Christian Mythstory: Easter Part 2

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A couple years ago I took a look at the ‘Christian Mythstory’ of the pagan roots of Easter, demonstrating such a notion to be bogus. In the intervening time I have revisited this post and had some additional thoughts which I thought might warrant further consideration.

A brief recap- the ‘Easter is pagan’ mythstory takes it as an assumption that most- if not all- Christian liturgical celebrations are themselves a co-opting of prior pagan celebrations of local deities. In the case of Easter it is presumed that Christianity refashioned the celebration of the deity Eostre. Unlike many other mythstories, however, this one actually has a Christian writer apparently holding the smoking gun, in that he specifically links the celebration of Easter with the aforementioned goddess.

Well, if by ‘links’ one means ‘gives an etymological background for the name of the month in which Pascha is celebrated,’ then yes, definitely.

Months and Days

The most looming difficulty for this particular mythstory is that Christians had been celebrating ‘Easter’ for centuries before the lands of Britain were even Christianized. ‘Easter’ was not referred to by that term since, as ‘Easter’ is of English origin, it would not have been a term available for the Mediterranean world in which Christianity was birthed. Thus, the mythstory begins with an enormous anachronism, an error so glaring that it should dissolve the notion immediately.

But what of Bede’s linking of Easter to the goddess Eostre? Why would he do such a thing? It would be helpful to take a look at the passage in question:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.15)

Isolated as such, one could get the impression that Bede is being somewhat apologetic about this link, since the celebration of the Paschal season takes its name from the celebration of an old goddess. However, a few things should be immediately noted.

First, the entire work in which this passage appears is entitled “The Reckoning of Time.” Thus, the whole purpose of the work is to explain the way in which times and seasons can be calculated. He goes into intricate technical detail about the various ways of reckoning time, the intervals of time, fractions, etc. Further, he is not concerned only with English named months, but also with Roman and Greek months (as well as discussing how the Jewish people reckoned time.) As a comparison, here is an isolated passage about a Roman named month:

[Romulus] dedicated the first month to Mars, whose son he wished to be taken for, because it was thought that in this month Juno gave birth to Mars in Phrygia. This month was therefore deemed to be the first of the year; a more likely is that the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months preserve from of old a name derived from a number [counted] from [March]. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.12)

In fact, earlier he describes the mythical foundations of why some Roman months have 30 days and some have 31:

Romulus, when he had ordered the state of his realm with shrewd but rustic intelligence, took the beginning of the month /320/ from the day when it happened that the new Moon was seen. Because it did not always appear on the same day, but for a variety of reasons was sometimes seen earlier and sometimes later, it happened that when it occurred later, more days were alloted to the previous month, and when it appeared earlier, fewer. But [Romulus] gave to each month a fixed number of days corresponding to the first instance,[which it retained] in perpetuity. Thus it happened that some have thirty, and some thirty-one days. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.12)

It should also be noted that the names of some months are in question, either having a secular origin or one related to deity:

[Romulus] established May as the third and June as the fourth month in commemoration of the ‘‘elders’’ [maiorum] and ‘‘juniors’’ into which he had divided the populace, so that one part might protect the republic by arms, and the other by counsel. Others contend that Maia, the mother of Mercury, gave her name to May, and substantiate this largely from the fact that in this month all the merchants sacrifice to Maia, and likewise to Mercury. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.12)

Thus, what we have so far is a rather interesting look into the etymology of the names of months, rather than ascribing any particular significance to those names.

Monaths

Importantly, Bede carries this project into his discussion on the names of English months. While the Greek and Roman months would have been the most widespread in use in his time (after all, this work was written in Latin), since he is English he would be amiss if he did not do the same for the English months:

In olden time the English people – for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s – calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.15)

Since Latin was the dominant language of written communication, government, etc., in Bede’s time, very few people would have been familiar with the etymologies of English month names. In fact, probably even most English themselves would not have had this sort of insight, which is seemingly confirmed by Bede being the singular source of information of some of what he presents. But let’s take a look at some of the English month names:

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. 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. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.15)

Bede’s method here is to give the Roman month name and show the English month name equivalent. The discussion of the first day of the year (December 25) is interesting in that December 25 had been fixed in the Western church as the date of Christmas since at least the mid 4th century. It might tempting to try the same mythstory out on Christmas here, but it is crucial to note that for the Romans 8th kalends (the winter solstice) had no marked significance. (In fact, the most likely explanation for Sol Invictus on Dec. 25 is that it was a pagan reaction to the earlier Christmas celebration)

Bede admits it is a supposition that the ceremonies of Modranecht are the source of the name given to the 8th kalends; given this level of uncertainty, it is entirely possible that the same sort of thing happened in the english customs as happened in the Roman ones; that a Christian celebration on 8th kalends was appropriated and modified.

At any rate, Bede’s purpose here clearly isn’t to determine why anybody celebrated anything, but is far more mundane in that he is merely looking into the etymologies of the names of months and days. In the English calendar, some of these are based on natural phenomena, and others are derived from the names and celebrations of deities:

The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the Sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day] and the other follows. Solmonath can be called ‘‘month of cakes’’, which they o¡ered to their gods in that month. Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany, from whence the English nation came to Britain. Litha means ‘‘gentle’’ or ‘‘navigable’’, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea. Weodmonath means ‘‘month of tares’’, for they are very plentiful then. Halegmonath means ‘‘month of sacred rites’’. Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full.” Blodmonath is ‘‘month of immolations’’, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, 2.15)

Taken out of isolation and placed back into its original context, Bede’s discussion of the etymological origins of the term ‘Eosturmonath’ takes on a far less sensational guise. It is still tremendously interesting, if one finds etymology interesting, but it completely loses the character of a smoking gun. Rather, it is but one etymology in a list of others, a sequence of names of months that were in the vernacular.

Paschal Controversies

It also bears pointing out that Bede makes it clear that whatever the etymology of the name of the month (which is not certain by any means), it was in his time translated as the Paschal month. In other words, while the name of the month has a potential etymology, by the time Easter was celebrated it was understood to refer to the Paschal celebration, rather than to anything else.

It is also interesting to note that much of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History involves the controversy between the Ionan tradition and the Roman tradition regarding the dating of Easter. Many in the British isles- particularly the Scots and Britons- adopted a dating of Easter which had it fall on 14 Nisan, while the Roman practice fixed it on a Sunday according to various calculations. These calculation tables eventually had to be standardized, since some followed different cycles and thus ended up with different dates. A brief citation gives a flavor of the controversy:

Then Wilfrid, being ordered by the king to speak, began thus:— “The Easter which we keep, we saw celebrated by all at Rome, where the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried; we saw the same done by all in Italy and in Gaul, when we travelled through those countries for the purpose of study and prayer. We found it observed in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and all the world, wherever the Church of Christ is spread abroad, among divers nations and tongues, at one and the same time; save only among these and their accomplices in obstinacy, I mean the Picts and the Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the ocean, and only in part even of them, strive to oppose all the rest of the world.”

When he had so said, Colman answered, “It is strange that you choose to call our efforts foolish, wherein we follow the example of so great an Apostle, who was thought worthy to lean on our Lord’s bosom, when all the world knows him to have lived most wisely.”

Wilfrid replied, ” Far be it from us to charge John with folly, for he literally observed the precepts of the Mosaic Law, whilst the Church was still Jewish in many points, and the Apostles, lest they should give cause of offence to the Jews who, were among the Gentiles, were not able at once to cast off all the observances of the Law which had been instituted by God, in the same way as it is necessary that all who come to the faith should forsake the idols which were invented by devils. For this reason it was, that Paul circumcised Timothy, that he offered sacrifice in the temple, that he shaved his head with Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth;for no other advantage than to avoid giving offence to the Jews. Hence it was, that James said to the same Paul, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the Law.” ” And yet, at this time, when the light of the Gospel is spreading throughout the world, it is needless, nay, it is not lawful, for the faithful either to be circumcised, or to offer up to God sacrifices of flesh.

So John, according to the custom of the Law, began the celebration of the feast of Easter, on the fourteenth day of the first month, in the evening, not regarding whether the same happened on a Saturday, or any other week-day. But when Peter preached at Rome, being mindful that our Lord arose from the dead, and gave to the world the hope of resurrection, on the first day of the week, he perceived that Easter ought to be kept after this manner: he always awaited the rising of the moon on the fourteenth day of the first month in the evening, according to the custom and precepts of the Law, even as John did. And when that came, if the Lord’s day, then called the first day of the week, was the next day, he began that very evening to celebrate Easter, as we all do at the present time.

But if the Lord’s day did not fall the next morning after the fourteenth moon, but on the sixteenth, or the seventeenth, or any other moon till the twenty-first, he waited for that, and on the Saturday before, in the evening, began to observe the holy solemnity of Easter. Thus it came to pass, that Easter Sunday was only kept from the fifteenth moon to the twenty-first. Nor does this evangelical and apostolic tradition abolish the Law, but rather fulfil it; the command being to keep the passover from the fourteenth moon of the first month in the evening to the twenty-first moon of the same month in the evening; which observance all the successors of the blessed John in Asia, since his death, and all the Church throughout the world, have since followed; and that this is the true Easter, and the only one to be celebrated by the faithful, was not newly decreed by the council of Nicaea, but only confirmed afresh; as the history of the Church informs us. (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 25)

The important thing to notice here is that there is absolutely no notion of trying to accommodate earlier pagan festivals or to try and line up the date with heathen commemorations. Rather, the argument revolves entirely around an actual historical date and the way in which certain churches calculated the dating of the fixed date of Pascha. Additionally, the Roman argument clearly has nothing to do with an potential English deity, and the Scottish argument attempts to appeal to an even older Mediterranean tradition.

As such, Bede’s etymological aside is merely that; an interesting bit of historical speculation, but hardly the foundation upon which to construct a Christian mythstory.

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Jason Watson

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