Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,

A friendly open letter to Aelfie and 'The Northern Grove'

Hi there! Since you appear to be so afraid of me that I've been pre-emptively banned, I've had to take my response to your Eostre/Ostara promotional piece here. I'd rather have done it on your page on Facebook and kept it amicable, but hey ho. For the record, I'm actually very nice.

Anyway. This is a response to The Northern Grove's piece 'The Historicity of the Worship of Ostara' which can be found here.

First, let me say how incredibly heartening it was to read your own words concerning St. Patrick:

‘It's tedious to have to try to break down ideas into simple concepts and explain that just because you read something somewhere doesn't make it true, and what is valid history vs popular myth.’

I appreciate and understand your frustration when confronted with people who just damn well believe and won’t look the historical evidence in the face. So it’s strange to read how insistent you are on the subject of Eostre - insistent to the point of attempting to silence dissent, a tactic that never works very well.

I’d like to go through your article and see if we can’t get it a bit more watertight. Let's make a start:

Every year naysayers spread propaganda suggesting that the cult of Ostara never existed, and she was never worshiped as a Goddess.

Do they? In my experience, every year there’s a surge of unresearched, unsupported material circulated about Eostre, and in reaction to this, some people point out the paucity of evidence to back much of it up (citing the disagreements in academic circles). I haven’t seen many people take a firm stance regarding her nonexistence, though of course plenty of people argue for her reality. In general, people are happy to accept that she may or may not have existed.

But the first point I have to make is that there is a major difference between insisting Eostre never existed (which I personally don’t do) and debunking all of the unsubstantiated guff that people habitually assert along with Eostre, such as the ‘Eostre hare’ story, hot cross buns being Pagan and representing the moon, and so forth.

Eostre herself is unproven, but Dr. Shaw’s work is tilting the balance in her favour somewhat (though there are caveats). But the associated baggage can be, and should be, debunked. Fortunately, the very people debunking it are the pagans and heathens like me who one might have expected to be circulating it unquestioningly, just like you and the St. Patrick story.

This campaign has been going strong for about 1,500 years, so this shouldn't surprise anyone.

This is going to be problematic, since you seem to believe that there is some sort of active Eostre-repressing campaign in place, presumably managed by those evil festival-stealing Christians. I’m afraid that many of the people who shout loudest that Eostre was a real Goddess are fundamentalist Christians, while many of the people who are willing to look at the evidence with an open and critical mind are Pagans.

This is because many fundamentalist Christians don’t like Easter; they think it’s unbiblical and unchristian to celebrate it. It therefore suits them down to the ground to claim that Easter was originally Pagan.

In stark contrast, many modern pagans – especially those of us who actually live here in England and other parts of Europe – are more than willing to consider the historical evidence for their belief systems, rather than merely swallowing them whole as part of a received tradition. We’re just irreverent that way, I suppose. Professor Ron Hutton is far more warmly regarded over here, too, whereas in the States there seem to be any number of pagans trying to shout him down.

I’ve noticed throughout the years that American pagans do have a tendency to get very passionate about European culture in a way that we Europeans just don’t. I think this can be traced in part to the far, far greater influence of Christianity in present-day America (it’s taken much less seriously over here) which can make for manifest hostility to those who profess a pagan way of life, but also to the way European culture can seem, for want of a better word, exotic to those who don’t live amongst it. I drive past a Norman castle on my way to the supermarket, and past a possibly Neolithic chalk hill figure on my way to visit my mum. My local pub is older than the American Constitution. We’re practically falling over this stuff over here, seriously.

But my point is that in their enthusiasm to embrace our history and culture from a transatlantic distance, American pagans run the risk of swallowing a lot of chaff along with the wheat. This leads to the ‘Pagan Sausage Machine effect’ in which fact and fiction get mulched together, along with a sort of reckless blending of cultures that ought to be recognised as distinct.

In any case, it really doesn’t help to see any critical examination of the evidence for Eostre as inevitably part of some ‘campaign’. That’s just stifling freedom of inquiry, trying to damn and silence it. Moreover, it’s assuming the answers will be harmful to us. Is that really the paganism we want to see? Isn’t shutting down questions and rejecting scholarship (unless its conclusions happen to suit us) uncomfortably close to the worst manifestations of Christianity?

Here's a little refresher of the evidence...

Yay, let’s go!

Bede as a source has been debated because for long period there was little corroborating evidence, so scholars suggested that he invented Eostre.

For ‘little corroborating evidence’ read ‘no corroborating evidence’. Sorry, but that is the truth. It would have been wonderful if there had been just one scrap of documentary or archaeological evidence for Eostre turned up during that time, but there wasn’t. It would be even more wonderful if future archaeologists turned up an image, or an unambiguous inscription. Here’s hoping.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that there have been scholars defending Bede’s account for just as long as there have been scholars challenging it.

This argument doesn't make much sense.

I think we can give Bede’s detractors fairer treatment than that, surely. They would hardly have taken the stance they did if it hadn’t made some sort of sense, even if it only made sense to them.

Why don’t we go to the source? Let’s try asking a sceptical scholar why they would maintain that Bede invented Eostre – or, to represent the stance more fairly, why he would make a speculative assertion that Eostre existed in the absence of direct knowledge. Any suggestions who to approach?

Bede was a Christian monk writing at a time (8th century) when English Pagan customs surviving out on the outskirts and heaths (where the term "heathen" comes from, the country folk out on the heath practicing the Old Ways) were actively being stamped out by the Church.

Well, you’re right about Bede being a monk, at least. But ‘heathen’ does not come from ‘the country folk out on the heath practicing the Old Ways’. It’s a calque of ‘pagan’, which came to mean ‘mere civilian’ in contrast to the Christians who saw themselves as the soldiery of Christ.

As a side note, it’s really a disservice to historical pagans to force them into a rural role. Ever seen the Parthenon? Ever heard of the Goddess Cloacina? Historical paganism was just as much about urban practices as it was about the muddier agricultural side.

So WHY would a Christian monk invent a pagan goddess to encourage practice?

That seems to be two questions. Why would he invent a pagan goddess? Good question. But can we really say he was doing so to encourage pagan practice? No. Bede wrote in Latin, remember. Any remaining pagans in England wouldn’t have been his intended audience.

Logically speaking, his bias would be to brush it under the rug and not discuss it, not invent a new pagan goddess!

Only if you mistakenly interpret Bede’s work as somehow strengthening paganism within his country. I know you want to draw from it to buttress your own ideas of paganism, but that doesn’t mean Bede intended it that way.

We do know that Bede was not above speculation. I refer you to his account of Modranecht:

'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.'

Those two words, ‘we suspect’, are incredibly important. (Yes, I know, it’s one word in Latin.) Bede is admitting that he doesn’t know for sure. He’s making an educated guess. If he doesn’t know for certain why Modranecht was so named, then it stands to reason that he might not have known for certain why Eostremonath was so named, either.

So for centuries that was it, the lone source for Eostre. Makes sense since the Church chopped down sacred groves and destroyed pagan shrines and built churches on top of them, right?

Er – you seem to be taking Pope Gregory’s notorious letter as if it were a description of what actually happened, rather than a proposal for what ought to be done.

To quote from

'It is in any case doubtful that the policy outlined in this letter was widely adopted. In the same year, Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethelbert, urging him to ‘abolish the worship of idols and destroy their shrines’ (Bede; book 1, chapter 32). The few other relevant documents include no other reference to any policy of accommodation, but on the contrary mention several temples deliberately destroyed; archaeology has so far found no traces of pagan Saxon shrines under any churches. David Wilson concludes: ‘There is no intimation from the literature that any attempt was made to convert these sites into Christian churches on the lines suggested by Gregory’ (Wilson, 1992: 29-43).'

So destroying the old shrines, yes; building churches on top of them, not so much. It seems to have been an idea that Gregory entertained for a short time and then abandoned.

If you have evidence to the contrary, of course, then please go ahead and cite it.

Then along comes Jacob Grimm.

Fine, let’s fast-forward through the intervening centuries …

The 19th century saw a revival in local folk legends and mythology. The field of Folklore was a new development. The Grimm Brothers did not just write fairy tales. They collected folk tales from all around Germany and neighboring German speaking regions.


Jacob Grimm, went one step further. He conducted a massive survey of German oral tradition and found that the goddess Ostara (German form of Eostre) was found ALL AROUND German speaking areas!

Whoa. No, that’s not what Grimm says at all. Have you read Grimm? You seem to be taking what other people have said about his work – ‘Grimm hypothesised the Goddess Ostara based on German oral tradition’ – and drawing the erroneous conclusion that Grimm encountered oral traditions that explicitly mentioned the Goddess Ostara.

Let’s be clear on this. Grimm found no direct evidence for a Goddess called Ostara at all. He never claimed to have done so, so I’m not sure why you’re making a claim he never made. By all means, let’s consult Deutsche Mythologie – it’s easily available on the Web – and see this first-hand. Point to the passages you’re thinking of.

This is when there was no written record, no books, nothing to explain why people miles apart had folk legends passed down from generation to generation describing the same goddess.

They didn’t. So far as I can tell, Grimm never says they did. Again, can you cite the relevant passages?

He hypothesized that a pan-Germanic goddess of fertility, the spring, and the dawn existed among Continental Germanic people: Ostara.

Yes, he hypothesised. That part is correct. What you don’t seem to realise is that he hypothesised the existence of Ostara because he didn’t have any direct evidence of her. If he had encountered direct evidence, oral or otherwise, he would have recorded it!

Fast forward to the 21st century and a new scholar is doing fascinating and ground breaking research into Eostre and other Germanic goddesses that we have known very little about thanks to the effective campaign against them.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of a campaign to obliterate supposed evidence.

A genuine problem facing that scholarship that provides us with precious crumbs of knowledge – more genuine, certainly, than any supposed ‘campaign’ - is the tendency to make stuff up because it tells us what we want to hear. Eostre in particular has suffered lately from the accretion of all sorts of unsupported nonsense.

You do agree, I hope, that making up stories about Eostre and her magic egg-laying bunny is disrespectful in the extreme? And that passing on such stories uncritically is polluting the wellspring of history? How can anyone who considers themself to be pagan, anyone who holds history sacred, stand back and just let that happen?

PhD scholar, author, researcher, and lecturer at the University of Leicester, Dr. Philip Shaw conducted a massive research study on previously neglected linguistic evidence for Eostre. Just as the field of Folklore burgeoned in the last two centuries and collected oral histories that the paper trail lost, the Linguistic field has been studying evidence for Old Pagan cults of worship in such things as place names and votive inscriptions.

If you’re referring to Dr Shaw’s book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, then I agree, it’s a tremendously exciting development.

Place names retain evidence of deities that were honored in the region. These, plus votive inscriptions along the Rhine prove that Eostre/Ostara was, indeed, worhshipped in both England and continental Germany prior to conversion.

I think we should look at what Dr. Shaw actually says, here:

"Many scholars have suggested Bede invented the goddess Eostre. I disagree: Bede was a careful researcher, and not prone to inventions of this sort, as far as we can tell. And we also now know that there were a group of minor goddesses with a related name worshipped by continental speakers of a Germanic language.
In 1958, more than 150 votive inscriptions from the second or third century AD were discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany. These inscriptions must mark the site of an important cult centre, and the goddesses to whom these inscriptions were set up were called the matronae Austriahenae, loosely translated as "the eastern matrons" or "the matrons of the easterners". The name Austriahenae comes from the same Germanic root as Eostre, suggesting that this was a root used in naming goddesses. There is also evidence of its use in English place names and in the names of Anglo-Saxon individuals. There is every reason, then, to trust what Bede says about Eostre: she was a goddess whose name was attached to a month by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the name of the month in which Easter usually fell was transferred to the name of the festival itself. Eostre also provides us with clues to the way in which Anglo-Saxon paganism worked. The word from which her name derives means "eastern", and is found in place names in England, which suggests that she may well have been a local goddess. We are accustomed to think of pagan gods as having roles – war god, fertility god – but Eostre suggests that Anglo-Saxon goddesses may have been defined instead by their relationship to a local community."

You have apparently taken the worship of ‘a group of minor goddesses with a related name’ for the worship of Eostre herself. Don’t get me wrong; what Dr. Shaw says does strengthen the case that Bede didn’t invent Eostre. But you don't seem to be reporting his work accurately here. Now, you have (apparently) got Dr. Shaw's book to refer to, while I'm only working from a single newspaper article, so for heaven's sake quote from it if you can offer anything to contradict Dr. Shaw's own words above. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you both own the book and have read it, though you don't seem to have read Grimm.

Going by Swain Wodening's excellent review, Shaw’s conclusion is that Eostre was probably a local goddess, that is, a goddess found only in one specific place, and not a pan-Germanic deity – which is what you seem to think she ought to be. Indeed, from what I have read on Shaw’s work, he believes Eostre was a local goddess of Kent, and Bede found out about her from a Kentish document. (Kent is in the south-east of England, in case you didn’t know.)

In summary, Dr. Shaw presents strong evidence that Eostre did exist, but that she was local to Kent and not worshipped outside of that area. She certainly wasn’t worshipped all across the German territories as you assert, at least by Dr Shaw’s reckoning. According to Swain Wodening, Dr Shaw ‘also thinks 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.’

Further, Eostre is represented in entire month in the Old English calendar devoted to her (see first link above).

Bede certainly says so. But as we’ve already seen, not everyone trusts his account. I prefer to keep an open mind, myself.

In addition, it is fascinating to note that ALL OTHER Christianized countries in Europe refer to the Easter holiday as some version of Pascha - which is related to the word Passover. Only languages where Eostre/Ostara were important goddesses call it by a word relating to her!

That’s arguing backwards, since the only evidence you’re presenting for Eostre (or an equivalent) having been a Goddess in those regions at all is linguistic. We can certainly say ‘these countries refer to the Easter holiday as Easter/Ostern for some reason, and that reason may well have been a common Goddess’.

German Easter is Ostern. But further North in Scandinavia, although they are a "Germanic" people and practiced Germanic paganism, they did not have Ostara in their pantheon.

There’s just as little evidence for her there as there is in other places, yes…

So what do they call the holiday? In Danish and Norwegian, it is called Påske - variation of Pascha! This corroborates with the notion that the NAME of Easter is associated to the Old English Eostre and Ostern with Ostara. If not, these language groups would also use a form of Pascha or Passover.

Again, this just looks like circular argument.

Well. I must admit I was looking forward to discussing these issues with you, but it seems you're not interested in discussing history with pagans who don't agree with your personal views or who might point out the serious factual issues with your stance. There's also significant irony in an American being so in love with the idea of European cultural heritage that she thinks she can dictate what European cultural heritage means to actual Europeans.

If you change your mind and decide you're up for a discussion, I'm right here. And you already know I'm willing to change mine, because I'm the kind of fact-based pagan who accepts and admits it when he makes a mistake, as you saw on the Belle Jar blog. I would LOVE for you to prove me wrong.

If not, well... see you same time next year. :)
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