Myth Monday: Eostre (Ancient European Springtime Mythology)
Myth Monday: Eostre (Ancient European Springtime Mythology)
(I would have started out April with this entry, but between the holidays and other problems, I didn’t have the time to finish my research. So here it is! And just so you know, I’m not Christian-bashing when I write about these things; I just find mythology, culture and religion fascinating and like to share it with anybody who’s interested.)
Long before Christianity was introduced to Western Europe, various Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Celtic and Nordic tribes celebrated the coming of spring by worshipping its patron goddess Eostre (also spelled Oster, Ostara, Auster, and Easter, though it may just be a title for another goddess such as the Norse goddess Freyja.) While she did introduce spring to the world Eostre was especially revered because she restored fertility to the land as well as to animals and people—the word “estrus” is derived from Eostre. Her festival was held during Eostremonap or Ostramonath (Eostre’s Month) which occurred in April, often on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which usually coincided with the beginning of lambing season, when the ewes gave birth (the waxing and full moons represented pregnancy.) Some places such as Ireland had a fixed date for the arrival of Eostre, and stubbornly hung on to that day for about fifty years after the Church instituted the Roman calendar with its shifting date.
No specific myths about Eostre exist (it was unlikely that they were ever written down), and what little we know about her was recorded by Saint Bede in The Reckoning of Time, written in the 8th century, and by that time her festival was pretty much extinct, long since absorbed by Christianity. If you read my blog on Groundhog’s Day, you’ll remember that the Church had a hard time getting the Celts (and many other European tribes) to accept Christianity, so they started to absorb bits and pieces of the local mythology to entice people into converting—and that’s exactly what they did with Eostre, turning it into Easter … although they purposely omitted anything about the fair-weather and baby-bringing goddess.
Still, they couldn’t stamp out everything that related to the pagan Eostre. They kept the tradition of the festival occurring on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, just as many European tribes practiced. A few areas that were still resistant to giving up their pagan ways would celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday (Sun-Day) and then celebrate Eostre’s arrival on Monday (Moon-Day.)
Some local traditions stated that Eostre’s favorite animal was the hare or rabbit, and that she kept one on the moon (with a little imagination you can still see it!), and that the rabbit left gifts for good children to find, typically in the form of colorful eggs to eat. The connection of hares or rabbits to Eostre is likely due to the explosion in the rabbit population that’s seen when the weather becomes warmer and mother rabbits bring their baby bunnies out of their den for the first time. Hares are also active at night, and in the light of a full moon can be seen racing around fields and meadows.
The role of eggs is due to the birds returning from their winter grounds to local land in the spring to build nests (that’s where we get the grass-lined Easter baskets) and raise their young. One theory is that the yolk of the egg represents the Sun which returns (or is resurrected) every spring, and this links back to the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis-Hathor (one of the goddesses from which Eostre is said to have evolved from) transforming into a bird and laying the golden Sun egg. More likely, since spring was new life arising from the dead winter, the living chick hatching from inside the lifeless egg represented rebirth and resurrection, and since Eostre was a life-giving goddess this only makes sense. Christians adopted the chick hatching from the egg as a metaphor for Jesus emerging from the tomb, which only strengthens the theory.
Now, how precisely eggs and rabbits came to be linked—or the egg-laying hare for that matter—I still haven’t quite figured out. I found a few essays from the early 1900s stating that the hare was once a bird that pulled Eostre’s chariot and that she changed it into a hare … but for all I know that was completely made up or misunderstood by the authors. One story I found told of how all the world’s animals wanted to give the Goddess a gift, but all the hare had was an egg. He decorated it and gave it to the Goddess, who was so delighted by the gift and moved that the hare had given her his only possession that she named him her favorite animal. I’m not sure the origin of this tale, but I like it!
Christian folktale says that the first creature that saw Jesus rise from the tomb was a rabbit, and the rays of light from Jesus's body turned the rabbit's fur white.
You most likely noticed that the color purple is associated with Easter, but I’ll let you in on an interesting fact … it’s the wrong shade of purple. Pretty, yes, but according to some scholars the true color purple that was associated with Eostre was more like a dark wine-red color, so red it was almost purple. This was the color that most resembled menstrual blood, and in Latin was known as purpureus, which meant “very, very holy.” Eostre would give the gift of menstruation to women and animals—without it, no life could be created. Eggs were often dyed this color (a practice that can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia to the goddesses Astarte and Ishtar, from whom Eostre probably evolved from), and given as gifts, symbolizing fertility, birth and life. Eastern Europeans frequently leave dark red-dyed eggs on the graves of loved ones as talismans for resurrection.
Hot cross buns are said to have their origin in Eostre’s worship as well. The sweet rounded bun was marked with a cross, which ostensibly would make it Christian, but was originally meant to represent the sun (the round shape) and the four seasons and/or four cardinal directions (the cross.) In many cultures the Sun is thought to die during the winter—that’s why it’s so damned dark and cold out—but is reborn again in the spring, perhaps in this case to Eostre. The buns, or their ancient equivalent, were eaten as part of the celebration for the return of spring. In medieval times, the hot cross buns were made with currants or raisins and spices and used to celebrate the end of Lent (the period of abstinence from enjoyable foods and/or activities to honor how Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert prior to his crucifixion.)
Finally, as a springtime goddess, Eostre is responsible for the blooming of flowers. The Easter lily was said to have been created when milk from Eostre’s breast spilled on the ground, a miracle the Church later attributed to the Virgin Mary. I only found it mentioned in one book, but I thought it was interesting enough to include here.