Eostre and Identity in Anglo-Saxon England

As you may have heard, tomorrow is Easter Sunday – the Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of their Messiah. What you may not have heard is that the common name of the festival, Easter, is derived from the name of a pre-Christian goddess referred to as Eostre by Bede in his De Temporum Ratione. Eostre’s month (OE, Eosturmonað) occurred around the time of April and we can infer from Bede that the full moon of her month marked the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon summer (the pre-Christian English only observed two seasons; summer and winter). Eostre was celebrated with feasting.

The English months recorded by Bede are vague, but vaguer still is his explanation of the workings of this lunar calendar. There have been many attempts to ‘reconstruct’ the calendar but without any historical records of the lunar dates cross-referenced with Julian dates, any such attempt is theoretical. My own theoretical reconstruction suggests that the full moon of Easter-month occurs tonight (16th March 22). I cannot say whether the pre-Christian feasting for Eostre would have coincided with this full moon, but I feel the likelihood is great, perhaps as a welcoming of the summer season which this year we are welcoming with a mini-heatwave after many weeks of fairly miserable weather, and even snow! As I type this I have just returned from a 40-mile cycling trip and have the sunburn to prove it! Eostre has certainly brought the summer with her, and it seems only right to feast in her name (the aroma of barbecue in the warm air suggests the neighbours have the same idea!)

You might wonder, quite reasonably, why a Christian festival would take the name of a pagan goddess, but the most-likely reason is that the Christian festival (which, by the Roman reckoning used in England by the time of Bede, occurs on the first Sunday following the first full moon* that follows the spring equinox**) fell so close to the Heathen celebration that the festivals became merged. This may have been reluctantly accepted, or even welcomed by the Christian missions, seeing the value in a hegemonic process of conversion whereby the English would have felt their tribal-religious identity was not under threat, and the Christians gradually reduced the pagan elements of the festival replacing them with a story of resurrection that may have echoed the themes of the original Easter mythology. I cannot speak as to the pre-Christian nature of eggs and hares that are (at least now) synonymous with the festival, but while their relationship to the spring season seem obvious, their relation to the story of Christ’s resurrection are less so!

* the full moon is/was not based on an actual observance, but an estimated date based on a repeating pattern of alternating intervals of 29 and 30 days.

** the date of the equinox is/was always taken to be March 21st regardless of the astronomical date of the equinox.

As an aside, when creating my theoretical reconstruction of Bede’s English calendar, I specified that one of the three criteria that must be met was that during the years of the conversion, the Christian Easter must fall ‘close’ to the full moon of Eosturmonað. I eventually was able to construct a model whereby the Christian Easter always fell within Eosturmonað from the years preceding the Augustinian mission up to many centuries thereafter. I may write more about my reconstruction one day.

In this short article I have so far covered practically all we know about Eostre and her pre-Christian festival, and even within these few paragraphs I have been reluctant to forego the use of speculation. For a goddess’ festival that we might assume must have been so widespread and important to lend its name to its Christian replacement, we must wonder at the total lack of additional evidence: Toponym evidence for Anglo-Saxon pagan deities is scarce in England, and while there are possible occurrences of ‘Easter’ in place-names, the common place-name element ‘East-’ and the prevalence of the Christian festival make any instances suspect; there is some suggestion that Eostre derives from the centuries-earlier Austriahenæ, a group of matronæ with over 150 dedicated votive inscriptions found in Morken-Harff, Germany, however, once more we must view this connection with suspicion due to the common element ‘East-’ which in the case of these matrons may simply have referred to a people found to the east with no connection to the later Eostre; finally there is Charlemagne who, some time after the age of Bede, attempted to render the months in Old High German, somewhat coinciding with Bede’s English months, including an Ostar-manod in place of April.

The Old High German Ostar-manod has been used by Grimm to hypothesise a German cognate to Eostre named *Ostara, a word which is now associated with the spring equinox festival of renewal in new-age eclectic paganisms such as Wicca. Grimm’s hypothesis, however, is suspect. Charlemagne, a man well-known for his devout Christianity, the ransacking of pagan places of worship, and for ordering the murder of some 4,000 Saxons who refused to convert, is unlikely to have intentionally evoked the memory of a pagan goddess in his rendering of the German months. It is my opinion that his reason for these Old High German translations of Bede’s English months (even if accurate) was the same as the Christian English reasoning behind retaining the name of their former pagan festival, Easter – that is, the preservation (or invention) of identity.

To the Christian in the age of conversion, paganism was the worship of devils. An abhorrence. However, there was (and still is) a difference between paganism and what we might call mythology. Where paganism is a religious belief, mythology is merely a series of stories – a trapping of a culture, just like language and art. In fact, ‘classical’ mythology was well-known and celebrated in Christian England; even Bede casually refers to a personified classical goddess, Natura. There is no suggestion of an underlying paganism in opposition to Christianity in these references and reverence.

The process of converting the English to Christianity ensured the existing religious beliefs of the people were eradicated, but without the foundation of pagan beliefs, other elements of English culture were somewhat neutered and suitable for repurposing. I don’t mean to suggest this was a wholly intentional process on the part of the missions, although I concede that certainly Pope Gregory’s suggestion to Augustine to convert Heathen places of worship to Christian places of worship in order to not unnecessarily disturb the customs of the people might suggest at least an awareness of the underlying concept. It is my hypothesis, however, that as many of the missionaries during the later years of the conversion period were English themselves, their close connection to the secular culture would have been to them inseparable from their Christian beliefs. Gods were remembered as the progenitors of various royal lineages; Christian inscriptions were carved in runic script on stone crosses adorned with patterns of interlaced vines hiding dragons and other mythical creatures; and while the devout may have asked What has Ingeld to do with Christ?, our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon mythology is owed almost exclusively to the English monks that, in part, preserved it.

It is easy to see how the Augustinian mission would have represented a threat to the diverse set of tribal identities found upon the island of Britain in the 6th and 7th centuries, however, the conversion was achieved through a hegemonic process that was specific and directed. English identity survived and although the various kingdoms may have gradually disappeared in favour of a unified England, to this day we find our identities fluctuate in scale depending on context. In an instant I may turn from a postcode gang-member shanking a chav from the next street for disrespecting my council-owned turf by walking down it to get to the local vape shop, to embracing said chav as we find common ground in our Derbyshirian hatred of Staffordshire, to once again shanking him as he eschews his identity as an Englishman to place priority on being a European! Was identity in Anglo-Saxon England any less complicated? From their tribalist perspective rocked by the notion of a unifying God to suddenly embrace the concept of nationalism and the global stage – the world of Christendom that the English quickly found themselves an influential arm of in Western Europe.

As desperately unfortunate as the loss of our paganisms is, the memory of Eostre is a powerful reminder of the cultural self-preservation that has ensured a reconstruction is possible. Bede had no reason to dedicate an entire chapter of De Temporum Ratione to a calendar that bore no importance to the work, except for the purpose of confirming his identity as a man culturally English. Charlemagne’s Ostar-manod and Grimm’s *Ostara echo this same desire, only of course of cultural Germans.

Today we value what little of our Anglo-Saxon heritage has survived, whether religiously, nationally, or merely through a mild curiosity, due to its importance to our identities. While some scholars once suggested that Bede’s Eostre was a fabrication – an attempt to explain away the common English name of the Christian festival – we can be of absolute certainty any such suggestion is nonsense, and likely a late reflection of the same attitude some Heathens must have felt when being chastised for their beliefs in favour of a life serving Jesus and the One God – Bede’s record of Eostre over a millennia prior was a threat to the identity of these Christian scholars who wished to perceive a perfect dichotomy between Pagan and Christian England: a fabrication.

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