There’s an aspect of Bede’s writing about Eostre that’s easy to overlook. With all the understandable neopagan focus on Eostre the Goddess, many of us have missed the point that the Goddess and the festival that honoured her are distinct concepts with the same (or extremely similar) names. Bede states that the English ‘(call) the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance’, which affirms that the name of the old observance was Eostur.
In the first part of this article, I’m going to talk a lot about Eostur the festival - the ‘old observance’ as Bede has it - as distinct from Eostre the Goddess.
Then as now, Eostur was an event. Even if Eostur was named for Eostre the Goddess, we have to approach it as a calendrical occasion worthy of study in its own right and not simply as a reminder that we once honoured pagan deities in this country. Furthermore, Eostur was evidently an event of such importance that following Christianization, the English people considered Eostur to be an ongoing (if altered) event, rather than an event that had been abolished and replaced with a new one. One asks oneself how this could have happened.
There has to be an explanation for why the Eostur event carried such societal weight that it resisted the imposition of the Christian name for the festival, Pascha. Contrary to neopagan belief, this is not a case of churchmen deliberately adopting an old pagan name in order to make conversion easier. Gregory does not tell Mellitus to adopt festivals’ names. Furthermore, Bede specifically tells us that it was the English people who kept the old name going. The impetus to carry on referring to ‘Eostur’ came from below, not from above.
Illustrative anecdote: about fifteen years ago, my brother came home to find there was a new vacuum cleaner standing in the hall. He told our father that he liked the look of ‘the new hoover’. Our father replied that there was no new hoover in the hall. My brother replied that there was a new hoover, and he was looking at it. Our father insisted there was no new hoover. This went back and forth for a bit until my brother physically fetched our father and pointed the cleaner out to him, upon which our father declared that it was not a ‘hoover’ but a Dyson.
My point here is not to lament my father’s precision (or pedantry) but rather to highlight how people think. ‘Hoover’ was originally a brand name, designating a popular make of vacuum cleaner. However, we English now call any vacuum cleaner a hoover, even the ones made by Dyson. Once we’re accustomed to calling a thing by a particular name, we will carry on doing so until the sky falls even if to do so would be wantonly inaccurate. If we have a feast at springtime that we call Eostur, we will go on calling that feast Eostur even if our new clergy insists that the season really ought to be called Pascha.
In the context of the year as a whole, Eostur would have marked the transition from six (lunar) months of winter into six months of summer. We know from Bede's account of Winterfilleth, the month that began winter, that the transition point was the full moon of that month. I am therefore working on the assumption that the Eostur festival likewise fell on the full moon of Eosturmonath, which is diametrically opposite Winterfilleth in the calendar.
Given that Bede refers to ‘feasts’ rather than to a single feast, we can conclude that Eostur involved considerable preparation and trouble. Even apart from any specifically religious aspect, the formal commencement of summer would surely have been an occasion to rejoice. This would have been an event that brought people together, and for which livestock and other supplies would have been set aside months in advance.
It is highly likely that the main component of Eostur would have been the sacrifice of an animal or animals in Eostre’s honour. We have several sound reasons for thinking this. Firstly, given the Anglo-Saxon diet, in order for a ‘feast’ to occur at all a slaughter would have been necessary; and a slaughter in a religious context is a sacrifice. Secondly, we know from Snorri’s account of Olver of Eggja that ‘sacrifice-feasts’ took place on three occasions in the Nordic calendar, one of which was in Spring, so a corresponding Anglo-Saxon sacrifice-feast is conceivable. Thirdly, in concluding his account of the Anglo-Saxon year, Bede says ‘Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise’. Although this sentence can be read as referring to the sacrifice of Blotmonath alone, I think this unlikely as Bede refers to ‘these vanities’, which I read as the entirety of heathen practice which he has just described.
Bede’s reference to ‘the sacrifice of praise’ is not accidental. He is deliberately contrasting the bloody sacrifices carried out by his heathen forebears with the bloodless Christian replacement for those rites. As we shall see, the supplanting of animal sacrifice with a symbolic Christian alternative is crucial to considerations of Eostur and Easter.
We may also observe that a sacrifice carried out during Eostur would have had a clearly comprehensible motive for a heathen assembly. Sacrifices were not arbitrary nor merely an excuse for a feast, but were carried out for the community’s benefit. Sacrifices have always been a medium of negotiation with the divine, in which an offering is made in the hope that the deity will provide something in return, or refrain from inflicting harm that would otherwise have been inflicted. To offer sacrifice was to propitiate the Gods.
In Snorri’s account, the autumn sacrifice was made ‘for a good winter’. This is a clear example of propitiation, since the life-threatening nature of winter is such that a ‘good’ winter is simply one that is not as bad as it could have been. We may ask ourselves, then, what the expected benefit of an Eostur sacrifice would have been.
The obvious candidate to benefit from a springtime sacrifice would have been the crops in the field. However, I do not think that the Eostur sacrifice would have been made to guarantee the fertility of the Earth, because that aspect of the agricultural process has already been addressed in Solmonath. Let us recollect that Solmonath, the month of the soil, the ‘month of cakes’ as Bede has it, was very probably a time when rites were carried out to bless the fields in preparation for the sowing. We are fortunate enough to have a piece of (barely Christianised) Anglo-Saxon ritual in which a cake is placed into a ploughed field in order to ensure its fertility.
By the time we reach Eosturmonath, then, the Earth-mother (eorthan modor, as the aforementioned ritual has it) has already been ritually ‘fed’. It falls to Eostre to raise the crops from the soil with her life-giving warmth and light. The connection between sunlight and plant growth would have been evident to the Anglo-Saxon farmer; one only needs to leave grass covered up for a short while to see how pale and withered it becomes.
To sum up: I contend that the most important part of Eostre’s rite was the sacrifice, because of a) the impossibility of having a feast without a slaughter, b) Bede’s emphasis that literal sacrifice is no longer the way, and c) the intuitive good sense of making an offering to guarantee a bountiful harvest at that time of year.
We may also take into account Pope Gregory’s famous (and widely misunderstood) letter to Abbot Mellitus. To put that letter into its historical context, we must appreciate that Augustine’s mission to the Anglo-Saxon pagans was only a few years old. Although that mission had been strikingly successful, with King Aethelbert of Kent converting to Christianity, the territory that Mellitus was to enter was still starkly pagan. Furthermore, Aethelbert himself was reluctant to impose Christianity upon his people, preferring to let them worship in the old way or the new, as they chose: 'It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity... for he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion.'
On pagan sacrifices, Gregory has this to say:
‘And because they are used to slaughter many oxen in sacrifice to devils, some solemnity must be given them in exchange for this, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they should build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from being temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer animals to the Devil, but kill cattle and glorify God in their feast, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their abundance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are retained, they may the more easily consent to the inward joys.’
The specific nature of Gregory's instructions suggests that he is reacting to first-hand reports from Augustine concerning entrenched heathen practice in England. We can therefore glean a little information about what the sacrifices were like. The sacrifice of an ox would have yielded an enormous amount of meat, which would have had to be consumed on the spot in warmer weather. This gives us some idea of the number of people who would have attended an Eostur rite.
The proposal that the converts 'build themselves huts of the boughs of trees' around the churches seems bizarre at first sight; why would they need to do this? If the church was the place of worship, what use could satellite huts be, especially huts that had been built on the spot for the occasion?
I suspect that the heathen habit of building huts from tree branches was mentioned in one of Augustine's reports, and would simply have referred to the erection of temporary shelters by heathens who had travelled from their own settlements to take part in a major celebration, such as Eostur. Huts could have been easily constructed from animal skins, which they would have brought with them, and branches, which they would have cut once they reached their destination, since there's no point lugging timber with you from home if you can just gather it at the other end.
Whatever else we may conclude, we can plainly see that the Anglo-Saxon practice of the sacrifice-feast was so important to them that the Pope himself felt it had to be accommodated rather than repressed. We can well understand why this should be, and see the dilemma that Pope Gregory (and the ongoing Christian mission) faced in trying to persuade the Anglo-Saxons to change their ways. Bluntly, if people turn up to a religious occasion expecting a feast, they want what they came for. If your religion will not allow them a feast, then they will stick with the one that does.
We are now in a better position to explain why the name Eostur survived. If Eostur was a sacrifice-feast that the Anglo-Saxon converts were allowed to keep, on condition that they ‘kill cattle and glorify God’ rather than sacrificing to Eostre, then the Eostur event persists in the popular English imagination regardless of any religious dimension. The Anglo-Saxons could still look forward to the feasting of Eostur, even if they were no longer technically sacrificing.
And now we come to the most intriguing theory of all, in my book.
Regular readers will know that the festival of Eostur was actually timed differently from the Christian Easter. Eostur was the fourth full moon of the Anglo-Saxon year (which began with the first new moon after Modranecht, Dec 25th), whereas Easter was the first full moon after Spring Equinox. This means that Eostur and Easter would have coincided on some years, but more often, the Christian celebration would have come first. Easter would have been a whole lunar cycle earlier in the calendar than Eostur.
I invite you to imagine the situation faced by the early Christian missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons. They have already conceded that new converts can carry on killing animals and feasting, just like they used to, to mark the Easter/Paschal event. The feast rapidly becomes an inextricable, eagerly anticipated accompaniment to the Christian rite. So when the Christian Easter happens a month earlier than the pagan Eostur, what happens?
The pagans get to watch the Christian converts enjoy a meaty feast, while they have to endure another 28 days before they can have theirs. Imagine the grumbling when it becomes apparent that your kinsmen are having ‘their Eostur’ a whole month earlier than you.
This was no small matter. The feasting at Eostur would have been something our pagan forebears eagerly looked forward to. After the feast of Modraniht was done, that was it for feasting until Eostur rolled around. (Bede mentions that sacrifices were made to Hretha in the previous month, but does not mention feasts, which to me suggests a lesser and more grave occasion in which a sacrifice was made to ward off divine wrath; Hretha may have been a somewhat savage and martial Goddess, which fits with this theory.) Getting to celebrate Eostur early would have been appealing.
It must have been sorely tempting to the Anglo-Saxon pagans to convert to Christianity on the spot and thus qualify to take part in the earlier feast, and I expect many of them did. This theory gains considerable weight, moreover, when we recall that Easter was traditionally the time for new converts to be baptised as Christians en masse. We therefore have both motive and opportunity for mass conversion at Easter, based on the carrying-over of the crucial element, the feast. I admit that this is a cynical reading of history, but religious conversion often takes place for just such pragmatic reasons.
From the Christians’ viewpoint, the perpetuation of the Eostur feast (in its new secular role) must have been a massive help to to them in their conversion efforts. Once it became apparent to the Anglo-Saxons that the omission of the old sacrifice made no difference to the quality of the harvest, the new ‘Easter’ must have seemed to have all of the benefits of the old celebration (the feasting and gathering) along with a newfound fraternity with the other Christian nations, which was really the point. In those times, becoming Christian was a community-wide affair rather than being a matter of individual conviction, and the chief benefit was not personal salvation so much as participation in Christendom.
It is impossible to reconstruct the old Eostur rite with any certainty, but given the echoes and traces that have come down to us through the years, the temptation to speculate is irresistible. As the full moon would have been the sign that Eostur was at hand, the sacrifice may have taken place at dusk or at night, when the lunar disk was clearly visible. Hundreds of kinsmen would have travelled from their own settlements to be present, and their branch-and-skin huts would have surrounded the ritual site. We know from Gregory’s letter that Anglo-Saxon worship involved ‘idols’, so the sacrificial beast may have been ritually killed before an image of Eostre, or possibly a young woman dressed as the Goddess who could have accepted a portion as her proxy. Either the remains or a portion for the Gods would have been burned on a pyre; we know from Bede that burning was a part of the sacrificial process, since he calls Blotmonath the ‘month of immolations’. There is a surviving German practice of lighting a bonfire at dusk on Easter Sunday; this may have originally been the pyre of immolation, with the bonfire persisting in the absence of the sacrifice as the religious rite and the feast gradually became decoupled. Finally, as Eostre was the dawn-goddess, it is possible that the celebration persisted through the night until dawn the next day. Bede mentions all-night ceremonies elsewhere, in his consideration of Modranecht.
This vision is of course a far cry from the neopagan one. And that, in my view, is how it should be. Eostre’s worship was not some hazy, fluffy, flower-laden business involving cuddly hares and decorated eggs that passively ‘symbolised fertility’, as the neopagan Internet seems to think. It would have involved spilled blood, roasted meat, roaring fires and a lot of noise, more akin to a biker gang party than a hippy festival.
We are now in a position to say what has survived of the old Eostur rite along with the name: the feast. We may leave aside the nonsensical speculation about ‘bunnies and eggs’ and declare with confidence that in England at least, the practice of celebrating Eostur with a feast of roasted meat lives on to this day. Lamb and beef joints are currently on offer at my local supermarkets, so you can have your ‘Easter roast’ with your family. I wonder what Pope Gregory would have made of that.
AFTERWORD: While looking into Proto-Indo-European myths I came across this piece from a Lithuanian myth, in which Aušrinė, Goddess of the morning star and a cognate of Eostre, sacrifices cattle in order to create the world. Nothing more than an interesting aside, this, but worth mentioning for all that:
In Lithuanian, a folktale tells of a bull and three cows which are beheaded by Aušrinė, (the morning star) and then the land appears. "The maiden upon returning released her bull. The bull knelt down and spoke in a man's voice: "Chop off my head!" The maiden did not want to chop it off, but she had to. She chopped the head off—a fourth of the seas disappeared, became land. Her brother emerged from the bull. She cut off the heads of all three cows, who were her sisters. All the seas disappeared, turned to land. The earth sprang to life.
Continue to The Case for Eostre, Part 2: Bede Revisited