The earliest records of a New Year celebration are from Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. Then about the time of Father Abraham, the new year was heralded not in mid winter, but at the Spring equinox in mid-March. Following these already ancient customs, the first Roman calendar had ten months and also recognized March as the beginning of the year. This is why September, October, November and December have their names: from March they were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.
The second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius added January and February to the calender1 and in 153 BC we have the first record of January first being celebrated as New Years’ Day. The change was decreed for civil reasons (the consuls began their term at that time) but many people still recognized March as the start of the year.2
When Julius Caesar replaced the old lunar based calendar3 in 46 BC with a solar calendar,4 he also formally established the beginning of January as New Year’s Day. As the Empire fell and Europe transitioned to the new religion and rule of Christianity, the vestiges of pagan culture were purged. New Years’ Day at the beginning of January was officially eliminated at the Council of Tours5 in 597, and across Europe the start of a new year was celebrated variously at Christmas, Easter or most significantly March 25.
The date of March 25 not only connected with the most ancient celebrations of the new year at the Spring equinox, but in the Christian calendar March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation–the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. The date of March 25 was determined by the Jewish belief that great men were conceived on the same day of the year as their death. Jesus Christ died on March 25, (so the theory goes) which means he was conceived on March 25. Incidentally this is also the origin for the traditional date of Christmas–nine months from March 25.
Medieval Christians understood that the beginning of the life of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary’s womb was the beginning of God’s work among mankind, the restoration and redemption of the world and the beginning of a new creation. It was therefore theologically fitting that March 25 or Ladyday (in honor of the Virgin Mary) should be celebrated as New Years’ Day. And so it was for a thousand years.
Then in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII tinkered with Julius Caesar’s ancient calendar. Because of imprecise calculations, the date of Easter had been drifting and the pope decided it needed fixing. Part of the reform was to re-establish January first as New Years’ Day. Seeing this as papal presumption, the Eastern Orthodox rejected the reform.6 Seeing this as not only papal presumption, but paganism restored, the Protestants also rejected the new Gregorian calendar. The British did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. The Greeks held out until 1923. The monks of Mt Athos still hold on to the Julian calendar.7
What about the fall of Sauron—the nemesis in The Lord of the Rings? J.R.R.Tolkien was very sly in the way he wove Christian symbolism into his epic myth. He records the dates of the great events in the cycle of the ring, and we discover that it is on March 25 that the ring of power is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and so the destruction of Sauron heralds a new beginning for Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien gives a nod to the medieval Christian tradition that March 25 is the true New Years’ Day.
As you celebrate New Years’ Day remember that for one thousand years the welcoming of a new year was not just a calendar event, but a culturally religious event which linked the renewal of nature with the redemption of the world.
By tradition, Numa promulgated a calendar reform that adjusted the solar and lunar years, introducing the months of January and February (Livy’s History of Rome, 1:19).
The January Kalends came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.
In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, March 25 had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice. Medieval calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months running from January to December, despite their readers reckoning the transition from one year to the next on a different day.
Though all the monks on Mt. Athos follow the Old Calendar, there is a divide between those under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (new calendar) and those who adhere to other ecclesiastical jurisdictions not in communion with the churches that follow the new calendar.
NOTE: *Disclaimer* This article is in no way intended to proselytize for or against any religion, or to prove Ostara literally exists as a spiritual entity. This is an historical analysis of evidence that is often overlooked in the assessment of the historicity of the “cult” of Eostre/Ostara – i.e. was she worshiped historically by the Germanic people of Anglo-Saxon England and the Saxons on the continent. [It should also be noted that the Orthodox Church never used the word “Easter”–this is an Anglo-Saxon word. The Orthodox Church has always used Pascha or Πάσχα].
In recent years a new holiday “war” has been brewing in the blogisphere. Around Eastertime blog posts and news articles spring up arguing either for or against the historicity of the cult of the worship of the Germanic Goddess Ēostre.
Although Northern European indigenous religion was actively repressed by the Church, modern Easter celebrations are still very much intertwined with the old pagan holiday. Since the holiday traditions could not be stomped out, it appears that the best way to combat a resurgence of ancestral European religion is to deny it ever existed.
So, let us explore the evidence, and see just how much there actually is.
IS BEDE A RELIABLE SOURCE?
The Venerable Bede is the source most often used in arguments both for and against the existence of the cult of Ēostre. The main opposing argument states that Ēostre is a “made up” goddess invented by the Medieval Church historian, Bede.
What this argument neglects to consider is that Bede was a Christian monk who was bent on driving paganism out of Britain. He wrote his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in the 8th Century. This was a time when English Pagan customs still survived out on the outskirts and heaths.The term “heathen” refers to the country folk out on the heath practicing the “Old Ways”.
Eradication of the Old Religion was a main priority of the Church in this period. Why, then, would a Christian monk invent a pagan goddess to encourage pagan practice? His goal would be to downplay any Spring fertility goddesses and emphasize the resurrection of Christ.
BUT, WAIT. BEDE HAS BACKUP!
As it happens, another monk recorded a reference to Ostara which corroborates Bede’s claim. Einhard, in The Life of Charlemagne (written in the 9th Century), mentions that the month of April is known to the Saxons as Oster-monath (Ôstarmânot), backing up Bede’s mentioning of April as Ēastermōnaþ (Easter month).
The Anglo-Saxons in England were cousins to the German Saxons in continental Europe. They spoke a related language and practiced variations on the same religion. Ēostre to the English is the linguistic counterpart to Ostara of the continental Saxons. Both groups named the month that roughly corresponds with our April for the goddess whose festival was celebrated then.
THOSE MONKS WERE SNEAKY RASCALS
Scholars have suggested that the early Medieval Church in England actively studied Anglo-Saxon indigenous religion as a strategy to combat it.
Author and scholar Brian Bates explores this tactic in his best selling book, The Way of Wyrd. The author of this historical fiction novel conducted intense research as the framework he built his story around. Professor Bates is the leading scholar in Anglo-Saxon religion, and has taught courses on it at the University of Sussex. His research for the novel included extensive study of medieval manuscripts in the British Library.
The plot of his story revolves around an aspiring young monk in the Christian English kingdom of Mercia who is sent into Anglo-Saxon pagan territory on a stealth mission to learn the customs and religion of the pagans. The head of the monastery explicitly states that through learning the ways of the pagans, they can better combat the indigenous religion and replace it with the new one.
Granted, this is a work of fiction. But, as previously stated, it is a work of historical fiction written by a scholar and based on heavy research.
It is likely that Bede, like the monks in Bate’s story, was conducting his own research on the heathen people within his geographic vicinity. By understanding the elements of the Easter festival, the Church could incorporate some of the themes into the new Christian festival, thereby making the transition more palatable to the “natives.”
There are many factual examples to corroborate this proposed scenario. It is well known that during periods of conversion, pagan temples were destroyed while Christian ones were erected in their stead. Christian festivals were placed on the old pagan festival calendar, and elements of the original festivals were absorbed into the new ones.
We know that the Catholic Church’s “cult of the Saints” often allowed deities sacred to a locality be adopted as local saints or representations of the Virgin Mary.
There are many examples of this, but one that most people are familiar with is the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is still held in special esteem by Irish Catholics and Celtic Christians today as Saint Brigid.
CONGRUENCE WITH OTHER KNOWN EUROPEAN GODDESSES
Given that European pagans were so frequently portrayed with gross inaccuracy, it seems odd that a Christian monk would invent a gentle fertility goddess associated with things that elicit positive feelings, such as furry bunnies (more accurately, hares), flowers, fuzzy baby chicks, and eggs which symbolize new life, regeneration, and sustenance.
That Ēostre fits the mold of a gentle pagan springtime goddess perfectly, and is not morphed into some kind of monstrous beast is another testament to Bede’s reliability. Again, his bias would have him demonize pagan religion.
These things are associated with other known pagan goddesses. Brigid, again, serves as good example. She is another goddess who is associated with spring and patron of another pagan festival.
The Celtic holiday Imbolc was celebrated with the first signs of Spring. Symbols associated with Imbolc include newborn lambs, milk, other dairy products, and the flame. These things represent nurturing sustenance and new life, re-birth.
The Catholic holiday Candlemas was set in the religious calendar to replace Imbolc. The patron of Candlemas is Saint Brigid. (Are we seeing any parallels?)
An invented goddess, constructed by someone culturally separated from pagan culture, who has an intrinsic heavy bias, would likely fall outside of the paradigm of what we know of pagan spirituality. Ēostre does not. She is a perfect fit.
ETYMOLOGICAL CONNECTION TO OTHER SPRING/DAWN GODDESSES
Eostre and Ostara are etymological cousins of the Greek Eos, Roman Aurora, and Baltic Ausrine. If Bede were to invent a goddess, would he scratch his head and make sure his fake goddess lined up perfectly with similar goddesses of other Indo-European cultures?
Further, much work has been done to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European (PIE) pantheon. This is the language/culture group from which most of Europe descends. Aeusos or Ushas is the PIE goddess that the goddesses mentioned above descend from. The linguists show that Eostre and Ostara fit within the paradigm. Please see more about this in an excellent article that breaks it down on piereligion.org. This website also hosts a sub article on Eostre, which is worth reading.
So, we can see that:
A) Catholic (i.e. Orthodox) monks of this period, like Bede, were instructed to study local pagan customs.
B) Those local pagan customs were routinely absorbed into the new Christian holidays.
C) Pagans were usually portrayed negatively by Christian writers, so it makes little sense to invent a benevolent, nurturing pagan goddess.
D) The goal of the Church was to make pagans forget their religion – not revive it. So again, it makes little sense for a Christian monk to invent a new pagan goddess.
E) The goddess described by Bede fits within the established framework of other pagan goddesses in Europe at this time, giving strength to the idea that Bede described a deity with a very real local following rather than inventing one out of thin air.
MORE RECENT EVIDENCE
But let’s not stop there, for there is even more evidence! Jacob Grimm came along in the 19th Century, which saw a revival in local folk legends and mythology. Although the Grimm Brothers are famous for fairy tales, they also conducted important work in the burgeoning field of Folklore.
The brothers surveyed the local people all around Germany and in neighboring German speaking regions. Jacob Grimm analyzed his findings and wrote his masterpiece, Teutonic Mythology, an ambitious and comprehensive study of continental German mythology.
Through his study of oral history he discovered that the goddess Ostara was to be found in nearly all German speaking areas.
Very often folklore exists as the only surviving evidence from ages when there was no written record. The folklore recorded by Grimm demonstrated that people miles and miles apart retained shared cultural memories of the same goddess.
Grimm hypothesized that Ostara was a pan-Germanic goddess of fertility, the spring, and the dawn. If Bede invented her in England, then how did illiterate peasants in Germany know of her over one thousand years later? Either she was genuinely worshiped, or Bede had an excellent PR team!
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
It is important to note that all other Christianized countries in Europe refer to the Easter holiday with a variation of Pascha – which is related to the word Passover. Only languages where Ēostre/Ostara was honored have retained the word relating to her.
In German, Easter is called Ostern. However, the Norse version of Germanic paganism did not include Ostara in their pantheon. So what do they call the holiday in Scandinavia?
In Danish and Norwegian, it is called Påske – a variation of Pascha! This corroborates with the notion that the name of Easter is associated with the Old English Ēostre and Ostern with Ostara. **There is no other way to explain why English and German use Easter/Ostern while the Scandinavian languages use Pascha.**
NO EVIDENCE? YOU DECIDE.
We can see there is actually quite a bit of evidence to demonstrate that Ēostre/Ostara was, indeed, legitimately worshiped in both England and Germany.
People have been known to believe that certain other mythological figures literally walked the Earth with much less evidence. Whereas, nobody is debating whether Ēostre was or was not a real person – simply that there was a wide spread cult devoted to her veneration.
Yet, some people who believe so fervently in other modern mythologies, often with no evidence at all to back up their own beliefs, vehemently insist that Ēostre was invented by Bede.
Based on a review of the evidence, the only conclusion for such a heated rejection of fact is that the pagan Ēostre is still considered a threat to those who would appropriate her holy day.
Despite the efforts to erase her from history, she lives on not only in the symbols of Easter, but in the very word “Easter” itself.
Human nature often dictates that if you don’t like the truth, just deny it. Fortunately, historians, researchers, and scholars like Bede, Einhard, and Grimm have preserved and revived Easter’s origins.