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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?
–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.)

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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

26 Comments

  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. Stephen Winick
    May 2, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    Mona, thank you! I’ve made that change!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!
    Stéphanie

  6. 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…

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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?

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

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

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

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

    Nancy,

    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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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

  21. 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.)”

  22. 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.

  23. 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 …”?

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

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