Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,
Cavalorn
cavalorn

Eostre: The Making of a Myth Part 2

Part one is here, in case you're one of the three people on the Internet to whom I've not yet shown it.

There's not all that much to add to the original article, but I'd like to pass on some information and correct one fairly daft misapprehension that's circulating.

The daft misapprehension is this: the shifting date of Easter, based as it is upon lunation (Easter falls upon the first Sunday after first Full Moon to occur on or after the Vernal Equinox) ties Easter into the old Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar, and thus means that the date of Easter is derived from paganism.

This is bullshit. Easter's date is based on the Biblical account of the Crucifixion taking place at the time of the Passover feast. If you're going to commemorate the Crucifixion, then Passover is the only calendrical landmark there is. The date of Passover was 'basically the first full moon of Spring', and thus we get the basis for Easter. It's derived from the Hebrew lunar calendar, not the Anglo-Saxon one.

It's emerged that there are sound reasons for doubting Bede's statement that Eosturmonath was named for a Goddess called Eostre. (This article is sound and helpful, despite the Christian bias.) Anglo-Saxon days were named after Gods (Woden's Day, Freya's Day and so on) but their months were typically named after calendrical events, seasonal weather conditions, or customary activities. For example, Guili (which survives as 'Yule') meant 'wheel', being the point on which the year turned. (I love that we still use the phrase 'the turning of the year'.) Solmónath, around February, was 'mud-month' (soil month, one assumes?); Blótmónath was 'blood month', in which animals were killed.

If Eosturmonath and Hrethmonath really were named after Goddesses as Bede attests, then they would be the only two months in the whole calendar to be so named. One might expect the only deities to warrant having whole months named after them to be slightly better documented! Given that there is no mention at all of 'Eostre' nor of 'Hretha' anywhere outside of the single passage in Bede, we should consider whether the months are not in fact named in the manner of the other 10. In this light, 'Eosturmonath' would simply be 'the month of opening', i.e. the month of opening buds, while 'Hrethmonath' could be 'the month of glory', or possibly 'the harsh/cruel month'. (This corresponds rather well to martial March.)

So, Bede's account is not only lacking coroborration, it goes against the whole trend of the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

Is it unfair to Bede to suggest that he was wrong? Not when we bear in mind his own admitted uncertainty where other names from the Anglo-Saxon calendar are concerned. From the start, moreover, he makes it clear that he is not speaking about usages with which he was directly familiar: he speaks of the Anglo-Saxon names for the months as pertaining to 'olden time', and thus does not consider that culture at all contemporary. Much more tellingly, his comments on Modranecht reveal him to be unafraid of making educated guesses:

'That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, "mother's night", because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.'

Please note the 'we suspect' that Bede fortuitously added in the middle. He admits that his analysis of the name is based on what he thinks was the case. It follows, then, that he was not in a position to expound upon the old pagan calendar from first-hand knowledge. And why, indeed, should he have been? Bede was sent to one monastery at the age of seven, and remained for the rest of his life in another one. However excellent the library at Yarrow may have been, I doubt any of the sources there documented the customs of Anglo-Saxon pagans. (Had they done so, Bede would have been able to be far less hesitant about Modranecht.)

Yet another reason for doubting that any of the Anglo-Saxon months were named after pagan deities can be found in the actions of Charlemagne, whose behaviour would suggest that the Germanic Ostarmonath was no more named after a Goddess than the Anglo-Saxon Eosturmonath was. Rather than even attempt to paraphrase, I'm going to quote the source article directly, because I don't think I can do better:

Another problem with Bede's explanation concerns the Saxons in continental Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, tells us that among Charlemagne's reforms was the renaming of the months. April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.

Oh, and just as a final word, it seems some people are still confused about where the tradition of Easter Eggs comes from. It's not actually anything to do with 'symbols of returning life'. Eggs were commonly forbidden during Lent, so on Shrove Tuesday you'd use up any remaining eggs (and sometimes milk) you had, and making pancakes was the obvious way to do that. This is also why Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is called Fat Tuesday. You pig out before you fast.

But Easter marks the end of the Lenten fast, so eggs are on the menu again. And that, dear readers, is why we have a tradition of eggs appearing at Easter.

AFTERWORD: It's fascinating what you find out when you go digging. Snorri, writing in Heimskringla (a history of the Kings of Norway) gives some potentially useful information, although he's writing some 200 years after the fact. The story is of how the Christian King Olaf killed Olver of Eggja (yes, of Eggja, I am not making this up) for carrying out clandestine pagan practices. Text here, see part 115.

The king called (Thoralde) in and in a private conversation asked him what truth there was in what had been told him of the principles and living of the people of the interior of Throndhjem, and if it really was so that they practised sacrifices to heathen gods. "I will," says the king, "that thou declare to me the things as they are, and as thou knowest to be true; for it is thy duty to tell me the truth, as thou art my man."

Thoralde replies, "Sire, I will first tell you that I have brought here to the town my two children, my wife, and all my loose property that I could take with me, and if thou desirest to know the truth it shall be told according to thy command; but if I declare it, thou must take care of me and mine."

The king replies, "Say only what is true on what I ask thee, and I will take care that no evil befall thee."

Then said Thoralde, "If I must say the truth, king, as it is, I must declare that in the interior of the Throndhjem land almost all the people are heathen in faith, although some of them are baptized. It is their custom to offer sacrifice in autumn for a good winter, a second at mid-winter, and a third in summer. In this the people of Eyna, Sparby, Veradal, and Skaun partake. There are twelve men who preside over these sacrifice-feasts; and in spring it is Olver who has to get the feast in order, and he is now busy transporting to Maerin everything needful for it."


Some have taken this as evidence of a pagan feast occurring at the same time as the Christian Easter, and thus as evidence of an Ostara celebration: 'in spring it is Olver who has to get the feast in order'. But Thoralde, we note, speaks of three and only three 'sacrifice-feasts'. What Olver is doing in Spring, therefore, seems to me to be explicitly a preparation for the Summer 'sacrifice-feast' rather than for some unnamed Spring event. A later excerpt gives an idea of the sort of preparation that was being made:

'Then the king took all the provision for the feast, and had it brought to his ships; and also all the goods, both furniture, clothes, and valuables, which the people had brought there, and divided the booty among his men.'

I'll freely admit there are problems with this interpretation, though, and that there may indeed be an indication of an Eastertime pagan feast (though this of course doesn't substantiate any hypothetical Goddesses!) Why bring 'provision' for a summer feast as early as Easter? One clever interpretation that occurs to me is that you might well want to pick out sacrificial animals in Spring and raise them to be ceremonially offed, but that's wanton speculation on my part. Thoralde might also be saying 'there are twelve men who preside over the three main sacrifice-feasts, and Olver gets to handle the sacrifice-free feast in Spring all by himself.'

The other, deeper message, which remains true to this day, is 'You don't ever want to be the one left in charge of arranging a feast for a bunch of pagans.'

Would you like a Part Three? Okay, then, here it is.
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