Eostre as an Eastern Kentish Goddess?

Eastry in April

Eastry, Kent. April 2011. Credit: Nick Smith.

Last month was the Anglo-Saxon Hredmonath, Hreda’s month according to Bede’s De Temporum Ratione. Now, we are in Eosturmonath, Eostre’s month. River Devora has recently written about Hreda and Eostre at Polytheist.com, including about Hreda’s possible associations with the Gothic tribes.

If Hreda has potential etymological links to the Goths, what of Eostre? In Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Philip Shaw argues that she may have been a goddess closely linked to the Anglo-Saxons of Eastry, Kent.

Of Eosturmonath and Eostre, Bede writes:

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.

Eosturmonath, which now is translated Paschal month, had its name from a goddess of theirs called Eostre, and they celebrated festivals for her in that month, by whose name they now call Paschal season; calling the joys of the new festival by the customary name of the ancient observance.

Though Eostre’s name is related to the modern English word “east,” Shaw casts significant doubts on Jacob Grimm’s popular 1882 hypothesis of a pan-Germanic dawn goddess *Ostara/Eástre, citing “lack of evidence for uses of ‘east’ and its relatives and derivates as words for ‘dawn’ or ‘Spring’ in the Germanic languages” (61).

Instead, Shaw theorizes a close relationship between the goddess Eostre and the place-name Eastry in Kent. He focuses on the hypothetical Old English word *ēastor and the presence of the vowel /o/ in the second syllable, something shared by both Eostre’s name and the place-name Eastry, but not by place-names derived from the adjective ēastra (59-60).

Eastry

Early forms of “Eastry” demonstrating /o/ as the original vowel of the second syllable include Eastrgena (788 CE); Eastrege, Eostorege, Eosterege, Eosterge (811); Eastorege (805-832) and Eastræge (825-832). Eastry’s antiquity as a place-name is reinforced by the *gē element, meaning “district,” which became obsolete early on in Old English (67).

Eastry appears to have been the name of one of the four regions forming the original center of the Kentish kingdom. Sturry and Lyminge are also Eastern Kentish place-names with the *gē element, and early Anglo-Saxon burials have been found at all three sites. Eastry was a royal estate, and the site of an early Anglo-Saxon church, and it has been theorized that Eastry, Sturry and Lyminge were all early royal capitals of the kingdom of Kent.

Sturry and Lyminge have been linked to the terms Burhwaraweald and Limenwaraweald, place-names implying the group-names *Burhwara (“inhabitants of the burh [Canterbury]”) and *Limenwara (“inhabitants of the area of the river Lympne”). By analogy, Shaw suggests that the inhabitants of Eastry may have been known as the *Ēastorwara (“inhabitants of the eastern area”). Though there is no clear evidence of even such a group’s existence, Shaw theorizes based upon parallels with tribal Matronae epithets that Eostre may have been linked to this hypothetical sub-tribal grouping (67).

Bede’s Sources

Shaw notes that “Bede’s <eo> spelling of Eostre is likely to reflect his use of a written source from outside his own locality — but it does not allow us to pin down the origins of this source with any precision” (65). Nonetheless, there is evidence that Bede received sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica from Kent, making it possible that he had relied upon similar sources in the earlier De Temporum Ratione.

Eastry

There is some doubt raised for Bede’s use of Kentish source by the appearance of the month-name rugern in the laws of Wihtræd of Kent (690-725 CE), which is not found in Bede, but Shaw considers it “quite possible that rugern represents a western Kentish usage, whereas Eostre, if Bede received his month-list form Canterbury, would be an eastern Kentish form” (66). Eastry, of course, is also in eastern Kent, as shown by the map above.

Importance of Geographical/Social Relationship

Because of the prominence of Grimm’s theory that Eostre was a dawn goddess and Helm’s theory that she was Spring goddess as well as the popularity of “function models” of polytheism in general, Shaw advocates for wariness around function models and argues that in the case of Eostre, “the etymological connections of her name suggest that her worshipers saw her geographical and social relationship with them as more central than any functions she may have had” (71). Such an approach also downplays the need to find pan-Germanic parallels by focusing on the importance of local and tribal deities…which ironically was something shared by different Germanic-speaking groups (and many non-Germanic-speaking peoples as well).

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4 responses to “Eostre as an Eastern Kentish Goddess?

  • aediculaantinoi

    Very interesting! That book is on my list to acquire at some stage (hopefully sooner rather than later), but it may still be a bit before I do, as others are higher priority…but the more you and River discuss it, the more intrigued I’ve become!

  • lornasmithers

    I didn’t Eostre was connected with Eastry and could be a genius loci rather than a goddess of dawn and spring. Indeed, very interesting.

    • Heathen Chinese

      It is an interesting possibility, isn’t it? I think She might be more of a tribal goddess who migrated with the tribe, but if that tribe settles down somewhere and starts naming places with names that are similar to the goddess’s, then She certainly starts to develop a relationship with the Land itself…

      The “dawn goddess” theory is often stated as fact, but is academically is rather flimsy. There’s no question that Eostre’s month is in the spring, so I think it’s fair to call Her a “spring goddess,” but probably not because of a linguistically unattested explanation like “spring is the dawn of the year.” River Devora’s article is interesting because it doesn’t look at Eostre in isolation, but in relationship with Hreda.

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