Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reality Check: Is Easter a Hijacked Pagan Holiday?

Happy Easter, folks. It's that time of year when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. However, you may have seen claims that Easter is "actually" a pagan celebration, usually purported to be that of Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess.

Here's one formulation of that assertion, seen on Facebook:

The original source for this image disappeared
Restored for use under Fair Use for the purpose
of scholarly critique.
and here's another:
Happy Easter. Don't forget the reason for the season; Sex & Fertility.
At least that's what people celebrated before the popes hijacked it.
There are problems with both of these, primarily that they're false. (And in fairness, the second assertion was made jokingly, but I include it here because it succinctly states an attitude that some take seriously. BTW, I'm deliberately not linking to the sources because I'd like to discuss the ideas here and leave personalities out of it)


Let's tackle the "Ishtar" claim first. Easter is called "Easter" in Germanic speaking countries (including England) because it is named for the month in which it most often fell. In Saxon England, this was called "Eostermonath" which in turn was named for a goddess of the dawn called Eostre. This is according to Bede, writing in the 8th century. The resemblance to the word "East" is not accidental... the words share their etymology. 

In other Germanic-speaking countries, this month was named "ostermanoth", or some other variation of that spelling, which in turn was named for the goddess "Ostara". This is according to Jacob Grimm.  

Now, there are some who claim that Bede is not a reliable source, even though he is for any number of other subjects. They claim he made it up.  The first problem with that is that you can count the number of 8th-century English historians on one finger, and he's the sole and earliest source of this etymology... which means that if he did make it up, then everyone else is copying him, and it's a difference that makes no difference. Secondly, in the year 731, when Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed, this may very well have been common knowledge, and we know of no one who bothered to contradict him.  The third problem with that criticism is that Bede's etymology is given weight by the fact that the name of the holiday, and of the month, is similar in Germanic countries, but not those closer to ancient Babylonia. Note that in non-English-speaking Orthodox Christianity the festival is called "Pascha" (from the Hebrew and Aramaic word for "Passover"). If the link to Ishtar were valid, you'd expect it to be stronger, not weaker, in Eastern lands.

Nor is it of any great concern to Christians that the name "Eostre" is associated with the month. Here's an exact parallel:  Americans most commonly refer to the celebration of their country's independence and the establishment of their Republic by the name "Fourth of July". This is named for the month in which it falls, which in turn is named for Julius Caesar, the man who usurped the Republic of Rome and became its dictator. Using the logic of the "Ishtarians", when you celebrate the fourth of July, you're actually paying homage to Julius Caesar and the downfall of Democracy. Obviously this is incorrect. The "Ishtarians" are mistaking a word for a thing, a rather simple mistake.


"OK, then," you may say, "whatever they called it, and wherever it was, it was named for a fertility goddess and hijacks a previous pagan celebration of sex and fertility!"

Again,  this is historically inaccurate. As we've already seen, Easter was named for the month, not the goddess. But more than that, it has nothing to do with hijacking an existing pagan holiday.

It replaces a pre-existing JEWISH holiday.

Passover is the commemoration of the deliverance of Jews from the Angel of Death, and from their bondage in Egypt, as recounted in the book of Exodus (called Shemot ("the names") in the Tanakh). This is a movable feast, based on a lunar calendar.  Pagan celebrations of Spring are not. Rather, they are tied to the vernal equinox, based on a solar calendar.

As the Christian Easter is tied in tradition and culture to Judaism, the Passion having fallen on that holiday, Easter is likewise a movable feast. And it's no secret that this is the case. There has never once in history been any credible controversy about the origins of Easter in the Jewish Passover. This is well-documented history. The first Christians were Jews. They didn't have a fertility rite to replace.

So the issue here isn't with the Christian holiday at all. There's nothing in the Christian liturgy about eggs and bunnies. Nothing whatsoever.

It IS true true, however, that many of the secular symbols we now associate with Easter, which were not originally part of the celebration... the bunnies, the eggs, the Springtime flowers... are derived from more ancient pagan practices. However, this is a case of the pagans jumping on and hijacking a Christian holiday, not the other way around.

In other words, you can't blame "the popes"[1] for this one, boys and girls.

And while most Christians indulge in the hiding of Easter eggs and fantasize about the Easter Bunny (just as they put up Yule trees), these are secular activities of Spring which are not for them tied to any religious observance. 

Some Christians prefer to call Easter "Resurrection Day" or "Resurrection Sunday" because of the pagan misconceptions that have been tacked on to the holiday. Far from being usurpers of paganism, they don't want the bunnies and eggs. Others actually have tried to "hijack" the pagan symbolism that has hijacked their holiday. They use a carton of plastic eggs filled with tiny tokens of the Passion and the Resurrection (called "Resurrection Eggs") to illustrate the Biblical story for small children. Both of these are minority practices.

Oh, and another thing...

I've also seen the following claim:
The pagan Easter celebrates happiness and life. The Christian Easter consecrates suffering and death.
Wrong. Dead wrong, if you'll pardon the expression. The Christian Easter celebrates the Resurrection of the body and the defeat of Death. The writer confuses the Passion with the Resurrection. The Passion did not occur on Easter, but days prior. Christians commemorate the Passion so they may appreciate the sacrifice  is necessary to put the achievement of the Resurrection in proper context.  You know those "Resurrection Eggs" I mentioned earlier...? The last one is empty. It symbolizes the empty tomb... there's no death to be found here.

Whether you believe in this or not is immaterial to this discussion... it's simply ignorant, incorrect, and culturally insensitive to characterize Easter as being other than what it is... a festival intended to give thanks for the promise of resurrection and eternal life.

[1]   However, the popes did allow it. There's a very nice passage in Thomas Cahill's "Mysteries of the Middle Ages" that relates to the subject. I like Cahill for his uncanny ability to get into the heads of the ancient peoples he describes. We have Pope Gregory I ("Gregory the Great", not the calendar guy) to thank for many of those traditions being in Christianity. Far from being the repressive autocracy associated with later generations of clergy, In the 6th century things were far more open and inclusive. As Cahill describes, Gregory "knew we all need our Christmas cookies or mug of grog or whatever we learned from childhood to associate with happiness if we are to be contented human beings." 

Thus, rather than eliminate such things and alienate the public they were trying to convert, the Catholic priests, knowing that one does not worship the Devil by accident, and under Gregory's observation to Augustine that, "customs are not to be cherished for the sake of a place, but places are to be cherished for what is good about them," just "baptized" the customs a bit, using them as teaching moments for Christianity. From thence forth they were no longer pagan. And the Catholics had some justification for that, for who in his right mind would shun as dangerous pagan rituals those things that God has taken for his own?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Universe: Living in Space

Here's one I never thought I'd be writing about. The History Channel has presented a science documentary series called "The Universe".  I watch it.... a lot. I'm a subscriber. I was a little surprised to find something questionable enough here to warrant a comment from me. Particularly when it wasn't just an off-hand comment, but a thoroughly thought-out segment. And particularly not when the idea was floated by Dr. Michio Kaku, one of the most successful popularizers of science since the late, lamented Carl Sagan.

Questionable Judgement

The thing that perked my ears was the suggestion that Mars colonists would benefit from asteroid mining. The depiction here basically took the form of deflecting an iron asteroid out of its orbit so that it lands on Mars. Then, of course, the colonists would simply take the iron from it at their leisure.

It's not that the science here is bad. It's pretty sound reasoning as far as it goes. No, it's that the judgement is really, really questionable.

All other difficulties aside (such as coming up with the energy to accurately deflect a rock of that size moving at that prodigious speed), there's the obvious danger factor. An asteroid of the size discussed (about a kilometer across), would land with kinetic force rivaling the most powerful nuclear weapons. Surely you'd want your mine close enough to your colony to make the commute reasonable, but it's a fine needle you'd have to thread to not wipe out your colony with the delivery.

Better Options

It's not like they need to do that. Mars is "The Red Planet" for a reason; that reason being that it's literally covered with rust. Iron oxide. On Earth we reduce that to iron by heating it with carbon. That doesn't exactly work on Mars, as elemental carbon is rare as unicorn farts, but it's still do-able in a couple of ways.

First, Mars does have water, at the poles. Electrolysis of the water would yield hydrogen gas and oxygen (and this makes it a ready source of oxygen for breathing). The hydrogen thus released could be used to smelt iron, as iron oxide combined with hydrogen yields elemental iron plus water (Fe2O3 + 3H2 -> 2Fe + 3H2O). So for the expenditure of some energy you get oxygen to breathe, iron to build with, and you even get your water back! With a bit of work, you might even be able to construct a roving foundry that spits out iron bars and breathable air from the sand it scoops up and recycled water. Fanciful, I know, but it's no more fanciful and it's a lot safer than pelting your colony with giant space bullets.

A second way is to use the carbon dioxide that composes the bulk of the Martian atmosphere. Throw some serious heat at it and it breaks up into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Once again we have oxygen to breathe, and in this case the carbon monoxide reacts with the iron to form elemental iron and more carbon dioxide (Fe2O3 + 3CO -> 2Fe + 3CO2). Since I don't much like carbon monoxide, and it's tricky to separate it from the oxygen so the latter can be used safely, I prefer what I think is the safer hydrogen reaction, above.

Be sure that either of these options is better than dropping an island on your head, so I'm really confused as to why this flight of fancy ever entered the conversation. Despite that bit of puzzling speculation, I still recommend the series and this episode. HERE IT IS.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Junk Science on YouTube

Sometimes I post about "junk science" on the various science channels. I usually leave the Internet alone because it so full of such idiocy that it's hardly worth the effort. Today I came across this piece of work on YouTube, though: a 2006 Russian documentary simply entitled "Water".

I single this film out due to the fact that it actually has pretty high production value and is so entirely sincere in its presentation that you could easily think it was describing legit phenomena. It's not. Yet this bit of dross received three television awards, including one for the best documentary film.

How exactly do you get a "best documentary" award when you begin with statements like this: "No scientist has been able to explain, for example, why water's density increases below the freezing point, and becomes less above freezing." The answer is because that's not what happens. Frozen water's density is less, which is why ice floats. And that's because the shape of the molecules is such that when they join into their characteristic hexagonal crystals, they take up more room than they do when at liquid temperatures. They then rightly state that water expand when frozen, which makes it the more puzzling why this mis-statement wasn't left on the cutting room floor.

Every time you hear the phrase "scientists can't explain" in this film, it's fairly safe to assume that scientists have explained whatever it is they're talking about... minus the stuff that is made-up B.S. Keep in mind that anomalous does not mean mysterious.

Here's a link to unusual properties of water that science can explain:
Here's another:
And another:

Pity the poor scientists who are quoted in this film. Nobel laureate Kurt W├╝thrich is quoted simply as saying that water has been extensively studied and has unusual properties. By pasting in perfectly reasonable statements from perfectly reputable researchers, next to discredited snake-oil salesmen like Masaru Emoto and quack physicians, the filmmaker imply that these scientists support the conclusions of the film as a whole. But what might that be?

That water has memory.

As this is a central proposition of homeopathy, I've heard this magickal line of thought before (although the pretense here is that it was just "discovered". To be fair to homeopaths, even they haven't gone so far as to claim that you can turn water into a super-cure-all entirely by wishful thinking. This crowd has basically increased the profitability of homeopathy by removing the labor of all of that pesky swishing and diluting.)

We're less than seven minutes into the film and already some pretty shoddy thinking has gotten us to this point. For instance... some people were working together in Southeast Asia, supposedly to develop bacteriological weapons. They got sick at a meeting with "symptoms of food poisoning". The water was tested and found to be just plain water. Now a reasonable person would then continue to look elsewhere for a solution -- perhaps some bacteria that produced similar symptoms among these people who work with bacteria -- but these folks conclude that the plain water was poisonous, AND that it wasn't poisonous because it contained poison, but because it simply remembered to be poisonous. Of the investigative "dead-ends" encountered, plain H2O wasn't one. *sigh*

What follows is a barrage of mixture of fact, speculation, and nonsense presented as fact. For instance, water clusters ( are real. They only last for minute fractions of a second, and they're constantly changing, and don't exhibit the properties claimed here.

Here's some more debunking:

Among the claims of this film:
  • Salt water can be made fresh by wishing it to be fresh.
  • Love "increases water's energy levels".
  • Aggressive emotions "reduce the energy".
  • You can affect the shape of an ice crystal by saying "thank you" and "excuse me" to the water before freezing it.
  • You absorb a liter an a half of water when you take a bath or shower. (that's a little over three pounds... next time you bathe, weigh yourself.)
  • Water that flows through pipes is "deformed" so that the "crystals" it contains (in the liquid form, mind you) do not have symmetry or beauty.
  • "Devitalized" water will "steal" your "energy".
  • Water remembers "violence" that is done to it.
  • Water is a giant universal computer that contains "biological programs".
This is punctuated by "mean music" when discussing anything man-made whatsoever, and "nice music" when discussing streams and oceans.

And it just keeps going and going and going and gets worse and worse and worse.... the film claims that water itself burns. (In fact, water does not burn because it's already burnt. "Water" is our name for burnt hydrogen. In order to burn water, you would have to remove the oxygen so that you could then add oxygen. This cannot produce energy, as it would violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). It actually states, "in order to burn anything whatsoever, there must be at least some quantity of water". Half-true misdirection. Water is formed as a result of burning hydrocarbons, but it does not have to be present for the combustion to occur.

This documentary really doesn't have anything to do with science at all. "Like all sculptures that have not been created are present in clay, so the images of all future living organisms were present in water. Water merely brought to life a pre-existing conception," the narrator intones. Once we realize that this film is merely a compendium of every pop-culture speculation of New Age faith, "legitimized" in a matrix of real and pseudo-science, it becomes a rather dull exercise to pick apart the truth from the fiction. Fact-checking is made easy with the knowledge that every statement containing the phrase "modern science" is complete horseshit.

Really, a documentary shouldn't make you do that. It should be educational and informative in its own right; its educational value shouldn't be measured by the amount of effort you're willing to put in to fact-checking each and every sentence.  But if you want to go through that exercise and have an hour and a half to kill, here's the show in its entirety:

I give this one a solid F. It might have gotten a D (for being pretty) if the few bits of real science weren't completely diluted by the useless crap.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Waging War on Truth

I saw this on Facebook today:

It's an... errr... interesting rhetorical device, but it's not exactly what the DOJ said. Prop 8 dealt with gay marriage. The DOJ stated that gays are not inherently inferior parents. But let's set aside for a moment the issue of gay marriage entirely, and deal directly with what this graphic says, and only that.

Let's look at the idea that a child has a "right" to a mother. Remember the TV show "My Three Sons"? Do you think it would be advisable for Mike, Robbie, and Chip to sue their dad, Steven Douglas (Fred MacMurray)? After all, we're talking about a household with two "dads" here. You think not? Don't you remember when Mike left and Ernie was adopted...? The court wouldn't allow it until Uncle Charlie stepped up and was declared "housemother".

That was in the 1960s. In 1960, two men could raise a houseful of children and audiences didn't think twice about it. They watched every week and enjoyed themselves. In the 1960s we insisted that those kids have full-time care, but the courts didn't hold some imagined "right" to ensure that it was one of each sex. Now, fifty years later, have children suddenly gained a right now that they didn't have then? Did fathers somehow lose a right to self-determination that they formerly had, and are now somehow obligated to remarry? Or maybe you think the preceding generation wasn't as decent? These are rhetorical questions: of course children don't have a "right" to a mother... God Himself deprives children of mothers every day.

What about all the other widowers and divorced dads with custody out there? Should we expect a barrage of lawsuits against them? If so, I narrowly dodged a bullet, in that I did re-marry. I do somehow resent the idea that I wasn't a loving, capable parent when it was just me and Will, though. As the parent who got custody, and did so because I was declared by a trained psychiatrist and marriage specialist to be the more capable parent, I'm so very glad that the court in my state did not subscribe to the notion that my ex had a "right" to the child she couldn't properly raise. I find that concept more than a little bit sexist... and so did the court. Children aren't property. It's good for my son that we had a judge that knew that.

Once you know what the DOJ actually said, it takes no imagination to invert the claim in the graphic and say the DOJ is waging a War on Men. That would be every bit as accurate, you know. But I wouldn't apply it to a widow who is doing her best to raise children without a father, as one of my childhood neighbors did. I wouldn't say it to a divorced woman raising children on her own as was my own mother before she re-married. And why was my mother divorced? I was there, and I can tell you that sometimes one parent is better than two, even if the two are man and wife. If you don't believe it I can put you into a room with a bunch of folks who can tell you stories of traditional marriages that will make you cry.

This infographic is just wrong. And if we think about it for five seconds or more, it becomes obvious that it's just so very wrong.

One small thing to add... I know what the author was trying to do, and I'm sure he thought he was being terribly clever. But as those of you readers who are responsible parents already know, when little Billy lies to you, you do not respond with, "Here! Have a cookie! What a clever lie you just told!"

That's because lies aren't clever.

I don't see eye-to-eye with this administration. But I have a very particular fondness for common sense, decency, and fairness; as well as a smattering of respect for the truth. Taking a statement out of context, twisting it to claim that it says something that wasn't said is un-Christian. It isn't fair, decent, or truthful; and it flies in the face of common sense. The fact that it's nonsensical is why I looked up the DOJ's argument. Please... there are enough offensive statements that this government actually makes that we do not have to go making stuff up. And if you want to target the gay marriage issue, fine, do that out in the open, but not with some garbage argument that implies that just because somebody's a man that he can't raise a child. I don't like bigotry, period. I don't like it when they do it, and I don't like it when you do it, even by accident. And I don't even know who you are.


By the way, bigot is an under-used word these days. That's a shame because it's incredibly useful. These days we use words like racist, sexist, homophobic, class-ist, age-ist, weight-ist, etc. There's an "-ism" for everybody, as if the target of a person's unreasoning hatred makes one bit of difference.

Keep it simple. It's BIGOTRY.