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Thread: Ostara: Easter’s Pagan Origins in Europe

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    Ostara: Easter’s Pagan Origins in Europe

    Easter, like many of our Christianised calendar celebrations, is festival with distinctly Pagan origins – Ostara. From symbolism to representation, the central tenets of the spirngtime festival are adapted elements of European Paganism that Christian thinkers adopted.

    The very etymology of the word Easter is of Pagan origin. In Anglo-Saxon England, the Old English word for the month that corresponds to much of April in the Gregorian Calendar is Ēostremōnaþ. The stem word Ēostre was chosen by the Pagan English as it is the name of a prominent Goddess, which in Old High German translates to Ostara – the latter word has filtered into modern usage for Neopaganism, most probably because of its relatively simple amalgamation with modern English pronunciations. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, the Venerable Bede, himself a Christian Monk, refers to both the name of “Easter month” and describes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons’ celebration of the Goddess by that name. Other literary sources for the Goddess in the Anglo-Saxon and German world are scarce, but in his book Life of Charlemagne, the German Monk Einhard gives the old name for April as Ostaramonaþ.

    Whilst the Christian festival Easter falls on no specific date of the Gregorian Calendar, the Pagan festival Ostara is fixed to the Spring Equinox – 20th March. Deutsche Mythologie refers to the festival taking place over two days, but there is no evidence to suggest this was universal across the Germanic world. The most important date of this festival, in any case, is 20th March, on which day a feast is held – as with any good Pagan festival – with the usual ceremonies; ancestor veneration, prayer for a good harvest, the cessation of work and so on. As opposed to Winter Nights and Yuletide, it is not customary to lay places at the table for fallen comrades or departed loved ones.

    The primary cause for celebration on Ostara is the passing of winter and the rebirth of the sun. This is particularly important for the Pagan Germanic peoples were more acutely in touch with nature and the seasons, for their sustenance depended on it. The rebirth of the sun meant the ability to grow crops, to keep cattle and to work the thawing land. The coming of Spring is, of course, alone worthy of celebration, for the depression and general malaise of Winter was and remains an issue that our people are acutely aware of, living in a part of the world with often harsh Winters followed by a mild Spring. Thus, the rebirth of the sun is significant for the relief of Winter if nothing else, in modern times.

    The Goddess Ostara herself symbolises rebirth and the new dawn. Additionally, she symbolises fertility in the Old English tradition, which is what originally gave rise to the egg-related symbolism. It is quite remarkable, and it always amazes me in fact, that people are quick to enforce this almost dogmatic tradition of calling chocolate eggs “Easter Eggs”, as if to defend Christian heritage in some way, but they never ask what exactly an egg has to do with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This is an example of Christian festivals adopting Pagan symbolism to suit the sensibilities of Europeans, like Yule trees at Christmas and masks at Halloween. The egg is an overt symbol of fertility and, along with the hare, has strong association with the Goddess Ostara – the hare is a totem animal of the Easter Goddess, particularly in the Celtic tradition.

    These symbolic links to fertility and rebirth tie in nicely with the season, of course. Ostara is the giver of Spring, the Goddess who represents the lighter evenings, the brighter skies – the equinox – and the agricultural benefits that brought. Nowadays, in a world where we’re less dependent on the seasons to sustain us physically, it’s perhaps more appropriate that Ostara represents the psychological benefits that can be found in enjoying the longer, brighter days. And this is something our ancestors were acutely aware of, too. That was the reason they downed tools and feasted for twelve days over the Yuletide period, for example; to compensate for the malaise and depression brought on by the dark Winter nights.

    To summarise, it’s not necessarily fair to say that Easter is a Pagan festival, but it draws heavily on Ostara and the latter clearly provided the foundations for the former’s adaptation to fit a European sensibility. Europeans celebrate every Equinox, and have done arguably since the days the Proto-Indo-Europeans left the Pontic Steppe, and they continue to do so with their secular festivals in modern Europe, even if they aren’t consciously aware of the Pagan nature of their rites and rituals. However, a revival of Ostara and a celebration of the Spring Equinox is more than mere history, it’s a living reminder of the primordial state of our people, and should be nurtured, protected and advanced at every opportunity.

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    I've been looking, and there is a lot of argument about the origins of Easter. Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    "The English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin. One view, expounded by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, was that it derived from Eostre, or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. This view presumes—as does the view associating the origin of Christmas on December 25 with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice—that Christians appropriated pagan names and holidays for their highest festivals. Given the determination with which Christians combated all forms of paganism (the belief in multiple deities), this appears a rather dubious presumption. There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term. The Latin and Greek Pascha (“Passover”) provides the root for Pâques, the French word for Easter."

    "The exact origins of the Easter Bunny tradition are unknown, although some historians believe it arrived in America with German immigrants in the 1700s. Rabbits are, in many cultures, known as enthusiastic procreators, so the arrival of baby bunnies in springtime meadows became associated with birth and renewal."

    I think we should not place a lot of importance on what exactly people did in the past. Eggs and rabbits are appropiate nature symbols for the spring season, so we can carry on using them.

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    The Myth of the Myth of the Easter Bunny

    The Myth of the Myth of the Easter Bunny

    A modern-day hoax popularized by "New Age" circles and reposted by gullible bloggers and the Huffington Post every spring is that the "Easter bunny's" origins trace to an ancient Saxon goddess named Eostre. According to the most common version of the story, Eostre saw a wounded bird. Realizing that even if she healed it, it would never fly again, she turned it into a rabbit. But the rabbit still laid eggs. Colored eggs.

    That would be a very convenient explanation for the history of the Easter bunny. But it's not an ancient myth - it was invented about 1987* but didn't receive widespread popularity until it was published in a children's magazine in 2002.

    Since then, many "New Agers" have gone way beyond that silly story to fabricate an entire mythology around it and to blame Christians for the fact that they are just now "finding out" about it. (Supposedly we've been keeping the newly-created "ancient legends" hidden since - in one version - before the birth of Jesus.)

    The short version is that no such myth was ever associated with Eostre or any similar goddess before 1987. In other words, the myth is the myth. But within the last half-century, New-Agers have added back-stories to the fairy tale, and back-stories to the back-stories. Now they claim that it is the "real reason" Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

    At the other extreme, hyper-legalistic sects have taken the myth of the "bird-bunny myth" so seriously that they actually believe that "Easter eggs" and the "Easter bunny" were once connected to the worship of a pagan goddess and therefore evil in and of themselves.

    Since the original "myth" is a hoax, and all of the back-stories are also hoaxes, both groups are wrong from the start, but neither group is anxious to admit they've been "had."

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    Why are Hares and Bunnies Universal Icons of Spring?

    I make a point of saying "hare," because that's how the "Easter bunny" tradition started in Germany. (The movie Rise of the Guardians is correct in using a hare for the Easter bunny, by the way.) Hares are seen most often in the spring. It's their "rutting season," when the simultaneous hectic activities of gorging themselves to make up for their winter fast, mating, and nest-building all happen at once.

    The urgency of the season often causes them to break cover, and sometimes act a little strange. In fact, that's where the term "mad as a March hare" comes from.

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    By June, hares have all but disappeared. They've caught up on their meals, found a place to bed down, and learned where and when it is safe to forage away from human or carnivorous eyes. So if you see a hare or a bunch of hares grazing or traveling during daylight, it's probably early spring.

    Here in west-central Ohio, the cottontails do the same thing. It's not uncommon for Ohio mothers to hold their kids up to the window in March and early April and say, "Look, there's the Easter bunny."

    There is strong evidence that German Lutherans invented the notion that hares deliver Easter eggs, probably by the mid-1600s. The earliest written record is apparently from
    Geor Franck von Franckenau's Disputatione ordinariadisquirens de ovispaschalibus / von Oster-Eyern. Satyrae Medicae. XVIII (1682). Here's the only relevant bit of that I could find online:

    In Alsace and the neighboring regions those eggs are called rabbit-eggs because of a myth told to . . . children - that the Easter Rabbit lays the eggs and hides them in the grass of the gardens. So the children search for them even more eagerly, to the delight of the smiling adults.

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    It is likely that the "Osterhase" (Easter Hare) came to the New World with German immigrants in the 1700s. However, cottontail rabbits are much more common than hares in what is now the Northeastern U.S. So the German "Easter Hare" became the American "Easter Bunny."

    By the way, the Dutch call the Easter Hare "Paashaas," using the name "Pasch," which is the universal name for Easter outside of German- and English-speaking countries.

    In short, the Easter Bunny (and his European relations) may not be a terribly "religious" icon, but he was invented by Christians. Why Do Some Folks Claim that the "Easter Bunny" is Connected to Fictitious Ancient Deities?

    I say fictitious because the deities involved were more or less invented in 1835 by linguist and fairy-tale compiler Jacob Grimm. Grimm was trying to find out more about a purported ancient Saxon goddess "Eostre," who is mentioned only once, briefly, in ancient literature. The German name for Easter - Ostern - is definitely related to the Saxon name Eostre. So based on such linguistic similarities, Grimm decided that the Saxon goddess "Eostre," must have had a German equivalent, to whom he gave the name "Ostara." (My apologies for leaving out the accent markings on these names, but they make the names unreadable on some computers.)

    Grimm admitted freely that there is no trace of such a goddess in ancient German literature. But he went on to propose that all traditional European spring festivals, icons, and modes of celebration must have started with
    worship of these deities.

    If Grimm had never invented Ostara, he would have had a great deal of difficulty explaining how the Osterhase, invented in Germany around the seventeenth century, was really a relic of previously undocumented Eostre worship in seventh-century England. Not to mention that there is nothing in ancient literature of any European culture to connect rabbits or hares to any ancient European goddess. But that wasn't a problem for the old fairy-tale editor. Grimm simply claimed that Eostra - and by extension Ostara - "probably" had a hare for a companion.

    Other writers reported Grimm's inventions and guesses as fact, then added their own inventions and guesses. The result was that by 1890 any number of reference books contained detailed information about Eostre, Ostara, and how they connected to modern-day Easter celebrations. Never mind that Ostara and virtually everything we "know" about Eostre
    were invented in 1835 and never supported by facts or further discoveries. (If you need to know more about Grimm's invented and reinvented goddesses and the supposed ancient myths that others subsequently created, please refer to our article Eostre: Frequently Asked Questions.)

    Back to the Easter Hare/Bunny, no researcher has ever definitively linked hares or rabbits (or colored eggs) to any ancient European goddess. There is no connection. Period.

    German Lutherans? There is a connection. But don't tell the Neo-pagans - if they ever reviewed the evidence that the Osterhase originated among Christians they'd have to give him up, and the bird-bunny is too important to their seasonal outreach efforts.

    What about Easter Eggs?

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    Barring domesticated birds like chickens, most birds lay eggs only in the spring, so it's not surprising that, like the "March
    hare," eggs (and baby birds) are nearly universal symbols of spring. The earliest European appearances of springtime colored eggs are among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who used to color the eggs red, ostensibly to represent the blood of Christ, although now they use many colors (and excel in many kinds of decorations).

    Moreover, there is a historical link to a specific Christian tradition. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Christians (what we would now call "Roman or Orthodox Catholics") were forbidden to eat eggs during Lent - about a six-week period before Easter. The only way to preserve eggs even for a few days was to hard-boil them. So on Easter, when Lent was officially over, the last several days' hard-boiled eggs would come out for breakfast and lunch. Would it be surprising if the eggs were tinted unusual colors as part of the celebration?

    Coming from a family that used to pickle hard-boiled eggs in vinegar and beet juice, I can't help but wonder if the original notion of coloring "
    pasch eggs" was related to an attempt to preserve them. But that is only speculation.

    Other cultures had decorated eggs in the past, especially in places like the Middle East and China. But proving that Christians "stole" the idea for something as universal as decorating eggs from any particular European pagan practice would require establishing that said European pagan practice had ever existed. And there is no evidence, just a lot of wishful thinking.

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    Easter Eggs and Hyperlegalism

    Unfortunately, some hyperlegalistic preachers are always on the lookout for new things to preach against. In such subcultures, there is constant digging for something nobody else has preached against yet, so leaders can show their "leadership."

    At one church we attended, Halloween was evil, so you could decorate with pumpkins in November, but not in October (when they might be perceived as Halloween decorations). Owls were evil all year-round.

    Then certain families decided that Christmas trees were
    evil because ancient Celts used to decorate their homes with greenery in the winter. So those families got Christmas trees out of their households, then spent a season or two waiting for the rest of us to realize how much more spiritual that made them than the rest of the church. But nobody seemed to notice. Within a few years, many of the once-anathema trees gradually found their way back into most of those homes. Did the former tree-boycotters "fess up" to overreacting on that score, or apologize for the people they had tried to make feel bad? What do you think?

    Running low on cultural icons to rage against, some members came across the Eostre bird-bunny myth. Of course, that meant that "Easter eggs" were "of the devil."

    Since this particular fatwa hadn't been preached from our church's pulpit yet, it caught Shelia by surprise when she heard about it. Incredulously, she asked one of the young mothers who had given up Easter eggs if she was against eggs in general. "No, they're fine. Just not at Easter."

    Apparently for one week of the year eggs - especially hard-boiled eggs - were "of the devil," because we might be inadvertently worshiping ancient deities we've never even heard of who never had any connection to eggs, colored or otherwise. Does your head hurt yet?

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    By the way, the places where giving decorated eggs is taken most seriously are all in Eastern Europe, where folks have never even heard of Eostre or any of her hypothetical Teutonic or Germanic counterparts. So the reputed link between Eostre and decorated eggs never existed there at any level.

    By the way, if you're in a church, a denomination, or a "movement," where the list of apparently innocuous things that are "really of the devil" according to some arcane logic gets longer every year, get out now and find a church that believes we're saved by grace through faith, and that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are able to "convict of sin" without depending on the leaders' ever-growing and over-reaching list of "don'ts." Sooner or later, the
    hyperlegalists will start preaching against something you can't change (like having divorced or gay children) and they'll write you off anyway. So will your "friends" in the church, who will fall over each other in the rush to "shun" you first for fear that they'll be the next targets if the leadership detects any note of sympathy.

    Folks who've never been exposed to this dynamic will think I'm overstating it, but those of you trapped in ever-more-controlling groups know exactly what I'm talking about. Get out now. Yes I know it's scary. Staying where you are until your family becomes the next "object lesson" for someone ranting from the pulpit is worse. Don't ask me how I know.

    What About Plastic Eggs?

    We traded that church for another one didn't seem so legalistic on the surface. It turned out it was worse, but in different ways, so we didn't recognize it at first.

    One very silly "hiccup" occurred the year we were told we couldn't use plastic eggs to hide candy for the kids to hunt on Easter morning. Of
    course, the grass would be damp, so we had to completely rethink the kind of candy we bought for the kids to find. That year, the "Easter egg hunt" was okay as long as we didn't use anything shaped like eggs.

    The next year, someone else was in charge of that activity and plastic eggs were no longer "of the devil." (No, we don't go to that church
    anymore, either, but it took something far worse than the "plastic egg controversy" to drive us out. On the other hand, we've learned the hard way that little indicators like this one are often precursors of bigger problems on the horizon.)

    The Easter Bunny's Last Laugh

    This year (2014), our immediate family wasn't all going to be able to get together for Easter. In addition, the day before Easter - when we usually color eggs - was going to be taken up with other activities. So for the first time in maybe 30
    years, we weren't going to be coloring or hiding anything.
    But the Easter bunny had the last laugh on us. Several weeks before Easter, Shelia looked out the front window and saw a big cardboard box in the driveway. We live on a well-traveled road, so stuff - mostly trash - falling off trucks into our front yard isn't unheard of. I went out to investigate, and discovered it was full of brand new plastic Easter eggs, still sealed in the little plastic sleeves.

    I moved the box alongside the mailbox and left it out there overnight in case someone missed it and came back for it. But no one did. When it looked like it might rain, I put the box in the garage. The box was labeled "Easter Eggs 50 doz." And there was no reason to doubt the count.

    This year we gave plastic eggs to everyone we knew who could use them. After we had given out as many as we could, the rest went to our church, which will find plenty of use for them.

    But that wasn't all. Since we moved to our present home in 1987, our flower gardens have been watched over by a vintage cast-iron rabbit that the previous owner left behind. Long before we saw him, he had lost an ear. But he served his purpose just fine.

    A few weeks before Easter, Shelia noticed a ceramic rabbit based on the same mold sitting out with someone's trash up the street. What caused her to do a double-take was that it was also missing an ear. Admit it - if you'd had a matching rabbit at home, you would have stopped, too.

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    The ceramic rabbit won't hold up to icy weather, but as long as the weather is warm, our cast iron rabbit will have a uniquely appropriate friend.

    In lieu of having a family Easter egg hunt this year, we invited another couple from church to share Easter dinner with us. I'm sure someone will claim that Baal-worshippers used to have friends over on feast days, and therefore we were really worshipping Baal or something. But it seemed like a compassionate, Christian thing to do at the time. Sometimes
    is just company, sometimes a rabbit is just a rabbit, and sometimes an egg is just an egg. Celebrate your faith and the truths of the Bible, not other people's paranoia.

    Have a Blessed Easter - God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.

    Paul D. Race
    Family Christmas Online
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    I read Grimm's writing about this years ago and found no evidence that it supported Bede. It would not surprise me if Easter at one time did fall on the Spring equinox and was followed that way, but that is my speculation. It was most likely has pre-Cristian origins, but proving so would be very hard. There are several instances of this and one that comes to mind for is barn hex signs found on Eastern and Midwestern barns in America. They claim they have Christian origins, but there is evidence the symbols are much older and there is a thread here that proves this and video though if I remember the video is in German.

    There are not many Christian holidays and at least one of the biggest is directly borrowed from Pagan traditions and that is Christmas.

    About Hares ( bunnies ) and eggs being symbols of Spring in Pagan times its anybody's guess and we may never know for sure. There are however other Easter symbols that might be fun to investigate such as the Easter Lilly and German egg trees.

    Easter much like Christmas and Halloween are good excuses to spend time with friends and family does it really matter if they are Pagan or Christian, just be happy they have at least Germanic/European origins and have a good time. Now I have some important things to do while I digest the Easter day Ham feast and perhaps a few more shots of Schnapps
    Life is like a fire hydrant- sometimes you help people put out their fires, but most of the time you just get peed on by every dog in the neighborhood.

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