Eostre and Easter: ‘Rebranding’ a Spring Goddess to Fit Christianity?

Have you ever wondered where the word ‘Easter’ comes from? Let me introduce you to the Germanic goddess of dawn and spring, Eostre, after whom Easter was possibly named. (Historians and folklorists are still debating this, largely due to the paucity of sources about her.) Like many other Anglo-Saxon deities, Eostre was a victim of the expansion of Christianity, as pagan gods were replaced with the monotheistic religion. Yet in the twentieth century, modern paganism rediscovered her, with one of the eight Wiccan festivals (or Sabbats) being celebrated in her honour. Eostre was reinvented to fit a New-Age kind of religion, linked to the spring equinox, with myths and traditions from different origins blending to create a syncretic goddess of rebirth. Let’s investigate.

Unfortunately, because the Anglo-Saxon culture was largely oral, this means there are few primary sources to work with to find out more about her.  A seventh-century Christian monk called Venerable Bede provides a clue. He lived in Northumbria (in modern-day England) and is considered the ‘father of English history’.

Venerable Bede writes of how Eostre was losing her place to the Christian holidays, themselves influenced by the Jewish tradition (Paschal comes from the Jewish Pesach or Passover). According to him, the month of April used to be called Eosturmonath (month of Eostre), since this is when the spring goddess would be worshipped:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month’ [Easter 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.
(Venerable Bede, The Reckoning of Time)

The problem is that, following this text, I can hardly find anything about the goddess for more than a thousand years. The next mention of her (Ostara) is in the nineteenth century, in Jacob Grimm’s 1835 Teutonic Mythology, in which he writes of an oral tradition of her worship. Like his brother Wilhelm, Jacob was fascinated by myths and folklore, which is why they compiled the popular Grimm’s fairy tales. Jacob Grimm linked the Germanic goddess Ostara to the Anglo-Saxon Eostre, as she also had the month of April named after her: Ostermonat, or month of Ostara. This is how he described her:

‘Eostre 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 by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.’

He added:

‘This Ostara, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eostre, must in 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.’
(Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology)

It would make sense to choose a date to symbolise Christ’s resurrection at a time when people were already celebrating the idea of rebirth. Yet it was important to separate the Christian Easter from the Jewish Passover, as established in the Easter controversy of the 325 CE Council of Nicaea. Moreover, symbols that we came to associate with spring and Easter, such as eggs and bunnies, which developed independently from the worship of Eostre, are all connected to fertility, rebirth, spring, and life. Our contemporary Easter is a mosaic of different traditions. The same can be said of the association between Eostre and dawn (probably from the old High German ‘dawn’, eostarum), and the idea of the cycle of life. The theme of rebirth fitted perfectly in all of this: Christ’s sacrifice is followed by his resurrection, just like nature comes back to life in spring following the wintertime.

Christianity is well-known for appropriating elements from other, earlier faiths, like many religions. Partly, this was a tactic for easing people into the new faith, as they could keep some practices or rituals. For instance, in 595 CE, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to modern-day England in the hope of converting people to Christianity, advising them to allow many festivals and rituals to remain, while adding Christian meanings to them. It is possible that the Christian Pascha was assimilated to Eostre’s festival in the hope of converting people away from their old religion and into Christianity. Because of the lack of primary sources, it is difficult to know. It is likely that Eostre was a localised goddess worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons in present-day England, who may have been connected to Ostara.

Frustrating as it might be for historians, we simply don’t have enough sources to know for sure. Yet I find it fascinating how, following Jacob Grimm, modern Wiccans have adopted Eostre and made her their own. Is that so different from early Christianity adopting elements of other religions to build their own faith? I don’t think so. In this syncretic narrative about Eostre, elements of her ancient cult remain: many of us still celebrate Easter every year, even if it is in connection to another religion. Or, really, no faith at all. Some of us just want to celebrate spring and nature coming back to life, a reminder of our own possibilities of recreating and reinventing ourselves. Others just want an excuse to decorate the house with cute bunnies and eat chocolate eggs. Who am I to judge? Indirectly, we keep the goddess Eostre alive, by creating our own traditions and myths. Plus, which deity would have objected to eating a few chocolates…?


Venerable Bede, De ratione temporum/The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999).

Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (The Project Gutenberg, 2011).

Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) (first ed. 1880).

Further Reading:

Kerri Connor, Ostara Rituals, Recipes, & Lore for the Spring Equinox (Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications: 2015)

Carole Cusack, ‘The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s)’, Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 9(1), 2007.

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‘Holy Anorexia’: The Fascinating Connection between Religious Women and Fasting


Discussion of bodily harm and eating disorders.

Social media might make it seem like fasting (and especially intermittent fasting) is something new. But fasting – voluntary or not – has arguably existed for as long as humans have. People have abstained from food throughout history for many different reasons, not least of which scarcity of nourishment (think of hunter-gatherers during a harsh winter). But the main reason for voluntarily fasting has been religion – just think of the Islamic Ramadan or the Christian Lent. An extreme version of religious fasting has been called ‘holy anorexia’ (anorexia mirabilis), and it was not a rare occurrence among medieval saintly women. The most famous example is perhaps St Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), who died from the rigorous practice. Her ecstatic visions were often centred around food and starvation as a way of embodying her love for Christ. She was known for eating nothing but the holy wafer (the eucharist), despite the pleas of her religious community, including her confessor. But where did this trend come from? And why was it much more prevalent among female saints?

The term ‘anorexia’ comes from the Greek an (lack of) and orexia (appetite), encompassing a range of practices with various meanings. For medieval Christians, abstaining from bodily pleasures to achieve a higher spirituality was considered a noble goal; many religious orders took poverty vows, and by the 12th century, celibacy had become a universal requirement for priests. Religious fasting could bring people closer to God, and conversely, gluttony was considered sinful. Moreover, in a period in which food was not as plentiful as it is today, indulging in the sensual pleasure of overeating was often frowned upon, whereas refusing to eat for religious reasons was praised. Fasting became increasingly revered from the 13th century on, with the beginning of this trend perhaps best illustrated by an episode in which Christ appeared to St Margaret of Cortona (d. 1297) in a vision, telling her that ‘Christians cannot be perfect unless they restrain their appetites from vices, for without abstinence from food and drink, the war of the flesh will never end’.

‘Holy anorexia’ was a social, religious, and psychological phenomenon, which reached its peak in the 15th century, when hundreds of saintly women were recorded as having survived on little or no food, according to some contemporary writers. Most cases were recorded in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of examples both before and after that period (you can check out a wonderful summary in pictures here); still, the 15th-century numbers the most cases of anorectic mystics. Because so many women in this period undertook extreme fasting, some historians have likened their anorexia mirabilis to the contemporary anorexia nervosa. But we should be careful with anachronisms: medieval people understood their bodies in a very different way than 21st-century people do. Yet many of these saints are still revered by Catholics today, as a symbol of piety and devotion.

For religious women, food was one of the few ways in which they could control the world around them; through renouncing ordinary food, they turned themselves to the divine nourishment of Christ. By embracing the suffering of the passion and letting go of their physicality, saintly women could paradoxically control their bodies. They could get closer to the divine, understand the pain of Christ, and elevate themselves above the people around them. Significantly, with excessive weight loss, many of these women stopped menstruating (amenorrhoea) and, while the primary goal of fasting was not reducing fertility, it was an unintended consequence. For religious, unmarried women, this may not have directly impacted their lives: they weren’t meant to become pregnant anyway. Still, in a period in which motherhood was almost synonymous with womanhood, this ‘un-sexing’ could arguably help them transcend the constraints of the human body and matter itself, illustrating medieval asceticism’s focus on the immortal soul.

It is not a coincidence that other religious women of the period, such as Joan of Arc, were known both for not menstruating and for arduous fasting (You can read more about blood and ‘un-sexing’ here.) Transcending the body (and especially the female body) through self-starvation was even more apparent in the case of St Liberata, also known as Wilgefortis (from virgo fortis, strong virgin). Her extreme fasting resulted in the development of facial hair (lanugo), and she has been adopted by some in the queer community as a transgender saint. Her father, the king of Portugal, wished her to marry, while Wilgefortis intended to devote her life to Christ. The story goes that, through fasting, she stopped menstruating and grew a beard, making her less attractive to potential suitors. Her father had her crucified. Not surprisingly, this 14th-century story became the basis for Wilgefortis’ popular devotion for more than two centuries, during the height of ‘holy anorexia’.

Still, the question remains: why was this more widespread among religious women? Fasting wasn’t exclusive to women, but there are far fewer male saints remembered for anorexia mirabilis. Cultures of piety varied across time and place, but female religiosity was perhaps best illustrated through the relationship to food. For religious men, on the other hand, it was giving up power, wealth, and sex that constituted the main path to the divine, through chastity and poverty. Women and men chose different symbols with which to express their devotion to Christ, depending on religious doctrine as well as expected societal gender roles. In patriarchal Catholicism, men were dominant: renouncing this dominance was best illustrated by letting go of power over others (exemplified by sex and wealth). For women, it was renouncing their roles as wives and mothers that indicated a shift from the worldly to the divine. To do so, these female mystics adhered to strict ascetic practices, which included self-flagellation and interrupted sleep as well as extreme fasting, to experience Jesus’ bodily suffering on the cross: while they renounced their own bodies and sexuality, they identified with the body (and the humanity) of Christ.

Throughout the centuries, many saintly and mystical women became known for religious fasting. Notable examples, besides the ones mentioned above, include Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231), Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), Margery Kempe (d. 1438), and Teresa of Avila (1582). They were exceptional people: their practices were not typical of most religious women, let alone ordinary women. These saints were praised as models for others because of their incredible discipline, sacrifice, piety, and devotion. When reading the accounts of their lives, we should be careful not to impose contemporary diagnoses or labels on people who lived in the past. We should also question the sources that recount their miraculous feats.

Yet, regardless of the specific details surrounding someone like Catherine of Siena’s fasting, these stories give us a glimpse into what late medieval people found inspiring and admirable. They also hint at women’s responses to life under the socio-political constraints of medieval Catholicism, in which control over their bodies had to be negotiated. These tales highlight a human longing for a connection with the divine, which ‘holy anorectics’ sought to achieve by renouncing from food, which ultimately also symbolised their nurturing and maternal roles in a patriarchal society. Finally, ‘holy anorexia’ and fasting were framed as virtuous and, the people who practised them, as examples of piety. With so many social media influencers today extolling the benefits of fasting, it might be helpful to look back and question our reasons for adhering to these practices, and how that shapes the way we understand our own bodies.


The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, Catherine of Siena: Dictated by Her, While in a State of Ecstasy, to Her Secretaries, and Completed in the Year of Our Lord 1370; Together with an Account of Her Death by an Eye-Witness (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1907).

Fra Giunta Bevegnati, The Life and Miracles of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297),(Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2012).

Further Reading:

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Ilse E. Friesen, The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages (Waterloo, CA: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

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‘Before she was in labour, she gave birth’

As Christmas approaches, we are bombarded with images of the birth of Jesus Christ – or rather, with depictions of mother and child after the delivery. Indeed, while there are modern reimaginings of what this scene might have looked like, there are few earlier representations of Mary’s labour. How might that scene have looked? How did people conceptualise Jesus’ birth in the past, and how was it different from other births?

For centuries, women had been taught that painful childbirth was the result of ‘the curse of Eve’. This divine curse defined pain as a God-given bodily experience to the one giving birth:

‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children’. (Genesis 3:16)

As daughters of Eve, women shared her punishment for the fall, which was childbirth pain. However, if painful births were the result of the loss of innocence, Mary’s birth could not have involved pain, since hers had been a virgin conception. Indeed, Mary was understood to have been blessed with a pain-free childbirth: no loss of virginity implied no blood, and no pain:

‘Before she was in labour, she gave birth; before her pain came upon her, she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?’ (Isaiah 66:7)

So, Mary ‘skipped’ the labour phase, as she was exempt from the curse of Eve:

‘for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate she brought forth Jesus the Son of God without experiencing any sense of pain’ (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part 1: The Creed, Article III).

How was it possible to just ‘skip’ labour, though? St Augustine discussed the physiological process of Jesus’ miraculous birth:

‘In conceiving thou wast all pure, in giving birth thou wast without pain. I answer that, the pains of childbirth are caused by the infant opening the passage from the womb. Now, it has been said above, that Christ came forth from the closed womb of His Mother, and, consequently, without opening the passage. So, there was no pain in that birth, as neither was there any corruption; on the contrary, there was much joy therein for that God-Man was born into the world’ (Summa Theologica Q28,A2, Replies to Objections, and Q35,A6).

So, maybe the reason why there were so few depictions of the Virgin giving birth was that it was difficult for people to conceptualise such a quick, unique birth, in which one goes from being pregnant to holding a baby almost instantly, as if by magic – or a miracle.

In any case, church scholars have spent centuries discussing the puzzling details of Jesus’ birth, and artists have focused on depicting the new family rather than the birth itself. Contemporary artists such as Natalie Lennard, however, render this scene closer to us, highlighting the physicality of giving birth. By representing Mary’s birth as a bodily experience, Lennard arguably renders the miraculous closer, by adding a physical dimension to what some of us see as sacred.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and happy holidays to those who do not! May we all enjoy a little bit of magic this season, and hope for a better year ahead.

(The Latin translations are mine.)


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