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Easter is Risen: Philip A. Shaw's "Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World"

Eosturmonath [April] [is] called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts [festa] were celebrated in that month.

This lone sentence from chapter 15 of Bede of Jarrow's De Temporum Ratione ("On the Reckoning of Time"), along with the fact that, from very early times, a Christian festival came to be called by her name, is literally all that we know about the Anglo-Saxon goddess Easter. Literally all.

Under the circumstances, scholars have tended in two directions. The Maximalists have viewed Easter as a pan-Germanic goddess, herself a reflex of a pan-Indo-European Dawn goddess whose sister-selves include Vedic Ushas, Greek Eos, and Latin Aurora.

The Minimalists—many of them clearly driven by pique that so Christian a festival should bear so blatantly pagan a name—deny that such a goddess ever existed at all, and seek alternate (and non-pagan) derivations for the name of the church's great spring festival.

In Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of Matrons, Philip A. Shaw, lecturer in English and Old English at Leicester University, in a work surprisingly readable for all its dense erudition, attempts to stake out a centrist ground midway between maximalist and minimalist positions. Of greatest interest to the contemporary pagan reader (to this contemporary pagan reader, at any rate) is his marshaling of new information to shed new light on the subject.

The book is brief (128 pages, including index) but compact, and requires close reading. That said, Shaw's writing is commendably accessible, and he has a great facility for explanation. I wish that I had had his chapter on "Linguistic Models and Methods," in which he explains the complex of sound-changes that created Old English, back when I was a grad student in the field.

The book's eponymous Germanic goddesses get three chapters: one for the Continental Matronae, one for Eostre, and one for Hreda, the goddess (if Bede is to be trusted) for whom the Anglo-Saxon month of March was named, and about whom it may honestly be said that we know even less than we do than about Easter. Easter, at least, had a festival named for her, and her name (if not her cultus) has lived on among English-speakers to our day. Not so Hreda.

The goddess Easter is herself the heart of the book and its argument. Shaw affirms her goddess-hood, but denies her pan-Germanic status and any association whatsoever with Dawn, whether diurnal or annual, or with the Dawn-goddesses of Indo-Europeandom at large.

It is this latter claim that I find most difficult to accept. Comparative philologists see a clear connection between Easter's name and the names of the other dawn goddesses of the Indo-European diaspora. Shaw dismisses this rather cavalierly by observing that we have no evidence that the Anglo-Saxon Easter was in any way associated with dawn. Since our entire body of evidence for the very existence of this goddess consists of a single sentence, one wonders just how decisive such absence of evidence can be.

Similarly, Shaw denies Easter's pan-Germanic presence on the basis that she is attested on the Continent in only one section of Germany in which English missionary activity is known to have taken place. He correctly notes that the German Eostre, *Ôstarâ, exists only in reconstruction (courtesy of the brothers Grimm); we have textual evidence only for a plural form, Ôstarun.

Shaw would read Easter instead as a strictly local goddess whose name (for some unspecified reason) became attached to the Christian Pasch and was spread by the agency of English clerics to southern Germany. The absence of any reason why English-speaking Christians should have named the greatest festival of their year for an obscure local genius loci is one of the outstanding weaknesses of his argument.

In what is nevertheless an impressive piece of scholarship, Shaw marshals actual new data to his discussion of the goddess' name by drawing on personal- and place-names. He derives both Eastry (there are two, one in Kent and one in Cambridgeshire), and Eastrington (in the East Riding of Yorkshire) from Easter, the former as her "district" () and the latter as the "enclosure" (tún) of the Eastrings, i.e. the "people of Easter." He draws here a parallel with the Continental cultuses of the Matronae, who were often associated with specific places or peoples. Shaw cites in particular the Matronae Austriahenae, mentioned in over 150 Romano-German votive inscriptions from near Morken-Harff, and dating to roughly 150-250 CE. Whatever the second element of their name (-henae) might mean, these are clearly the goddesses of an Eastern place or people.

Shaw buttresses his case with an examination of the use of the word "east" in the surviving corpus of Old English literature. Here, he claims, the word exists only as an adverb, not as a noun. If East was not thought of as a noun, the goddess cannot have been named for it; it can only refer to a place of easterly location or to a people dwelling in such a place. This particular evidence would read more compellingly if the same were found to be true of the other cardinal directions as well, but Shaw does not examine them. Perhaps this would be too much to expect from a work so laconic as this one.

So, if I am reading Shaw correctly, the goddess Easter among the English has no connection whatsoever with dawn, or with the dawn goddesses of (to name only some) Indic, Hellenic, Italic, Slavic, and Baltic traditions, all of which bear names etymologically connected to the Germanic name. Instead, English Easter arose independently as a strictly local goddess of an eastern place or a people that lived in such a place. In the absence of what one can only call ample documentation of the Dawn goddesses of the Indo-European world, this might be credible, but given that undeniable mythological datum, to deny any connection whatsoever seems to me to approach special pleading. Apparently Shaw would hold that all memory of this Dawn-goddess died out among Germanic-speakers. To ask, though, a reader to accept that a name with all the appearance of etymological consonance with the other Indo-European Dawns should then re-arise independently is surely to stretch readerly credulity well beyond the breaking point.

Shaw notes that the word Easter is commonly used in the plural in both Old English and Old High German; this he relates to the ecclesiastical calendar. Maybe so, but it is interesting to note that, as M. L. West observes in his magisterial Indo-European Poetry and Myth, both Vedic and Greek poets "speak indifferently of Dawn or of the Dawns as an indefinite series" (218). Sorry, Philip, but what's good for the witch is good for the warlock. That knife cuts both ways.

For all its insights, Pagan Goddesses demonstrates the danger in the academic world—or in the pagan world, for that matter—of intellectual isolationism. The act of stepping out of our own field, of engaging comparanda, has the potential to reveal larger patterns that just can't be seen from up close. In the long run, neither microscopic nor macroscopic views alone will serve us well. Ultimately we need both perspectives.

Whether or not one arrives with Shaw at his final destination, the journey beside him is, in my opinion, well worth the taking, if only for some memorable stops along the way. Particularly interesting is his discussion of personal names derived from Easter. Easterwine ("Easter-friend") was a 7th century abbot of Bede's own monastery at Jarrow. Middle English Estrild would seem to derive from Eostur-hild, "Easter-battle" (!). On the Continent, one finds the memorable Austrovald ("Easter-power") and Ostrulf ("Easter-wolf" [!]). Surely it is difficult indeed to imagine names like “Easter-battle” and “Easter-wolf” arising in a Christian context.

And then, of course, there are those not-to-be-forgotten Eastrings: the people of Easter.

Equinox people. Well, aren't we just?

 

Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of Matrons (2011). Bristol Classical Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.
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