Eostre- the Anglo-Saxon Dawn Goddess
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathen worldview, Heathen worship, Heathenry, Reconstruction
According to my reconstructed Anglo-Saxon Calendar, the fourth month, Ēosturmōnaþ, began last Tuesday (April 13, 2021). Bede tells us it was named after the goddess Ēostre. Like Hreðe, the only thing we know about Ēostre from attested sources is her name and the month she was worshipped in (roughly corresponding to the month of April), and again Bede is our source. He tells us in chapter fifteen of The Reckoning of Time:
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.The Reckoning of Time, the Venerable Bede, Chapter XV
Like Hreðe, her name provides the clue to figuring out who she is. Unlike Hreðe, however, her name ties her to related goddesses in neighbouring cultures. We can use these related goddesses to flesh out more details about her.
Let's begin with the pronunciation of Ēostre. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, it'd be written as /ɛːɔstrɛ/. The first e is pronounced like the ey in they, the o is pronounced as the o in not, and the last e is pronounced as the e in red. So it would be Ey-os-tre. It appears to be connected to the Old English words ēast, meaning the cardinal direction of east. The word east ultimately traces back to the Proto-Indo-European word *h²ews, which means dawn. Makes sense, considering at dawn the sun rises in the east.
The name Ēostre traces back to the Proto-Germanic *Austro(n), a reconstructed Proto-Germanic goddess, and can be further traced linguistically to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *H²éusos, the reconstructed goddess of the dawn whose name literally means the dawn. (For convenience, I will refer to this goddess as Heusos, with the 2 removed, which really only means anything to PIE linguistic scholars anyways). Other than Ēostre, many Indo-European goddesses are linguistically derived from Heusos, including (but certainly not limited to) the Hindu Ushás, the Lithuanian Aušrine, the Greek Eos, and the Roman Aurora. All of them are dawn goddesses, and the meaning of their names in their respective languages are connected to either the east or to the dawn.
I will be basing my reconstruction of Ēostre mainly on the reconstruction of Heusos, which was made by scholars who compared all the goddesses derived from her in the PIE cultures and found the commonalities that likely descended from Heusos. I will then try to flesh her out a little bit more by looking at the Roman Aurora, the pagan culture that the pre-Christian Germanic tribes had the most contact and thus the most likely to trade ideas about deities with. (The Anglo-Saxons would have also had extensive contact with the Celtic inhabitants of Britain at the time of their migration, but by this time the Britons would have been Christian for a couple hundred years.) We will also look at what the timing of her festival can tell us about her.
In the reconstructed mythology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, Heusos is the daughter of the sky father and earth mother. In the Anglo-Saxon mythology, Folde (also known as Eorþe) is the earth mother. Tīw (known to the Norse as Tyr) linguistically traces back to *Dyeus, the PIE sky father. Heusos was the sister of the sun goddess and moon god, who in Anglo-Saxon mythology is Sunne and Mona respectively. She wakes her sister every morning and rides ahead of her to clear the way for her daily trek across the sky, though sometimes she does it reluctantly. She rides ahead of Sunne until the sun is fully risen, then goes on her own way.
The Roman Aurora is an eternally youthful goddess, and has many lovers. Some of her lovers are Titans, some are gods, and some are humans. With so many lovers, she'd obviously be a goddess of passion.
The month of Ēosturmōnaþ, which roughly corresponds with April, begins in winter but ends in spring (remember, the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons divided their year into only these two seasons). It is during the full moon of Ēostre's month that summer begins. Going by the day-year analogy which sees winter as night and summer as day, this month would be the dawn of the year. Ēostre the light bringer would then also be the life bringer as life began to return to nature. In this way, Ēostre would also be a spring goddess, and a fertility goddess.
So, let's put together all the pieces of the puzzle that we've assembled and apply them to Ēostre. Much like the other Indo-European goddesses that she is cognate to, Ēostre should be understood as the daughter of Tīw and Folde, and the sister of Sunne and Mona. As a dawn goddess, she wakes her sister every morning and clears the way for Sunne to rise. Once Sunne has risen completely, Ēostre goes her own way.
Ēostre is also a passionate and ever-youthful goddess. She presides over the dawn of the year, bringing life back to the natural world after Hreðe has defeated winter. As a life bringer, she would also be appropriate to petition for matters regarding the beginning of life: in matters of conception, pregnancy, and birth.
So what about the feasts held in Ēostre's honor this month that Bede mentioned? We're not really sure of the dates or number of feasts that were held this month in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England. In modern times, Anglo-Saxon Heathens tend to celebrate the beginning of summer on the full moon of Ēosturmōnaþ, and celebrate Ēostre's role as life bringer, and bringing the summer in. The traditions that Anglo-Saxon Heathens observe on this day can be numerous and varied. But that is a blog post for another time.
I want to end this blog post with a prayer to Ēostre I have written. This short prayer is well suited for offering to her in her month:
Hail Ēostre, the light bringer!
Winter has been long, it has been dark.
But you have returned to us, bringing the light of summer.
I give you thanks for the light and the life that you are returning to the earth. With gratitude, I give you this gift of [mead/salt/eggs/etc] for the gifts you have brought to us.
May it be well received. A gift for a gift!