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The Case for Eostre, Part 3: Meanwhile, Six Thousand Years Ago...

All of us understand how archaeological and documentary evidence can help us to build up a picture of our past. Historical linguistics, however, is a less well known field. It’s complex, but this is the essence of it: by studying how languages have changed over time, experts attempt to reconstruct earlier forms of language, and from those reconstructions, conclusions can be drawn about the speakers’ culture.

The manner in which variant languages descend from a common ancestor is reminiscent of the evolution of species. Languages are arranged into ‘families’, with each family sharing common descent from the ‘proto-language’. So, the common ancestor of the Germanic languages, such as English and German, is proto-Germanic; the common ancestor of the Celtic languages, such as Irish and Welsh, is proto-Celtic; and so on.

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the common ancestor of all the Indo-European languages, and would have been spoken from approximately 4500 to 2500 BCE. You can read more about it, and listen to what experts think it would have sounded like, here.

It is possible to attempt the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European myths by comparing the common elements of known myths that were told by speakers of the Indo-European languages, and also by analysing the names of characters in those myths to discern their original meaning. For example, we can attempt to reverse-engineer the creation myth of the Proto-Indo-Europeans by comparing the myths of Romulus and Remus (the mythical founders of Rome), the Norse creation myth, and the creation myth in the Rig Veda. This article explains how the process works.

The common elements in these creation myths are the sacrifice of one being by another, the creation of the world from the dismembered body of the sacrificed being, and twins. What is fascinating to me in the above is that the Norse myth, which involves the death and dismemberment of the giant Ymir, says nothing about Ymir being anyone’s twin. However, the name Ymir can be shown to derive from a root meaning ‘twin’, providing a depth of additional meaning to the story that had been lost over time.

From comparing cognate elements in related languages, we can postulate earlier ancestral forms of the mythic figures we already know about, and thus reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European pantheon and their myths even in the absence of any documentary or archaeological evidence.

One such reconstructed figure is the Proto-Indo-European Goddess of the dawn, Hausōs. This Goddess is considered to be the ancestor of known dawn-goddesses such as the Vedic Ushas, the Greek Ēōs and the Roman Aurora.

As the ever-helpful Wikipedia informs us, the name Hausōs derives from a root meaning ‘to shine’ and which has cognates meaning ‘east’, ‘gold’ and ‘springtime’.

The identification of the PIE deities is significant not only for what it can tell us about the distant past, but for the light that can be shed upon the myths of the daughter societies, as with Ymir above. Even though Bede’s mention of Eostre is the only textual evidence we have of her, a Goddess with a major springtime festival and a name cognate with other dawn-Goddesses would fit the existing pattern perfectly. If Bede was speculating, he was doing so with exceptional insight.

The Anglo-Saxon Eostre would have had to derive from an earlier Germanic form, which is where Grimm’s proposed reconstruction ‘Ostara’ comes in. The lack of any primary evidence for Ostara, however, along with the lack of any further evidence for Eostre, is somewhat daunting and we are obliged to admit that the reconstructed PIE myths do not prove the existence of such a deity. Dr Philip Shaw, whose research into Eostre has energised the pagan sphere perhaps more than he knows, in fact rejects the pan-Germanic Ostara proposed by Grimm.

For the purposes of my layman’s essay, however, I find the PIE material convincing and inspiring. When the enduring cultural impact of the Eostur festival - which I cannot believe was wholly secular – is also taken into account, the case for Eostre is solidly made.

There still remains the unpleasant task of clearing up the midden heap of self-serving nonsense that has been spouted about her over the years, from ‘Eostre’s Bunny’ to the ‘Celtic Mother Goddess of the Spring Equinox’ and beyond. And don’t even get me started on Ishtar.
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The case for Eostre, part 2: Bede Revisited

Previously on this blog I’ve done my level best to cast doubt on the descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon months given by Bede, pointing out that he was known to have speculated. In one place (Modranecht) he admits he is relating his own suspicions of why an event has the name it does, rather than giving facts of which he had first-hand knowledge. This admission logically places all of his analyses of the month names into the category of informed speculation, and by extension undermines the validity of his account of Eostre. From this perspective, Eostre looks very much like a false eponym - a folk etymology similar to the belief that Britain was named after a Roman called Brutus.

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The case for Eostre, part 1: The Eostur Sacrifice

Yes, you read that right. This year's Easter rant is going to redress the balance somewhat in favour of Eostre. As I've pointed out from the start, I've never been opposed to Eostre herself, just the baseless neopagan accretions that have built up around her. However, I've been pruning a bit close to the bough, and babies are in danger of being chucked out with bathwater. So this year I'm going to be building a case for her existence rather than the contrary.

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Alien: Paradise Lost

So, Ridley Scott has now announced the title for the Prometheus sequel, and it doesn't mention Prometheus at all. It's not even 'Paradise', which was supposedly the working title. It's 'Alien: Paradise Lost'. According to Scott, 'there is a similarity' between Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost and the new movie. When asked to explain the title, he said it's because 'we're heading back to why and how and when the beast was invented.'

I'm quite annoyed to find that this has made me far more interested in the movie than I was before. So I'm going to speculate on what the 'similarity' Scott mentions might be, as well as having a stab at what the invention of the beast might have involved. Naturally, I have no idea if any of this is valid or not, but I'll try to back it up where I can.

Paradise Lost, as any number of articles can tell you, is an epic poem by John Milton about Satan's rebellion and the fall of man. It was written 'to justify the ways of God to man' which is an admirably ambitious brief, and many thousands of turgid University essays have been produced debating whether Milton even comes close to achieving his aim. Ridley Scott expresses doubt as to whether his interviewer has ever read all of Paradise Lost, and with good reason. It's a bit wordy:

'Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He's a little bit long-winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.' - Jennings, National Lampoon's Animal House

To my mind, there are three elements from Paradise Lost that could easily be a major part of a Prometheus sequel. These are the concept of a war in heaven, the figure of Satan as heroic rebel, and the tragedy of the 'fall' of man.

War in Heaven
This aspect of the original Prometheus movie was picked up by many commentators. (It wasn't one I dwelled on myself, as I was more keen to sift through everything Damon Lindelof had ever said in my search for material to substantiate the Space Jesus theory.) In brief, there seem to be at least two Engineer factions in Prometheus. There's the robed lot with the disc-shaped vessel from the film's opening, and then the more biomechanical lot with the croissant-shaped vessel from later on.

So what we might be in for is a clash between Engineers, ideological and physical. Did one group create humanity while the other group decided to destroy it? Are we looking at a Minbari-esque caste system in which one group builds while the other tears down?

Ridley has already commented on this some time ago, referencing Paradise Lost:

"In a funny kind of way, if you look at the Engineers, they’re tall and elegant. They are dark angels. If you look at 'Paradise Lost,' the guys who have the best time in the story are the dark angels, not God. He goes to all the best nightclubs, he’s better looking, and he gets all of the birds." (The Playlist)

A 'war in heaven' story would be able to draw on mythology and archaeology in the same way that the original Prometheus did. There are legends of clashes between primal divinities in many cultures: you have the war of the Greek Gods against the Titans, the Norse Gods against the Giants, and so on. It's conceivable that Alien: Paradise Lost is presenting itself as the truth behind the human story of 'God versus Satan'.

The figure of Satan
Satan acts as a bridge of sorts between the myths of Prometheus and the story of Paradise Lost, inasmuch as the two figures are conflated in Western occultism, notably by our old chum Aleister Crowley. He explicitly identified Prometheus bringing down stolen fire from heaven with Satan encouraging man to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The Prometheus/Satan figure, by empowering man to be more than his brute animal self, was thus seen as an initiator and benefactor; he gives humanity the power to ascend from his base origins at the expense of the 'innocence' associated therewith.

'This serpent, SATAN, is not the enemy of Man, but He who made Gods of our race, knowing Good and Evil; He bade 'Know Thyself!' and taught Initiation.'

and also

'His body a bloody-ruby radiant
With noble passion, sun-souled Lucifer
Swept through the dawn colossal, swift aslant
On Eden's imbecile perimeter.
He blessed nonentity with every curse
And spiced with sorrow the dull soul of sense,
Breathed life into the sterile universe,
With Love and Knowledge drove out innocence
The Key of Joy is disobedience.'

Prometheus the Titan (TEITAN) was also identified with the number 666 by means of various Kabbalistic shenanigans which I'm not even going to bother going into here. Suffice to say that in occult circles, there is a continuity of identity between Prometheus and Satan, and I'm sure Ridley is well aware of it. Incidentally, if you're interested in the human tendency to find patterns in things, I strongly recommend this article on the famous treasure-hunt book Masquerade.

The Fall of Man
This is the possible theme I'm least certain of, and yet I think it has the highest chance of tying into the movie. The idea of the Fall is that we committed some terrible species-wide sin or crime.

From what Ridley's said so far, I get the impression the 'beast' (i.e. the xenomorph) was invented in order to punish humanity, and was about to be unleashed on us en masse for this massive infraction. So what exactly did we do that was so terrible? Well, that all ties back to the whole 'why did the Engineers choose to wipe us out' question from the first movie. I maintain that the most likely answer to that is still 'because the Engineers sent us an emissary to help us and we crucified him', but who knows what the truth of the matter is?

'I always thought of the Alien as kind of a piece of bacterial warfare. I always thought that that original ship, which I call the Croissant, was a battleship, holding these biomechanoid creatures that were all about destruction.' - Ridley Scott

Having watched the clip of Ridley saying 'we're heading back to why and how and when the beast was invented', I think there's an interesting stress on the WHEN, particularly when you couple it with 'heading back'. Just how far are we heading back?

One answer may be 'to the time of Space Jesus, of course' but perhaps we have to go back even earlier than that. Remember Ridley's fixation with religious history. The guy made Exodus, for heaven's sake. And if we go by the wall plaque in the urn chamber, the xenomorph was already around in a recognisable form by the time the Space Jesus events were going to happen. It had already been 'invented' with a specific purpose of destruction in mind.

So here's my guess:

I think Ridley's taking us back to the plagues of Egypt. That's what he means by bacterial warfare. The alien xenomorphs are the 'angels of death' that were created as punishers, in order to be unleashed on the ungodly: I wouldn't be surprised if Ridley portrays Gomorrah as obliterated by aliens. I'm perfectly aware that this is a ludicrous idea, but would remind you that Ridley's proposed Gladiator 2 would have involved Maximus sent back to Earth by the Gods to seek out and kill Christ, so we're dealing with different standards of ludicrous here.

So there you go. Ancient Egypt. Or maybe Sumeria. But obviously, the whole film can't be set in ancient times, as we have to find out what happened to Shaw and Totally Headless David after Prometheus. We need some explicit continuity between the historical story and the modern one. Luckily, Engineer cryochambers can preserve you for thousands of years: perhaps we'll have ancient Egyptian humans who 'ascended into heaven' turn up on the Engineer world, still alive, and bridging the flashback story with the post-Prometheus events. David could easily translate their speech for Shaw, because we already know he's a linguistic marvel. Oh, this stuff just writes itself!

EDIT: Completely forgot to note that we've already seen Ancient Egyptian Alien stuff, after a fashion. The late H R Giger created an illustration of the alien life cycle (egg, facehugger, chestburster) in the style of an Egyptian funeral stele that happens to be central to Aleister Crowley's system. It has never been used in any of the movies to date. Given that art created for the original Alien movie was recycled in Prometheus, maybe we'll finally see it used in Alien: Paradise Lost.
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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 Autumn 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!

Next Easter Rant: The Case for Eostre, part 1 - The Eostur Sacrifice
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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.

There is 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.

Next Easter Rant: Figuring out when Eostre's feast days really took place
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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.