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This book has been causing a certain amount of excitement on some of the pagan blogs I read, so I thought I would review it separately from my normal booklist for easier linkage.

The full title is Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons. A large part of Shaw's intention in writing it is to begin to challenge a perception that pre-Christian Germanic paganism was homogeneous by examining the claim that Eostre was a pan-Germanic goddess known in Germany as Ostara. Eostre is known to us from a single historical source, Bede's De Tempore Ratione, written to explain the names and timing of various Christian feasts. Hreda is mentioned in the same source.

Shaw begins with an introduction to the linguistic models and methods he intends to use. He then gives an overview of some relevant features of Romano-Germanic religion, focusing in particular on votive inscriptions to the Matronae (matrons, who may be goddesses, ancestors or deified ancestors; inscriptions to similar figures also occur in Romano-Celtic religion.) Shaw points out that these often have names related to particular localities or kin groups, but that some inscriptions refer to the Matronae of a wider group such as a tribe or group of tribes. He notes that the latter type of inscriptions seem to be set up by worshippers who are at some distance from their home area, implying that a worshipper who was outside their home locality, but e.g. still within or near the territory of their tribe, might offer to the Matronae of the tribe as a whole rather than those of their home area.

This leads into Shaw's chapter on Eostre. He begins by setting out Bede's claim that two of the Anglo-Saxon months were named after Eostre and Hreda respectively. He then outlines how the existence of a goddess Ostara was extrapolated from Bede's remarks and the form of the word for Easter in certain Germanic languages, and notes that some scholars have reacted against this extrapolation by doubting that Eostre existed at all. Some other scholars, however, have suggested that Eostre could be etymologically related to the Austriahenae, a group of Matronae to whom a large number of inscriptions have been found near Morken-Harff in Germany. Based on a linguistic and etymological analysis of the words Austriahenae, Eostre and other relevant terms, Shaw rejects the suggestion that Eostre's name relates to a word related to "dawn" or "spring". Rather, he concludes that while Austriahenae and Eostre are not the same entity(ies), they are probably the result of the same naming convention; both effectively refer to the matron(s) of a group that identified themselves as "eastern", probably geographically and/or in relation to neighbouring groups. Thus, Eostre may well have been the matron of a local Kentish group, and this would be consistent with the fact that dialects outside Kent appear to have had a different name for this month. He also notes that copies of Bede's writings seem to have been sent at a very early stage to the diocese of Mainz, which is in the part of Germany where we find the earliest occurrences of a word related to our "Easter" . Thus, it is possible that Bede himself, or other Anglo-Saxon missionary activities around Mainz, are responsible for the use of related words for Easter there.

A chapter on Hreda follows, adopting a similar approach, but here Shaw finds the evidence much less clear. He does not rule out the possibility that her name is related to a word meaning "quick", but he also notes that this word is itself a fairly common element in human names of the period. This means we cannot conclude that Hreda was some sort of "goddess of speed"; she may simply have been the matron of a kin group whose name used this element. Alternatively, there is some evidence that the name may be related to an ethnic designation referring to Goths or a Gothic sub-group. Against the background of the known naming conventions, therefore, both etymologies appear to point to a group matron rather than to a functional goddess.

Shaw's scholarship appears to me to be very careful and thorough, and the book is both short (less than 100 pages if you disregard the indices and endnotes) and extremely readable for an academic work. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historical British, Germanic and/or Celtic paganisms.

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