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)

Ishtar

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.

Fertility

"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?

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