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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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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.

Er, this is really Israel-centric.

"Most countries"?  He's generalizing a bit, isn't he?  After all, this is Israel.

Most countries do NOT have anything at all related to Passover and still celebrate a lunar calendar Spring Festival.  The largest is Chinese New Year.

Adrian Bott is referring to the etymology of the Latin word pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew word pésakh and is, indeed, used in some form in most countries' languages as a term for the Christian holiday otherwise known as Easter.  (Believe it or not, there are even Christians in Israel who celebrate Easter, although they don't call it by that name.)

 

    Afrikaans: Paasfees

    Albanian: Pashkët

    Alutiiq: Paas'kaaq

    Amharic: ፋሲካ (fasika)

    Aromanian: Pashti

    Asturian: Pascua

    Azeri: Pasxa

    Belarusian: Пасха (Pasxa)

    Catalan: Pasqua

    Cornish: Pask

    Dalmatian: pasc

    Danish: påske

    Dutch: Pasen

    Elfdalian: påsker

    Faroese: páskir

    Finnish: pääsiäinen

    French: Pâques

    Friulian: Pasche

    Galician: Pascua

    Greek: Πάσχα (Páscha)

    Greenlandic: poorski

    Hebrew: פסחא (paskha)

    Icelandic: páskar

    Indonesian: Paskah

    Italian: Pasqua

    Japanese:聖大パスハ (Seidai-Pasuha)

    Norman: Pâques

    Dutch Low Saxon: Poaske

    German Low German: Paasch, Poosch, Paaschen, Pooschen

    Malay: Paska

    Malayalam: പെശഹ (peśaha)

    Northern Ndebele: Pasika

    Norwegian: påske

    Occitan: Pasqua

    Polish: Pascha

    Portuguese: Páscoa

    Romanian: Paști, Paște

    Romansch: Pasca, Pasqua

    Russian: Па́сха (Pásxa)

    Sardinian: Pasca

    Sicilian: Pasqua

    Spanish: Pascua

    Swedish: påsk

    Tagalog: Pasko

    Tongan: Pekia

    Turkish: paskalya

    Ukrainian: Паска (Paska)

    Venetian: Pàscua

    Walloon: Påke

    Welsh: Pasg

    Yiddish: פּאַסכע (paskhe)

    Yup'ik: Paaskaaq

Source:  Wiktionary.com / Easter / noun / translations.

 

I've saved Vietnamese for last, because it made me laugh:

 

    Vietnamese: Phục Sinh

Interesting, but honestly, those names in the majority of those countries arrived by immigrants.  I really doubt the ancient Finns or Icelanders based their spring holiday name on something from the Middle East. 

I think those names were adapted from the Latin that was brought to these European countries in the Middle Ages by the Roman Catholic clergy, and centuries later brought to other countries by Christian missionaries.  Over the centuries, ancient folklore has mingled with the Christian influence -- ancient festivals merged with Christian holidays, gods and goddesses morphed into Christian saints.  Or, at least, that's what everyone believes.  Adrian Bott is doing a commendable job of sorting it all out, but even he admits that more scholarship is required:

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.

 

Even better.  

Sounds reasonable.  The idea that these totally disparate nations all celebrate a spring festival but the name is related to Passover sounds exactly like it was introduced by someone touting religious ideas from the Middle East.  Missionaries sent to convert the heathen, most likely.

This seems to indicate more that these nations already had a spring observance, but missionaries renamed it.

I didn't get the same message you did from this. As he later says the Anglo-Saxons celebrated Eostur on the 4th full moon after Winter Solstice, he's acknowledging that other cultures used a Lunar calendar.

He seems to be saying that they influenced the celebration we know as Easter. I can't say that I really know enough about Judaism other than according to myth, Jesus was a Jew and he was celebrating Passover when he was arrested. I don't know of any modern Easter traditions that could be decisively considered Jewish. 

The setting of the date of Easter (and subsequently Pentecost) each year according to the Jewish liturgical calendar is probably the most obvious influence that Judaism's Passover has had on Christianity's Easter. 

But Christianity has endeavored to distance itself from Judaism in many ways.  This is why Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday, and care is taken so that Easter Sunday does not fall on the same day as Passover during those years when Passover happens to begin on a Sunday.  Also, baked ham is served as a traditional Easter dinner -- a meal that would never be cooked and served in a traditional Jewish home.

Interestingly, just read elsewhere how someone pointed out that Easter is based on a fictional event.  Their argument goes if people are observing a real event - say 9/11 or Pearl Harbor day - the day it happened doesn't change.

It's always remembered on Dec 7 or on Sept 11.

Jesus was supposedly killed either before or after Passover and rose 3 days later.  Yet Easter is a movable feast. 

If Jesus actually rose 3 days after execution on such and such day, shouldn't the actual DATE be remembered and not a date coinciding with the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox? 

Jesus was supposedly killed either before or after Passover and rose 3 days later.  Yet Easter is a movable feast.

Easter is a movable feast because Passover is one, too.  As no one knew the exact date upon which Jesus supposedly died (the ancient world didn't note dates the way we do today), the only way to approximate that date -- and, more importantly, the events of Jesus' life -- as closely as possible was to imitate the time of the annual Jewish Passover.  Even then, there has always been disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as to how the annual date of Easter should be determined in relation to Passover.

And, ever since, Christianity has been moving further and further away from that imitation of Judaism.  So perhaps some day there will be a world-wide ecumenical decision on establishing the annual date for Easter for all Christians.  But I doubt that it will be the same calendar date from year to year, as I can't imagine Christians agreeing to celebrate Easter on any day of the week other than a Sunday.     

As no one knew the exact date upon which Jesus supposedly died (the ancient world didn't note dates the way we do today)

Actually yes the ancients could and did mark specific dates.  Which is why 2000 years later we still know what happened on the "Ides of March".

If the ancient Jews did not mark the day of the death of Jesus, it's probably because 1) it didn't really happen or 2) Jesus the man was not the demigod running around doing miracles.  He was just a nobody that no one bothered to miss after he was executed.  Then 2 centuries later early Christians begin to think maybe they should pay attention to the day their god rose form the dead and thus a holiday is born and trying to set a time for that day, they choose one that ties into the Jewish Messiah myth and thus a made up holiday is created for a date no one knows.

If Passover is a moveable feast, I'd say the reason why it is is the same.  It marks a made up event, so there is no actual date from cultural memory.

Lunar holidays don't translate well to Solar calendars.

Lunar holidays don't translate well to Solar calendars.

Yup.

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