Every Easter we go through this (like every Christmas we go through that). It goes something like (in your face on chat boards and FB) “Easter is Pagan because it is named after a goddess called Eostre and celebrates Pagan symbols of sex and fertility, such as eggs and bunnies. So this means something bad about Christianity.” [Rolls eyes and sadly shakes head—but if it is any consolation, Neopagans, you’ve got enough fundy-type Christians believing your fakelore that they proudly assert on said chatboards and FB pages that they do not celebrate Easter or Christmas because they are Pagan holidays . . . . How very sad.].
Reframing “Ostara” in Light of Evidence
Neopagans have adopted the term Eostara (or Ostara) to denote the festival of the Spring equinox. The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for April: Éostur mónath. The word denotes the rising of an easterly wind and the eastern quarter of space, where the sun rises. The term may also refer to a putative Teutonic goddess of fertility, Spring, and Dawn. The goddess’s original name in Old German might have been Austrô, meaning “to shine” in reference to dawn light (from the Middle Indo-German word for dawn ausos) , which may be etymologically linked to the Latin Aurora, Greek Eos, and Indo-Aryan (Vedic) Ushas—all goddesses personifying dawn light.
A few Neopagan Web sites state that the Easter bunny and egg originated in pre-Christian traditions in Teutonic lands, but this is inaccurate. The hare and egg were symbols of fertility and rebirth commemorated across cultures and traced to deep antiquity. A myth conflating the hare with the egg can be traced to a Ukrainian fairy tale in which a woman saves a pet bird by changing it into a hare that then has the ability to supply eggs for Easter festivities. The tale seems to have been reinterpreted within the past decade or so to include Eostre as the character who performs the transformation. (Independent researcher Adrian Bott traces the fakelore to the Pagan Book of Days by Nigel Pennick.) Lore about a bunny that would leave eggs—including chocolate eggs—for well-behaved children on Eastern morning also surfaced in 16th century Germany and was imported to America as Easter lore with German immigrants in the 17th century.
This caveat about Eostara is not to imply that a Teutonic goddess related to the Spring equinox did not exist nor that Neopagans have no business naming a modern Pagan feast day/Sabbat after her. It is aired to challenge the heap of poor scholarship, speculation, propaganda, “Grandmother stories,” Christian bashing and baiting/Neopagan martyr-syndroming, and the sloppy cut-and-paste dis-informing that goes on in the Pagan community.
Also occasionally making the rounds on FB during Easter season is an iconic image of Ishtar that is curiously correctly identified as Ishtar (or else incorrectly as) but otherwise has been ubiquitously used as a meme to celebrate the infant-murdering demon of Judaic apocryphal lore Lilith that many—unfamiliar with the complete lore and context about this entity—revere as a suffragette goddess. The info is attributed to an atheist advocacy group associated with Richard Dawkins. The copy accompanying this image of Ishtar claims that the word Eostre is he correct pronunciation of Ishtar and that Easter is really a Babylonian sex and fertility festival. This stretch is so taut that it is at risk of snapping rather abruptly and poking someone’s eye out. [As is the when the meme is coupled with the name Isis and we're informed that the correct pronounciation is Isis is something like Isa. From there, we are told that Isa means Jesus. No. Isa translates as Lord in Sanskrit and is a term used for Vishnu and also Jesus in Hinduism. Are we to conclude that Indian Christians and Hindus who revere Jesus as an incarnation of Vishnu are really worshipping Isis? I don’t think so.]
What is the Deal about Easter Eggs?
Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and many other peoples were said to revere eggs as mystical symbols of life, birth, rebirth, redemption, transformation, and renewal. People dyed and exchanged eggs from time immemorial. Indeed, remnants of decorative eggs dating back to 3000 BCE have been found. Eggs were dyed red, symbolic of life force, vigor, health, and prosperity, in Mediterranean lands and exchanged during the Spring equinox. This custom persisted among Greeks and Orthodox Christians.
Because eggs represented life and potential, they were used for divination. Methods, which were practiced in various places in Europe in pre- and post-Christian times, included smashing an egg on a board and reading the designs in the mess or else piercing the egg, letting white dribble into a bowl of water, and interpreting the patterns of the mixture.
Eggs also were—and still are—used to magically absorb or avert negative energy or illness. Practices included passing a whole raw egg over the face or body and then breaking it and placing an egg in dish beneath victim’s bed and keeping it until it began to smell (the idea being that the smell is the rotten energy it absorbed).
Because eggs were so mystical, they were feared to be used for evil magic. Egg shells were to be smashed because they were thought to be used by witches for transportation. Eggs of certain sizes or colors or having irregularities in them or laid by certain types of hens on certain days all could portend caution, ill luck, or supernatural evil in various (Christian-based) folk cultures, and rituals were enacted to deal with that. Eggs also were used in love magic by reading omens in eggs or by following rituals related to storing, sharing, or consuming them. They also were used as poppets in sympathetic black magic in which they were buried or treated in some other way meant to harm the target.
Games such as egg tapping (smashing eggs together or on someone) and egg rolling may have started as out rituals to either ensure good luck or avert negative energy.
What about Rabbits?
The Romans, in particular, venerated them and goats as symbols of fertility, letting them run loose during fertility-related festivals, such as Floralia, which was celebrated in late April in honor of Flora, the Goddess of Spring, flowers, fruit trees, and fertility and twin sister of Faunus—which is the Roman Pan. The Romans also used to give gifts of small, phallic shaped vegetables to each other as gifts at this time.
A Paradigmatic Shift Spring Fertility Festivals Become Easter
In the Mediterranean, deities associated with Spring and rebirth were commemorated during the equinox and ensuing May Day (Celtic Beltaine). Deities of this type, include Maia Maiestas (the Roman Great Goddess who was associated with the Earth and its abundance) and Persephone/Proserpine and Attis (who were associated with late Roman mystery cults and afterlife mysticism).
In the 4th century, the Council of Nicea decreed that the celebration of the resurrection of Christ would occur a week after the Spring equinox, and, thus, common symbols of life and regeneration—the hare and egg—were adapted into the celebration of the new holiday. Although it was called Pasca (or a derivative) in Mediterranean and Slavic countries (referring to “Passover”), the holy day came to be called Easter or Ostern in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic (ie, Teutonic) lands in reference to the month of April and not a cryptic tip-of-the hat to the goddess Eostre.
Blessed Easter and Happy Ostara, Spring Equinox or Whatever you choose to celebrate. I’m just going to take a walk in the woods, weather permitting, and not think about it.
|My mini pizza rustica--an Easter tradition I carried over
from my Abruzzesi grandmother.