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|Monday, April 6th, 2015|
|Figuring out when Eostre's feast days really took place
Neopaganism really is its own worst enemy sometimes. If you wanted to celebrate the feast of the Goddess Eostre as attested by Bede but all you had to go on was the modern-day pagan Internet, you’d probably end up thinking that there was a festival called ‘Ostara’ that took place on the day of the Spring Equinox. You might even convince yourself that this ‘Ostara’ festival was the natural and obvious forerunner of the Christian Easter.
Unfortunately, you’d be completely mistaken. ‘Ostara’ is an entirely modern celebration and was created in the last century by neopagans. The Spring Equinox was not celebrated in the Anglo-Saxon pagan calendar.
So, if we want to get all reconstructionist, when WERE Eostre’s feast days?
Going by Bede’s testimony, we know that the Anglo-Saxons divided the year into two halves, winter and summer. They employed a lunisolar calendar. Each year was bracketed by the winter solstice, falling approximately at December 25th on which a festival called Modranecht (Mothers’ Night) was celebrated. Each solar year contained either twelve or thirteen lunar months, with the new moon signalling the beginning of a given lunar month. Because you can’t neatly fit lunar months into a solar year, it was necessary to count an extra month in some years, a 'third Litha'; this was referred to as an embolismic month.This article is one of the best breakdowns I’ve seen of how the Anglo-Saxon calendar worked.
The intriguing thing about the Anglo-Saxon summer and winter periods is how they were separated. We know from Bede that the formal beginning of the winter half of the year was the full moon of the month of Winterfilleth. Modern people might tend to imagine that the Vernal Equinox would be the natural point at which to mark the switch, but Bede explicity says otherwise. The very name ‘Winterfilleth’ refers to the tradition of marking winter’s beginning by the full moon of a given lunation.
Now, one thing we can readily observe about the Anglo-Saxon calendar is its symmetry. In the midst of the winter half of the year are two months called ‘Fore Yule’ and ‘After Yule’, while in the midst of the summer half are ‘Fore Litha’ and ‘After Litha’. (One month is not before a given event and the other after it; the sense is more that the former month is the first half of a given timespan, the latter the second half.)
Therefore, given that winter began with the full moon of Winterfilleth, we can speculate that summer began with the full moon of the month diametrically opposite to Winterfilleth in the calendar; and fortunately for our speculative reconstruction, the month in question is Eosturmonath, the month in which Bede claims feasts were held in Eostre’s honour.
This gives us a rather exciting platform from which to work. If Eostre’s festival took place during the full moon of Eosturmonath, we immediately have an explanation for why it involved ‘feasts’ as opposed to a single feast; the full moon lasts for multiple days. In addition, the festival would be in celebration of a calendrical event – the formal beginning of summer – as well as being in honour of a Goddess whose name is cognate with terms meaning opening and dawn.
It is also possible to see an Eostre-festival in a sceptical light, as the celebration of summer’s beginning with no reference to a Goddess at all (outside of Bede’s habit of imaginative speculation). Bede tells us of Winterfilleth only that it was observed, without reference to any deities. The full moons of Eosturmonath and Winterfilleth may therefore have been two calendrical events that were marked in a wholly secular way.
Personally, however, I like to imagine that the full moon of Eosturmonath really did signal the feast of a Goddess called Eostre and the beginning of summer; if nothing else, it is always fun to brandish such things in the face of those who celebrate an unhistorical and artificial Spring Equinox festival called Ostara. Much like the Roman Church of old, which was furious at the Ionian Church for celebrating Easter on the ‘incorrect’ date, we can lift up our voices and cry as one: you’re doing it wrong!
|Sunday, April 5th, 2015|
|On what we mean when we say 'pagan fertility symbols'
Can it really be that time of year again? Comes round sooner every year, doesn't it?
Right, then. Hoist the mainsail and roll out the fact cannons, because it's time to go and scupper some of the remaining frigates of bullshit still afloat out there on the high seas of the Internet!
Today's topic is something that's haunted the Eostre debate for years, dragging in such luminaries as Eddie Izzard and Bill Hicks, and it is this: aren't eggs and bunnies obviously pagan symbols of fertility, though?
In my experience, you can cite sources and quote Bede and quote Grimm and quote Hutton and point out the limits of what's known until you are blue in the face and still you will hear the retort 'yeah well that's all very interesting, Cav, but at the end of the day, eggs and bunnies are obviously
pagan fertility symbols, aren't they? I mean it just makes sense. Fertility, innit?'
Okay, let's break it down. Let's look at the concept of 'pagan fertility symbols' and how that very concept is completely flawed, based as it is on MODERN thinking rather than anything pre-Christian faiths actually believed.
What people are actually saying when they claim 'eggs and rabbits were obvious pagan fertility symbols' is 'eggs and rabbits remind us
of reproduction, and those pagans were all about Fertility weren't they, so they must have been fertility symbols'. Pull up a chair while I bore you rigid explaining why this is a load of wank.Symbols, Culture and Context
Firstly, if you're going to claim that a naturally occurring phenomenon is a 'symbol', you have to show evidence of its USE as a symbol in a particular context, as verified by participants in the culture in question. In itself, an egg is just an egg. So, 'bats are used in Chinese art to symbolise good luck' is a coherent & potentially verifiable statement.
The problem we so often face is that learned men have, for years, decided that they are more equipped to decipher the 'symbolism' of various folk traditions than are the people who actually practice those traditions. We are thus confronted with a horrendous backlog of prescriptive analyses of alleged 'symbolism' which, on being investigated, inevitably prove to be the pet theories of some folklorist or other of the last century. Ron Hutton is particularly brilliant in his acid condemnation of these people:'...it was assumed that the people who actually held the beliefs and practiced the customs would long have forgotten their original, 'real' significance, which could only be reconstructed by scholars. The latter therefore paid very little attention to the social context in which the ideas and actions concerned had actually been carried on during their recent history, when they were best recorded. Many collectors and commentators managed to combine a powerful affection for the countryside and rural life with a crushing condescension towards the ordinary people who carried on that life.'
When people refer to 'the eggs and bunnies' of Easter, they don't generally specify which artistic or other cultural context they're referring to in which said eggs and bunnies appear. Obviously, the artform we're all familiar with is the greetings card. Easter postcards are believed to have originated in 1898 or thereabouts and employed the familiar motifs of yellow chicks, eggs and anthropomorphised rabbits. But they also featured cherubic children, lambs, little gnomes, fairies climbing out of eggshells
, and a host of other peculiar images such as a child driving an egg-shaped chariot.
So we have a rich visual heritage of modern
Easter imagery that involves eggs and bunnies. This explains why we
associate those images with Easter. We've been drowning in this iconography since childhood.
It's worth noting here that the greetings card industry thrives on cuteness. Fluffy chicks are cute. Fuzzy bunnies are cute. Foxes were not seen as cute. This may be part of the reason why the other egg-bringers of Easter, such as the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox, are all but unknown now. The Easter Fox, the Easter Stork and the Easter Cuckoo are all recorded egg-bringers in various parts of Germany, but the bunny has long since eclipsed them all. I believe we can blame the greetings card industry for the bunny's usurpation of the Easter Hare, too: it was the Osterhase, the Easter Hare, that was the egg-bringer in the earliest recorded mention of an Easter Egg-bringing animal (in De Ovis Paschalibus). Rabbits are cuddly, whereas hares are staring-eyed and a bit mad.
So what did eggs and bunnies symbolise to the people who printed and sold the Easter greetings cards? I think we can safely conclude that they symbolised market appeal, while selectively tapping into familiar pre-existent traditions.
Turning to the actual tradition of a hare bringing eggs, it's difficult to see how the hare can 'symbolise' anything, because it's not being employed in a context in which a symbolic subtext could meaningfully apply. In England, we have a legend that the Devil spits
(or pisses, depending on who you ask) on the blackberries in the hedgerows on October the somethingth, so we shouldn't eat them after this date. The practical purpose of this tongue-in-cheek legend is to prevent us (and our kids) from eating blackberries after a frost. The Devil doesn't 'symbolise' anything.
The functional purpose
of the Easter Hare, by contrast, is readily apparent: he allows parents to prepare a tasty, colourful treat for children while pretending that they were not responsible. In this respect he is exactly like the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas. Nobody wastes their breath arguing what the Tooth Fairy may 'symbolise'. We just understand.
Let's remember, too, that Jacob Grimm - who is singlehandedly responsible for the reconstructed Goddess 'Ostara' - considered the Easter Hare tradition 'unintelligible'. The best he could do was to speculate that the hare might have been the 'sacred animal' of his speculative Goddess. But when the granddaddy of German folklorists has nothing solid to say about an Easter animal, maybe the rest of us should be hesitant about slapping it with the 'pagan fertility symbol' label.
Easter Imagery Before The Greetings Card Era
We cannot say whether rabbits, eggs or hares were used to symbolise anything in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon sacred art, because there aren't any known examples of such a use, symbolic or otherwise (to the best of my knowledge & research). It is therefore seriously pushing it to claim any of these things were 'pagan symbols'. The claim is made not by reference to Anglo-Saxon religion itself, nor to documentary or archaeological evidence thereof, but by reference to activities in an entirely Christian context that were first documented many centuries after Christianization and are imaginatively supposed to be dim and distant echoes of a forgotten pagan past. Such an interpretation, long after the fact, is exactly the kind of learned speculation-from-without that Hutton condemns above.
a tradition of rabbits and hares being used in a symbolic manner in Christian art. Wikipedia is pretty good on the subject.
Strikingly, we find that rabbits and hares were employed as symbols of virginity as well as symbols of fertility or lust. This should act as a warning against any simplistic, generically 'pagan' interpretation of perpetuated images.
The Problem With Eggs
There's already an adequate explanation for why eggs are decorated and celebrated at Easter. They're back on the menu again after having been forbidden during Lent. Moreover, as Horrible Histories consultant and all-round top bloke Greg Jenner explains, in the days before modern farming techniques chickens only laid eggs at all between spring and autumn
. There is thus a calendrical appropriateness that has nothing to do with 'symbolising fertility'.
It is often pointed out that the decorated eggs from the Zoroastrian New Year celebration of Nowruz 'represent fertility'; indeed, Nowruz is inevitably referred to in discussions of Easter's alleged pagan roots, as if one non-Christian spring festival somehow set the template for all others to follow, regardless of cultural, temporal or geographic distance. The symbolism does not appear to be universal; other descriptions of Nowruz eggs hold them to represent creativity and productivity
. Decorated eggs are only one optional element of a Haft-Seen and do not form one of the seven S-items
In Easter greetings card art eggs are frequently depicted as freshly hatched, with unrealistically fluffy chicks peeping out. This calls our attention to a singular problem with the notion that eggs represent 'fertility'. It is impossible to tell by looking whether a given egg is fertile or not. In fact, the eggs that are typically eaten are NOT fertile, for a very good reason. Unless you are deliberately trying to breed chickens, you don't let the cockerel fertilise the hens' eggs. Fertile eggs run the risk of containing developing chicken embryos, which (at least in western Europe) isn't something you want to run into. (There are issues about whether fertile eggs are kosher, recalling the inarguable and evident influence of Passover upon the Christian Easter.) So unless you show an egg in the act of hatching or shortly after, there's no way to demonstrate that what you're showing is a fertile egg.
The typical symbolism accorded to Easter eggs is that they do not celebrate 'fertility' but rather new life
, a subtly different concept. 'Fertility' has (entirely non-coincidental) steamy associations, smacking as it does of Summerisle-esque pagans frolicking naked under the full moon, whereas 'new life' puts one in mind of lambs and fluffy yellow chicks. If we look at what our modern heritage of Easter iconography really depicts, it's not fertility, which is merely the passive potential
to produce life. It's the actuality
of new life. Little lambs, hatching chicks: spring's busting out all over.
Lambs and chicks, by the way, provide a very useful thought experiment. Why is it that people always mention 'eggs and bunnies' as 'pagan fertility symbols' but never mention the other, equally common symbols of Easter, namely fluffy yellow chicks and white lambs? The obvious answer is that fluffy yellow chicks and white lambs do not make us
think of pagan fertility rites. They're too innocuous, too cute. They don't put us in mind of sex. So to harp on about 'eggs and bunnies' and ignore the other, incompatible imagery is disingenuous, focusing selectively on only those Easter images that pander to our preconceptions of pagans.
Next time you hear the 'eggs and bunnies' argument trotted out, try saying 'So fluffy chicks and white lambs make you think of sex, do they?' while stroking your chin thoughtfully. You may see some surprising results.So What Is A 'Pagan Symbol' Anyway?
Glad you asked. 'Pagan' is bloody useless as a cultural signifier, because it's exclusionary, not descriptive. It describes what something is NOT, not what it was. It's like claiming something was a 'barbaric symbol' or a 'gentile symbol'.
Which specific pre-Christian faith do we mean when we say 'pagan'? Norse? Celtic? Saxon? Greek? And which time period are we talking about? Neolithic? Bronze age? Early mediaeval?
The moment we begin to speak of 'pagan symbols' we inevitably invoke the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy
, i.e. the delusional belief that there was such a thing as a common 'pagan' identity in which the various pre-Christian faiths shared, and that there are fundamental factors common to them all. 'Pagan symbolism' means thinking of 'pagan' as a mindset
; a naive, scary but oddly appealing, fertility-obsessed, nature-worshipping, openly and frankly sexual way of seeing the world. If this seems familiar, it's because the Victorians created it (and dreaded it) while the neopagan movement embraced it and tried to identify with it. It may be compelling, particularly when it's used as a stick to beat Christianity with, but it's not real. It's nothing but the exaggerated, idealised contrary to urbanised humanity; what we needed our ancestors to represent back then, rather than who they actually were.Yeah But Fertility Though
The same woolly-minded thinking that tends to cludge all diverse pre-Christian beliefs into 'paganism' also tends to posit 'fertility' as one of the pagans' prime concerns. This is because such an image was the very antithesis of the modern post-industrial society that produced Frazer et al
. To the Victorian and post-Victorian folklorists, the bestial primitivism of the 'pagans' produced a sort of horrified fascination. They spoke of 'fertility rites' as a sanitised way of discussing the phallicism and ritualised sexual behaviour that they believed was going on.
In Margaret Murray's case, the belief in an underground pagan 'fertility cult' ran so deep that she attempted to connect it with historical accounts of witchcraft. This in turn led to Gardner's creation of Wicca, which was nothing more than an attempt to make Murray's theory into reality. Murray's work has of course been long debunked, but the intrusion of flawed theory into real-world practice helps to perpetuate the misconceptions; self-indentified pagans are now asserting that 'their' traditions really do reflect an ancient preoccupation with fertility, now construed as healthy and natural, in the face of censorious Christian prudery.
'Fertility' is such a darkly evocative term, isn't it? This is especially true when it is used in the context of pagan religion. Whose
fertility is being implied? The fertility of the land? Of the beasts? Or of the people? Or, most likely, some generic boundary-crossing 'fertility' in which land, beasts and people are blent together in a piquant, sweaty, atavistic fug.
To speak of 'pagan fertility symbols', then, is to perpetuate an ignorant and condescending view of the past that said a lot more about the respectable scholars who created it than it does about the people we seek to understand.
It's illuminating to look at the frequency with which the term 'fertility symbol' occurs in published works over the last couple of centuries
. As you can see, a phrase (and concept) we take completely for granted has only come to prominence very recently.
The pagan Anglo-Saxon culture that gave us the word 'Easter' (from Eosturmanoth, as Bede attests) has one known 'fertility symbol' of which I am personally aware, and that is a cake. Cakes were placed into ploughed, barren fields in order to restore fertility to them; see the Acerbot, a (barely) Christianised ritual.
What you will not find are eggs and rabbits.
|Friday, March 27th, 2015|
Just to confirm I'm now posting to Reddit, using the name 'Osterfuchs' as my more usual sobriquet was taken.
|Sunday, March 22nd, 2015|
|Tuesday, August 5th, 2014|
|Sunday, July 20th, 2014|
|The Secret, Hidden, Thirteenth Plopcast of Comicbookgirl19
Several months after we recorded this, it occurred to me that some of you who still read this blog (you do exist, don't you?) might have missed it. So here's the full two hours of me, Kirk, Tyson and of course Comicbookgirl19, who you may remember from the Prometheus post, talking our arses off about Ridley Scott, magick, Alan Moore, Aleister Crowley, occult stuff in general, and comics. Enjoy. I know I did.
|Thursday, April 17th, 2014|
|Archive post for the most stupid-ass Eostre fakelore from across the Web - feel free to contribute
'After the ice age, when people first colonised Ireland, they brought with them belief in gods, one of whom was the moon goddess Eostre, who was worshiped in the spring.
Some thought they could see the image of a hare carrying an egg on the moon's surface so the hare was believed to be the earthly form of Eostre, who gazed up at the moon that was her home.'http://www.independent.ie/business/farming/a-hare-raiser-best-to-enjoy-26713707.html
'The Saxon equivalent of Ashteroth/Ishtar/Astarte was the goddess Eostre, from which we get the word "oestrus," which refers to an animal in heat. According to the myth, Eostre opened the gates of Valhalla to Baldur, the sun god, who had been killed -- thus the sun god was resurrected.'http://www.outsidethecamp.org/dyk14.htm
'In ancient days, at this time of year, the Greeks marked the arrival of Aphrodite the goddess of love, the Egyptians celebrated Hathor the goddess of motherhood, and the Vikings went bonkers for Ostara the goddess of fertility.
Ostara, when the Vikings came to England, was known as Eostre in the local lingo. She was linked in folk custom with rabbits and hares, who traditionally at this time of year were at it like... well... rabbits. The Easter Bunny is about as suitable a symbol for children as priapic soap romeo Ken Barlow.'http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jesus-christ-its-easter-fleet-1791519#ixzz2z8mFHJmZ
'In early days, many Celts worshiped the god Eostre from which the name Easter in part derives. The customs included the reverence of a rabbit. It was said, that at the rise of each full moon, Eostre transforms into a giant rabbit, a symbol of Spring’s fertility and good fortune.'https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=355054351358966
|Thursday, April 10th, 2014|
|'How to Make Magic' from 1974. A children's handbook of the occult. No, really.
I have many evocative memories of the house my brothers and I lived in in the winter of 1976. The smell of the kitchen - kerosene and chilblain ointment, and the underlying taint of damp mould. The creaky old sofa. The little round hole in the upstairs window. The thin polystyrene layer on the bedroom walls that made for laughably poor insulation. And, of course, the time I tried to conjure spirits into a crude Solomonic circle.
'You have to get in the circle with me,' I told my younger brothers. 'The book says so!'
I clutched my cut-out cardboard pentagram in my fist and cursed their recalcitrance.
This all sounds like the prelude to a horror story - early Stephen King perhaps - but it actually happened. I was eight or nine at the time and had recently found a book that told you how to do magic. Unlike the Puffin Book of Magic
, a manual of conjuring tricks which explicitly warned you that it was not
going to give you special powers, the book I'd found was far more encouraging.
The Puffin book's back cover read 'This book will not teach you how to make palaces appear, or turn your teacher into an ice-cream frog.' (Ever since, I have wondered what an ice-cream frog was.) Depressing news for a skinny young boy in National Health glasses. Imagine my delight, then, when I read quite a different message on the back of my new discovery, How To Make Magic
'There is more to magic than magic tricks. First make your own magic wand, then learn how to do mind reading and fortune telling, how to weave spells, brew magic potions, summon spirits and hunt ghosts.'
AWESOME. None of the Puffin book's limp disclaimers here. This was the real stuff. Proper magic. Weave spells! Brew magic potions! SUMMON SPIRITS!
In later life, I sometimes wondered what on earth had been going through the minds of whoever wrote that book. I didn't doubt my recollection of it, much less that of the spirit-summoning fiasco, but I did wonder just how much of it I'd recalled correctly. Surely, even in the 1970s, people didn't write occult handbooks for kids?
And then I found it again.( Care to take a look?Collapse )
|Headlines that sound like cryptic crossword clues
All genuine headlines. (Letter counts added purely for effect & mischief, however.)
1. Vaseline used to free tortoise Tommy from sundial (8,4)
2. Pizza dough explodes Edinburgh bin (6)
3. Telford sewers blocked by dead piranhas (4,4,3)
4. Pope Francis meets giant chocolate pope (7)
5. Swimming pool evacuated after artificial leg mistaken for paedophile (10)
6. Walrus bones discovered beneath London rail station (4,2)
7. Church plans to force out Wonga (9)
8. Charity seeks end to lunchbox ham (2,10)
9. Dried squash holds headless French king's blood (14)
10. Tomato excuse for prostitute in car (6)
11. Blue cockerel takes roost on fourth plinth (11)
12. Oscar winner haggis quits Scientology (7)
13. Pope blesses porn star's parrot (4,2)
14. Venezuelan government seizes toilet paper factory amid shortage (12)
15. Instant mash spill closes road (8)
16. Man poured beer on tiger? (11)
17. Russia loses control of satellite full of geckos (4,8)
18. Army of angry Spartans startle commuters on the Tube (5)
19. Seal discovered in Merseyside field (3)
20. Centuries of Italian history unearthed in quest to fix toilet (10,1,6)
21. Kazoo solo spoilt by Manchester audience (6,6)
22. Can you play against Uruguay on Thursday, George? (7)
23. Scores clamour to be a hermit (8)
24. Sex emerged in ancient Scottish lake (4)
25. Church vows to stop soaking homeless people (6)
26. Drone delivering asparagus to Dutch restaurant crashes and burns (7)
27. Panda may have faked pregnancy for buns (3,3)
28. Artist's plans to drop piano off tower are axed (10)
29. Bear falls through skylight into party then eats all the cupcakes (4,2,4)
30. Squirrel with plague shuts US park (9)
|Thursday, February 27th, 2014|
|Eostre, Ostara and the Easter Fox
It is nearly, but not quite, That Time Of Year Again. Yes, I mean the time when the persevering few take to the keyboard to challenge the disinformation put about by the ignorant but well-meaning many, concerning 'Eostre', the Easter Bunny and all that blather. (On the offchance that you are new to this blog and don't know what I mean, feel free to start here
and keep going until you are a) up to speed or b) very sick of the topic indeed.)
So, as an aperitif of sorts, something a little different. I'd like to cite, once again, the magnificent prologue to The English Year by Steve Roud: 'The real danger is from a far more virulent virus - the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of 'folkiness', are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.'
That last line is so chilling, isn't it? 'All customs will soon end up with the same story'. And that's exactly what we are seeing.
Please consider how many of the neopagan 'explanations' for modern customs refer to the most entrenched, corporate-enshrined, iconic versions of those customs. In an age of instant mass communication, the holiday traditions and the characters associated with them have become standardised. Regional variation steadily vanishes. So, when neopagan 'explanations' of The Easter Bunny or Santa appear, they often sound like probes into the secrets of well-known celebrities. The modern icons have become monolithic.
No surprise, then, that the neopagan Easter Bunny origin stories are equally monolithic, attempting as they do to appropriate a standardized, ubiquitous, iconic rabbit by means of a standardized line about a Goddess and her sacred hare. We thus arrive at a notion of Paganism which, in responding to globalised imagery, has become equally timeless, placeless and divorced from actual practice. The Eostre business becomes 'the
story', regardless of what your inherited traditions may be, how they may have changed over the years, or what regional nuances may have shaped them. It is both ironic and tragic that pagan religion, which placed so much emphasis on the local
, should now have been reimagined as Paganism (TM) in all its amorphous boundary-crossing homogenity.
This relentless standardization and homogenization of our common pagan past, with its wilful blindness to any research that does not serve the grim purpose of appropriation, drowns out many exciting and fascinating aspects of folklore that are much more deserving of our attention. It's as if a historical site of immense significance had been buried under a huge concrete bunny with a neon pentagram stuck on top.
Take, for example, the Osterfuchs
- the Easter Fox.
You could be forgiven for not even having heard of the Easter Fox, and yet it's described as an older Germanic tradition than the Easter Bunny. In some places, it was supposedly more popular. A translation of some Easter Fox information by Arkady Rose:Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox.
Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter fox was not disturbed during his visit - for example by shutting up pets for the night.
Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that "... it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. "
Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
You won't see any neopagan interpretations of the Easter Fox, or any suggestion that Eostre's sacred animals were a fox and a rabbit. That's because fakelore interpretations only concern themselves with imagery that it is assumed you already know. You continually see attempts to appropriate Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because everyone is familiar with them. It never seems to occur to anyone that these traditional figures were not always so standardized or internationally accepted, even in the English-speaking world.
In the Easter Fox, however, there is a sniff - possibly no more than a sniff - of a tradition that may
be genuinely old, forgotten and occluded. Personally, I find that wonderful.
|Wednesday, November 6th, 2013|
|In which my daughter plays Dungeons and Dragons, sort of (transcribed from FB)
Our daughter Sabrina, aka 'Bean', is five and a half. She loves imaginative play, especially where superheroes are concerned; having inherited my Lego, she's accumulating a small collection of DC-based stuff. Both Catwoman and Harley Quinn have changed sides and are now good guys, by the way. This is partly because Sabrina doesn't think there are enough good girls' roles in superhero stories - well done, kid - but also because she 'doesn't be baddies'.
This prompts something of a Dad strop last night. 'Why does Daddy always have to play all the bad guys?' I fume. (I am already in a Dark Souls induced frump, the sort where you hate the game forever until five minutes have passed, you have a new idea and you plunge back in.) 'It's like I'm always the DM and I never get to be a player!'
'What's a DM?' asks Sabrina.
'Well,' say I, alert to the possibility that The Time Is Nigh, 'there's a game we all used to play called Dungeons and Dragons...'
Three lines into my explanation, she yells 'I WANNA PLAY IT!'
Oh God, what have I done.
I ask her mother if this is a good idea. Her mother gives me one of those you-dug-yourself-into-this-hole-dearest-h
ave-fun-getting-out looks. Right. Let's do this. I am confident I can improvise some basic, pared-down version of D&D that doesn't baffle or upset my daughter, but still communicates the crucial difference between tabletop RPG and other kinds of play.
To my mind, the difference is that there are Rules. It's not just freeform improvisation, unlike the stories Sabrina and I make up together (what happens when Wheatley from Portal II takes over Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, does Captain Jack Sparrow know Ariel the mermaid, what sort of house would we live in if we had a gazillion pounds and why do Daddy's houses always have disco floors). In D&D, you can choose to TRY to do something, but whether you succeed or fail isn't wholly up to you. It's the living flesh of imagination wrapped around the rigid skeletal structure of system, and that, my friends, is how the magic is made.
We can't find the polyhedral dice. We can't even find a six-sided die. No matter. We shall use the toss of a coin as our conflict resolution mechanic.
'The first challenge is to choose your character class,' I explain, lying on the sofa like some recumbent dictator. 'Fighter, magic-user, cleric or thief?'
'I want to be a witch,' says Sabrina, in a move that literally nobody could have seen coming.
'Right. Okay. As a witch, you can cast four spells,' I improvise wildly. 'Magic missile, light, spider climb and web.'
Sabrina jumps up and down with glee.
'And you have a dagger for fighting with. And some money. And a cloak.'
'Can I have a helicopter?'
'No you can't.'( Cut for length....Collapse )
|Sunday, October 20th, 2013|
|Sunday, May 19th, 2013|
|Saturday, April 13th, 2013|
|Sunday, March 31st, 2013|
|Friday, March 29th, 2013|
|The Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy
I’d like to broaden my usual ranting this year and talk about a particular problem affecting not only modern paganism, but modern Christianity and modern atheism. In giving it a name, I hope to help others identify it and battle it wherever it occurs.
It’s the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy, or if you prefer, the Pagan Homogeneity Error.
This concept may not seem familiar at first, but I’m sure that the more I go on about it, the more easily examples will occur to you.
Neil Gaiman once talked to us about adapting Neverwhere for BBC TV back in the day. He commented that the BBC in those days was like a sausage machine. Whatever you may feed into a sausage machine, you get sausages out the other end. Similarly, whatever you fed into the BBC came out as Doctor Who.
The Pagan Sausage Machine fallacy is similar. Whatever pre-Christian religion you feed into the sausage machine of the early Christian missionary worldview, whatever the regional specifics may have been, whatever deities were involved, the undifferentiated sausages of ‘PAGANISM ™’ come out of the other side.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error is thus the mistake of considering disparate pre-Christian or non-Christian religions to be alike, related, interchangeable and/or sympathetic with one another purely because the label ‘pagan’ is affixed to them.
The error lies in the origin of the term ‘pagan’, which was a disparaging term. It meant ‘civilian’, i.e. one who was not in the army of Christ. By lumping together all non-Christian faiths under one umbrella, the early Christians deemed them to be all equally valueless. ‘Paganism’ was not seen as a religion but a condition, akin to barbarism.
From a missionary perspective, the Gods of the people you’re trying to convert are not interesting or unique. They are merely ‘demons’ or ‘idols’. There is therefore no point in distinguishing between them. After all, if your worldview holds that only Christianity is right and everything else is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what local flavour of wrong it is. This attitude is actually characteristic of Old Testament Judaism: ‘For all the gods of the nations are idols’, reads Psalm 96.5.
So, if you see the pre-Christian world as covered with an essentially homogenous practice called ‘Paganism’ from one end to the other, it’s very easy to conflate elements from completely separate religions. It doesn’t help that there is a certain measure of overlap in some pantheistic religions, sometimes stemming from common ancestry, and sometimes born of the practice of adopting foreign deities into one’s own religion. The Romans were especially keen on the latter, identifying various Gods as local examples of their own: http://www.unrv.com/culture/adopted-roman-gods.php
A monotheistic religion can’t do that, of course. Since there’s only one God in that system, you can’t very well go about claiming other people’s Gods as examples of yours. So what we find is a tendency to adopt local deities either as saints – see Saint Bride – or as demons. For example, the Caananite Goddess Astarte becomes the demon Astaroth.
This throws open the gates for all sorts of bizarre cross-associations with no historical basis. If you hold that there is a literal demon behind every one of your neighbour’s ‘idols’, then it follows that since demons are independent of such trivial concerns as time and place, they can therefore show up all over the globe playing the same sorts of roles in different garb. Pagan deity A and pagan deity B can thus be lumped together based on nothing more than a perceived common ‘pagan’ identity plus a similarity of function.
This is a great problem when it comes to analysing the history of pre-Christian religion. Because of the Pagan Homogeneity Error, Christians tended to deal with local pre-Christian religion in terms of Paganism™ as they understood it. This is why we read in the Lanercost Chronicle of 1282:
"About this time, in Easter week, the parish priest of Inverkeithing, named John, revived the profane rites of Priapus, collecting young girls from the villages, and compelling them to dance in circles to [the honour of] Father Bacchus. When he had these females in a troop, out of sheer wantonness, he led the dance, carrying in front on a pole a representation of the human organs of reproduction, and singing and dancing himself like a mime, he viewed them all and stirred them to lust by filthy language. Those who held respectable matrimony in honour were scandalised by such a shameless performance, although they respected the parson because of the dignity of his rank. If anybody remonstrated kindly with him, he [the priest] became worse [than before], violently reviling him.”
We may raise an eyebrow at the idea of a Scottish priest worshipping ‘Father Bacchus’.
The Pagan Homogeneity Error still persists today, arguably more so than ever before. It provides a sort of deranged hyperspace by means of which any non-Christian concept can be bolted on to any other non-Christian concept in support of whatever argument the speaker is trying to make.
The most obvious sign that a writer is committing the Pagan Homogeneity Error is this: they are associating ‘pagan’ ideas because of a similarity of name or function and not because of a demonstrable historical or geographic connection.
For example, take the error of thinking that the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is historically authentic. (One might think that this was not an error that many modern Pagans are likely to make, but a depressing number of them do.)
The Wheel of the Year uses the Irish/Scots festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain and intersperses them with festivals from the Anglo-Saxon calendar, such as Litha. We can see at a glance that two entirely separate cultures have been cobbled together here; they have nothing in common but a shared ‘pagan’ identifier. But because people find it very easy to conceive of a winter ‘pagan festival’ leading on to a springtime ‘pagan festival’, they swallow the whole thing in one instead of discerning between the different cultural elements.
Similarly, a great kerfuffle is sometimes made at Easter about the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar, who is cludged together with the putative Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre. It would be hard to find a better example of the Pagan Homogenity Error than this.
By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. (For comparison, that’s about the same as the distance from London to New York.) To make that journey today, you would have to travel through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before crossing the English Channel and making the final trip up to Tyne and Wear in the UK.
Many of the people wishing you ‘Happy Easter’ on that journey wouldn’t say Happy Easter, of course. They’d refer you to ‘Paskalya’ in Turkish, ‘Húsvét’ in Hungarian and Pâques in Belgium. In fact, for a long time it was only the English and the Germans who called the festival anything like ‘Easter’ at all. The vast majority of nations called it a variant on Pascha. However, nowadays we have a lot more English speakers, thanks to a wonderful country called America that’s doing rather well for itself since Bede’s time. This tends to exaggerate the perceived importance of the English name for the festival.
Oh – and Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.
On top of that, the names Ishtar and Eostre belong to separate language families. Ishtar pertains to the Semitic language family, Eostre to the Indo-European. If you don’t know what language families are, for heaven’s sake go and look them up. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise you.
Also, Eostre was probably a dawn-goddess (if she existed); Ishtar was much more about love and war. Eostre’s festival was in the lunar month roughly corresponding to April; so far as I know, we have no record of when Ishtar’s festivals may have been.
So, how on earth can anyone possibly conflate the two?
Handily, the Pagan Sausage Machine is as efficient as a TARDIS when it comes to ignoring the mundane limitations of time and space. Never mind all that tedious history, archaeology, linguistics and research that stands between them: just bung it all into the sausage machine, mince it all up, and Eostre and Ishtar come out the other side as alike as two pagan peas in a pagan pod:
1. Their names sound a bit alike, especially if you neck a pint of vodka first.
2. They’re both pagan goddesses, which obviously means they’re about sex.
Now you too can create a Facebook meme. Have fun!
|Wednesday, March 13th, 2013|
|Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare
It's that time of year again: daffodils are coming up, the sun is re-establishing itself as a welcome and warming presence instead of some dimly remembered thing of olden time, and people who don't know any better are circulating that bloody story about Eostre's Hare. Again.I've blogged extensively about Eostre in the past
and don't intend to repeat any of that here. The short version: there is only one reference to her anywhere, in Bede; he gives absolutely no information about her except for her name; and everything else that people claim about her, such as having a sacred hare companion, is wholly unsupported by evidence.
This is not even a controversial stance. On the contrary, it is exactly what the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states: 'Nowadays, many writers claim that hares were sacred to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but there is no shred of evidence for this; Bede, the only writer to mention Eostre, does not link her with any animal.'
The interesting question now, to me, is when this spurious association between Eostre and hares arose. It's not in Bede, as we've already established. It's not in Grimm. (EDIT: WRONG, SEE FURTHER EDIT NOTE BELOW.) Adolf Holtzmann, writing in 1874 in German Mythology
, states "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara." This is the earliest example of this association I can find, and it is still speculative at this point.
K. A. Oberle, in the catchily titled Überreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, oder die Wochentage, Monate und christlichen Feste etymologisch, mythologisch, symbolisch und historisch erklärt
(1883), writes "Wahrscheinlich ist der Hase das heilige Tier der Ostara gewesen" (Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara), echoing Holtzmann.
However, it's worth noting that in 1892, Charles J Billson writing in the the British journal Folk-Lore states flatly
that "Oberle also concludes that the hare which lay the particoloured Easter eggs was sacred to the same goddess," ignoring the 'probably' that both Holtzmann and Oberle included.
We find another speculative association in Charles Isaac Elton's Origins of English History
(1890), in which it is suggested that certain Easter customs "were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre", the customs in question being those in which "the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the 'Hare-pie Bank".
Elton's speculation is still a far cry from the modern assertion that Eostre's sacred beast was
the hare, so who first made that assertion? John Lanyard's Lady of the Hare
(1944) refers back to Billson, but writes as if the question were more or less settled, rather than being a matter of speculation: 'Since the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare, and the hare so widely symbolizes 'dawn', and as dawn comes from the east, and Easter is the festival of the Resurrection symbolizing the birth of new life, it had occurred to me to wonder whether the actual word "Easter" might have a very simple explanation indeed - so simple that philologists and churchmen alike had missed it - namely that it was cognate to the word "east" as symbolizing the dawn from which new light came.'
By 1976, we have Christina Hole writing in Easter and its Customs
: 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.' Any suggestion that this is a speculative
association is entirely extinct. Somehow, along the way, supposition has become unexamined fact. I am not aware of any source between John Lanyard and Christina Hole who makes this outright statement, and would welcome any breadcrumbs from readers of this blog who know of one.
So, in summary, here is a very tentative timeline of Eostre's Bunny:
725 CE: Bede mentions Eostre. He does not associate her with hares.
1835 CE: Grim, in Deustche Mythologie
, postulates Ostara; he does not associate Eostre with hares. (WRONG - SEE EDIT)
1874 CE: Adolf Holtzmann states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1883 CE: K.A. Oberle also states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1890 CE: Charles Isaac Elton states that Easter customs at 'Hare-pie Bank' at 'Harecrop Leys' 'were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre'
1892 CE: Charles J Billson refers to Oberle's association of the hare with Ostara as a conclusion, rather than as a speculation
1944 CE: John Lanyard states that 'the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare'.
1976 CE: Christina Hole states that 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.'
Please bear in mind that no new evidence arose during this time to change the speculative association into a definite one.
The shift from 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara' to 'the hare was
the sacred beast of Eastre' wasn't based on any archaeological discoveries, collected oral traditions or unearthed documents. It appears to have been based completely upon authors borrowing from other authors, and in so doing, shifting the goalposts of certainty until one person's speculation had become another's unchallenged fact.
Afterword: it's an interesting time in Eostre studies, folks. As you'll know, I have never been inclined to dismiss Eostre herself
out of hand, though I am happy to take the axe to the massive amount of unsupported codswallop that is circulated concerning her, such as the bunny story. As far as Eostre herself goes, if she's good enough for Professor Hutton, she's good enough for me. She may have been a real figure of worship, she may not. The jury's still out on that one.
And now Doctor Philip A. Shaw of the University of Leicester has added something entirely new (to me) to the ongoing debate, namely linking Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the 'matron Austriahenea' to Eostre. I am therefore going to pick up a copy of his work 'Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons'
just as soon as the next pay cheque arrives. Though one does have to facepalm at the sole comment on Amazon: 'It is not surprising that there is little "hard evidence" considering that there was literally a war waged over hundreds of years to stamp out "the old religion."' I imagine Dr Shaw would probably have a few words to say on that, too.
EDIT: This is fascinating stuff. According to Swain Wodening's review of the book
, Dr. Shaw believes that Eostre really existed but that she and Hretha were entirely local to Kent! So, the selfsame academic who offers up new evidence for Eostre's existence also limits her to a very small part of south-eastern England. Not a pan-Germanic Goddess at all, then; and in affirming an entirely local Kentish Eostre, Dr. Shaw is effectively demolishing the hypothetical Germanic 'Ostara' proposed by Grimm. Indeed, he suggests that 'the German month names Ostermonat and Redmanot were carried to Germany and France by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and uses this to back his claim that they were local goddesses'! So, the stance is that Christian Anglo-Saxons took those month names over, and (presumably) there is no connection at all to any cognate pagan goddesses in those regions. Well, that certainly jives with Charlemagne renaming the month of April to the old High German Ostarmanot; he would hardly have done so if there were lingering pagan associations.
IMPORTANT EDIT: I done screwed up, folks. Bound to happen one of these days. Holzmann's Deustche Mythologie was simply a reissue of Grimm. So it *was* Grimm who made the initial association between Ostara and hares. I'm going to leave the original with this correction in place rather than edit it out, because I'd rather not pretend to be infallible.
|Friday, November 23rd, 2012|
|Thursday, June 28th, 2012|
|The Tale of the Dancing Man
Originally published at Adrian Bott. You can comment here or there.
Originally published in Ahoy There magazine, Issue 23. Based on the song ‘Jack Dancer’ by The Golden Apple. All musical anachronisms are intentional.
Make yourselves comfortable, lads. It’ll be a good few hours before they give us the signal, and until then we may as well warm ourselves and have a drink or two. One of you keep an eye out of the window and give me a nudge if you see anything unusual out there.
Now, since we’re a merry company at a long table by a goodly fire in a clifftop inn at ten in the evening in the month of November, why, we’d best have a story; and you all know as well as I that the only kind of stories to tell on nights like these are stories of terror.
( Read the rest of this entry »Collapse )
|Saturday, June 16th, 2012|
|Being Lara Croft
When I'm not ranting about Ridley Scott films, frantically redrafting children's stories or acting as the first minister of the newly founded International Church of Space Jesus, I work as a narrative consultant and content writer for videogames. I mention this by way of explaining why I'm about to go off on one about Lara Croft, but not for quite the same reasons as everyone else is going off on one about Lara Croft.( Cut for wall-o-text...Collapse )