Eostre

by Swain Wodening

Eostre is a very obscure Goddess, and uniquely Anglo-Saxon Pagan. She is not mentioned at all in the Norse corpus and only fleetingly in the Old English by Bede in De Temporum Rationale.  Her material is so scant that some scholars have speculated she was not a Goddess at all, but that Eostre was merely a name for the holiday. Her name is connected for words for "east" and "shining."  It is therefore related to the Greek godname Eos, Goddess of the dawn in their pantheon. Finding place names indicating her worship are difficult due to this relation to the word east.  Her name survived in the German name of the Christian holy tide as Ostara, therefore if she was a Goddess, she was worshipped there as well.

In order to understand anything about the Goddess Eostre (or the Goddess or Goddesses worshiped at that time) we must draw on the traditions associated with the holy tide.  Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology maintained that "Ostara, Eástre, was goddess of the growing light of spring."  The date of the holy tide would make this a reasonable conclusion. Holy water in the form of the dew or water collected from brooks was gathered at this time. Washing with it was said to restore youth. Beautiful maidens in sheer white were said to seen frolicking in the country side. Also according to Grimm, the white maiden of Osterrode, was said to appear with a large batch of keys at her belt, and stride to the brook to collect water on Easter morning.  Cross buns were of course baked and eaten.  While this could be a Christian addition, that cakes were often use in Heathen rites is apparent in any survey of the lore. And the cross may be symbolic of the rune Gebo or the buns may represent the sun wheel.  Easter eggs seem to go fairly far back in both English and continental celebrations, and of course symbolize the beginning of new life. The hare also known for its fertility appears fairly early in Easter celebrations. Bonfires and vigils also seemed to play a role in many Easter rites.

Based on this Eostre would appear to be a Goddess of purity (the holy water), youth and beauty (the young maidens), as well as one of new life beginnings. Kveldulf Gundarsson feels she may be the same as the Norse Goddess Iðun.  They would appear to have a lot in common, except apples do not seem to play a role in spring ritual celebrations in the lore, and are seen more often connected to Harvest. The likelihood they are the same Goddess would therefore seem to be slim, but none the less both may be a type of youthful Goddess associated with new life.

Winifred Hodge on the other hand sees Eostre as being the same as the Goddess celebrated at Walpurgisnacht (see Waelburga and the Rites of May).  The problem with this is while both Walpurgis and Easter have many of the same customs associated with them, there are also many customs associated with Easter one does not see associated with Walpurgis.  Eostre has shining maidens at dawn associated with her, whilst the Goddess of Walpurgis has witches in the middle of the night. If we look to German folklore, the Walpurgis Goddess seems to be Holda.  Holda is a rather motherly Goddess with some darker associations.  She is at times the kind and lovely mother, and other times seen as the fierce leader of the Wild Hunt. This is quite unlike the symbolism we see at Easter, which seems to be a time of virginal young maidens, or gentle young wives at least.

None the less, parts of the Scandinavian countries celebrate Easter as a time of witches much as their southern kin do Walpurgis. Witches in southern Sweden were thought to fly to the mountain Blåkulla, much like the Walpurgis witches flew to the Broken in Germany.  Personally, I prefer to think that, the Swedes were celebrating Walpurgis at Easter (which they do not call the holytide) and Easter on what they referred to as Disting.  It could be too that both Walpurgis and Easter were indeed once the same holytide.  The shining Goddess Eostre was celebrated in the day while the dark Holda took the night before. Holda and the witches symbolizing winter would make their last assault on Mankind on Walpurgis Eve.  Then at dawn Eostre and her maidens would appear to bring in the spring.  In extreme ancient times this may have been seen as a battle between the the death Goddess Holda and her crones and the Eostre, Goddess of rebirth and her maidens. Grimm in Teutonic Mythology  mentions several plays called ôsterspil. These plays portrayed a battle between the forces of Winter and the forces of Summer. Often they involved a sword-dance with twelve men. In other areas of Germany, an  effigy of Winter was beaten or burned.  Now in all probability the two Goddesses Holda and Eostre do not do battle.  However, the duties of Holda, Goddess of Yule and household work (thus indoor work suited for winter) would largely be over, whilst Eostre's would just be beginning. It could be that if Walpurgis and Easter were the same holytide, the dual imagery seen is a reflection of that shift from winter work to spring work, from the weaving and spinning of winter to the sowing fields of spring.  Holda as a household Goddess would be inappropriate for the spring, just as Eostre would be for the winter. Easter therefore would be seen as a holyday of transition.

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