By The Lore Keeper
One of the most well known and controversial goddesses of the West Germanic’s is that of Ostara. Often equated to Eostre and Easter. Some argue she does not exist, that she is an invention in an effort to introduce pagan elements into a christian celebration. A mistake of the venerable Bede, an invention, a false hood with no roots, no stories, a hope, a dream, a wish, a mere ghost of an idea. This is not a new drum they are beating, the pagan elements are as blatant as they come yet the rally cry is performed over and over in an attempt to silence those who see the clear remnants of a fertility festival in Easter traditions. Though there is far more than a mere mention and a guess from Jacob Grimm to Ostara’s myth. Though the most well known part of Ostara’s myth is likely the one part I must agree with the critics on. She is not ‘The’ goddess of spring.
Eostre and Hretha
Before I continue I felt it pertinent to state that Eostre, Ostara, and Easter are not necessary all the same deities and if they are, they are distinct regional versions. Yet as they are oft considered the same, I shall make use of information from all three figures in regards to Easter. The first mention we have of the infamous Eostre is in the text “The Reckoning of Time” by Saint Bede in the 8th century:
“Solmonath can be called the ‘Month of Cakes’ which they offered to their gods in this month. Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal Month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month”.
-Saint Bede, The Reckoning of Time
This is a notable quote not only because it is the first and most notable reference to Eostre, but also because directly before Eostre’s Month, is the month of the goddess Hretha. The rest of the months despite having hints of possible god names such as Wode or Sol, are not tied directly to a deity. This causes the mention of these deities and by a christian saint no less, to be especially worthy of note. These two months must have been inextricably tied to these goddesses for him to even mention their names. It is also notable that these were lunar months and every few years the 12 months would be made into 13. So we are not dealing with the exact same time scale as we find in the Gregorian calendar. Though Hrethmonath and Eosturmonath are equated in the same text to March and April these would not be the same months we know today.
Hretha’s name is generally agreed upon to mean “Victory”, this has led many to see her as a war goddess and this is certainly possible, given that early summer, or what we now call spring, is when the war season would start. The preparation for upcoming battles and campaigns would happen around this time. This may be the reason for her being invoked and given offerings at this time. Especially given that both Eostre and Hretha are goddesses of the Saxons who were a noted warrior culture. Though another possibility also exists and this is where Hretha’s role as a likely spring goddess comes into play. A common ceremony in Europe is the triumph of summer over winter, the end of one half of the year and the beginning of the other. In Germany and in nearby Slavic and Germanic areas the bonfires around this time are used not only as the centerpiece for their festivals, but also for the burning of effigies. Specifically ones that reference a winter goddess. In Poland it is Marzanna. While in parts of Germany the figure has long since been hidden by Judas. A christian cover up that never caught on in regards to Marzanna. The German version likely covers up a figure such as Holle or Perchta. This probably represents the “victory” of summer over winter and is another possible source of Hretha’s name. Though with shifting times and lunar months it would be easy for the start of spring to potentially shift and end up in Eosturmonath right? Well this is where the second and most important point against Eostre as a spring goddess comes into play, the fact that spring was not a thing in Northern Europe.
What I mean by this is spring as a concept did not exist, not that spring as we know it was magically absent. Originally there was winter and not winter (summer). Spring and autumn were more concepts in the South of Europe. This is most blatant in the seasonal goddesses known as The Hours. Who in their original duo were Thallo and Corpo, also known as the Bringer of Blossoms and the Bringer of Food respectively. Effectively they were the spring and autumn maidens. This is even more notable when the story of Persephone is brought into play. Demeter does not remove sunlight just fertility when not with Persephone and the period of time when plants blossom and when you can harvest would be spring (Time of Blossoms) and autumn (Time of Harvest). Though both of these would be encapsulated at the edges of summer. The liminal time when winter is leaving and winter is returning. So Eostre is not a spring goddess because at the time of her worship, spring was not truly a thing at least in Northern Europe.
So what kind of goddess was Eostre if not a goddess of Spring? It seems pertinent at this moment to translate Eostre and Ostara’s names, their names mean “East”. At this point the conception of Eostre as a dawn goddess becomes the most common proposal. Her names similarity to Eos seems to seal the deal. Though I would argue she is not technically a goddess of dawn. As much as the idea is attractive, her being honored when she was and in the way she was seems more akin to a goddess whose primary function is fertility than anything to do with the act of the sun rising in the sky. Her fertility aspects are also far more attributed to animals than plants. With eggs, hares, and storks being her most prominent symbols. It is in this very fertility that we find what is perhaps the most notable reasoning for her celebration and her name.
The sun rises in the east this is true. However it is only truly in the east at the equinoxes themselves. Otherwise the sun would rise either in the northeast or the southeast at any other time. While this may seem like a minute detail and an irrelevant point, I would argue given the nature of the solar-lunar way of time keeping our ancestors had, as well as their use of standing stones to track the year via the sun. I highly doubt that such a difference in position would have gone unnoticed. There is something else that occurs around the equinoxes, animals mating to produce offspring. While spring is the most notable time for animals to conceive and even ancient humans used to time their pregnancies so as to have their children conceived in early summer (spring). Animals such as deer and those with longer gestation times prefer to conceive in fall so that their offspring is born in spring. Hence both time periods when new life begins happen when the sun is in the east, and both end up giving birth roughly around the time of Eostre’s celebration.
So in this way it is not spring or the dawn that Eostre represents, but new life. The sprouting plants, the cooing babe, the fawn, the cub, the egg snug under the robins breast. These are what Eostre brings, new life in a mothers arms or beneath an old oaks branches, not the season or the sun, but the babe smiling at both.
Ostara and the Moon
I must now turn from Eostre to the goddess Ostara, a goddess that is fairly parallel to Eostre and must be considered as well in regards to the make up of both goddesses and the holiday of Easter. Ostara and Eostre are often used interchangeably in the tales that have been written about or told about the goddess of Easter. Yet there are some issues with this and for that I must now discuss Ostara herself.
Ostara is actually mentioned many times in older texts, certainly more than Eostre is. In these writings Ostara is equated to the Roman goddess Luna and to Diana as well. She is mentioned as a sylvan goddess and explicitly stated to be “The Moon”. Already we see a distinct shift from Eostre. Ostara is considered a lunar goddess associated with the surrounding forests. While it does not discount Eostre equating to Ostara, it does begin to show a clear divergence between the two goddesses.
It is also important to note another feature that causes Ostara to differ from Eostre. She is a horned goddess. A tradition from the Harz mountain range in Germany speaks of Ostara having a horn or horns that represent the crescent moon. This is then substantiated with the figure depicted on the Osta-stone, this figure also holds a cornucopia and while the runic text around it is incomplete it does read:
“You dear Ostra from your face it shines….”
“The good Osta is coming near”
There is also a male figure on the Osta-stone, but his visage is far less easy to discern.
The cornucopia indicates fertility, while the idea of her face shining ties her into a celestial body. While it may indicate the sun, Ostara is far more likely to be shining as the moon, given what else is said of her. These horns are then seen in Saxon depictions of their moon goddess who is equated to Ostara. Though the horns are also depicted as animal ears similar to the shift that was made in the design of jester hats.
Ostara is further substantiated through the many sites that bear Ostara’s title. In the Ohlenberg castle near Haynholz there is a portal called “The Oster Portal” which borders “The Oster Forest” supposedly they both received these names due to the veneration of the sylvan goddess Ostara, and an idol stood within the castle in heathen times. In the Blakenburg region there is the Oster-Stone sometimes called the Osterkirche (Easter Church) where an idol and stone altar to Ostara is said to have once stood. In Hesse there once stood a group of “Oster-Stones” in the “Oster field” they have since been destroyed. Though remnants of what may have once been bonfires were found when they were “blown up” to use for building materials. Oral folklore around the stones say around Easter young boys from two neighboring villages use to race to see which group could reach the top of them first, throwing rocks at the other group to slow them down. This is sometimes considered to be another symbolic battle between summer and winter though much rougher than bonfires and effigies. Though the most important thing to derive from this is that these “Oster-Stones” are being used around the Easter holiday. So Ostara the moon goddess is Eostre then? Both are tied to Easter, both are Saxon goddesses, it just makes sense. Except they aren’t, they are however tied in another way and this is where it gets real interesting.
It is at this point I must bring up what is perhaps the most notable and interesting of the sacred sites tied to Eostre and Ostara, Externsteine. Externsteine is a sandstone rock formation in the Teutoburg Forest. It was used as a location for pagan rituals centuries before and after Christianization and found a resurgence during the Volkish movement in Germany. It consists of several pillars with carvings, windows, and stairs built into them. Externsteine has been altered through human action and there is evidence it may have been used as a means to judge the Summer Solstice. Perhaps even being a sort of German Stonehenge. So where does Ostara and Eostre fit into this? While the name Externsteine supposedly may mean Easter Stones. The real connection is due to historical writings referring to them as “Eostor Stones” and “Moon Stones”. There is one more important thing to bring up in regards to these stones. The scene that makes up the most well known carving on Externsteine.
This Externsteine relief depicts the descent from the cross of Jesus Christ. However like many images that have been made for the church through the centuries some pagan aspects seem to have been incorporated as well.
The Sun and the Moon are depicted in human form holding drapes above the main scene involving a cross, Jesus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, John The Evangelist, a bent symbol that would eventually come to be known as Irminsul in Saxon paganism, and above the cross is a depiction of God, or a god, holding a small person and a flag. There are also two figures that are caught in a serpent beneath the scene they appear to be male and female respectively. While some claim this to be Adam and Eve I have another theory one that ties into the story of Sleeping Beauty.
Rosamund, Talia, and Eostar
Most are aware of the Brother’s Grimm version of “Sleeping Beauty” also called “Brier-Rose”, this version is far lighter in tone than its older incarnations, yet it still possesses much of the symbolism that has caused many to see Eostre in the titular heroine. The tale begins with her birth and her parents exuberant joy at their beautiful daughter whom they named Rosamund. Her father the King holds a feast to celebrate his newborn daughter. He invites people from across the land and most importantly the wise-women in his kingdom. As the King had only twelve golden plates with which to honor them he invited all but one of the thirteen wise-women in his kingdom to his feast. When eleven of them had given Rosamund gifts the thirteenth stormed in and cursed her to die on her fifteenth birthday by touching a spindle, then silently left the way she came. It was only then that the twelfth and final wise-woman was able to give Rosamund her gift, she was unable to undo the curse but she was able to lessen it to a magical sleep of a hundred years. Everything proceeds as was fated, the spindles were all banned but of course, Rosamund, our Sleeping Beauty finds one, pricks her finger, and magical sleep covers the castle as does an overgrowth of thorns that tear apart anyone who tries to save her before the hundred years had passed. When at last the years had elapsed, a young prince enters the castle. Magically the once deadly thorns all transform into beautiful flowers and the prince finds Rosamund in the castle frozen in time. He then gives her true loves kiss and she wakes. Afterwards they are married and live happily ever after.
This is the story we all know, while there are parts of it here and there that point to the summer symbolism found in both Eostre and Rosamund. It is lacking somewhat. Of course the symbols of a summer maiden are present. Such as when she awakens the barren thorns transform into beautiful flowers. Or even the twelve wise-woman and the uninvited thirteenth could point to the old style of months with the thirteenth being the one leap month that is added every few years, enraged at not being invited she curses the child before the summer season can conclude with the final month ending the old year. As the new year begins with the coming of winter, and the extra month is added in the summer. Even her name Rosamund means “pure rose” or “rose of the world” a possible nod to fertility or summer attributes. However, it is in the older forms of this tale that we find a story that really begins to connect the dots. An Italian folktale called “Sun, Moon, and Talia”.
This version differs greatly from the one that has risen to worldwide prominence via the Brother’s Grimm. The first difference is there is no feast nor any wise-women. Instead the King who is Talia’s father calls together seers and wise-men to foretell the fortune of Talia. They tell the king that she was to have a disastrous fate brought about by a piece of flax stalk. The King then banned flax or anything like it from his home. Hoping to avoid the fate that the seers had seen for his daughter. However, as these tales often go when Talia was grown she saw an old woman spinning flax. She was fascinated by it as she had never seen a spindle or distaff before.
She asked the woman to come upstairs and then taking the distaff Talia began to draw out the thread before a piece of flax stalk got under her fingernail and she fell down dead. The old woman then ran down the stairs as fast as she could. When her father heard of this he wept bitterly placed her on a velvet seat in his palace, fastened the doors and left his palace forever in order to remove any remembrance of what happened from his mind.
Sometime later a king would be out on a chase when his falcon would escape from him and find its way into the palace. The King at first knocked and eventually had his servants bring him a ladder and entered the castle through the window. He was surprised to find no other living person in the whole palace until he came to Talia. Who was asleep and appeared to be enchanted. He tried to wake her but failed, he then found himself overcome with heat in his loins and moving her from her velvet seat to a bed made love to her and then returned to his kingdom where he forgot what had transpired.
After nine months Talia gave birth to two children a boy and a girl. Kindly fairies attended the birth and cared for the children, placing the infants to their mothers breast. When one of them could not find the nipple they began to suck at her finger and in doing so removed the splinter.
Talia woke up and while unaware of where the two children had come from embraced them, loved them, and nursed them, they became dearer to her then her own life. She named them Sun and Moon and to Talia it seemed as if they were alone in the palace. Though unseen hands attended her and brought her food and drink.
The King that had sired her children eventually remembered Talia and stated he wished to go hunting. He returned to the palace and finding Talia not only awake, but with two beautiful children, he became overjoyed and explained who he was and what had happened. The two became fast friends and he spent several days with her, their bond growing closer and closer. Finally he left and promised to bring her to his kingdom when he returned.
While he was in his kingdom he had their names upon his mouth. Speaking of Talia, Sun, and Moon. Even when he slept he muttered their names. Now the king already had a wife and she had grown suspicious while he’d been away and her suspicions had only grown since he had returned and spoken odd names all hours of the day. She sent for the King’s secretary and promising reward if he helped and punishment if he didn’t, she coaxed the tale of the twins and Talia from the Secretary. She then sent the secretary to Talia, telling him to lie and say the king had sent for them.
Talia was overjoyed and sent them with. The Queen took the children to the cook and demanded he kill them and serve them to the King. The cook could not do it, when the Queen had left he hid Sun and Moon with his wife and slew two lambs who he served instead. The Queen was incredibly pleased when the lambs were served and the King began to heartily consume the food. He enjoyed the food so much he exclaimed that by the souls of his ancestors the food was good. Each time he praised the food the queen mocked him saying “eat, eat you are eating of your own”. After she repeated this several times the king flew into a rage and declared he knew he was eating of his own because she had brought nothing with her into this house. He then left for his villa to calm down.
The Queen however was not mollified and sent for Talia with plans to burn her alive. When she arrived she addressed her as “Madam Busybody” and “Cruel Bitch” among other less savory titles. She revealed she planned to throw her into the fire and Talia begged for her life, then trying to stall asked if she might at least remove her gown. The Queen had no pity for Talia, but she did want her gown which was embroidered with gold and pearls. So she allowed it until Talia was all but nude before the Queen. At this moment Talia uttered a terrible scream as they began to drag her to the pyre to burn her. The King heard her and arrived, demanding to know what was going on and asking for his children. The Queen revealed that she had served him his children and he had in fact enjoyed them. The King began to wail and weep, asking how his own blood did not cry out to him in anguish at his actions. For her treachery he ordered the Queen cast into the fire and the secretary too. He was about to send the cook to burn as well before the cook threw himself at the kings feet and told him how he may deserve to die for not telling him what had been done, but that his children were alive. He had his wife bring the children to the King, who was overjoyed that his children were alive. He showered them and Talia with kisses. He rewarded the cook by making him his chamberlain and took Talia to wife. Together they were said to have had many happy years together.
This tale has a lot more to dissect than the Grimm’s version. To start with, the story is not resolved after the “Sleeping Beauty” awakes. In fact that is but the beginning of the second half of the tale. The first big difference is the removal of any fanfare at her birth and the complete absence of any curse or wise-women. Instead it is merely her fate to have the flax put her to sleep. In many ways she is a slave to her fate, no curse to fight against or avoid just a destiny down the line. Her father in this instance only bans the flax from his house, and it is the plant itself not a thorn or spindle that pierces her finger. There is no true loves kiss only a pregnancy beyond her control, it does not end when she awakes she must still compete against his current wife who wishes to throw her to the fire and banish the twins Sun and Moon. She is stripped of her beautiful clothing and laid bare to be burned alive, but the king arrives just in time to save her and punish the wrongdoers. That is only some of the many differences within the tale. Yet far more than the Grimm’s version this tale may hold the key to Eostar.
Before we discuss “Sun, Moon, and Talia” though we must first discuss the origins of this tale. This older version of “Sleeping Beauty” hails from Italy, which may seem like an odd direction to go but the Germanic tribes have had considerable interaction with the Italian peninsula from warring with Rome, to being the same country in the Holy Roman Empire, to the fact they are right next to each other, or even the Lombard tribes whose descendants still occupy parts of Italy. It is not out of the realm of possibility that such a tale went south. The version the Grimm’s collected may be a version descended of this Italian version or perhaps they diverged long ago. Regardless, Talia and Rosamund are two heroines whose origins tie into the goddess of Easter and help us potentially understand her, especially once everything else up until now has been taken into account.
By which I mean that far more than the popular Grimm tale Talia’s tale is able to give context to what we’ve discussed. The burning of winter, the carving on Externsteine, the “Moon stones”, the male figure on the Osta-Stone, and much more. Here we can finally begin to reveal the tale of the goddesses of Easter. Yes you read that right “Goddesses”.
The Hidden Easter Gods
In the tale of Talia we begin just as in Sleeping beauty with weavers of fate, while the gifts are absent in this version the eventual destiny that will befall Talia is certainly present. This is followed by a preventative measure that just like in Sleeping Beauty ends up failing. Though unlike in Sleeping Beauty there is no malice intended here just a doom that had long been foretold. The flax that stabs into Talia’s finger is being spun by a traveling old women, while my gut may say this has the potential of a goddess like Holle or even perhaps a member of the Norns, it could just as easily be an old woman functioning as a plot device. The sheer lack of intent is also important here, in Sleeping Beauty there is a curse on Rosamund, for Talia there is only fate. It is also key here to mention that the spinning of flax often occurs in fall and is intended to be largely complete by Yuletide. In this sense the flax could be a sign that summer is over, crops are in and the spinning begins. Then the land must rest, as Talia does.
Just as the land rests in Yuletide there is another German legend that occurs around this time as the seasons change the Wild Hunt rides, bringing with it the winds of winter, but also the fertility of the next summer. This is where the King, the Hunter comes in. Riding through the land he finds himself before a beautiful lady and gives fertility that will bear fruit in the future.
The story presents this in a rather horrific way, there is no getting around it. The King raped Talia. This is generally unforgivable in European societies, so I have to assume one of two things happened to render the story this way. Either it was altered with hostile intentions. Or much more likely in hiding the pagan elements but continuing the story the context that was needed was lost. Either way the end result is the same, but symbolically here we find the gift of Fertility from the Wild Hunt. In the king perhaps we find a well known Wild Huntsman whether that figure is Ewicher Yeeger, Wode, Wotan, Rubezahl, Berchtold, or any number of Wild Huntsman is up for debate and given the current state of the story relies mostly on opinion.
Though there are more pieces that can play into the potential for who this figure might be I shall move forward with Talia’s story for now. The King leaves as his hunt is over and returns to his kingdom. Meanwhile Talia has become pregnant with twins, the aforementioned Sun and Moon, she is also attended to and cared for by “kindly faeries” at the birth of her children. This is a likely reference to the goddesses that attend and give gifts at childbirth the Norns and the Fates. Here they also tend the young Sun and Moon being sure to give them their mothers breast. For awhile Sun and Moon are awake while Talia sleeps. Until the Flax stalk is sucked out by one of the children and Talia awakes and embraces her children full of love in her heart for them. If you recall Ostara’s association with the Moon perhaps now is the time to bring up the Osta-Stone once more. Upon the Osta stone is not only a female figure with horns like that of a crescent moon but also a male figure. Just as Ostara here is likely the daughter who we shall ascribe the name “Moon” the twin brother is likely the male figure on the Osta-Stone and while we cannot know his name for sure it seems entirely possible that here is the figure whose name is tied to many monuments and landmarks. The Ostar to the Ostar Stone. It is not unheard of for a god and goddess duo to share all but one letter in their name such as Frikko and Frikka or Frey and Freya. Just as Ostara was tied into the Moon idol of the Saxon’s the Sun figure also diverged from the popular concept of the German goddess Sunna and was depicted as male. So perhaps this “Sun” is the brother of Ostara “Moon”. So that would make Talia & Rosamund Eostre right? And she would be the mother of these Osta twins? Well…. yes and no. Here is where the aforementioned Easter or Eostar comes into play.
As I have shown there are some serious faults with the story of Ostara and Eostre being the same goddess, I see no reason to not give Easter the same courtesy as we discuss her. Aside from her name being given to the holiday there is a “Field Blessing” that mentions Eostar by name.
let this field
let there grow blooms
Peace to it!
May its ground be safe,
and may it be protected,
like the saints,
who are in heaven.
Here aside from the obvious conflation of Christian figures with Pagan gods that was so prevalent in Europe through all of Christianity’s history, we see a direct attribute ascribed to Eostar. That of Mother Earth. Perhaps the similarities to the Old English Aecerbot Ritual that mentions Erce as their Mother Earth has been noticed. The above field blessing comes from a monastery in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia. While the Aecerbot ritual stems from Old English. The Anglo-Saxon’s likely blended traditions from the Jutes, Britons, and Angles and as a result likely have some shifting in how their pantheon was seen. With Erce perhaps winning out overtime, maybe even with something as simple as one group having a better crop for a time, in a sort of agricultural form of the old Tiu’s tribe vs Wotan’s tribe that may have led to one superseding the other in the eyes of their fellow German tribes. Whatever the case this lays the groundwork for Eostar as a “Mother Earth” for the Saxons. Who gave birth to the Sun and the Moon. Or at the very least their respective deities.
The concept of the Sun and Moon being under the Earth at some point is not unheard of in European mythology. Goldmary and Pitchmary from the tale “Mother Holle” are often thought to be thinly veiled Sun and Moon goddesses. Possibly Sunna and Sinthgunt or perhaps the Wendish deities Yr and Om. They travel through a well to below the earth to dwell in the underworld that is Holle’s realm. This theme of the two sisters also appears in the story of “Snow White and Rose Red” where the two sisters symbolize Winter and Summer in their actions but are joined together in a sisterly bond both tending to and being beloved by a Bear. There are other examples of this but suffice to say that the idea of the celestial bodies of the Sun and the Moon being in another place for a time before being freed or affecting the seasons is not exclusive to Talia’s tale. Both the mother in “Snow White and Rose Red” and the Goddess Holle function much like a Mother Earth figure themselves. Though neither is Eostar they do fulfill similar roles in their tales.
It is important that I mention there is a bit of the bear in Talia’s tale. As the story calls to mind a theme that appears time and again in European fairy tales and mythology. The Wild Man and Bear cult processions across the continent where a stand in for a fertility goddess or “Mother Earth” figure is often married to the Bear. Who would enter into her domain in the cave and in many cases miraculously emerge with children born able to walk on their own and learn from their mother.
While the cubs are born while their mother is asleep the Mother sees nothing wrong with this. Much like the slumbering Talia births two children while she is sleeping and has no issues with this, embracing them as if nothing odd had happened. This theme of the bear will come up again as we continue to dissect these stories but for now returning to the Sun and Moon deities.
It is here we must now glance at the carving on Externsteine. At the top corners we find the Sun and Moon personified either as both females or as beardless youths or one of each. This latter option is what I believe may be the case. It is here the remnants of a mythological scene exist. One I will touch on later in this dissection. But one more important piece of Externsteine is important to bring attention to. That the ancient site was said to predict the Summer Solstice, not the Equinox but the Solstice. Here the next key begins to click into place and more of Easter’s tale is uncovered.
If Talia (Eostar) is “Mother Earth” in this tale than her slumber echoes the tales of Mother Earth, pregnant and asleep during winter below the ground. Here instead of the cave of older tales we find a vacant palace. Her sleep is the winter, and it is during this time that the potential for new life is sown in her. This new life is eventually born before she is truly awake and able to care for it. Yet it is this very new life that marks her eventual awakening when what remains of her old life is stripped from her and it is then the Hunter-King returns. The two children, the boy and the girl, are the ones that awaken summer. In many European countries there is the tradition of the May King and Queen, and indeed there was and possibly still is the tradition of the Easter King and Queen, who are chosen from among the young children. Both Easter and May Day form mid to late Spring holidays that lead up to the Summer Solstice. When the Earth is fully awake.
The May Queen is especially important and at times considered the summer maiden who is tied even further to being a figure such as the Goddess Flora. Though it seems unlikely that a Roman goddess is a part of a Northern European tradition and much more likely a figure like Eostre, Eostar, or Ostara takes such a role. This is especially blatant in one such version of “Sun, Moon, and Talia” where it is the daughter specifically that suckles the flax stalk from Talia’s finger.
In this way these Summer Kings and Queens are quite possibly standing in for these children of Mother Earth the celestial bodies who form the oldest calendar and perform the dance of the seasons in the sky in their merry ways. Talia’s story does not end where Rosamund’s does though. While Rosamund awoke to a wonderful castle of flowers and a charming prince, Talia has no such prince, and no castle of roses. Her story has more to reveal to us.
The Hunter-King had remembered Talia and chose to go hunting and find her again on a whim. Just as the Wild Hunt returns in the late spring as summer begins in full swing so too does The Hunter-King return once Talia has awoken, the children are born and now Summer has reached its zenith. Overjoyed at what fertile joys he has reaped in his two beautiful children. The Hunter-King spends time with Talia and they become friends and he is off to his kingdom with plans to bring them to live with him. Only one problem stands in his way, he is already married. To a women who has “Brought nothing with her to his house” aside from Sun and Moon there are no children so it is certainly possible their marriage has been a barren one. A time without “New Growth”, this marriage also involves the taking of Sun and Moon from the earth the light of the world and attempting to kill them, but instead they are hidden and another sacrifice is made in their stead that of a two “little lambs”. Talia’s lover has again left and has no idea what has become of his children or that his wife plans to kill Talia and believes she has fed the children to the Hunter-King.
The Queen has Talia brought before her and strips her of her “beautiful covering” laying her bare before the world. Much as the chill cold of winter strips the land of plants and finds the animals snug in their burrows, and the birds flying south for the winter. The beautiful garment that Talia wears is taken from her by this Icy queen.
It is at this moment the Hunter-King returns and sends the Queen into the fire herself along with the secretary, sending them to the underworld. A battle for the heart of a king and the rule of the land between a Shining Mother and a barren queen has ended. The Icy Queen falls below the earth to a land of serpents just like on the Externsteine the Queen and the “secretary” have been sent to the land of the dead below the earth, and just as the effigy of Winter is burned to bring Summer to the land so too does the Queen burn to protect Talia. Then finally Talia receives her happily ever after.
Though it is not only in these tales that remnants of these gods exist. I am also well aware that it is quite a stretch and a rather stark contrast to claim not one, not two, but three goddesses and a god for good measure from what many consider a single goddess. What could possibly support such an idea of three goddesses surrounding this one holiday? Surely this is stretching and possible flaws riddle my claims!? While I must admit like most studies of folklore and mythology there is always a certain amount of reaching necessary and the best we can hope for is that it spurs others forth to uncover the real story whether it is as presented here or not. Yet that is part of the fun is it not? What I have presented here is not without further pieces here and there to bolster its merits, nor is this heavily veiled story the only possible remainder of Eostar and her kin. For that we must continue with this story as our background for the family of Easter becomes clearer and perhaps the lore that much richer as we move forward.
The Gods and the Easter Hare
The lore of Easter is rather diverse, between the many traditions and figures that have popped up around this widespread holiday. However we shall focus on traditions that come from England and Continental Germanic areas, as this is where the name was maintained instead of changed to some variation of the Jewish Holiday Passover. This makes sense given that the strongest center for the Eostar cult is with the Saxon’s who form the cultural core of much of Northern Germany and are one of the founding tribes of the modern English. Though throughout much of these legends it is notable that very little of it directly mentions the goddess Eostre, Ostara, or Eostar and certainly not Ostar. These deities have little folklore that is readily available and anything that arises usually treats them all as the same deity. Furthermore the deities find themselves in an odd position as any stories containing them are automatically considered modern or forgeries. Though the most notable one regarding Ostara and the Bird is at least 100 years older than originally considered. So to move forward we must discuss the tales of Ostara, Eostre, the Egg, and the Easter Hare.
The first and most notable version is that of the Easter Hare beginning its life as a bird. Most likely the animal that pulled Ostara’s chariot. This version typically mentions Ostara so that is the goddess I will use in regards to this myth. What kind of bird is often debated between a swallow or a stork both of which are harbingers of spring. The bird dies as it is forced to stay in the cold north long past when it would’ve flown south. Frozen and deceased a despairing Ostara brings the bird back to life as a hare.
As the soft fur allowed the former avian to stay alive in the north. What happens from here differs in some versions the hare is thankful and starts to give out Easter Eggs as a way of saying thank you, a second much more elaborate version has the Hare not only remaining as the puller of Ostara’s chariot but also becoming her lover in some versions. Until the virile nature of the hare causes him to cheat on Ostara. Enraged Ostara casts the hare into the sky below the Hunter constellation. Both soon remember all the good times they had and Ostara allows the Easter Hare to return once per year, on Easter day.
That’s one version and often considered one of the most famous versions, another version tells of a dead bird being found by a young girl who prayed to Ostara. She appeared bringing new life across the land and was carried to her on a rainbow. She resurrected the hare and again it began to deliver eggs as thanks. One other story that has Ostara turning a bird into a hare is one of forbidden love. A hare and a bird fall in love, yet for obvious reasons are unable to fulfill said love. To rectify this Ostara turns the bird into a hare so they can be together. As thanks the transmogrified hare gives out Easter eggs, which it can still lay due to its origins as a bird. The idea of the hare having once been a bird was postulated by Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology. The fact that Grimm proposed the idea is often used as the linchpin for the above tales being a forgery. However, it is also possible Grimm was simply correct in his conclusion that the hare must’ve once been a bird. Before I dive further into the above tales there are more that need mentioned.
The first involves Eostre. Instead of the hare beginning life as a bird the hare was always a hare. In this English tale the animal kingdom is overjoyed that they will soon be visited by the goddess Eostre. Each preparing a gift for the goddess. The hare goes to his burrow and finds he has nothing there but an egg. He chooses to give the egg as a gift and lovingly decorates it. When the animals present their gifts to Eostre the hare is embarrassed comparing his paltry gift to the lavish ones other richer animals had given. Eostre however adores it and declares it her favorite and names the hare her sacred animal from then on. As while it was not the mightiest of gifts, it was all the hare had had, and he had given it all to Eostre.
These are not the only tales that involve the hare and the gods, nor do all the stories about the hare and the origin of the Easter Egg involve a god or goddess. Some have the hare saving a nest of eggs that had lost their mother to a fox, and the chicks hatched on Easter day and looked upon the hare as their mother. While other tales will mention the Easter Hare as a fairy who at times gives gifts of the eggs, being shy and often dressed in a waistcoat not unlike the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Some tales even mention a “Mrs. Easter Hare” who travels with him at times. This is especially interesting when the Easter Hare’s fey species is said to hatch from eggs. From here we can start to sparse out these tales and what we may be able to glean from them.
The first part is that these tales are of dubious origin, that does not make them illegitimate and with how popular they are having either been a part of the folklore or entered it after Grimm wrote his Teutonic Mythology they are a part of the myth regardless. Yet we must acknowledge the possibility they are forgeries or fiction. But, we must also acknowledge that some or all of them are potentially long standing folklore or at least they they spawned from much older tales. In either case with this many together we can begin to dissect them and get a better idea of these deities.
The tale of Ostara turning the bird into a hare does not seem to carry over to the tale involving Eostre and the hare. While the one involving the hare hatching chicks leaves out deities entirely. So, where do we begin I think we shall take a look at Ostara’s stories first.
All Ostara’s stories have the consistent end result of a bird made into a hare. These tales would be the ones that are most likely drawing from Grimm’s interpretation. They include the Hare as lover, Hare as forbidden lover, and the hare being made because of a child’s compassion. The latter one while a pretty story and by no means something to dismiss modern or not, seems to be the least likely to have something of use. While it most certainly could be a genuine ancient tale, the use of a rainbow is the part that I find odd. As most tales involving gods in folklore do not have such a stunning entrance as rainbows and flowers blooming where a deity walks. The grandiose entrance and way the god has been invoked reminds me more of a Greco-Roman style story. While it is possible for such a tale to arise in Germany the tale reads as if it was developed by someone who has read quite a few myths and wished to put their own spin on Ostara’s. Though it does show what many people consider Ostara, the goddess of spring. Taking fertility symbols commonly given to such a goddess and placing them enmasse in such a tale we at least can see what people expect from an Ostara tale.
Working backwards we have the hare as forbidden lover, again this one is a bit odd and I do not personally view this one as the most likely to have ancient or even pre-christian origins. Mostly due to the Easter Hare being male in most versions of the folklore. Its ability to lay eggs here is explained as it being the female lover in this relationship. While the Easter Hare does lay eggs, it is also generally thought to lay them down. Such is the odd and at times contradictory stories of the Easter Hare.
Finally out of Ostara’s tales we come to the final one I have mentioned. The one involving the hare as mount, lover, and trapped in a constellation. Again I think this is a flawed story but it contains aspects that do catch my eye. For starters it is not unheard of in Northern European myth for a figure to be placed in the stars, a notable example being the eyes of Thjazi in the eddic myth. Though the more notable points I wish to focus on in this tale concern the relationship that exists between Ostara and the hare. They are lovers and the hare is placed below the hunter. This is notable for two reasons both the Hunter-King in “Sun, Moon, and Talia” but also for the figure of Ewicher Yeeger also known as the Eternal Hunter in German mythology. Who collects plant spirits around Halloween, when the night of the year begins and returns them in the spring. In essence the constellation could be a reference to this god in the folklore.
With the Easter Hare being a fertility spirit protected from the Frost King until spring when new life arises, or when Easter would take place in a less fixed schedule like we have now with the Gregorian calendar. While the part about being lovers when combined with the “Mrs. Easter Hare” begins to open up possibilities.
Witches, Faeries, and Mrs. Easter Hare
First some context. The Hare is a notable animal associated with numerous goddesses in Europe. In Germany we find the Hare associated with both Holda and Ostara. The Hare was also seen as a messenger of the gods, a creature who knew secrets of the Otherworld. Eostre and Ostara are often depicted with a Hare and while it is not something we can guarantee to be ancient, the association of the goddesses with the Easter Hare is not unreasonable. Both goddesses find their names tied into the Easter holiday where the hare is front and center, popping out of eggs, fighting atop chickens, leaving eggs in nests of moss collected by giggling children. The Easter Hare’s status as a fairy is also interesting. As gods are often hidden as fairies. In Dutch mythology gods like Fro, Uller, and even Nerthus are labeled faeries. Holda herself is labeled a faerie in many tales. So the possibility that a deity would be hidden as a faerie is not out of the question. Though it is also possible like Holle with the Hollen, and Perchta with the Perchten, that the Easter Hares are in fact a kind of retinue surrounding the goddess.
The goddesses of Easter also shapeshift into hares, the hare is highly associated with the moon and by extension the lunar goddess Ostara. While its symbolism of fertility and new life can be tied to Eostre. Even Eostar can find the hare as part of her symbolism in the hares underground burrow serving as a link to the other realms.
There is even English lore involving witches and hares. Witches in England are often associated with hares, transforming into them to steal milk from cows and do the devils work. They also may keep familiars in the shape of a hare. Now while this is the Christian view we can find remnants here as well.
The view of animals often became inverted under the church. Like Holle or Perchta becoming a witch in the folklore, it is not out of the question that Eostre was hidden in such a way, or her attributes shifted to a more demonic and evil witch form and given to those who may have kept certain aspects of her worship going under the church’s rule. The stealing of milk especially perks my ears given the fertility importance of these goddesses. The stealing of milk is akin to cursing new life to an early grave. An inversion of the goddesses role in bringing new life to the land. So we may also find Eostre and the others hidden in these tales as well.
The possibility that the Easter Hare himself is in fact a god is not out of the question. Perhaps being a hare deity or being a deity hidden as an innocuous animal, such as the sun god that I have spoken of before, who we shall call Ostar, for the sake of brevity. It may also be just an animal associated with the deity such as Gullinbursti for Freyr or Rollegaul for Holle. In either case the Hare would be distinct from the goddesses themselves. While there is the Old High German Lullaby that mentions Ostara in regards to leaving eggs. We lack any confirmation of it’s legitimacy similar to the above Easter Hare goddess legends. Yet, the idea that The Easter Hare’s bouncing bride is one of the goddesses or perhaps all of them is a definite possibility. The female companion to an overtly male figure that is associated with the holiday, it is not an unlikely occurrence like Freyr and Thor being relegated to the Yule Boar and Yule Goat. The god fades for the more acceptable animal figure yet parts remain, like a bride of the Easter Hare possibly covering up Ostara.
As I mentioned before any of the tales may lack legitimacy in their entirety but the story’s components may have arisen from folklore. Not unlike the tales of Hans Christian Anderson taking their direct inspiration from the folklore of Europe, even if the tale itself is fiction, the characters, traditions and references may hold more than meets the eye. The Hunter constellation in one Easter Hare tale calling to mind the Eternal Hunter being one such parallel that fits the broader scope of Germanic mythology. The same tale is the one that references them as lovers and makes me think that the Mrs. Easter Hare being a covered up deity may have more ground than simple guesswork.
It would track with the broader trend in German mythology of the gods being rendered down to spirits, boogeymen, witches, and historical figures. Ostara being a hare would not even come close to the most insulting remnant of a deity in the modern landscape.
What of the two other stories mentioned the one with Eostre and the one without any goddess to speak of. These two have parts to share as well. In the case of the one with Eostre, it shows that the idea of the Hare coming from a bird is by no means the only possible legend. The hare does not lay the eggs merely give them, and it is this selfless action that makes Eostre love the hare so much. Yet all the aspects are there an Easter goddess, the hare, and the egg. This removes the need for the bird origin yet maintains all the elements needed. While the one most likely to be derived from folklore and least attacked is that of the Easter Hare hatching the eggs of a bird and becoming the surrogate mom to the chicks. The most interesting thing in regards to this tale is the inclusion of a Fox as the perpetrator of the mothers death. Perhaps this may be the origin of the Easter Fox, an origin of repentance rather than charity? I could certainly see something like that arise under Christendom or to be some variation of the tale. As foxes just like hares have some association with spring and perform a fox dance on May day.
Frau Holda, Mothers, and The Three Hares
There are a few more points that must be brought up in the folklore before we can progress. The first is that Holle or Holda and Ostara have a lot of overlap. This does not mean that they are the same rather that they may have had similar roles in their respective cults, or that Ostara’s (and by extension Eostre’s) attributes may have been absorbed into Holda. Both goddesses have ties to hares, both have ties to the celestial bodies, both have ties to storks, both have ties to new life and both can find their myths tied into the changing of the seasons. Holda has one considerable advantage that allowed her to thrive while other goddesses came under much harsher attacks. Her name is extremely similar to a villain from the bible. As such the Church at times left her alone, other times simply encouraging the demonic witch attributes she had developed. The same could not be said for a goddess such as Eostar. The goddess had too high a profile due to the holiday, and written references. Any lore of her would’ve had to be hidden far deeper than just a bad side hiding the good. So, many gods found themselves being attributed to Holda. It is also possible that just as there are many figures who contribute to the lore of Yuletide, Easter also possessed many figures who were associated with it. Even the ubiquitous Easter Hare finds competition in the Easter Bells or Easter Fox. So Holle and Holda also being associated with the holiday season is not out of the question. Especially given Holle’s role as the keeper of the souls of infants.
She like Ostara and Eostre are associated with Stork’s who bring children as the “Treasure Bringers” of folklore. It is not out of the realm of possibility that one of the Easter goddesses or all of them fulfilled a role similar to Holle in granting a child to a couple or tending the souls of the soon to be born, as well as the ones who have died too soon.
This is where the tradition of the Easter Tree comes into play. Ostara is a sylvan goddess and Holle is a goddess of fertility. In Dutch folklore Holle tends woods where the souls of babes grow from trees like fruit, dutch folklore even has newborns being found in trees before being placed in their cradles. The Easter tree being a fertility ritual is rather blatant but it may find its origins in such myths. Which were likely more widespread and possibly still are. It is also possible that our beloved Easter tradition actually arose out of foraging for eggs in springtime. Either case the idea of new life springing from trees is not a new or unreasonable association to make. Perhaps Ostara’s sacred groves were decorated with eggs long ago, or birds may have been encouraged to nest there. A sort of forest management. Yet this is pure speculation at this point, it is an interesting possibility. Especially in concerns to birds such as storks and swallows and cuckoos. All of whom have some spring symbolism in their lore and find themselves tied into the aforementioned goddesses. Both the Easter trio and Holle.
Though in fact Holle too is often regarded as a trio of goddesses, seen as three separate figures. While the names Holda, Hulda, and Holle are often used interchangeably; now and again stories of them interacting do happen. With Holle being in the service of Holda in one tale. Just as Perchta and Berchta are often thought of as the same deity, yet in some traditions they are sisters. These gods have all been considered the same for so long that whether they are or not has become almost impossible to discern. The same could be said for Ostara, Eostre, and Eostar.
It is here I must mention another set of goddesses even more obscure than Eostre and Ostara, a group of goddesses who were worshipped in Northern Germany who we unfortunately do not have the names for them as individuals only their collective title. They are known as the “Austriahena Matronae”.
The Austriahena Matronae are found on altars in North Rhine-Westphalia. They are another in a series of Matronae altars. The Matronae are trios of goddesses who are the “Mothers” or “Matrons” of a specific group. While it is possible all the Matronae are the same. It seems more likely that their many variations are a result of different mothers for different tribes. In this case a trio of “Mothers” in the same vicinity as the Easter cult. Their name even references the East. While it is possible that the Austriahena Matronae are in fact tied to a nearby town with a similar name. The area they were found makes it seem more likely these Matronae and the Easter goddesses may be tied together more than we may think.
There is one more piece of evidence that I wish to bring to bear in regards to these goddesses. The mysterious ancient symbol of the “Three Hares”. A Triskelion style symbol of three hares interlocking at the ears. While the oldest variation of this symbol is found in caves in China, the highest amount of occurrences of said symbol is in fact right in the heart of the Easter cult, Northern Germany and England.
Its range lining up so well lends grounds to the possibility that these Austriahena Matronae, these Easter Goddesses, are in fact connected and are a trio. Whether that trio is Eostre, Eostar, and Ostara. Eostar, Ostara, and Ostar. Or perhaps even Ostara, Eostar, and Holle. All these things lend credence to there being an Easter Trio of group whose remnants have remained long after their trinity was forgotten. This same Three Hares symbol is also associated with the Trinity, just as the Triquetra and Triskelion were post Christianization. Many pagan symbols and artifacts were destroyed as the church moved across the land so perhaps the Three Hares had far older versions in these lands and they were lost before it could be repurposed. Perhaps like many other figures the goddesses were hidden behind an obscure Mother Mary figure, who while not part of the Trinity is connected to The Father, the son, and the holy ghost. Mary, God, and Jesus even appear carved into Externsteine. Where the sun and the moon look down upon the scene, and the face of Mary has long ago been chipped off. Yet another possible hiding place for the Easter Gods in the very christian lore that replaced them.
Tradition & Conclusion
Yet, I Know what you are thinking. What could possibly support dividing a deity, a goddess so well known as Ostara/Eostre/Eostar into three separate goddesses. It seems unnecessary, downright foolish even. Well for one thing just because their names mean the same thing does not the same deity make. Many words can be derived from a singular one. The dwarf Austri of Eddic mythology is also a deity whose name means East. Yet he seems to have no ties whatsoever to the deities I have mentioned in regards to Easter. Nor is there a direct parallel for these “East” gods in Icelandic mythology. It is Dellingr that performs the role of a dawn god in Eddic myth. There are also many deities whose names derive from the same root word either due to being related like Frey and Freya, or performing roughly the same role in different tribes as with Frigg and Freya. All of their names can be translated as “beloved” though Frey and Freya are more often placed as being “Lord” and “Lady” yet to claim Freya is the same as the Lady of the Lake would be met with laughter. Names are titles and something as small as a single letter change can mean nothing or everything the Valkyrie Hilda vs the German goddess Holda, Vor and Var two separate goddesses mentioned in the Prose edda. Otter and Ottar, one a companion to Freya the other the brother of Fafnir who takes the shape of an otter. So the argument they are all the same is itself riddled with holes.
So when the combination of said gods is built on shaky ground, the possibility of there being many instead of one is not that far fetched. It is in fact equally likely. Especially when all the differences are brought to bear. Even if say the distinction between Eostre and Eostar could be perceived as too thin, Holle or Ostar could fill that gap in said trio. There is far more lore surrounding Easter and likely far more on the gods mentioned here than I can begin to cover in just one article. So all of this brings me back to my original point. Is Eostar the goddess of Spring? Yes….. and no.
If I had to pick I would proclaim Eostar a goddess of Summer, specifically the Summer Solstice. When life is at its peak. She stirs and begins to move when the equinox hits but it is the Summer Solstice where she really shines. Before that gods such as Ostara, Ostar, Hretha, Eostre, and Holda begin to crack the ice, they begin to return the spirits of the plants to their full exuberant glory, they bring man and woman together, they bring the seasons shifting little by little, they hide eggs, serve as Easter King and Queen, as May Queen and wait for the sun to hit its peak.
Bit by bit the land awaits the earths full glory, the waking of Summers full beauty. Tree after tree, birth after birth, smiling child after smiling child, the joys of Easter give way to the Wild Hunt and to the moment where Midsummer’s magic shimmers across the land.
Perhaps this is all guesswork, yet what is all scholarship of folklore and mythology but guesswork. I did not find a dawn goddess but I did find a sun god, I did not find a spring goddess but I found much more. While I may never know how right or wrong this is in many ways it does not matter. We all live Easter every year. We paint eggs with family, we leave eggs for some Easter Hare home invader, we pretend any of this has to do with Jesus Christ, yet all the way we are living Easter. All I’ve presented here the stories, the myths, the places, the traditions, the history, and the legends all of it pales in comparison to the time we spend every year at Easter with those we love. That is the true spirit of Easter. We do not need anything else, it is not the dawn we focus on, it is not even spring, it is hope. It is the time we spend with family, it is the hope of the new arrivals who even today toddle around in wonder at the world waking up little by little. As songbirds sing, and sun shines through the trees, we hold each other close and for one brief moment we are there beside our ancestors from ages past looking at the new life being born before our eyes and smiling.
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Old High German Lullaby