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UK Pagans respond to questions about Easter and Ostara

UNITED KINGDOM — You can always tell that it’s spring when the UK online Pagan community starts linking to articles by writer Adrian Bott, also known as Cavalorn. Bott came into prominence a few years ago with his blog posts regarding the origins of Ostara. Rather than taking on board the received wisdom about this festival, he began a rigorous examination of the actual origins of the holiday’s name.

Bott began by linking Ostara back to an obscure reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede called The Reckoning of Time, which was then picked up by the Brothers Grimm. His posts were often contentious, challenging the accepted idea that Ostara was an ancient Germanic goddess of the dawn or of springtime, or that she had anything to do with hares, eggs, or indeed chocolate.

[Photo Credit: Gerbil / Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Gerbil / Wikimedia]

Gradually, however, Bott’s meticulously researched findings began to find their way into the wider Pagan community, enhancing the understanding of where this popular part of the celebrations actually come from. In addition, Bott has been featured in the national press and is now on board with a working group funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Bott agreed to talk to us about his research and why it is important.

The Wild Hunt: Why did you start the project in the first place?

Adrian Bott: As I recall, it was a combination of two factors. The first was the wave of introspection and critical reappraisal that swept over the British Neopagan movement in the wake of Triumph of the Moon. There was a growing unwillingness to accept inherited ideas at face value and a redoubled respect for academic standards. The second was the colossal upsurge in misinformation and fakelore that inevitably accompanied the rise in Internet access across the world. The Internet allowed the propagation of more appealing but unfounded Neopagan myths than ever before, and of course the more people read them and believed them, the more they were circulated.

So as I see it, my own work was just one part of the backlash against the tidal wave of unsubstantiated nonsense that the Internet unleashed. This led to my earlier articles having quite a hectoring, negative tone to them which is now absent. I hope.

TWH: And what findings particularly surprised you?

AB: It’s always startling to see how much has been made out of next to nothing. Every year new claims circulate. A single reference in Bede has given rise to a deranged tapestry of inventions: people are no longer content with the basic Eostre myth in which she’s popularly deemed to be a fertility goddess whose symbols are the bunny and the egg, even though there’s no evidence for any of this. For example, this year I’ve also seen a claim that the Christian ‘Easter lily’ is an appropriated Pagan tradition in which the lily represented Eostre’s genitalia.

I expect there’s potential for a fascinating study into how people create myths to fulfill needs. Around that basic kernel – the name Eostre as attested by Bede – a whole mythic structure has crystallised, without the slightest need for primary sources. It’s like a sort of communal fanfiction project as applied to religion.

One of the recent discoveries that excited me is folklorist Stephen Winick’s detailed and exhaustive research into the origin of the ‘Ostara and the Hare’ story. It was obviously not genuinely ancient, but its actual point of origin was about a hundred years earlier than I had previously thought. You can read about it here.

I’ve also been excited to discover that the Easter Bunny and its forerunner, the Easter Hare, weren’t the only egg-bringers. There’s a Germanic tradition of the Easter Fox that may in fact be older than the bunny. Given that foxes are known to steal and bury eggs, the existence of an Easter Fox makes a lot of sense.

TWH: Can you tell us more about your involvement with the Arts & Humanities Research Council initiative?

AB: The project I’m involved with is tremendously exciting and I’m delighted to be able to talk more about it. In brief, the Arts & Humanities Research Council has funded a major cross-disciplinary project to study the history of Easter and its associated lore, with a particular emphasis on the animals that have come to be associated with the festival. The project’s full title is ‘Exploring the Easter E.g. – Shifting Baselines and Changing Perceptions of Cultural and Biological Aliens’, which relates to the fact that the brown hare, rabbit and chicken, all iconic Easter animals, were all originally ‘alien’ to the country. The team includes geneticists, archaeologists, theologians, linguists and other specialists, so it’s a bit like an Ocean’s Eleven remake but with knowledge instead of money as the payoff.

I’m on board because I’ve put so much time and work into ranting about Easter and the extent to which it is or is not pagan, so I know my way around the topic despite coming from a layman’s background. I’m particularly excited to be working alongside Dr Philip Shaw, author of Eostre, Hretha and the Cult of Matrons, which had a surprising (to him) impact on the Neopagan scene.

TWH: How do you think pagan perceptions (and possibly Christian perceptions) of the spring equinox festival are changing?

AB: I think there’s growing enthusiasm for fact-checking and source citation out there, which can only be a good thing. People are only prepared to tolerate so much blatant nonsense before they draw the line and say something.

There are two recent examples of line-drawing that I think are particularly worth noting here. One is the way in which some neopagans who identify as part of a Germanic tradition have angrily debunked the popular, wildly erroneous meme that identifies Easter with Ishtar. One can understand their anger: if you’re going to identify Easter as the festival of a Goddess, at least make sure it’s the right one!

The other current I’ve noticed (on such sites as Tumblr, among others) is a backlash from Jewish voices, addressing – quite rightly – the erasure of the Jewish influence on the Easter festival. To insist that Easter was originally pagan is to ignore its Jewish content and history, which is a frankly asinine thing to do. After all, it’s only in a very small part of the world that Easter was called Easter; most countries have a variant on Pascha, which of course derives from Passover. The date of Easter is calculated by reference to a full moon: again, this derives from Jewish calendrical antecedents, though some Neopagans can’t imagine that anything with a full moon in it could possibly be other than pagan.

It’s not all change out there, though. There are plenty of Neopagans who just don’t want to give up the inherited Evil Christians Stole Our Festivals myth, and there are plenty of Christians who are too scared to give up the Easter Is Tainted With Paganism myth. The moment you stick your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get told that ‘everyone knows’ Easter was originally pagan, or some such guff. There’s still a lot of work left to do.

On the subject of the Spring Equinox, it’s possibly worth mentioning that neither the Christian Easter nor the Anglo-Saxon pagan festival of Eostur that preceded it were Spring Equinox festivals, in that neither of them happens on the Equinox. There doesn’t seem to be a documented Northern European tradition of celebrating the Equinox per se; it’s much more a feature of neopagan or ceremonial traditions such as the Golden Dawn. I believe it was through the GD that the practice entered Wicca and thus neopaganism at large.

If you want to get pedantic about it, the festival of Eostur was probably the fourth full moon of the Anglo-Saxon year, that year beginning with the first new moon after the Winter Solstice. We know that the full moon of the month Winterfilleth marked the formal commencement of winter, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that the full moon of Eosturmonath marked the opening of summer in a similar way. It would certainly tally with Bede’s assertion that Eostre’s festival included ‘feasts’, and the frequent coincidence of the full moon betokening Eostur with that from which Easter was calculated would go a long way towards explaining why the latter borrowed the former’s name in the first place.

The Spring Equinox festival of ‘Ostara’ is of course an entirely modern invention that we can attribute to Aidan Kelly.

TWH: What would you encourage pagans to do in terms of looking into the origins of some of these prevailing myths?

AB: It is always worth your while to ask two questions: ‘how do we know?’ and ‘who said this first?’ Instead of accepting a story uncritically, try to find out where it originally comes from. What’s the documentary evidence? Even something as basic as a few minutes with Google can be enlightening. And if you end up on a Wikipedia page, don’t just absorb the information – check the footnotes and the sources. That’s what the citations are there for. (It’s particularly depressing to me that the best known of the debunking sites, Snopes, has a poorly researched page on Easter that repeats a lot of the popular myths.)

Fact-checking is a surprisingly addictive and rewarding habit to get into. I think some people recoil from it because it’s seen as a contrary impulse to the religious one, but there needn’t be any contradiction involved. Many neopagans find that knowing the limitations of our historical sources actually opens the door to the possibility of personal insight. In conclusion I can only echo Professor Ronald Hutton, who said ‘I wish that Pagans did usually impose their own narratives on ancient places, and indeed on the past, either by actual research or by genuinely visionary experience.

TWH: Thank you for you time, Adrian

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You're still not grasping this.  The Jewish calendar of ancient times was nothing like what you're accustomed to. 

It wasn't a simple matter of "counting past 30."  There were intercalary months as well, to contend with.  It wasn't a question of Jewish piety that had people deferring to the Sanhedrin on the matter of when to acknowledge Rosh Chodesh or celebrate holidays.  It had more to do with an acceptance of authority and the belief that the Sanhedrin knew what they were doing. 

Try thinking outside of your Western comfort zone of things that are culturally familiar to you.  :)

And you're still not grasping the fact that the majority of the Hebrews did not live in large cities where the Sandhedrin sat in council.  The majority lived in scattered farms, wandering the hills with their flocks or in tiny villages.

The idea of these authors and yourself is that these people had no clue about the calendar, could not count months or days, could not sense or calculate a pattern or figure out how time was calculated for holidays is ludicrous.

I've already addressed the methods by which the announcement of the day of Rosh Chodesh was delivered each month to Jews outside of cities.  Either you skimmed over what I wrote, or you've ignored it.

 

I've already explained to you (multiple times) that the determination of annual Jewish holy days in ancient times was not a simple matter of "counting the days."  Do you understand what an intercalary month is?  Do you understand what was involved in determining the monthly date of Rosh Chodesh?  I don't think so.

 

Finally...  If this is how you approach a topic of history -- by stubbornly viewing and interpreting it through your modern-day filters...  Well, I don't know what else to say to you.  Except maybe, "Miss Aurelia Pontia, go to your room!"  lol

Trying this one more time... 

 

Perhaps one of the most scholarly and in-depth studies done on the evolution of the Jewish Calendar can be found in the book Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, Second Century BCE - Tenth Century CE, by Sacha Stern (Oxford University Press, 2001).

 

To quote one satisfied reviewer at Amazon.com (where a copy of the book can be purchased): 

 

I use this as a textbook for teaching a 300 level Theology course (Biblical Timekeeping) for Sherman Institute... When reviewing the development of calendars over the centuries, and in diverse empirical epochs, Stern's understanding of the situation within Israel/Judea is essential. It becomes a stunning revelation to many students when they come to realize such terms as "first day of the week" in a biblical context have absolutely no similarity to how we might comprehend it in today's calendrical (and distinctly western) understanding...

 

I quote from page 230 in Calendar and Community:

More importantly, the empirical calendar system was an effective way of imposing and maintaining rabbinic authority upon the Jewish community. In this respect, it would have been politically expedient for the rabbinic class to maintain the status quo, and to resist any change in the way the calendar was reckoned. The Mishnaic system had also intrinsic ideological value. By controlling the dates of the calendar from month to month, the rabbis perceived themselves as exerting control over the entire cosmos, and even over the Divine order.

 

If you have any evidence to the contrary, other than your "distinctly western understanding" of the theocratic political and social institutions of the Jewish community in ancient times, then by all means present it here. 

If you have any evidence to the contrary, other than your "distinctly western understanding" of the theocratic political and social institutions of the Jewish community in ancient times, then by all means present it here. 

Just gave it to you.  Hellenic Jews in the 1st century ce writing stories of Jesus where he and his followers are not as pious and how the theocracy is not a draconian as Stern would lead his readers to believe.

Pardon?  What has that got to do with the Jewish calendar?  And how do you get "draconian" out of that one passage I quoted from Sacha Stern's book?  And don't you consider Jesus and stories about him to be fairy tales?  So why in the world would you even consider the New Testament to be a primary reference source? 

 

You're still applying your Western values to an ancient civilization, and filling in with personal opinion for what you don't know and for which you can't find scholarly references to back up your claims.

Just gave it to you.  Hellenic Jews in the 1st century ce writing stories of Jesus where he and his followers are not as pious...

 

Seeing as how you insist on using a book that you don't believe in as your source material, let's take a look at those passages where Jesus (an observant Jew) supposedly violated the Sabbath.  I'm using the International Standard Version that I found online (BibleGateway.com), and quoting from Mark 1:23-26, and Mark 2:3-5:

 

23 Jesus happened to be going through the grain fields on a Sabbath. As they made their way, his disciples began picking the heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees asked him, “Look! Why are they doing what is not lawful on Sabbath days?”

 

25 He asked them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 How was it that he went into the House of God during the lifetime of Abiathar the high priest and ate the Bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat, and gave some of it to his companions?”

 

3 Jesus went into the synagogue again, and a man with a paralyzed hand was there. 2 The people watched Jesus closely to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, intending to accuse him of doing something wrong. 3 He told the man with the paralyzed hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he asked them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on Sabbath days, to save a life or to destroy it?” But they remained silent.

 

5 Jesus looked around at them in anger, deeply hurt because of their hard hearts. Then he told the man, “Hold out your hand.” The man held it out, and his hand was restored to health. 6 Immediately the Pharisees and Herodians went out and began to plot how to kill him.

 

In the first instance, the story tells how Jesus did some fast talking, in order to defend his disciples, by citing the example of King David. 

In the second instance, Jesus appeals (unsuccessfully) to the Pharisees' sense of humanity.  Which should have been unnecessary to begin with, given that the Torah does not forbid acts of healing on the Sabbath.

 

What's next?  Are you going to cite examples from some Hollywood movies to back up your claims?  :)

I'm not quoting the bible as if it was real. I'm using the bible's stories as written by their Hellenic authors and how those authors experienced 1st century Judea.

Your points simply support my comments.

People accused them but nothing happened to Jesus or his followers.  All that was needed to get out of being accused was some 'fast talking'.  

So much for the draconian laws.  If the theocracy was really as strict and unyielding as you and the authors you quoted claimed, what Jesus said would be irrelevant.

He and his followers would have been dragged away and stoned to death for impiety.

Were they?  Not according to those stories.

So if Jesus could get away with it, why not others?  

So if Jesus could get away with it, why not others?

Um... Jesus didn't "get away with it."  The story goes that he was crucified. 

And Saul (later to be known as Paul) helped in the stoning to death of an apostate, as described in the NT.

But why, when asked to supply references for your claims, do you turn only to your bible?  One might think that your bible represents the sum total of your knowledge about ancient Judaism.  Which is pretty much all of what most Christians know about Judaism.

If you didn't know when the calendar starts, you could risk working on the Sabbath, which, was punishable by being exiled. Is this correct?

Exodus 31:14

The Jewish people could count every seven days to determine when to celebrate the Sabbath.  It was the determination of Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month) every new moon and subsequent holidays that was the province of the Sanhedrin. 

 

But yes, desecration of the Sabbath back then called for the penalty of death, as did a number of other religious offenses. But that's what theocracies are like (as you know).

I didn't know if they had to restart the count at the beginning of each month or not.

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