen Winick
      February 6, 2022 at 12:48 am

      Thanks, Natasha.

      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.

  26. Samantha Gunner
    February 4, 2022 at 11:33 am

    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.

    • Stephen Winick
      February 6, 2022 at 12:07 am

      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.

  27. Ash
    April 4, 2022 at 10:30 pm

    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!

    • Stephen Winick
      April 6, 2022 at 3:28 pm

      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.]

  28. Susana
    April 13, 2022 at 1:24 am

    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.

  29. Anthony
    April 15, 2022 at 2:07 am

    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.

  30. Issy morgana le fe
    April 17, 2022 at 11:17 am

    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

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