Who is Ostara anyway?
The Truth About Her Name and Festival
©2004 Ingeborg S. Nordén
As Easter approaches, stories about the pagan origins of
some holiday customs--and even the English name of the holiday itself--circulate
widely. Some of these stories have a grain of truth in them; some are not
only false but impossible to believe, for anybody with a decent education in
history and linguistics.
The most common false story about pagan elements in Easter celebration claims that the holiday derives its English name from that of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. This is implausible for several reasons:
· No Babylonian texts or images have been found which associate Ishtar with common "pagan" symbols of Easter (such as rabbits, eggs and chicks).
· Almost all "pagan" Easter customs practiced in the English-speaking world (especially the egg-related ones) can be traced to Northern Europe; few parallel customs seem to be preserved in Middle Eastern countries, even among Christians living there. (I am aware of Orthodox churches using red-dyed eggs for Easter, but that seems to be the only similar tradition practiced in the Mediterranean area.)
· Finally, the name of Ishtar derives from a common Semitic word for "star". Although the "east/shining" etymology may appear to support a connection to this star-word at first, there is no evidence of contact between Germanic- and Semitic-speaking ethnic groups until many centuries after the Babylonian culture and religion had become extinct. (By the time Norsemen sailed to Arabia, or made Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem...neither they nor their neighbors in other Germanic countries would have met anyone who even remembered who Ishtar was, let alone anyone who worshiped her.)
Most sources which reject the "Ishtar" connection agree that the name "Easter" relates to a Germanic goddess of dawn, spring, and/or fertility; depending on the local language, her name has been recorded as either Eostre or Ostara. Even if her name has nothing to do with Ishtar's, could the goddess herself have been imported from further south and acquired local trappings along the way? Based on my knowledge of history and linguistics, I would have to answer no:
· The only Mediterranean pagan culture with which the Germanic peoples had contact is that of the early Roman Empire--whose people would already consider Ishtar ancient history, and whose deities rarely became part of Germanic religion. (The Romans may have compared Odin to Mercury and Tyr to Mars; but the only example of an actual import seems to be the influence of the Matronć cult on Germanic worship of the Idisi/Disir.)
· Ostara's name is apparently related to the word "east", and ultimately to an Indo-European root for "shining"--an obvious allusion to the rising sun. Honoring a goddess of new light when days have become noticeably longer makes good sense, in my opinion. So does associating this light with the life force, since reviving plant life and newborn animals are conspicuous in springtime.
· Most Indo-European cultures had dawn goddesses of their own, whose names and functions parallel those of Ostara: Eos in Greece, Aurora in Rome, and Ushas in India. If cultures more closely related to the Germanic ones already worshiped similar deities, the possibility that Ostara was already part of a local pantheon in Northern Europe is fairly strong: few people claim that because Tyr and Zeus have cognate names and similar functions, the Norsemen must have "borrowed" Tyr from Greece in the distant past.
Based on the evidence above, I would say that both the goddess Ostara and the festival bearing her name are legitimately Heathen and have nothing to do with Babylon whatsoever, despite what misguided Christians and eclectic pagans might claim. Christians might still be upset that a holiday marking the resurrection of their Savior has been contaminated by a foreign religion, but at least they ought to know which religion and culture are responsible.
Some of my readers might already know that I personally do not celebrate Ostara, under any name or at any time of year. If I have established that the holiday and the goddess are Germanic, then why would I leave them out of my religious practice? The answer is simple: both are Continental Germanic elements, apparently unknown in ancient Scandinavia. (The Scandinavian languages even borrowed their "Easter" name from a Latinized version of a Greek translation of the Hebrew name for Passover...foreign through and through.) And though some Heathens don't object to that cultural difference, Norse purists reject it. I know of modern Heathens who equate the goddess Ostara with a "pure" Scandinavian deity (usually Sol or Idunn, occasionally Freyja); still, no reliable Norse texts or surviving folk traditions provide any evidence for a goddess-centered fertility festival in pre-Christian Scandinavia.
Even the Heathen-seeming traditions now associated with Easter in Sweden (begging for treats in costume, dyeing eggs, decorating homes with bundles of budding twigs) apparently came from Germany, where the goddess and her festival were known in pre-Christian times; since Germany strongly influenced Sweden in the Middle Ages, people may have borrowed foreign holiday customs without being aware of their origins.
If Norsemen did not celebrate a fertility festival in early spring, did they practice any ritual at that time of year? Judging by some references in the sagas, the answer is yes: warriors and raiders made a "victory sacrifice" (sigrblót) to Odin for success during the sailing season ahead. In my opinion, this has elements in common with the plow-blessing festival in Anglo-Saxon England: people asked a deity related to their work to bless that work in the coming year. Modern Heathens who don't celebrate Ostara or the Charming of the Plow could follow a similar practice, tying the ritual to the beginning of their own work seasons and asking some relevant deity (not necessarily an agricultural one!) to grant them success. Personally, I'll ask Odin to bless my runes before the local farmers' market opens, and I start doing readings on the town square again...that is a "victory sacrifice" which follows the spirit of the lore, even if it is not 100% historically accurate.