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!