It should be obvious really, that Easter is not a pagan holiday, but a Christian one. The events it describes are clearly the crucifixion and resurrection stories of the New Testament – and we know they happened, according to our sources, on the Passover (or the Eve of the Passover). Without the ancient Jewish Passover festival story, the crucifixion and resurrection narrative make less symbolic sense – but one thing is absolutely obvious – Easter’s date derives from a Jewish festival, not any Pagan one. So why do so many of us think we know otherwise?
The origin of the word, not the festival
Well the first thing is very simple. No one has ever really seriously claimed to the best of my knowledge that Easter is a Christianized form of an ancient pagan rite — such a claim would be patently absurd. I think even the most misguided advocate of Frazer’s vegetation god’s nonsense from The Golden Bough would realize that simply won’t work. What is actually claimed by people who know what they are talking about a bit, is that Easter derives its name and some of its symbolism in English speaking countries from a pagan source. Etymologically pagan, that is the word was borrowed from a pagan source, not that the festival was – but bizarrely year after year I see people make exactly the “Easter is pagan” claim.
So this year –
Why Easter is not pagan!
I throw open the challenge to anyone to demonstrate from primary sources any of these things, or a pagan origin for Christmas.
Let’s dispose of a few dodgy claims first. We have all heard that Easter derives from an Anglo-Saxon festival dedicated to the Goddess Eostre – but no one has ever found any evidence for the existence of this Goddess, outside of the Christian monk Bede, who in De temporum ratione wrote
This was his attempted etymology of Easter – which is only called that in English of course. The problem is that as the Goddess in question, Eostre is completely unknown otherwise, and Bede was an enthusiast for adopting pagan customs in to Christianity or allowing them to persist where it did not impact on Christian doctrine where possible (out of kindness and a desire to allow people to keep their old ways), so this proposed etymology is probably spurious. In the 19th century a German antiquarian invented Osatra, as the German form, using Bede as his source.
Bede admits this idea is his speculation – he is not actually aware of a goddess called Eostre, he just thinks there was one. There is not a single reference to her, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, any of the other writings we have from the period, or from inscriptions. No depiction – no amulets – nothing. Her Germanic version was invented completely in the 19th century, and again has no evidence whatsoever from history or archaeology to back it up. So Bede was, as he often was, wrong – but in line with his own slightly odd but very humane prejudices. Read the first couple of chapters of his Ecclesiastical History and you will get the picture
So why the woo?
I’m afraid we are back to the pernicious influence of Frazerian myths about myths. A good way to spot woo here is the suggestion that the solstices were considered major religious festivals in pagan antiquity. They weren’t. In fact the notion they were really only dates to the last decades of the 19th century, and has more to do with occultism than history. Frazer popularized a lot of this with his Vegetation Gods crap in the infamous The Golden Bough, and the ideas have become as ingrained in popular understanding as say Freudianism has, with even less supporting evidence.
Easter Eggs pagan?
I have it on one good source that eggs were featured in certain Persian rites, and i believe that. It’s nothing to do with our Easter Eggs though. I am aware of no pre-13th century account of painted eggs etc? Maybe you can surprise me with a primary source? The classic study is Newell’s 1971 book – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Egg-Easter-F…9384936&sr=8-1 Anyway I am pretty certain you will find no evidence of pre-Christian Goddesses, especially Celtic ones, getting folks to hunt painted eggs down rabbit holes. One often sees this claim about the Anglo Saxon Goddess Eostre, but her worshippers were hampered in this practice by not existing in the first place, outside of Bede’s imagination. It’s all woo.
So any chance it might be named after a pagan Goddess?
Well Ronald Hutton does not entirely dismiss it
The other is that the Anglo-Saxon eastre, signifying both the festival and the season of spring, is associated with a set of words in various Indo-European languages,signifying dawn and also goddesses who personified that event, such as the Greek Eos, the Roman Aurora, and the Indian Ushas. It is therefore quite possible to argue that Bede’s Eostre was a German dawn-deity who was venerated at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon “Estor-monath”simply meant “the month of opening”, or the “month of beginning”, and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season, but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the Dawn itself.” Stations of the Sun, p.180
So there you go — there remains a remote chance we took the word from a real Goddess – but as its called Paschen or similar in almost all European languages, well that means nothing anyway – the English & German terms are much later. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of is regardless of where the word Easter derives from, Easter was not an adapted pagan festival as often claimed.
UPDATE: I have just seen a strong and intelligent article arguing for the existence of Eostre, from the Keeper of Seasons Hall blog. This has convinced me the case for Eostre is far stronger than I had thought – do read this — http://www.koshabq.org/2012/03/09/celebrating-eostre/ And whatever your reason for celebrating the season, have a wonderful time!
UPDATE2: Good article in today’s Guardian, well worth reading (Good Friday 2011)
Still if you must follow ancient customs at least this sounds fun!