Eostre is the name of a Tuetonic Goddess about whom we know very little. It is only noted in the writings of Venerable Bede that the Germanic name for the month of April, Eosturmōnaþ (Northumbrian), Ēastermōnaþ (West Saxon), Ôstarmânoth (Old High German), was named for a Goddess called Eostre or Ostara whose feast day was celebrated in the spring and further speculated by the writings of Jacob Grimm . There is little to no additional information about the Goddess, though there is quite a bit about the feast day called Eostre or more commonly Ostara. There are no stories about her and she doesn’t appear as part of the family of Gods in any Germanic pantheon.
The name Eostre comes from the proto-Indo-European root *h₂ewes- which gives rise to the proto-Germanic *Austrō both meaning “to shine”. This word is the source of the names of the Goddess of the Dawn in many cultures, see Eos, Aurora, Ushas. So, if we assume that Eostre was a Goddess worshiped in antiquity, we can also assume that she was a Goddess of the Dawn. Indeed Jacob Grimm’s speculation on this Goddess makes a similar assumption.
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.”
Bede was a Christian concerned in this particular writing with explaining the modern and ancient calendars for the benefits of Christians. It is not likely that he would have invented a Goddess for the entertainment of Christians. However, it is possible that he misunderstood something.
Later, in 1800s, Jacob Grimm writes:
We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (temp. Car. Mag.). The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG remains the name ôstarâ … it is mostly found in the plural, because two days … were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.
Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.2
Grimm makes no secret of the fact that he is wildly speculating here because of the lack of evidence. His speculations are, however, based on logic.
Conclusions and Speculations
While efforts to find ancient sources of information on the Goddess Eostre are met with frustration, we can speculate on the possibility and nature of Her veneration in the ancient world.
The dark half of the year in the Northern and Eastern parts of Europe is extremely dark. While Yule welcomes back the light, it isn’t until the Vernal Equinox that there is significant amounts of light to lift the pall that deep dark winter drops on us. And so the name Ostara-month or Eostre-month, from “to shine” makes perfect sense for the month that starts right after the spring equinox as does a festival to mark the occasion. But this does not address the issue of the Goddess Herself.
Most cultures had a Goddess of the Dawn, though she was not necessarily associated with the spring or the returning light of spring. That most cultures had a such a Goddess suggests that the Teutonic cultures might also and it is not such a great leap to take a Goddess of the Dawn and give her also the returning light of spring. That there is not much written about Her is not so surprising considering the culture. The Greek Eos was not one of The Twelve Olympians but a Goddess who hung about on the fringes (these are liminal Goddesses we are talking about, after all) and though Eos had stories, Aurora doesn’t seem to have any of her own that She didn’t inherit first from Eos. And let’s remember, the Greeks and Romans loved to write things down while the Celtic and Germanic tribes did not share this proclivity.
We must also remember that there were many Gods and Goddesses in the ancient world. Eostre could have been a tribal Goddess or a Goddess of a single well or a hill or simply this one festival. Throughout history humanity has done things first and ascribed spiritual significance to it later, this festival could be one of those things.
Worship of Eostre
It is entirely possible that Eostre did not exist at all in antiquity but this does not diminish the fact that She certainly exists today for many Neo-Pagans. Some Germanic Heathens honor Her as their Goddess of springtime and fertility while some Wiccans honor Her as the maiden aspect of the triple Goddess.
She is most often honored on or near the Vernal Equinox at the celebration of Ostara or Eostre with offerings of colored eggs and flowers.
Eostre and Easter
It is popular to point out the similarities between the name Eostre and the Christian celebration of Easter and speculate that Easter is named for a Pagan Goddess, and this remains possible. But let us look at the word Easter itself. It is clearly taken from the same prot-Indo-European root meaning “to shine” and this illustrates well the image Christians have of Christ as he ascends to heaven. The idea of a new day, a new beginning also fits perfectly with the point of the Easter festival just as it does with the idea of a dawn or springtime Goddess. Also, the name Easter may simply have been taken from the name of the month in which it occurs without regard to whether there was a Goddess attached to it. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a wonderful spring festival celebrating rebirth and renewal, shaking out the cobwebs of our souls and embracing the light that was promised to us at Yuletide and we can finally see tangible evidence of.
This all without regard to the fact that the Easter argument is only an issue in places where the holiday is actually called Easter (or some variant thereof). It’s called Paschal (or some variant thereof) in most languages.