Cavalorn (cavalorn) wrote,

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:

' 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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Mmm cake.

A minor note: it is on 29September (aka Michaelmas, formerly a feast of Odin) that the Devil pees on the blackberries. I think the explanation is very simple: they do actually taste a bit wee-like after this date, and they tend to shrivel up after the first frost, which might be what happened if the Devil's steaming sulphurous micturation landed on them.
A friend of mine suggests fungal strike after heavy rain/frost as something that commonly lowers the quality of the berries.
One question you haven't really touched on - did Germanic pagans even know what a rabbit was?

The rabbit is native to the western Mediterranean - its original (post-glacial) range was centred around the Iberian peninsula, extending into what is now SW France, and apparently parts of NW Africa. The Romans spread it to other parts of the Mediterranean (Italy, SE France etc.) It's unclear how much further they spread it within the empire, or even beyond - for example, Britain certainly had rabbits by the middle ages, but they may have been introduced by the Normans rather than the Romans. It seems to be a similar story in Germany - there's little evidence of rabbits prior to the middle ages. If the rabbit did make it to Germanic areas before Christianisation, the overlap in time wouldn't have been very long.

One of the reasons we might think of rabbits as associated with fertility is that they have proliferated to such a degree, but that may well be a relatively modern phenomenon.
It is worth noting that there is also an egg on the Passover seder plate. While I was originally taught it is there as a symbol of 'spring', it is primarily considered a stand-in for a holiday Temple sacrifice, and also has connotations of mourning, as eggs are traditionally served as part of a Jewish ritual post-funeral 'meal of condolence', where in turn they symbolize hardness and strength, and the roundness in both cases also symbolizes the 'cycle of life'.

So gee, how would that come to be associated with the Christian Easter, I *wonder*.
I actually think that the egg thing (a post-Talmudic custom) falls into the above category of "practical": they are eaten both to break fasts and to prepare for them (e.g. Tisha BeAv), being compact and filling. On Passover it is also related to fasting, although in a less obvious way, since it is the first filling food you eat after a long seder preamble (just think: the day before Pesah you have a fast, then you have wine, and like a tiny amount of green vegetable... you need protein and fat especially if you are going to continue with the wine, similar to bar food). In any case it is "just a custom," sages in the Talmud ate things like beans instead (e.g. Rava as reported in BT Masekhet Pesahim) and although it's early for an extant custom, too late for Christianity to have poached it at a time when they still had a clue.

Have you ever read Medieval or even earlier Christian sources on Jews? It is completely nuts how low the bar was for considering oneself well-informed. I would be totally shocked if anyone was culturally deft enough to know about the egg thing and figure out its connotations let alone appropriate it for Easter.