CAT | history
Did you know that Easter was originally a pagan festival dedicated to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare, the forerunner of our Easter bunny? Of course you did. Every year the fecund muck of the internet bursts forth afresh with cheery did-you-know explanations like this, setting modern practices in a context of ancient and tragically interrupted pagan belief.
The trouble is that they are wrong. The colourful myths of Eostre and her hare companion, who in some versions is a bird transformed into an egg-laying rabbit, aren’t historically pagan. They are modern fabrications, cludged together in an unresearched assumption of pagan precedence.Only one piece of documentary evidence for Eostre exists: a passing mention in Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. Bede explains that the lunar month of Eosturmonath “was once called after a goddess… named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated.”
However, even this may only have been supposition on Bede’s part. In the same section he says the winter festival of Modranecht was so named “because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night,” hardly the statement of a historian with first-hand information.
Eosturmonath may simply mean “the month of opening”, appropriate for a time of opening buds and arguably a better fit for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon months. They tended to be named after agricultural or meteorological events, hence “mud-month” and “blood-month”. Only one other month is, according to Bede, named after a goddess – Hrethmonath – and like Eostre, there is no other evidence of Hretha anywhere.
Known Anglo-Saxon deities like Woden and Thor are paralleled in Norse and Germanic pre-Christian religion, but there are no such equivalents to Bede’s Eostre and Hretha, which strengthens the case for them being inventions. Grimm explored the possibility of a German “Ostara” in Deutsche Mythologie, but in the absence of any primary evidence, all he could produce was conjecture. We’re also left wondering why, if Eosturmonath really was named after a pagan goddess, the staunch Christian Charlemagne chose it to replace the old Roman name of April.
There are no images of Eostre, no carvings, no legends, and no association with hares, rabbits or eggs. Yet a swift Google search turns up heaps of repeated Eostre lore. Even the usually formidable Snopes.com allocates Eostre her customary sacred hare, without any historical justification. So where do the tales come from?
The answer is found in the recent history of modern self-identified paganism. Back in the days when Catweazle was on telly, the movement was inchoate, disparate and in urgent need of roots. It was in the difficult position of claiming moral heirship from ancient pre-Christian religion, but having very few credentials to back that up.
Usefully, though, there was already a tendency (stemming from Victorian anthropology) to imagine repressed pagan roots dangling from anything sufficiently working class and folksy; and though academia had moved away from this, pagan revivalism had not. By asserting Christian appropriation of pagan customs as fact, modern paganism could claim both precedence and wrongful treatment, citing Pope Gregory’s letter as if that settled it.
Pagan origins were thus claimed for everything from Father Christmas to Morris dancing and the Easter bunny was retroactively recast as Eostre’s sacred hare, grafting a faked pagan provenance on to a creature first mentioned as late as 1682. A Ukranian folk tale about the origins of pysanky, painted eggs, was rewritten to star Eostre and her bunny. Some still claim Eostre’s name is the root of the word oestrogen, ignoring that human eggs are microscopic and that the real etymology of oestrogen in fact relates to the gadfly….
Oh well, there is (as I noted in a post entitled—ahem—“Happy Eostre”) always this (from another Guardian piece):
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
The not always entirely reliable Sir James Fraser had quite a bit to say about Attis in The Golden Bough.
Another of those gods whose supposed death and resurrection struck such deep roots into the faith and ritual of Western Asia is Attis. He was to Phrygia what Adonis was to Syria. Like Adonis, he appears to have been a god of vegetation, and his death and resurrection were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a festival in spring. The legends and rites of the two gods were so much alike that the ancients themselves sometimes identified them. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, who had her chief home in Phrygia. Some held that Attis was her son. His birth, like that of many other heroes, is said to have been miraculous. His mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom.
…The great spring festival of Cybele and Attis is best known to us in the form in which it was celebrated at Rome; but as we are informed that the Roman ceremonies were also Phrygian, we may assume that they differed hardly, if at all, from their Asiatic original. The order of the festival seems to have been as follows.
On the twenty-second day of March, a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity. The duty of carrying the sacred tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets, for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as roses and anemones from the blood of Adonis; and the effigy of a young man, doubtless Attis himself, was tied to the middle of the stem…
There is, of course, nothing wrong with syncretism, so in the spirit of what this day now is: Happy Easter!
The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.
Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher refers, by implication approvingly, to St. John Fisher, “the English Catholic bishop who went to his death rather than conform to the king’s dictates.”
Say what you will, but Fisher was no defender of religious liberty. I posted about this sinister fanatic (a man who played an important role in the trial and execution of Thomas Hitton, the man often described as England’s first protestant martyr) a few years ago.
Let’s return to Wikipedia (in this case, why not?):
Hitton was a priest who had joined William Tyndale and the English exiles in the Low Countries. He returned to England on a brief visit in 1529 to contact the supporters of Tyndale and to arrange for the distribution of smuggled books such as the first English Psalter translated by George Joye. He was seized near Gravesend on his way to the coast to take a ship,and found to be in possession of letters from the English exiles. He was then arrested on the grounds of heresy, interrogated and probably tortured. He was condemned by Archbishop William Warham and by Bishop John Fisher and burnt at the stake at Maidstone on 23 February 1530.
As I noted in my earlier post, Fisher was no defender of freedom of conscience. What he was defender of his conscience, and, indeed, an enforcer of it on others. As for his fate, well, biter bit.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been calling for an Islamic ‘reformation’. Dan Hannan is not so sure that that’s right:
What, though, do we mean by “Reformation”? Most people mean that they want a more modern Islam, one which accepts the separation of church and state, the equality of women, the supremacy of Parliament and so on. This, though, is very far from what the Christian Reformation was about. Its architects were not seeking a cuddlier, more ecumenical version of their faith. On the contrary, just like today’s Salafists, they wanted to purge and purify, to go back to an older and more demanding template, one more closely tied to the Scriptures….
Instead of a Reformation, we might do better speak of an Enlightenment. The reconciliation of Christianity with secularism and pluralism owes less to Luther and Calvin than to Milton and Locke. The West, over the centuries, became less cruel, more intolerant of torture and violence, readier to see other points of view, keener on individual rights and on democracy – and, as it did so, certain religious strictures dating from the Iron Age fell naturally into desuetude.
The abolition of slavery, for example, was a process largely driven by evangelical Christians. Not because they had suddenly discovered Biblical verses condemning servitude – there are none – but because their understanding of their faith had adapted as their world became kinder. Likewise, the reintroduction of slavery in ISIS-held territory revolts most Muslims, not because of any Koranic injunctions – again, there are none – but because the institution belongs to an older, uglier epoch. We have, as the saying goes, moved on.
Dan is right, but there is something else. The Reformation was a rejection of a united Christendom—a Christian ‘ummah’, if you like, an idea already badly damaged by the split with Eastern Orthodoxy— and, in essence, its replacement with something more secular, a series of national (protestant) churches subordinated to local secular authority rather than universalist Rome. As such it was both an intellectual and a political process.
As I posted here, England’s Henry VIII went to his deathbed considering himself a good Catholic. His dispute with Rome was not over theology, but power. Henry wanted more of the latter (and Anne Boleyn too) but the underlying (and ultimately more important) question was whether England should be governed by English laws or those of some alien authority. Henry VIII, quite correctly, if for self-interested reasons, said that the law begins at home. Within a few decades the Church of England had set off on its own.
Meanwhile, the Peace of Augsburg (1555) had accepted the principle that within the Holy Roman Empire, the rule that would apply would be cuius regio, eius religio. As the local prince worshiped (the choice was between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism) , so would his people.
And it’s hard not to think that Christianity’s intellectual authority of was not dented by this development. The notion of a universal overarching truth had been trashed and what’s more, particularly in northern Europe, God had, in a sense, been reduced to a rank below Caesar, a demotion that must, I suspect, played its part in clearing the way for the Enlightenment.
In the Spectator a review by Sean McGlynn of a new book intended to show that there was more to the Middle Ages than mud and blood:
For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried’s closest attention in his study of the ‘cultural evolution’ of the Middle Ages.
Fried also, refreshingly, touches on less well-known cases, as in his treatment of female mystics, such as Christine de St Trond from the early 13th century, who would whirl herself into unconsciousness ‘like a dervish’ in a state of self-induced ecstasy. Her trance-like states carried her ‘quite literally to new heights, as she would clamber into the rafters of churches and climb towers and trees, flirting with death’. Her dedication went way beyond the self-punishing rituals of the flagellants…. Christine ‘tried to replicate the torments of sinners in Hell by putting herself in ovens, plunging into boiling water, having herself lashed to mill wheels and hanged on gallows, and lying in open graves’.
If there is a border between mysticism and madness it is lightly guarded.
More about Christine the Astonishing (in German, Christina die Wunderbare seems a better translation) here. Hallucinations are involved. Although she was never canonized or even beatified, Wikipedia notes that “prayers are traditionally said to [Christine] to seek her intercession for millers, those suffering from mental illness and mental health workers”.
Writing in the Guardian, Nick Cohen on self-censorship:
Unless we find the courage to overcome fear, the self-censorship will spread, and not only in the media.
Colleagues who wanted historians at a London museum to talk about the long history of depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art last week were met with panicking press officers trying to shut them up. Historian Tom Holland, who received death threats after he challenged the creation myths of Islam, said: “I cannot think of any other area of history where debate is so nervous.” He hopes that historians will continue to say that the Koran was a manmade creation, but doubts that journalists will be keen to take their work to the public.
This is not a small capitulation. In the 19th century, the textual criticism of German scholars revealed that the supposed word of God in the Bible was a mess of competing stories. It did as much damage to Christianity and Judaism as Darwinism. Anyone hoping to repeat the exercise by taking apart the Koran and the hadiths today will be restrained by the fear that they will end up as dead as satirists who try to do the same with anti-clerical humour.
When the Welsh poet Edward Thomas (1898-1917), who had signed up for the British Army in 1915, was asked what he would be fighting for, he stopped, picked up a pinch of earth and crumbled it between finger and thumb before letting it fall. He then replied, “Literally, for this”.
In ‘Adlestrop’ he describes an unscheduled stop that he had made at a small train station in Gloucestershire in the course of a train journey on June 24, 1914, a little more than a month before the war began.
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas was killed at Arras in April 1917.
Prague, Sept. 15 (ČTK) — Rostislav Kotrč, a priest of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, will run for the Communists (KSČM) in the local elections in the autumn, daily Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD) writes today.
Kotrč, 40, at first wanted to join the KSČM, but now he only runs as an independent for the party as No. 2 on its list of candidates, MfD writes. Kotrč has been working in the Hussite church since 1999 and is the general vicar of the Christian Police Association.
“He wanted to join our party, but we agreed that it would be more sensible, also due to his relationship to the church, to only stay as a sympathizer,” a local Communist from the Hradec Králové eegion, east Bohemia, where he runs, told the paper.
Kotrč said he could not see any problem with him being both a priest and a candidate representing the Communists, MfD writes. “I know this is incomprehensible to many people,” he is quoted as saying.
“I think this is due to the constant media propaganda and bad understanding of the historical and theological context,” Kotrč said.
“My orientation is leftist and social. When looking into the Bible, and Acts of the Apostles in particular, which describe the origins of Christianity, one can read that people shared their property according to their needs,” he added.
“This is the basic principle of communism. Unfortunately, God was lost from the philosophy, which caused its deformation,” Kotrč said….
Sure, that was it.
For some reason Thomas Müntzer comes to mind.
Thomas Müntzer (ca. 1489 – 27 May 1525) was an early Reformation-era German theologian, who became a rebel leader during the Peasants’ War. He thought that the questioning of authority promoted by the Lutheran Reformation should be applied to the economic sphere….
Müntzer spent late 1524 in Nuremberg, but in mid-February 1525 was able to return to Mühlhausen. The following month, the citizenry voted out the old council and a new “Eternal League of God” was formed, composed of a cross-section of the male population and some former councillors. Müntzer and Pfeiffer succeeded in taking over the Mühlhausen town council and set up a communistic experiment in its place. Müntzer wrote to the citizens of Allstedt calling them to “join the uprising”: “Be there only three of you, but if you put your hope in the name of God—fear not a hundred thousand…. Forward, forward, forward! It is high time. Let not kind words of these Esaus arouse you to mercy. Look not upon the sufferings of the godless! They will entreat you touchingly, begging you like children. Let not mercy seize your soul, as God commanded to Moses; He has revealed to us the same…. Forward, forward, while the iron is hot. Let your swords be ever warm with blood!”
God certainly seems “present” in his philosophy. Communism is communism, with God or without.
Writing in the Catholic Herald, a priest, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, compares Kim Jong-Un with Henry VIII, the king who (according to paper’s headline-writers “founded the Church of England”: nope, it was Elizabeth I who did that, but no matter):
…The court of Mr. Kim might well be riven by deadly infighting. Indeed, it would be surprising were it not. If Mrs. Kim has persuaded her husband to get rid of Ms Hyon, this was no more than what went on in another court. Anne Boleyn constantly nagged Henry VIII to have Katharine of Aragon and her daughter the Lady Mary executed; she was also keen to see Cardinal Wolsey go to the block; as it turned out, he resisted her nagging at least with regard to the Queen and the Princess, and in the end had Anne executed, about which she could hardly complain.
There are other parallels with the Tudors. Mr. Kim seems to favour novel methods of execution. Ms Hyon was machine gunned; Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword rather than the axe, even though, as the historian Alison Weir has pointed out in her excellent The Lady in the Tower, a sword may in fact be much more painful. But Mr. Kim goes further than Henry VII ever did. He had one general, according to the Telegraph, executed by mortar round, which is highly original.
The idea of guilt by association is also reminiscent of Tudor times. When Anne Boleyn fell, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk was keen to show his disapproval of his niece, and presided at her trial and voted for her death. When he second niece to marry the King, Katharine Howard, fell, his protestations were even more voluble, especially as several members of the Howard family spent some time in the Tower, thanks to guilt by association. Katharine Howard’s brothers rode through the City of London in their best clothes in a bid to disassociate themselves from the wretched girl’s misfortune; it was a move that worked.
Just as both of Henry’s wives, and indeed his other victims, may have been condemned on trumped up charges, so it seems that Ms Hyon and her colleagues were condemned to death for incoherent indeed contradictory offences: for making pornographic videos of themselves and for the possession of Bibles. The pornography charge sounds as convincing as Anne Boleyn’s alleged witchcraft.
We may well condemn what happens in North Korea, but this sort of thing is to be expected in places where there is no rule of law beyond the will of the presiding autocrat, who is anything but benign…
It’s a silly comparison. Henry the Liberator was a savage man in a savage era, but regardless of his motives, he established the principle that Englishmen should be governed by English laws, a principle that—more or less—endured until Britain joined what became the EU.
The relevant fact about the history of the British Isles and above all of England is its separateness in a political sense from the history of continental Europe…When Henry VIII declared that ‘this realm of England is an empire (imperium) of itself’, he was making not a new claim but a very old one; but he was making it at a very significant point of time. He meant—as Edward I had meant, when he said the same over two hundred years before—that there is an imperium on the continent, but that England is another imperium outside its orbit and is endowed with the plenitude of its own sovereignty. The moment at which Henry VIII repeated this assertion was that of what is misleadingly called ‘the reformation’—misleadingly, because it was, and is, essentially a political and not a religious event…
The whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their unique quality from that moment and that assertion. It was the final decision that no authority, no law, no court outside the realm would be recognized within the realm. When Cardinal Wolsey fell, the last attempt had failed to bring or keep the English nation within the ambit of any external jurisdiction or political power: since then no law has been for England outside England, and no taxation has been levied in England by or for an authority outside England—or not at least until the proposition that Britain should accede to the Common Market [the future EU].
And childish, ahistorical comparisons with a psychotic North Korean playboy will not change that fact.