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Published in The Troth's Journal, "Idunna," Spring 2004
Greatly inspired by Vol. V of The Road to Bifrost by Thor and Audrey Sheil, back in print at:
For this article, we’ll be traveling to the south of most Heathens’ usual Scandinavian spiritual homelands. Other than possible place names in Denmark (Ashliman), Ostara is unknown in those more northern climes, at least under that name. Further south, she is so incompletely attested that some scholars have suggested that the churchman Bede may essentially have invented the Goddesses Rheda and Eostre = Ostara to explain the Old English names for the months March and April (Hutton, 180-181). However, given how close Bede was in time to living and openly practiced English Heathenism, this seems unlikely in the view of many scholars (Branston, 51-52), and I personally agree with that conclusion, while making the note that this ongoing debate, due to the length of time which has elapsed and the paucity of surviving records, will almost certainly never be definitively settled.
Some have also pronounced similar caveats about the works of Snorri Sturluson, especially the Prose Edda. I don’t see that as likely either, at least on a large scale (with the exception of that “the Gods are old dead Trojans” business, which was probably either to avoid trouble with the church or just to try to tie Germanic and biblical lore together). Too many of his contemporaries, like Bede’s, knew too much of the old lore. The examples of lore-rewriting of which I am aware are the works of the 19th century Swedish scholar Viktor Rydberg and the contemporary Heathen group “Skergard.” You might add the early Danish churchman Saxo Grammaticus to that list but his work is nevertheless very useful. Please note: since the publication of this article, I have concluded, due to the influence of a couple of Heathens I really respect, that Viktor Rydberg's works might be worth reading after all. They can serve as a source of inspiration and new ideas, although not IMHO as a scholarly source.
In any case, from the Heathen perspective it is important that, for the now slightly more than thirty years of the public Heathen revival, there is, according to the large number of people who have habitually blóted Ostara, someone “out there” answering to that name and fitting well into the overall fabric of contemporary Heathenism. As far as the accurate reconstruction of Heathenry is concerned, the very worst-case scenario is that the cult of Iðunn has moved “south” into contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic Heathenism, where she has assumed, or perhaps more accurately been given the ancient if mysterious name “Eostre” or “Ostara.”
In any case, many modern Heathens see Ostara as a sort of southern Iðunn (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 584; Coulter, 75; Sheil, 61). Others identify her as a local form or hypostasis of either Frigg (McNallen, v. 2, p. 12) or Freyja. My friend Lisa Wilson, who was gyðja for Hammerstead Kindred, holds to the Freyja = Ostara option. I am inclined to the idea that Ostara is either essentially the same Goddess as Iðunn, or else shares in many if not most of her functions. Finally, of course, all of these could be completely separate Goddesses. While all these options are possible, none of them is proven or perhaps even provable. Ostara, with her eggs, rabbits and springtime festival, has definite fertility aspects which Frigg lacks, while Freyja’s fertility seems to have more to do with eroticism (Post, 36).
The Wight in (extant) Scandinavian mythology with the name closest to “Ostara” is the (male) dwarf “Austri,” whose name, like Ostara’s also means “East.” In Germany and England, however, Ostara (the main German variant) took a variety of forms, including Eostra, Eostrae, Eostre, Eástre, and Austra (Ashliman).
Despite her relative obscurity today, Ostara’s name has an impeccable Indo-European pedigree, with cognates in Sanskrit, Avestan (an Old Persian tongue), and Lithuanian. All of these have to do with the idea of “East,” or “dawn” and evidently derive from the Indo-European reconstructed root-word “*aus-“ meaning “shine” (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 584). She was remembered in several German place-names (Grimm, 1371). However, it is hard to be sure in this case since her name is so similar to words for “East” that it is hard to be sure which element is behind a place-name (Wodening, 88). The Latin Aurora and Greek Eos (as in Eohippus = “dawn-horse”) – both also Goddesses by the way (Hutton, 180-181) – are from the same root (Grimm, 1520). Hence, Ostara can be seen as a Goddess of the Dawn, and of the East, the direction of the Sun’s rising.
Within the Germanic world itself, a cognate of the name is present in the name of the Austriahenae matrones, a group of Goddesses to whom over 150 dedicatory inscriptions survive in Morken-Harff. Their name is usually translated as “the eastern ones” (Simek, 25). The cult of various Goddesses identified as matrones = “mothers” was widespread in areas of Germania and adjacent Celtic areas under Roman control (Simek, 204-208).
Fascinatingly, there is some evidence of a parallel Goddess “Westara,” associated with the opposite direction and hence with the sunset. This is also echoed, for instance, in the Latin “Vespera” (Grimm, 1372). “Oestre”, the form of Ostara/Eostre’s name in the book Asyniur seems to me to have been mistakenly based on this “western” Goddess (McGrath, 66).
Ostara is well-known in the larger Pagan community, mostly due to the fact that the late Gerald Gardner borrowed her name for the Wiccan Spring Equinox holiday. While Wicca borrows much more extensively from Celtic lore than from Anglo-Saxon sources, only four of its Sabbats have Celtic names (Imbolc, Beltaine, Mabon, and Samhain). Three of the others have Germanic names (Ostara, Litha and Yule) while the eighth is known both by the Celtic Lugnasad and the (post-Christianization) English name of Lammas (= “Loaf-Mass”). Why this should be the case I have no idea, except that when all is said and done, Gardner was still an Englishman, not a Celt!
We don’t know a great deal about Ostara/Eostre. Much of what we do know is from Chapter 13 of the early medieval English churchman Bede’s De temporum ratione, where we also learn that the Heathen English called the month of March “Rhedmonath” after a Goddess “Rheda,” elsewhere unattested, although possible German cognates exist (Grimm 289-291). Her name was probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “hreð(a)” and thus meant “glory” or “fame” (Owen, 37).
From that same medieval text, we learn that in Heathen England, April was called “Esturmonath” after the Goddess Eostra, whose festival was celebrated at that time. She was evidently quite important as were her spring rites, important enough that the Christianized English and Germans kept her name for one of their new religion’s two most holy festivals. In the case of England, as those familiar with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People will recall, by direct orders from the Pope himself the missionaries there were fairly accommodating of Heathen customs and worship sites in their mission to convert England, a policy which from their perspective worked quite well in the long run, considering how little we know first-hand of English Heathenry. For instance, we know absolutely nothing about the rites by which Eostre was honored in England (Wilson, 36).
From the time of her traditional rites comes the notion of Ostara as a Goddess of Spring, or perhaps more specifically of the Spring Equinox. Of course, this does not have to be an either/or situation, as Germanic Deities tend to be multifunctional. Some contemporary Heathens believe that the fact that March and April, the only months dedicated to Goddesses (Rheda and Eostre/Ostara), are together in the calendar is no coincidence. For them, Rheda (the Latinized form used by Bede probably represents an original “Hreð” or “Hreða”) represents the blustery early Spring, soon to be superceded by fertile, lovely, and blooming Ostara (Herbert, 21).
In the other Germanic languages, spoken in lands where Ostara was not known, and in the languages of Western Europe in general, the name for Easter is derived from some form of the Hebrew “pasah,” “to pass over,” hence “Passover,” the Jewish feast borrowed and re-theologized by the early Christian church (Ashliman).
The other main primary source for information about Ostara is Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, a massive, four-volume 19th century work which I have already found it necessary to cite. For Grimm, Ostara/Eostre was a Goddess “of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing” (Grimm, 291). Obviously, this was a Deity whose festivities the incoming Church found easy to assimilate to its own feast of Jesus’ resurrection. Bonfires were lit at Easter-tide in Frankish and Saxon areas where as elsewhere in Germany they were lit at Midsummer (Grimm, 615). Note that both of these tribes, especially the latter, were involved in the settlement of England. By the way, small indoor Easter fires are still lit in Catholic churches; I remember one in particular that burned a good bit higher than intended, although no one was harmed and the church didn’t have to be evacuated!
Water drawn on Easter morning was said to have healing properties. Maidens clothed in white and seen in clefts of big rock formations and on mountains may be echoes of the Goddess Ostara (Grimm, 615). From folklore survivals unattested in extant lore, it appears that there may have also been a play or ritual representing the battle between the seasons. This involved a sword, which Grimm reminds us was, surprisingly also brandished in honor of “Fricka” = Frigg. Hence, Ostara can be and is often seen as a Goddess of Springtime (Grimm, 779-781).
Cakes shaped, among other things, like lunar crescents were baked at this time (Grimm, 779-781). Hot cross buns might also be appropriate at this time, with the marks on top of them being (re-?) Heathenized as the Rune Gebo or a Sunwheel (Wodening, 89). Mayflowers, i.e. lilies of the valley bloom at this time of year and in some Hessian areas certain townships had to pay a bunch of them as a sort of rent (Grimm, 58), which may have in itself been a remnant of an ancient offering to Ostara (Grimm, 968). These early, delicate, fragrant, and very white blossoms to me recall the previously mentioned maidens in white. In these same Hessian areas, games and sporting events also continued to be held on Easter Day and were evidently survivals of Heathen custom (Post, 553).
In addition to the hares and rabbits (rather similar creatures, the main difference being that newborn hares are fully furred and have their eyes open), the squirrel may also be an animal associated with Ostara. In certain Hartz mountain villages the people engaged in a sort of ritual squirrel hunt with sticks and stones on Easter day (Grimm, 615-616; Gundarsson, Our Troth, 586). This echoes the annual ritual hunt of the “Cutty Wren” in parts of England (Stewart, 15-23). Please don’t try the squirrel or wren hunt at home. It would be more than a little cruel and would also constitute game poaching or killing of protected songbirds!
Another fascinating old folk custom for Ostara-tide is the Easter egg fight. We still have the Peters Hollow Egg Fight every Easter Sunday in my native Carter County, in Northeast Tennessee. Since one Heathen descended from Lake Ladoga Russians, from an area originally settled from Sweden, recalls this same custom in his family, who knows how far this rite may go back (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 587). Ostara-eggs are seen by some as having magical powers to bring strength, health and for children, good growth in the coming year (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 588). This would no doubt be even truer of eggs dedicated to Ostara at a blót in her honor and charged with her megin.
Since by Ostara-tide Sunna’s might has grown far stronger since reaching her weakest point at Yule, it comes as no surprise that fire, which like Sunna gives warmth and light, evidently played a part in Ostara’s festivities. There were bonfires and burning sun-wheels as well. In both Germany and Czechoslovakia, an egg laid on Thorsday was dyed green and buried in the largest wheat field, with burning “hail-cross” on either side. The ashes were then spread on the fields to make them fertile, and burnt sticks were kept to protect against hail, fire, and lightning. Here, the might of Asa-Þórr is added to that of Ostara, so that Earth, Þórr’s Mother, might yield bounteously and folks could thrive (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 588). By the way, the custom of decorating eggs at this time of year is evidently known only in Germanic and Slavic areas; even today it is not seen in Celtic or mostly-Celtic places like Ireland and Scotland (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 291).
After the coming of Christianity, the old Gods (and their Heathen followers) were made out by followers of the new faith to be very wicked wights. In Sweden, witches were thought to be especially active at Ostara-tide (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 589). In Germany however, their season was Walpurgisnacht, May 1st. In either case, these “witches” may well be distorted memories of Goddesses and/or the folks who worshipped them (op. cit., 596-597). At least one prominent and very knowledgeable modern Heathen, Winifred Hodge Rose, believes that the Goddess worshipped on Walpurgisnacht was also Ostara (Wodening, 89). It is also worth mentioning that the ritual journey of Nerthus’ image and cart, as recounted in Tacitus’ Germania, may have had parallel’s in Ostara’s cult (Anglo-Saxon Heathenism Webpage; Herbert, 18-19). However, it is not known whether there is any connection between Nerthus and Ostara (Anglo-Saxon Heathenism Webpage). While most modern Heathens seem to blót Nerthus in Spring, Tacitus does not mention in what particular season, if any, that her cart made its procession among the folk (Tacitus, 133-134).
Two items attributed to Ostara in the modern era are the waxing moon (McGrath, 159) and the Rune Dagaz (McGrath, 153). The first seems especially problematical. The Moon in Germanic languages has masculine grammatical gender and as an at least semi-personified Deity is also male. However, if you go from the viewpoint that the Germanic masculine Moon is not “right” and the Greco-Roman feminine Moon is not “wrong” in an absolute, Truth-with-a-capital-“T” sense, it could then follow that the Moon has both “masculine” and “feminine” energies, and that some cultures for various reasons pick up (mostly) on one, and others on the other. Thus, if looking for feminine lunar energy manifested discretely in a Germanic mythological context, Ostara might be one Goddess where this would show up. Another Goddess with lunar overtones, according to my teacher, Thor Sheil, is Frigg (Sheil, 36).
The association with the Rune Dagaz = “Day” seems more feasible. Ostara was/is among other things the Goddess of the Dawn, that is, the new Day. While I would not call Dagaz “Ostara’s Rune” to the exclusion of any other God or Goddess (neither does McGrath; she also associates Syn with this Rune as a Goddess of the door), I would recommend pathworking and other work with Dagaz for those seeking to uncover and explore Ostara’s mysteries. More academic scholarship of Germanic religion would support this association as well (Simek, 309).
Ostara’s blót, now as in ancient times, is around the time of the Spring Equinox. However, she is not the only Goddess worshipped at that time. Heathens working very strictly within a (Viking Age) Scandinavian framework typically do not honor Goddesses such as Ostara and Nerthus, since there is no evidence that they were worshipped at that place and in that time period. Others choose to do a blót at this time to Iðunn (as the Northern equivalent of Ostara in their theology), Freyja, Frigg, and/or Nerthus. Some honor Þórr and Sif (Jerome). Ostara was called “Sigrblót,” meaning “Victory-Blessing” by the Norse. Since one of Oðinn’s heiti (nicknames) is “Sig-Father,” meaning “Father of Victory,” many call upon him at this time (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 591).
The “Hail Day” section of the poem “Sigrdrífumal,” found in the Poetic (Elder) Edda, appears with great frequency in Ostara-blótar (Gundarsson, Our Troth, 591). My own composite “liturgical” translation, compiled from several others and slightly modified by me, is as follows:
“Hail Day! Hail the Sons of Day!
Hail Night and the Daughter of Night!
Gaze on us with gracious eyes,
Award us victory, we who wait.
Hail the Gods! Hail the Goddesses!
Hail Earth who gives to all!
Wisdom and fair speech give to us
And healing hands while we live.”
In conclusion, what we know about Ostara comes from the early English churchman Bede and the bits and pieces of surviving, mostly German folklore, the majority of which was gathered together and preserved for us by Jacob Grimm. In assembling and annotating the large book-hoard you are about to read, I noted that the same information from these two authors tends to recur over and over. As I previously mentioned, we don’t know a lot about this Goddess, but we do know enough for individual Heathens and Heathen groups to explore, restore, and with her help re-create for our own times Ostara’s ancient mysteries. These “mysteries” are not scientific or even historical facts, but rather more subtle truths to be pondered in one’s own heart and experienced in one’s own life. Not everyone will hear her whisper the same things, but those things which many different worshippers keep hearing are deserving of special attention as this process continues to unfold.
May Ostara bring you her timeless gifts of light, joy, health, abundance, and renewal of life!
This especially large bibliography is presented in the hopes that it will help stimulate the ongoing study of Anglo-Saxon and Continental Germanic Heathenry in The Troth.
Anglo-Saxon Heathenism Webpage. Eostre. Located online at
www.englishheathenism.homestead.com/eostre.html. Fine web page. Highly recommended.
Ashliman, D.L. Ostara’s Home Page. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/ostara.html.
Professor Ashliman (now retired) also has web pages for other Heathen Gods and Goddesses as well
(http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/mythlinks.html). A bit pretentious perhaps from a Heathen perspective, but nicely done
anyway. Check them out!
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. London: Penguin Books, 1990. This
translation was originally published in 1955 and contains a couple of other pertinent works translated by another
scholar (Bede’s Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede). Bede wrote early in the history of the
English Church, within a couple of generations of England’s conversion and unfortunately chose to tell posterity
much less than what he knew about his people’s recent Heathen past. Originally written in Latin.
Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Slightly dated scholarship but
still mostly valid. Very readable and enjoyable and well-illustrated in black and white. My biggest beef with Branston
is that following a current in the scholarship of the time, he tends to lump all the Goddess together as “aspects of
Mother Nature” (p. 128). One of my all-time personal favorites anyway! Out of print, but one copy is on amazon.com
for $25. Interlibrary loan is also a good source.
Coulter, James Hjuka. Germanic Heathenry: A Practical Guide. n.p.: 1st Books, 2003. Heathenry with a continental
German emphasis. Overall quite good but a hard read at times due to the extensive use of Old High German
terminology, including (usually reconstructed) OHG terms familiar to most Heathens in their Old Norse forms.
Fortunately, there are glossaries in the back of the book. To order, search “Heathenry” on www.amazon.com.
Grimm, Jacob. Trans. James Steven Stallybrass. Teutonic Mythology. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Collected
in the 19th century by one of the Brothers Grimm of fairy-tale fame, this four-volume work preserves much folklore
still extant in that era, a good deal of which deals with the Gods and Goddesses. It provides some useful continuity
between the old-time Heathens and ourselves. However, both the author and translator fail to translate or even
transliterate quotes and citations in a bewildering array of languages and dialects. Please note that the four
volumes maintain continuous pagination throughout. Very highly recommended.
Gundarsson, KveldúlfR Hagan, ed. Our Troth. n.p.: The (Ring of) Troth, 1993. A 711 page masterpiece of modern
Heathen scholarship. A revised edition is in preparation. Most of the current out of print edition is available online at
http://www.thetroth.org/resources/ourtroth and it includes Ostara info and an Ostara rite.
-----. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993. n.b.:
this book is again in print as an e-book at http://www.aswynn.runeschool.org/recommended.html for US $12. I
believe that it can also be purchased there as a paper copy for an additional charge.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Hockwold-cum-Wilton (UK, of course): Anglo-Saxon Books,
1994. This is a chapbook of around 60 pp. which brings together much Anglo-Saxon Heathen lore. The author
attended Tolkien’s lectures back in her student days.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Provides a good overview of the
ongoing academic debate over the existence/nonexistence and nature of the Goddess Ostara. Thanks JoLynne
Martínez for providing this valuable citation! His other works are also recommended.
Jerome, Alex “Gamlinginn.” Gamlinginn’s List of the Major Annual Blóts: A Comparison of Seven Different Systems.”
Silver City NM (?): Self-published, probably issued around 1994 based on internal evidence (Our Troth already
published and mentioned). An interesting and informative, if somewhat dated, one-page handout. “Old Norse,”
“Celtic,” AFA/AA, “Generic,” Book of Troth, Our Troth, and “California” holiday names, Deity dedications, and dates
are given for an eight-blót annual cycle.
McGrath, Sheena. Asyniur: Women’s Mysteries in the Northern Tradition. Freshfield (UK): Capall Bann Publishing,
1997. I have not yet read this book in detail, and it gets mixed reviews among Heathens. Nevertheless, it comes
mostly from a Heathen perspective.
McNallen, Stephen P. Rituals of Asatrú. Payson, AZ: World Tree Publications, 1992. One of the earliest sets of blótar
available, and very well written. Uses an eight festival cycle, ultimately derived from Wicca, which ultimately pieced it
together, roughly speaking, from the agricultural year of the Northern Temperate Zone. This three-volume work by a
Heathen pioneer has had an enormous influence on subsequent Heathen blótar. The author’s views on the concept
of “race” do not in my opinion detract from the overall very high quality of his religious work.
Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 1996. Originally published in
1981, this book covers both the Germanic Heathenism and the Catholic Christianity practiced by the early English.
Post, John, ed. National Prison Kindred Alliance Book of Blotar. Napa, CA: Himminbjorg Publishing, 2003. First and
Limited Edition. Folks, when this becomes available to the general public, you are in for a real treat: 600 pages of
very diverse and well-written blótar plus some beautiful artwork by incarcerated Heathens. My only caveat is to take
in stride the very occasional use of the “A-word” ( = “Aryan”) by incarcerated writers.
Sheil, Thor and Audrey. The Road to Bifrost Volume V: The Mysteries on Bifrost’s Path. New York: Trollwise Press, 1991. Part of a unique, unpretentious, well-written, and unfortunately long out of print six-volume Heathen series. Highly useful, especially for hands-on work with our Gods and Goddesses.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury
Press, 1993. My favorite mythological dictionary. I try to use his spellings of Deity names, mythological places, etc.
Stewart, Bob. Pagan Imagery in English Folksong. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1977. A fascinating
analysis of Pagan themes and imagery in English folksong. While other interpretations of this material are certainly
possible, the book is very thought-provoking and provides some fine ideas for Heathen ritual drama. The only
available copy on amazon.com was over $100, but you should be able to get it easily by way of interlibrary loan.
Tacitus. On Britain and Germany. Trans. H. Mattingly. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1951. Translation
of a short book written by a Pagan Roman in C.E. 98. The Germania, to use the Latin name of the part dealing with
the continental Germanic tribes described by the author (at this time this included the ancestors of the English, who
would not migrate to what is now England for another three centuries) contains the oldest extant written record of
those peoples and includes considerable religious lore. Watch out for the author’s personal “noble savage"
agenda, in which he uses the Germanic tribes to shame his fellow Romans for their decadence, soft living, and fall
from traditional Roman “family values.”
Wilson, David. Anglo-Saxon Paganism. London: Routledge, 1992. Represents the findings of more recent
scholarship. The author tries to avoid using Scandinavian material but relies heavily upon Tacitus. Still well worth
Wodening, Swain. Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times. Little Elm, TX: Angleseaxisce
Ealdriht, 2003. A complete, well-written, and very readable “how-to” book on the subject. Highly recommended.
Order online from http://www.booksurge.com; search by title for “Hammer of the Gods.” His Eostre information is
also online at www.ealdriht.org.eostre.html.
www.ostara.org. Neuen Ostara-III Webseite. German-language website on “White nationalism…fight against
globalization, Communism and Zionism.” Illustrates the continuing abuse of the holy names of our Gods and
Goddesses to promote/justify Neo-Nazi movements. Placed in this bibliography to raise Heathen awareness of this
last modified 05/31/2008