Christian Mythstory: Easter

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Every so often I come across articles like this around Easter time. While certainly not billed as a bit of reporting and also a couple of years old, the title struck me as the sort of link-bait for which the internet exists. The article appears in a section called Comment is Free:

EasterBuns

Indeed it is, and one certainly gets what one pays for.

I have always been taken aback by these types of mythstories, as they assume that:

1. we have infallible knowledge about pagan festivals and beliefs
2. it is a straightforward process to recreate historical timelines

Christmas? Sure, the dating is sort of sketchy and there are a lot of cultural accumulations that can make it seem pagan.

Hallowe’en? fair enough, even though the pagan roots are entirely unfounded.

But Easter? Really?

Making The Myth

The mythstory tends to go something like this:

The ancient pagans used to celebrate festivals that coordinated with the spring equinoxes. The rising again of the sun from winter lent imagery and meaning to the notion of Jesus rising from the dead, the yearly cycle of life and death presented yet again. Since these types of celebrations were all the rage, Christians co-opted these celebrations and made converts by accommodating such festivals, eventually working them into liturgical celebrations.

In other words, pretty much like every other mythstory.

Calendars, Calendars, Calendars

One of the more interesting debates that raged in nascent Christianity was- as could be surmised- the date of Easter. Given that the Resurrection of Jesus was the pivotal historical moment for the early church, the commemoration of this date was of utmost importance.

In contrast to the mythstory, there is absolutely no evidence that the Christians of this period were concerned with coordinating its date with any major pagan festival or attempting to co-opt certain pagan practices in an attempt to convert their neighbors. Rather, the evidence unambiguously shows that the Christians were concerned with making sure the celebration of Easter coincided with the date of the Jewish Passover, since the death and resurrection of Jesus was believed to coincide with this date historically.

While there was some ambiguity (due in part to determining whether the Gospels were calculating time according to a lunisolar calendar or the Julian solar calendar) regarding the date of Passover in the Gospels, it was eventually determined to have been 14 Nisan. But there was a rift concerning the date on which Easter (Pasch) was celebrated, for while the western churches generally celebrated it on the Sunday following 14 Nisan, eastern churches preferred to celebrate it on 14 Nisan.

Nor was this debate some latecomer to the Christian faith- St. Irenaeus actually made entreaties to Pope Victor I to allow the eastern churches to continue this practice. Eusebius relates the following:

Among them too Irenaeus, writing in the name of the Christians whose leader he was in Gaul, though he recommends that the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection be observed only on the Lord’s day, yet nevertheless exhorts Victor suitably and at length not to excommunicate whole churches of God for following a tradition of ancient custom, and continues as follows: “For the controversy is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast; for some who think that they ought to fast one day, others two, others even more, some count their day as forty hours, day and night. And such variation of observance did not begin in our own time, but much earlier, in the days of our predecessors who, it would appear, disregarding strictness maintained a practice which is simple and yet allows for personal preference, establishing it for the future, and none the less all these lived in peace, and we also live in peace with one another and the disagreement in the fast confirms our agreement in the faith.[1. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V. XX.]

The controversy over Easter did not come to a conclusion until the Council of Nicea, when the western date was established as normative. The council seems to have established the following:

•    that Easter must be celebrated by all throughout the world on the same Sunday;
•    that this Sunday must follow the fourteenth day of the paschal moon;
•    that that moon was to be accounted the paschal moon whose fourteenth day followed the spring equinox;
•    that some provision should be made, probably by the Church of Alexandria as best skilled in astronomical calculations, for determining the proper date of Easter and communicating it to the rest of the world (see St. Leo to the Emperor Marcian in Migne, P.L., LIV, 1055).[2. Herbert Thurston, “Easter Controversy.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 29 Mar. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm>]

As can be easily seen, the early Christian controversy over the date of Easter is more related to Jewish practice than pagan celebrations, since the dating is wholly related to and coordinated around the dating of Passover.

But even then the divergence in calculation was not over, for even if one followed the prescriptions of Nicea, lunar cycles still have to be calculated, and the length of the cycle will determine the dates on which the 14th day would fall. An earlier cycle of Hippolytus calculated by means of a 120 year cycle, while a more accurate 90 day cycle of Meton of Alexandria was commonly used by the western churches and finally made normative. The celtic churches, on the other hand, often used a 532 year cycle.[3. Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Easter Controversy]

We’re All Celtic

The real teeth of the Easter mythstory comes by means of the Celts, or rather, a terribly unimaginative and ignorant understanding of the Celts.

But first, a huge caveat to place it all in perspective. Many people tend to speak about the ancient Celts or the celtic people as if they were a monolith of culture, practice, belief, etc. This is, of course, completely false. The term ‘celtic’ is almost overly broad to be of any real value.

Secondly, one often hears about some Celtic people had this practice, or that this symbol represented this, or something to that effect. Quoth the earlier article:

All the fun things about Easter are pagan. Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.[4. Heather McDougall, The Pagan Roots of Eater, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/03/easter-pagan-symbolism]

An interesting assertion, to be sure, but none of it has any evidential value. The same is true for just about any Celtic image, symbol, etc. that one could come across. The reality is that we know very little about ancient celtic customs or beliefs, since little to nothing exists (in literary form, at least) that could give us this information. The christianization of what might be considered ‘celtic’ lands means that what information we have on earlier pagan customs is filtered through generations of Christian eyes. Thus, we have no way of knowing how much is indicative of earlier beliefs and practices, or how much is glossed over by a Christian worldview. While archaeology can give us an outside perspective, the interpretations suffer the same defect.

However, this particular mythstory has a bit of a bite, in that it is a Christian writer who tells us that Easter comes from the celebration of a pagan goddess. Or so the gullible would seem to believe.

I suppose that’s what one gets when mistaking history for semantics.

Eostre

The Venerable Bede was an 8th century Christian who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In it he makes reference to the origins of Easter in celtic lands:

In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting 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. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath … 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.[5. Bede, On the Reckoning of Time]

The smoking gun, no?

No.

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts
Eostre, Goddess-of-Bunnies-and-Plastic-Eggs-and-Spring-time-Chocolate, Hitherto known only to an 8th century ecclesiastic.

Although our earlier author (McDougall) seems confident in attributing bunnies to Eostre, the fascinating thing about Bede’s reference here is that he is really the only source anywhere in the ancient world that there ever was a deity known as Eostre. Further on, there is little to no evidence that Bede is even correct that the goddess Eostre (of whom we no other evidence) is even the source of the name of the month.

Most other Anglo-Saxon months are named after astronomical, environmental or calendrical events,[6. Anthony McRoy, Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/holidays/easterborrowedholiday.html] and the only other one which Bede mentions as deriving from a pagan deity is a deity that is likewise unknown apart from Bede’s statements. So why might he make such statements if they are not accurate?

By his time the pagan element in Anglo-Saxon lands was waning, and since there were little to no written sources from which to draw, the only knowledge of previous customs would have been passed orally. Since there were no monolithic beliefs or practices, a deity known and celebrated in one place in the past might be quite unknown in another, known by a different name, a different pronunciation, etc.

But there is another more likely explanation. The root of Eostre is ‘eas’ which means ‘to shine’ or ‘to rise,’[7. Dr. Taylor Marshall, Does the Word Easter Have Pagan Origins? (Venerable Bede), http://www.taylormarshall.com/2011/04/does-word-easter-have-pagan-origins.html]  and is from whence we get the term ‘east.’

While we have no verification of this, given the prevalence of festivals for spring equinoxes in other cultures, it is not too much of a stretch to suspect that many celtic peoples had some sort of celebration as well, even if it had no explicitly religious connotations. Since this time of year was when the sun began to ‘rise’ in the yearly calendar cycle, it would be reasonable to expect that the month might derive its name from this yearly phenomenon.

And since there were probably some religious observances in the past that were associated with the spring equinox in Anglo-Saxon lands, it is not too much of a stretch to suspect that there were deities associated with this event. Bede could thus be trying to extrapolate backwards semantically from the name of the month to describe this sort of belief that some of the English people’s ancestors had. He could be completely wrong, but one can easily see how such an assumption is both not without grounds but also prone to inaccuracy.

Whatever view one might take on the accuracy of his statement, what is beyond doubt is that his comment is only in regards to why the month happened to be named that way. What he is clearly not saying is that the name of the month had anything to do whatsoever with the origin of the celebration of Easter. Hence, he says that:

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.

Bad English

Unfortunately, many people with too little critical-thinking and too much Anglo-myopia have deemed this statement on Bede’s part an admission of syncretization. Fortunately for the mythstory-buster, the flaw in the reasoning is deliciously obvious.

Bede actually points out that Eostre is not the origin of Easter since he doesn’t actually call it Easter; rather, he calls it by its proper name: Pascha.

While most cultures that became Christianized tended to adopt Latin/Greek terminology for liturgical terms, the celtic churches often developed their own native terminology instead. Thus, the celtic churches are the only ones that use ‘Easter’ (or a form of it) rather than some form of ‘pascha.’ And since the terminology of ‘pascha’ in reference to what we in English think of as ‘Easter’ predates the usage of the latter, it is absolutely inconceivable that anyone could seriously maintain that ‘Easter’ (read: ‘pascha’) is derived from a pagan festival to the celtic deity Eostre.

At most one could assert that the name of ‘pascha’ came to be known by the name of ‘Easter,’ which in some time in the past was named after a certain deity. (An argument which, as has been shown, is rather doubtful.) This would be equivalent to someone deciding tomorrow to name a Christian celebration ‘Saturday’ because it is celebrated on Saturday, a day which at one time in the past was named after the pagan deity Saturn.

Fluffy Bunnies

As the preceding has shown, the rather popular notion that Easter is derived from a pagan festival for the goddess Eostre is demonstrated to be, like nearly all popular notions, hollowed out, full of stuff and nonsense.

Or perhaps full of chocolate and caramel.

One can only hope.

 

 

 

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Jason Watson

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