Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter may seem to be all about fluffy bunny rabbits and pretty dresses and flowers everywhere, but underneath it all is the ancient Germanic goddess Ostara – and she is a lot spikier than you’d think.
In the season one finale of American Gods, Mr Wednesday and Shadow get suited up and smartened up by Mr Nancy before they (spoiler alert) head over to Easter’s mansion. It just so happens to be Easter weekend when Mr Wednesday and Shadow arrive, and this old goddess is in her element, hosting a lavish party with a bunch of Jesuses (Mexican Jesus, white Jesus, Asian Jesus…) as her guests of honour.
Mr Wednesday is on a mission to recruit Easter to his cause. But it’s a hard sell: unlike many of the other gods, Easter is getting along okay in America because of the arrival of Christianity. In the book she tells Mr Wednesday: “I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.”
But as the episode reveals, the idea of letting Jesus take over her festival rankles more than she is willing to admit…
What is the mythology behind Ostara, goddess of spring?
Ostara, otherwise known as Ēostre, is the Germanic goddess of spring and dawn. On the old Germanic calendar, the equivalent month to April was called “Ōstarmānod” – or Easter-month.
The evidence for Ostara as an actual goddess people worshipped is sketchy. We can pin her down in the writings of 8th century monk Venerable Bede, who reported that pagan Anglo-Saxons in medieval Northumbria held festivals in Ostara’s honour during the month of Eostremonath (April). However, some have speculated that he was making this up (or at least embellishing the truth).
As a holiday, Easter predates Christianity and was originally the name for the spring Equinox. Of course, now the holiday focuses on Jesus’ resurrection story – but many Germanic Easter customs survive. For example, we still paint Easter eggs with bright colours, a tradition which may be linked to chickens’ return to laying after the long eggless winter months.
Whether Ostara was worshipped as a goddess or not, by the 19th century she had become part of German mythology. She was described in literature and added in to paintings, which is all it takes for a god to exist in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy world where belief alone can solidify a god into flesh and blood.
Piecing together the legends and stories of the emerging German nation, Jacob Grimm wrote in his 1835 Teutonic Mythology: “Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”
He dismissed the idea that Bede could have invented Ostara, writing of these ancient Teutonic goddesses: “there is nothing improbable in them, nay the first of them is justified by clear traces in the vocabularies of Germanic tribes.”
Grimm also wrote that the white maiden of Osterrode was said to appear with a bunch of keys on Easter morning, when she would stride to the brook to collect water – because water drawn on Easter morning is holy and healing.
Artistic depictions of Ostara show her as a woman of childbearing age, wreathed in flowers and greenery or carrying blossoms. She is also associated with rabbits and hares.
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes added every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights
This article was originally published in June 2017