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Ostara, Eostre and Hewsos

by Erik Northman 10 months ago in religion

The Origin of Easter

Kristin Chenoweth in her role as Ostara of the Dawn in American Gods (Starz Network)

We’re coming up on the time of year where another of the age-old arguments between hard recons and well… everyone else begin once again to crop up. The most frequent argument boils down to the fact that Ostara was included in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. That in itself, does not say much at all. Wicca is by it’s nature highly eclectic, and borrowed elements from many different cultural traditions, Heathenry included. For the purposes of the remainder of this argument, I’ll once again reiterate my definition of Heathenry (which may nor may not be the same as yours), based on the most widely academically accepted historical etymologies of the word (you can find a fuller explanation of this particular argument in the section ‘What does Heathen Mean’). However, for the purposes of this writing, I’m defining “Heathen” as describing the Pre-Abrahamic religious practices of Indo-European peoples, and their descendant traditions. So that said, let’s get into who and what Ostara actually is.

Now when we’re talking about the ancient origins of the gods from a historical Midgard perspective, the most consistently reliable scientific methodology is the comparative method. For this we’ll utilize not only comparative religion (from within the Indo-European sphere, so as not to contaminate our findings with unrelated data), but comparative linguistics to arrive at our conclusions. Ostara falls into a category of Indo-European goddesses known generally under the umbrella term reflected in her various names and epithets as the “Dawn Goddess”. She is generally understood to be the daughter of the “Sky Father” and the “Earth Mother” in most preserved traditions, and is by extension the Sister of the Thunder God (and in some instances, suggested to possibly also be his wife). The Dawn Goddess herself by any of her names typically has a nominal etymology which relates to the rising of the sun, either it will indicate the dawn directly, or reference the cardinal direction of “east” from which the sun rises. Despite this, linguists such as Jacob Grimm have repeatedly reminded us that while in the earliest forms (5000 BCE or perhaps even earlier) may have seen this motif as a daily occurrence, it likely came to represent the annual cycles of the seasons, with the Dawn coming to represent the Spring. So for the purposes of examining this goddess, we can look at the “Dawn Goddess” phrasing as being metaphorically representative of the “Spring Goddess”. This is a primeval bit of storytelling, which survived even Christianization in Europe in certain well known fairytales such as that of Sleeping Beauty, the original version of which (while shocking to modern literalist sensibilities) was a textbook retelling of the “spring drama” where the fertile penetrative energy of a “sky god” awakens the long dormant creative power of an “earth goddess” from her winter deathsleep, resulting in the fruitfulness of the coming summer (to clarify, spring and summer were not differentiated in ancient days). Even to this day there are some in rural northern Scandinavia who do not believe that the fields will be productive without the occurrence of a lightning storm in spring, a clear reference to the “Hieros Gamos” (Sacred Marriage) of Thor and Sif.

To return to the identity of the Dawn Goddess in successor traditions, we turn to linguistics, and there is a clear and ancient continuity between the “h2éwsōs” of Proto-Indo-European, and the Ostara of Old High German and Eostre of Aenglisc. Below I will provide a list detailing the different linguistic representations of this goddess by regional language, with many cognates included.

Proto-Indo-European- h2éwsōs – “The Dawn”

Proto-Germanic- Austro

Old English: (As recorded by Bede The Venerable in De Temporum Ratione) Ēastre, Northumbrian dialect Ēastro, Mercian dialect and

West Saxon dialect Ēostre (referenced by the months which bore her name is such languages) Northumbrian: Ēosturmōnaþ; West Saxon: Ēastermōnaþ.

Old High German: Ôstara (a month name, Ostarmanoth, reflected the Old English naming conventions as well, Referenced in both the Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseberg, and Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology)

The Old Norse speaking regions require a bit of special attention on this subject, as there aren't easily identifiable parallels with the rest of the Indo-European sphere, or indeed even the remainder of Germania. Dellingr is referred to in Vafthruthnismal, Havamal and Fjolfvinsmal as a male deity, who nevertheless encompasses the functional bulk of the aforementioned goddess, even having been referenced by JRR Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings Saga as having been of particular significance in just such a relevant deific category. At the same time the sacred Horse imagery and it's significance to the right to kingship seems to have been shifted to Yngwi-Freyr in what remains of the Norse stories (at least in writing). It's not altogether too much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that the Christian monks who wrote down these old legends in the 13th and 14th centuries may have seen a female deity being responsible for bestowing the legitimacy of rule as a bridge too far, and it's not at all outside the realm of possibility that these particular divergences from the vast majority of Indo-European traditions may have simply been an intentional obfuscation with political motive on the part of the Church. There is however another explanation which in my opinion is simpler, and likely more probable given the rest of what we know, and that is that the Dawn Goddess was preserved in the Norse legends, simply under another epithet. While she was known as Ostara in Saxony, and Eostre in England, in Scandinavia she may simply have come to be known as Freya. This follows a well established pattern already. The Norse languages are from the North Germanic linguistic branch, while German and English are West Germanic languages. In the North Germanic (Scandinavian) languages Gods and Goddesses came to be referred to by their titles rather than their proper names, to that end we have Freya- Lady, Freyr- Lord, Tyr- God, Frija- Great/Sovereign Lady/Queen etc. whereas in West Germanic (English and German) there seems to have been a tendency to refer to these deities in more familiar terms, by their proper names, as an example Yngwi, Tiw/Tiwaz etc. Should this be the case, then the goddess we know as Freya in Nordic sources would be the same goddess that the Anglo-Saxons called Eostre, and may depending on your willingness to accept the possibility also have encompassed Mother Frigg as well (again, a possibility given that the linguistics suggest that Frigg is once again a title denoting the Queen of the Heavens, rather than a proper name). Should this be the case, an educated guess based on related traditions and linguistic development would be that the Norse proper name for the Dawn Goddess may have been something along the lines of Austre.

Some other cognate goddesses in related IE traditions

Lithuanian: Aušra

Roman: Aurora

Latvian: Austra

Greek: Eos

Slavic: Zorya

Proto-Celtic: Briganti

Celtic: Brigid

Vedic Sanskrit: Ushas (Brhati was an epithet)

Avestan (Pre-Zoroastrian Persian)- Ušā

The general description of the Dawn Goddess in a broad Pan-Indo-European sense is that of a personification of life, of fertility, of the sacred feminine, of the feminine mysteries, and in a ritual sense the progenitor of the Disir. She maintains the “sacred flame” which protects the family and is reflected in the sacred flame on an altar (to this day reflected in Zoroastrian ritual), and in the Roman view was even said to protect the city/civilization itself (Research the “Vestal Virgins” for further information on that point, but specific Roman attestations are beyond the scope of this article). She is in other points of the year, the primordial goddess of the Hearth; a word which shares etymology with the words “Heath” and “Heathen”, suggesting the connection between the “untamed wilds” in which our most ancient ancestors perceived the great and terrible divine powers of all that was beyond their immediate control, and by logical extension the female dominated domain of the domestic cult. It follows that when the weather didn’t permit offerings in sacred groves, bogs, meadows, etc. that what modern scholars have deemed the “cult of the matronae” (again, cognate to the Nordic Disir), that those wise old women who maintained the spiritual health of the community back on the Pontic-Caspian Steppes devised methods of ritually inviting the goddess of the dawn into their dwellings through proper ritual fire ceremonies. We see just such rituals surviving into even modern times, with similar fire rituals appearing in Zoroastrian, Hindu, Baltic, Celtic and Slavic traditions. With so much continuity between cousin systems, it is extremely unlikely that the Pre-Christian Norse, let alone the Heathens of continental Germania would have been completely unaware of such an important ancestral deity. We can quite confidently conclude that the lack of specific attestation in the Nordic Viking Age was more than likely the result of diminished importance of solar deities within the most Northerly regions due to the unreliability of sunlight within those areas, and intentional erasure of Solar imagery and goddesses generally by the Christian Church in every land they managed to seize political control over.

It is also worth noting that in several ancient IE traditions, that the blessing of the Dawn Goddess was requisite in the claiming of kingship. In some cases, the man who would be king had to copulate with a sacred mare, or in others his wife with a sacred stallion. In either case, the connection between the sacred horse and the dawn goddess reflected the right to rule being tied entirely with the dawn goddess herself, or her sons the divine horse twins (in English lore, Hengst and Horsa, believed to have been the progenitors of the ancient English royalty). Although it should be noted that in other IE traditions, the Skyfather himself was one of the divine twins, his opposite having been what in Germanic tradition was Ymir, who’s sacrifice allowed the construction of the world.

Timing of celebrations for this ancient goddess will vary by tradition, personal practice and location of residency. As a “nondenominational” Heathen community, we give proper respect to, and accept the legitimacy of all Heathen paths so long as they maintain a sense of cultural authenticity. Some may set the timing of her festival on the Vernal Equinox (a few weeks past as of the time of this writing), some may go with the Old Norse “Disablot”, which while not specifically attested has certain parallels which fit well overall without too much of a cognitive leap to make the connection. Other still, may select a local condition to mark the occasion, such as the earth thawing enough to dig, the first thaw, or possibly the blooming of a particular plant. It can even be considered appropriate to celebrate on the day known within the English speaking world as Easter (a clear and attested linguistic correlation explicitly layed out by Bede the Venerable in De Temporum Ratione, and reflected in the German speaking regions as Ostar), but known in Non-Germanic speaking regions and especially the Latin speaking regions as the Christian “Paschal” (an extension of the Hebrew Passover, as the “last supper” was known to have been a Passover Seder) for the simple fact that it is when the rest of their families are celebrating a “rebirth” ritual that they may not fully understand. We need not succumb to fundamentalism in our search for the propriety of our rituals, our ancestors themselves varied in their practices over distance and time based on what worked best for them where and when they were.

So whether you have already celebrated the goddess of the dawn, or are planning to do so with a mostly Christian family on April the 4th, have selected a different time to do so in accordance with your local climate, or have perhaps decide to go all in withthe ancient custom and celebrate for the full month of Eostremonath culminating in a carnal celebration of the sacred feminine from April the 27th through May the 26th in the year 2021, may Heuwsos bless you over the coming year with abundance and fertility.

*It should also be noted, especially since Facebook fact checkers have recently repeated notions outdated by nearly a century, that while scholars in the early 20th century may have suspected Bede of fabricating Eostre despite evidence from related Germanic cultures suggesting very much to the contrary, the discovery of Roman Iron Age stelae in Britain dedicated to the Matronae Austriahenae in 1958 have effectively laid that hypothesis to rest.

*The spellings of the reconstructed Proto-Languages in particular use of IPA and diacritics are approximate, and may differ between IE linguistic sources. Every effort has been made to keep them phonologically accurate, but that's a bit of an art which I may have erred at times in.


Erik Northman

Read next: Forty Days of Ignorance

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