Easter or Eostra, a Germanic Goddess

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Early English Text Society Publications
Book References Easter, Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron, Ausos

Daffodils and Easter Eggs The hearth fire is personified among the Indo-Europeans as several Goddesses, including Greek Hestia, Latin Vesta, and Sanskrit Vastu. While all of these deities are cognate forms of the Proto-Indo-European Goddess *Aeusos, especially the form *Haeustero, our particular interest here is in the Germanic forms. In Anglo-Saxon England she was known as Eostra and in Saxony (in Germany) she was personified as the Goddess Ostara (properly Ôstarâ), while in Old Norse, (s)he was known as the dwarf Austri, a masculine form of the name. In addition, the Austriahenae are Goddesses who are invoked on votive altars found at one site in northern Germany but little is known about them. Among the Saxons (in England and Germany) the Goddess Eostra or Ostara is especially associated with the month of April, and along with the dwarf Austri, the direction to the East. In this they are distinct from the Roman Goddess Vesta who is especially worshiped at the Summer Solstice, and forms of her name are associated with the direction to the South (for example Auster, the South Wind). In modern English, the form of the name of the festival of the Goddess Eostra is Easter and that would be the modern English name of the Goddess. Among Neo-Pagans, she is now often called after the Old High German form of her name, Ostara.

*Austro and feminine *Austra are forms of the name of this Goddess as reconstructed in Proto-Germanic, the ancestor of all the Germanic languages, a subset of the Indo-European languages. These forms were reconstructed by Jacob Grimm based on the Goddesses known at that time, Eostra and Ostara, see Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol. 7, page 1371, under oster. This construction is confirmed by modern linguistic research and also somewhat by the discovery in 1958 of the inscriptions for the Austriahenae.

Matronae Austriahenae Image from the side of a votive altar for the Matronae Austriahenae, probably of a devotee, offering a cornucopia
Beginning in 1958, 150 inscriptions have been found at the same site, in the town of Morken-Harff near Bergheim which is not far from the city of Bonn in Germany. These are votive inscriptions, very typical of those associated with the Roman imperial armies, but since they are all known from a single location they are probably for a local set of Goddesses. The inscriptions date to about the second century CE. All have dedications for the Goddesses known as the Matronae Austriahenae or Mothers Austriahenae. Although no pictures of the Matronae Austriahenae have been published, they are probably similar to the many other images of Matronae Goddesses known from the Rhine river area. Matronae are usually depicted as groups of three women sitting on a bench holding items in their laps, such as baskets of fruit. The two woman on the outside as usually mature while the one in the center has her hair down. These Goddesses may have been what we would regard as Norns, that is, Goddesses who attend the birth of children, but clearly their domain is wider than that. The original publication of the inscriptions was in Bonner Jahrbücher 1960, in an article by Kolbe. Inscription No. 2 follows here and is published from item No. 99 in l’Année Epigraphique for 1962.

S • E • S • L • M
To the Mothers Austriahenae,
[by] M. Antonius Sentius,
for him and his,
gladly and deservedly.

As is typical of votive inscriptions, the first element is the name of the deity or deities to whom the vow has been made (‘to the Mothers Austriahenae’) and this is followed by the name of the person who offered it, M. Antonius Sentius here. The rest of the inscription consists of a standard formula expressed through abbreviations of single initial letters which confirm that the vow has been “paid” as promised, by the erection of the altar or other project. The editor of l’Année Epigraphique expands the abbreviations P • S • E • S as pro se et suis. The final letters L • M are typically interpreted as laetus/libens merito ‘gladly/willingly and deservedly’ where the L may be understood as either laetus or libens, but with much the same import in either case. The custom of votive offerings was extremely widespread among the Roman Pagans and continues today among Roman Catholic Christians. It seems to have been common among Celts before the Roman invasions and it was also very widespread among Greek Pagans and continued in the Greek Orthodox church through the Middle Ages.

The interpretation of Austriahenae is more problematical. The ending -henae is found in a number of names of Matronae in which the other part of the name, in this case Austria- is associated either with the name of a tribe or with a local town or other place name, see Goddesses in Celtic Religion--Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain, and Gaul, thesis by Noemie Beck. This document does not have page numbers; this is Part III, Section A. In some cases the ending -henae, presumably a Germanic form, is replaced by a Latin ending -ium, also indicating a place name. One inscription found at this site is for the Matronae Austriatium.

It is very interesting to see the name of a Goddess or Goddesses in a German-speaking area which has exactly the form that Jacob Grimm reconstructed for her (*Austro) although he could not possibly have known about the inscriptions since they were not discovered until 1958 and he died in 1863. However, beyond the bare name and the votive context which indicates with certainty that they are Goddesses, we have no specific information about them that would connect them with other forms of the Goddess of Spring, like Easter or Ostara. It would be helpful if more information about these Goddesses were to be published, especially pictures. A great deal more information has come out recently due to the work of Garden Stone, who has provided many references for the Goddess Ostara in the German-speaking areas of the continent. Although he comes to no definite conclusion about this, some of the information that he has published strongly supports the widespread worship of such a Goddess. His book Eostre Ostara Eostar can be ordered from Amazon.

Eostra Goddess
The Goddess Eostra is (famously) mentioned by Bede (c. 673-735) in de Ratione Tempore. This text is available in an English translation under the title the Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press, 1988, pp. 53-54 (see www.tertullian.org, a very informative website put together by Roger Pearse). The text quoted here is from Grimm, p. 281, Deutsche Mythologie, and Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol. 7, page 1371, under Oster:

antique Anglorum populi--gens mea--apud eos Aprila . . . esturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum, quae Eostra (für Eâstre) vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrantur nomen habuit; a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatus vocantes Of old the English people--my people--at April or . . . Easter-month, which now we call Paschal month, formerly was called for that Goddess of theirs Easter, and for whom that celebrated festival was named. Now Paschal time is known by her name, and we call the celebration of the new solemnities by the normal name of the ancient observations.

To this statement, Grimm adds a footnote, No. 77 which gives a variant reading of this text from the ms. Kolmesen opusc. p. 287, and according to him this reference is given in Rathlef’s Hoya and Deipholz 3, 16. This source reads (with my translation):

Veteres Anglicani populi vocant Eostormonath paschalem mensem, idque a dea quadam cui Teutonici populi in paganismo sacrificia fecerunt mensis Aprilis, quae Eostra est appellata. Old English people used the name Eastermonth for Paschal month after a Goddess to whom the Teutonic people in Pagan times made sacrifices in the month of April; she is called Easter.

Although Grimm goes on to give several more references to the early use of the word Ostarmanoth for April, including the reference by Einhart, secretary to Charlemagne, only one additional source mentions Ostara specifically as a Goddess. Bosworth and Toller, under eáster, on p. 235, give their source for the form Ôstarâ, dea [‘Goddess’], attributing it to “Ottf.”

Ger. M. H. Ger. ostern, f: Ker. óstarun, óstrun: Ottf. óstará, óstoron dea, pascha: A. Sax. Eástre, the goddess of the rising sun whose festivities were in April. Hence used by Teutonic christians for the rising of the sun of righteousness, the feast of the resurrection, Bd. de Temp. Rat. Works, vol. ii, p. 81: Grimm’s Deut. Mythol. 8vo. 1855, pp. 180-183.”

While this appears to be a quote from Deutsche Mythologie, it does not match the text I have. “Ottf” must be Otfrid von Weißenburg (Wissenbourg in Alsace, c.790 to c.875) who wrote an Evangelienbuch in Old High German and a set of Latin glossaries which I have not been able to find but which are apparently among our earliest glosses for Old High German. His work appears in various books edited and published by modern authors.

Austri, the dwarf
Austri is mentioned briefly in both the Elder (Poetic) Edda and the Younger (Prose) Edda. The Elder Edda or Poetic Edda is available on sacred-texts in a translation by Henry Adams Bellows, 1936. This is the source of many very ancient poems about the Norse religion, including this part from the Voluspa, stanzas 10-11.

10. There was Motsognir | the mightiest made
Of all the dwarfs, | and Durin next:
Many a likeness | of men they made.
The dwarfs in the earth, | as Durin said.

11. Nyi and Nithi, | Northri and Suthri,
Austri and Vestri, | Althjof, Dvalin,
Nur and Nain | Niping, Dain,
Bifur, Bofur, | Bombur, Nori,
An and Omar, | Ai, Mjothvitnir.

Note here the names Northri and Suthri / Austri and Vestri which simply mean North and South, East and West. These names are quoted in the Younger Edda in the same context on page 26 in the Brodeur translation which is also on sacred-texts (see below for the link).

In the Skaldskaparmal (‘Poetry of Skalds,’ part of the Younger Edda), Snorri Sturluson gives various kennings or poetic metaphors for the sky, in accord with his expressed intention to preserve the knowledge of ancient poetry by explaining the metaphors used in the stories or at least the relationships that form the basis of it. Here, Snorri somewhat clarifies that it is in these positions, the cardinal points of the compass, the four dwarves are the pillars that hold up the sky (p. 133-134, also in the Brodeur translation),

XXIII. “How should the heaven be paraphrased?” Thus: “Call it Skull of Ymir, and hence, Giant’s Skull; Task or Burden of the Dwarves, or Helm of Vestri and Austri, Sudri or Nordri”, and so on.

Here the name of the dwarf Austri can clearly be seen to indicate East as a direction. This text is also available on Sacred-texts at Younger Edda.

Conclusions for Easter as a Goddess
Unlike most Indo-European and indeed Germanic Goddesses, we do not have very much information about Eostra/Ostara/Austri. There are no myths that we know of although these are generally lacking for other forms of the deified hearth fire too, (in contrast to *Aeusos, the Sun who has a number of Proto-Indo-European myths). There is little material evidence of the worship of these Goddesses but that is probably because they were revered in their natural form--fire-- and so there are not normally images of them nor temples for them, the temple of Vesta being an exception. However, as with other forms of fire (Agni, Ganesha etc.), the first sacrifice was always made to them. More relevant to Eostra specifically are the rituals and customs connected to the festival of Easter. [fuggle26]

• Easter Rituals, which include fires, and special cakes
Easter Eggs, colored eggs as gifts, offering to Goddesses, Easter Bunnies and Easter Games.

The words Easter in English, and Ostern in German are still used for the festival and for the season of flowers and rainbows and new life, including baby animals and birds. A great deal of information that was new to me has been published by Garden Stone in his recent book Eostre Ostara Eostar and it strongly confirms that the Goddess Ostara was worshipped on the continent.

An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898.
l’Annee Epigraphique, for 1962; edited by Alfred Merlin, Presses Universitaires de Frances, Paris, 1963.
Deutsches Wörterbuch, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, S. Hirzel, Leipsig, 1854-1971.
Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm, (Teutonic Mythology in the Stallybrass translation), George Bell and Sons, London, 1883.
Ēostre, Real Goddess or Bede's Invention? by Carolyn Emerick on http://carolynemerick.hubpages.com/ (with great pictures).
Eostre Ostara Eostar by Garden Stone, Books on Demand, 2015. This is available from Amazon at the link.
An Egg at Easter, A Folklore Study by Venetia Newall, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1971.
Goddesses in Celtic Religion--Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain, and Gaul, thesis by Noemie Beck, published on the website for the University of Lyon, 2009. Her Goddesses in Celtic Religion thesis can be read on the University website.
Understanding Roman Inscriptions by Lawrence Keppie, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1991.

This page used to be at pierce.yolasite.com/easter but Yola's servers were hacked in November 2011 and they were never able to salvage them, so my website has been moved here, where the servers actually work.

© 2011, last updated 3/5/2016, piereligion.org/easter.html