Debunking Atheist Myths: Easter comes from Eostre

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals.

As I’m sure you are aware, atheism is the rejection of the various god claims due to the distinct lack of any evidence, and that is the entire scope of it. There are however some commonly held views expressed by those that do not hold religious beliefs that also lack any evidence and so it is one of these that I’m focusing on today because I was rather guilty of promoting it only a few days ago. It has been pointed out to me by a folklorist that the claim that Easter is named after an ancient goddess named Eostre is not actually true at all.

Eostre

Easter has just passed, and as part of that I was blogging about it and also suggested that Easter is actually derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre. It is indeed a popular idea that is repeated within many Facebook memes, and so it does the rounds amongst the nones every Easter.

Alas, there is one little problem with this – It’s not factually true and is simply speculation by one monk in 725 – and so I got this quite wrong.

When it comes to historical references to Ēostre, then there is exactly one reference, and it is that reference in its entirety that was resurrected in the 19th century and then vigorously promoted by the Internet in more recent times.

The reference comes from The Reckoning of Time, an Anglo-Saxon text written in 725 CE by the Northumbrian monk Bede. There he explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was named after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.” … and that’s it in its entirety, beyond this we have nothing. Here is a modern translation of the latin …

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

The problem here is that there is no evidence that he was correct about this. There are no references or images of Eostre anywhere else or in anything else at all. He also documents Woden and Thor, but they are verified as deities that were worshiped, but not so with Eostre. In fact it appears to be far more probable that the name of the lunar month Eosturmonath  is actually a reference to “the month of opening” for the rather obvious reason that it is springtime.

The revival of the fable of Eostre being the Goddess of Easter was first proposed by Jacob Grimm (yes, the guy who wrote Grimms’ Fairy Tales) in 1835 within his Deutsche Mythologie. That revival is based upon this Bede reference, and from there it has taken on a life of its own.

Yet when it comes to this goddess, we have no images, no carvings and no legends, just this single reference by Bede that appears to be speculation, and so that is why most folklorists will dismiss the assertion that Easter is named after the goddess Eostre as a myth.

Sanity Check

If you know of anything that can establish the claim that Easter really is named after an ancient deity named Eostre in a credible academic sense (hint: you can cite reliable sources to verify it), then please do drop a comment, I’m always quite happy to be corrected, because that way I learn something.

Myths

The Nones are the folks who have put aside ancient religious mythology and so tend not to roll with the idea that there are gods, but if in putting aside ancient mythology we then replace it with more modern mythology, then are we any better off? I’d instead suggest that we strive to believe as many true things as possible and put aside all myths, even when such fables appear to support our own lack of belief. So when faced with the claim that Easter is named after a mythological ancient deity named Eostre … er no apparently not, because that is itself a modern urban legend.

3 thoughts on “Debunking Atheist Myths: Easter comes from Eostre”

  1. You are right in that a separate “local” goddess of the Anglo-Saxon tribes called “Eostre/Ostara may not have existed. Rather, as Caleb points out, there were goddesses related to dawn/east/spring/light/venus/morning star that were celebrated to begin the new year (spring in ancient cultures) and bless planting and fertility. The myths and names were borrowed back and forth for thousands of years way before the season was usurped the Christians in the “Easter Holiday.” In my research it really does start with the myth of Innanna/Ishtar which was re-written as the myth of Esther by the Hebrews (Book of Esther) after the Babylonian captivity. At the same time, Ishtar was adopted by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans in several popular goddesses, the most famous being Astarte and Aphrodite. For reasons so painfully obvious to ancients, and somehow aloof to moderns, Spring is ALWAYS represented by a mother goddess. Yes, any student of mythology could find you 150 names of the primordial mother goddess celebrated in Spring. As far as specifics, not more than an hour’s ride from where the “venerable” monk Bede lived was an altar in Corbridge devoted to Astarte placed presumably by Roman settlers. So you have the original goddess lineage Ishtar to Astarte to Eostre. Or, you have the goddess lineage by way of the Jews (a foundational cultural influence in both the Roman empire and Medieval Catholic Empire that replaced it) who celebrated Esther (Purim) right before Passover, the Jewish feast usurped with the Christ myth as “Easter.” Here is a great discussion: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2016/04/ostara-and-the-hare/?unapproved=613525&moderation-hash=f5c92c9c56ff81cd372fceb2700d56c2#comment-613525

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  2. Folklorists can say what they like; scholars have gone way beyond Bede’s reference.

    There are 150 inscriptions from the Roman period that attest to Germanic mother goddesses, the name of whom is ‘Austriahenae’. Notice the clear connection between the first part of this name and the name of the goddess Bede mentions.

    But that oft-mentioned piece of evidence is not even very important. There is a phenomenally large amount of linguistic evidence from a whole host of Indo-European languages and cultures that show that Eostre is simply the Germanic manifestation of the dawn goddess that we find all over Europe and beyond. For example, the first part of the name ‘Eostre’ is cognate with ‘Eos’, the Greek dawn goddess. The Roman goddess Aurora also comes from this same root.

    The latter part of the name appears to come from a root meaning ‘towards’, as in, ‘towards the dawn’ – that is, east. This idea is also seen in other languages. For example, there’s Ausrine (where the ‘t’ has disappeared), the female goddess of the morning star in Lithuanian mythology. The Kashubians in Poland worshipped the goddess Jastra or ‘Jaster’, also from these same two roots put together.

    A mythical being named ‘Austri’ appears in Scandinavian mythology, although it is a male figure rather than a female figure like Eostre. But the point is that he represents the east, as his name itself indicates.

    There are various other beings from mythology that derive from this same root, but we see it with dawn goddesses in particular. The idea that there is no evidence for Eostre beyond Bede’s one reference is a relic from decades ago. It is an inaccurate conclusion. Scholars have moved on. Eostre was real.

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    • You claim “There are 150 inscriptions from the Roman period that attest to Germanic mother goddesses, the name of whom is ‘Austriahenae’”. Can you list early writings and provide the proof please? This now gets away from the gNostic idea and point of Easter came from Eostre/Ostara.

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