Although obviously of interest to many modern Pagans, this book is basically an academic one, focussed on historical and linguistic evidence. For those of us who, aware of the scholarly community but not following every detail of every debate, have been cheerfully answering the claim that “Easter is named after the pagan goddess Eostre” with “but Bede probably invented her”, this book is something of a wake-up call. In particular, Shaw argues that Eostre was probably neither a “pan-Germanic goddess” nor an “etymological fancy”, but a local goddess with a name linked to the name of a social group. Her name was indeed, he suggests, taken up as the name of a month and then later transferred to the Christian festival.
In order to support this argument, he makes two main moves: the first is to look at the names of matrons, where we know them from inscriptions. It transpires that several groups of matrons, such as the Austriahenae, had names linked to people (individuals or groups) or geographical locations. The second is to undermine the pervasive idea that pagan deities all have some function or area of expertise, such as ‘dawn’ or ‘spring’. Not only can these functions not be deduced from names, even in every cases where they may have existed, but many deities of social groups may not even have had such ‘functions’ in the first place.
The first argument, and the linguistic evidence which goes along with it, will be of interest to Pagans interested in worshipping Eostre (his conclusions about Hreda, because of the nature of the evidence, are so relatively thin that I struggle to see how they will be thealogically interesting to anyone – but I would welcome being corrected on this point!). For example, if he is right to conjecture that Eostre was originally a Kentish deity, this might have implications for her worship today.
I think that the second argument, though, has a much wider applicability – a lot of Pagans today work with the ‘function’ model of polytheistic deities. Sometimes this is justified by original sources which discuss deities in this way; obviously there are, for example, Roman deities who have always been conceptualised as ‘God/dess of x’ (e.g.: the dawn, apple trees, war, knowledge). At other times it sort of works but becomes extremely confused or limiting, especially when a single deity collects hundreds of functions. Philip Shaw’s book makes it clear, though, that there are also times when it doesn’t work at all. To make sense of Eostre in light of the linguistic evidence, it is necessary to let go of claims about her functions (even if they can’t be removed from the modern reconstructions), and focus on her relationships to places and people.