Very red ‘Eostre’ clouds at sunrise. Picture by Simon Eugster in 2005. Published under the he GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_sky_at_morning.
The name of this goddess was recorded for the first time by the English monk, historian and author Bede (Beda Venerabilis, the Venerable Bede, Saint Bede,) who in the 8th Century wrote his Latin work “De temporum ratione” (The Reckoning of Time). In chapter 15 of that work it reads among other things about this goddess:
“In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called.
They began the year on the 8th kalends of January (25 December), when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mother’s night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.
Whenever it was a common year, they gave three lunar months to each season. When an embolismic* year occurred (that is, one of 13 lunar months) they assigned the extra month to summer, so that three months together bore the name “Litha”; hence they called (the embolismic) year “Thrilithi”. It had four summer months, with the usual three for the other seasons. But originally, they divided the year as a whole into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence they called the month in which the winter season began “Winterfilleth”, a name made up from “winter” and “full moon”, because winter began on the full moon of that month.
Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the sun turns back (and begins) to increase, because one of (these months) precedes (this day) and the other follows.
Solmonath can be called “month of cakes”, which they offered to their gods in that month.
Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this 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. 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.
Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany, from whence the English nation came to Britain. Litha means “gentle” or “navigable”, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.
Weodmonath means “month of tares”, for they are very plentiful then. Halegmonath means “month of sacred rites”. Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name “winter-full”. Blodmonath is “month of immolations”, for their cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who has turned us away from these vanities and given us (grace) to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.
* Embolismic: points to a system of timekeeping that defines the beginning and length and divisions of the year.
For the the tough guys in ecclesiastical Latin here is the Latin text of this chapter, which is the only source for Ēostre:
De mensibus Anglorum
Antiqui autem Anglorum populi (neque enim mihi congruum videtur, aliarum gentium annalem observantiam dicere, et meae reticere) iuxta cursum lunae suos menses computavere; unde et a luna Hebraeorum et Graecorum more nomen accipiunt. Si quidem apud eos luna mona, mensis monath appellatur. Primusque eorum mensis, quidem Latini Januarium vocant, dicitur Giuli. Deinde Februarius Sol-monath, Martius Rhed-monath, Aprilis Eostur- monath, Maius Thrimylchi, Junius Lida, Julius similiter Lida, AugustusVueod-monath, September Haleg-monath, Oktober Vuinter-fylleth, November Blod-monath, December Giuli, eodem Januarius nomine, vocatur. Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctum, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, appellabant, ob causam, ut suspicamur. ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. Et quotiescunque communis esset annus, ternos menses lunares singulis anni temporibus dabant. Cum vero embolismus, hoc est, XIII mensium lunarium annus occurreret, superfluum mensem aestati apponebant, ita ut tunc tres menses simul Lida nomine vocarentur, et ob id annus ille Thrilidi cognominabatur, habens IV menses aestatis, ternos ut semper temporum caeterorum. Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hyemis, videlicet, et aestatis dispartiebant, sex illos menses quibus longiores noctibus dies sunt aestati tribuendo, sex reliquos hyemi. Unde et mensem quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant Vuinter-fylleth appellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio eiusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium. Nec ab re est si et caetera mensium eorum quid significent nomina interpretari curemus.
Menses Giuli a conversione solis in auctum diei, quia unus eorum praecedit, alius subsequitur, nomina accipiunt. Sol-monath dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant; Rhed-monath a deo illorum Rheda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur; Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretetur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant; consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes. Tri-milchi dicebatur, quod tribus vicibus in eo per diem pecora mulgebantur. Talis enim erat quondam ubertas Britanniae, vel Germaniae, de qua in Britanniam natio intravit Anglorum. Lida dicitur blandus, sive navigabilis, quod in utroque mense et blanda sit serenitas aurarum, et navigari soleant aequora. Vueod-monath mensis zizaniorum, quod ea tempestate maxime abundent. Halegh-monath mensis sacrorum. Vuinter-fylleth potest dici composito novo nomine hyemeplenilunium. Blot-monath mensis immolationum, quia in ea pecora quae occisuri erant diis suis voverent. Gratias tibi, bone Jesu, qui nos, ab his vanis avertens, tibi sacrificia laudis offere donasti.
The Latin form ‘EOSTRE’ which Bede used, is in Old English ‘Ēostre’ and ‘Ēastre’; the Old High German form Ostara (‘*Ôstara’) was proposed by Jacob Grimm in the 19th Century, probably derived from Germanic ‘*austa’, ‘*austra’: ‘eastwards, ‘east of’, ‘east’, and Old High German ‘ōstar’: ‘in the east’, ‘to the east’, ‘ōstara*’ ‘Easter’, ‘Easter festival’ and also the Old High German name for April: ‘ōstarmānōd*’. Therefore Grimm concluded a spring and fertility goddess called Eostre or Ostara. However, Grimm’s text below clearly shows, that he has no evidence for a heathen goddess Ostara on the European mainland, but he tried, by arguing rather speculative to get her there:
We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (775 – 840.). The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG. remains the name ôstarâ gen. -un •} it is mostly found in the plural, because two days (ôstartâgil, aostortagâ, Diut. 1, 266^) were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the AS. Eástre, must in the 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.” All the nations bordering on us have retained the Biblical ‘pascha’; even Ulphilas writes paska, not austro, though he must have known the word; the Norse tongue also has imported its pâskir, Svved. påsk, Dan. paaske. The OHG. adv. Ôstar expresses movement toward the rising sun, likewise the ON, austr, and probably an AS. eéstor and Goth. áustr. In Latin the identical auster has been pushed round to the noonday quarter, the South. In the Edda a male being, a spirit of light, bears the name of Austri, so a female one might have been called Austra ; the High German and Saxon tribes seem on the contrary to have formed only an Ostarâ, Eástre (fem.), not Ostaro, Eástra (masc).- And that may be the reason why the Norsemen said pâskir and not austrur : they had never worshipped a goddess Austra, or her cultus was already extinct.
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 to the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter, and according to a 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 tlie season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.
Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, volume 1, p. 291,292
The etymology of Eostre isn’t conclusively clear, three possibilities are proposed:
it is derived from Indo-European ‘*au̯es-‘, related to Proto-Germanic ‘*Austrō’, and to Germanic ‘*aus-‘, ‘*ausra-‘: all meaning ‘shine’, ‘brighten’.
it is related with Germanic ‘*austa’, ‘*austra’ and Old English ‘éaste’: ‘east’.
a relation is suggested with the Greek deity ‘Eos’, the Roman ‘Aurora’ and the Indian ‘Ushas’, all seen as ‘dawn goddesses’ connected to the red shining morning sky, a deity of the birth of the day.
Perhaps these three assumptions are connected to each other as the (red) morning sun appears in the east.
Long ago related names of places, waters and peoples were often an indication for a worship of a pagan deity. Based on that, one might conclude, that Eostre/Ostara was known only by the (Anglo)-Saxons and the Angles – from England we know names like Easterwine and Easterwulf. However, there are two indications that this deity perhaps was also known on the European mainland:
In the Frankish Empire April was called ‘ôstarmânôt’, likely related with Old English ‘eosturmonath’; however, we do not know whether that was based on a heathen past or directly developed from the Christian Easter.
On Germanic territory in Roman times of the first few centuries CE, over 150 votive stones were found dedicated to the Matronae Austriahenae. The possibility that Eostre/Ostara is a development from these divine Austriahena mothers should not be excluded but there are no clear indications for that.
Post-Renaissance sources mention ‘Ostra lore’ and several places with that name, located mainly in the center of Germany.