Sunday, March 13, 2016

Reality Check 3: More Easter Misconceptions

Previously on Ruminations:


In the first I burst the bubble of New Agers and Atheists alike for their claim that Easter was "really" a celebration of Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian goddess. In the second I show that the Christian celebration of the Resurrection is a completely separate thing.

Oh, goodie! More "pagan-splaining" about what
a Christian festival "actually" means.

I could just point to the previous posts as I have in the past, and let them speak for themselves, but I choose not to for three reasons. One is that this meme is internally self-defeating, and the second is that it perpetuates misinformation in a way distinct from the Ishtar meme. The third reason is that it's been my experience that the folks who write these memes don't generally follow links.

To see what I mean about "self-defeating", note the text below the picture. These "informational memes" are going beyond humorous now. In fact, this one reminds me of the defendant, acting as his own lawyer, who asked the witness on the stand, "Did you get a good look at my face when I stole your purse?" This is proudly signed by "Atheist Axis - Adie", who establishes her(?) bona fides by the use of the label "Mr. Imagniary(sp) Himself". I assume that the word she intended to commit to pixels is "Imaginary". Having declared the historically attested Jesus of Nazareth to be "imaginary", she implies that the Eostre is "real", in that there is actuality involved in the ritual (we'll discuss that in a bit). Would a sincere atheist really choose one myth over another?

Adie then proceeds to perpetuate the trope that the whole rabbits and eggs thing has anything to do with Christianity.  It doesn't.

Oh, Christians do celebrate Spring. Everyone does! In every climate where seasons exist, there is also some form of Spring festival. People have been cooped up inside for a dreary Winter characterized by a largely colorless landscape. When the weather is warm and the flowers are blooming, they go outside and enjoy themselves. Christians are no different in this respect. They engage in secular activities for which -- to them -- there's not a shred of religious significance (see below). But these are things that happen outside of a church, not inside. The inside of a church is reserved for celebration of a singular event for which they have prepared for months. It begins with Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the last day of excess before Ash Wednesday, followed by forty days of penance that is Lent, culminating in the Paschal Triduum... the three-day period in which Christians commemorate the passion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. These things that are commemorated inside the church are the only things about Easter that a Christian holds to be part of the "Christian festival". The bit about bunnies and eggs is a secular observance that is co-existent.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, this is known as "Easter" due to the fact that it most often falls in the month that was known as Eostermonath (April). The first mention of it by that name was by Bede in the 8th century. In other countries it's known as Pascha. But where it's known as "Easter", this is in reference to the month. It's no more "really" the veneration of an ancient goddess than "July Fourth fireworks" are "really" a celebration of an ancient Roman dictator.

And lest this be misunderstood, it is mathematically and astronomically impossible for the Christian holiday to even overlap with the Pagan one. The pagan celebration of Eostre is thought to have occurred on the vernal equinox. The Christian Easter is a moveable feast that occurs on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The earliest it can possibly be is the day after.

I say this because although this meme was created by an Atheist, I "overheard" it on Facebook where it was posted by a neo-Pagan who claimed, "I personally am sick of being hammered for celebrating one of our sabbats by Christians." This person is "sick" of something that never happens. Not only do Christians not "hammer" them for it, they really don't know that what the pagan is doing is distinct from the secular activity that the Christian will happily join in on!

In other words, "liar, liar, pants on fire."

Perhaps the neo-Pagan is conflating the springtime festival involving bunnies and rabbits with less light-hearted observances of the vernal equinox (such as by modern Druids at Stonehenge) at which a bunny is ne'er to be found. That's understandable. It's a little much to expect Christians to make distinctions among religions that literally swap rituals with instructions to [feel free to insert the name of your patron deity or the gods of your tradition here][2]. I'm not saying you can't do it... I'm saying you can't expect someone who follows Abrahamic traditions to take that level of devotion seriously.

I also find it humorous that the neo-Pagan would use the word "sabbat", as this is plainly cultural appropriation of the the Jewish "sabbath". Someone who's concerned about such things should certainly be more... sensitive.


Nevertheless, I find this meme a step up from the earlier one. As we turn our attention to the text above the meme we see that it almost correctly identifies the goddess Eostre. Her existence didn't begin with the Anglo-Saxon pagans, though. It was imported from Germany, where she was known as Ostara. Ostara was the goddess of the dawn and of the East. The words "Easter", "East", and "Austria" (from Ostarreich, or "Eastern Kingdom") all derive from this same source. Of Eostre, Bede writes:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance."
By the time Bede wrote about them in the 8th century, the followers of Eostre had died out. [1] We honestly don't know what form the "feasts" took. Neo-pagan practices are re-constructions of the 19th and 20th centuries based on what they could piece together from written sources, from folklore over a thousand years removed from practice and for which there is no literature, and from similar mythologies of other countries. But of written sources on the British isles, there is but one source, Bede, and this is all he had to say of it.

Thus, the claim that Eostre's "sacred animal" was a rabbit is a modern supposition. It's not without basis... in any Spring festival you're going to see breeding, because guess what? It's breeding season. So you're going to see prolific bunnies, chicks, eggs, and flowers. Let's not forget the flowers. The ubiquity of these Springtime symbols should inform you as to how it is that New Agers associate these very same symbols with the completely unrelated Babylonian goddess Ishtar.


Finally, let's move up to the title. "The Real Reason Easter Exists" cannot be answered for Christians without noting that the Christian observance (Pascha) is not a vernal equinox fertility rite that metaphorically represents those things seen in the season. It is a moveable holy day in observance of specific events attested to by eyewitnesses. Whether or not you believe the eyewitnesses is immaterial... that's what Christian Easter is.  It would continue to be that even without any of the secular observances that co-incidentally occur outside the church. This is proven by the fact that this is actually the case in non-Anglo-Saxon countries.

So the time of Easter has nothing to do with Eostre, and the reason for Easter has nothing to do with Eostre. It is Jesus.

But for speakers of German and English, the name of Easter is undoubtedly derived from Eostre/Ostara in the same way that "July 4th" is derived from Julius Caesar.

That leaves the form of Eostre. Within a church it is undeniably completely separate from Eostre; taking the form of a recounting of human events as as witnessed by people who told their stories to others who wrote them down.[3]  This is accompanied by singing and exaltation, none of which resembles a fertility rite. Where flowers are used, it is largely for decoration, as the Christians want their churches to look beautiful. Symbolism is reserved for the white lily as a symbol of purity, innocence, peace, and new life.

However, within Anglo-Saxon tradition, secular practices utilize symbols which we imagine to be those once used by pagans in genuine ancient practices. But these are the same symbols used in every culture for a springtime festival to symbolize renewal. They continue to be used in cultures having exactly no knowledge of Eostre, and for whom the word "Easter" is not associated with the Christian practice. In more recent times and in response to criticism regarding such secular observances, Anglo-Saxon Christians have deliberately assigned overt Christian symbolism to these ancient symbols. These days you can buy a dozen plastic "Resurrection Eggs", each containing some token symbolic of the passion and resurrection. The last of these eggs is always empty, symbolizing Jesus' empty tomb. But for a great many Christians around the world, there's no connection at all.


Easter Around the World:

Perhaps some hotshot should "pagan-splain" to the
Japanese that these Koalas "really" celebrate a long-dead
goddess of the dawn in a country halfway around the world.
Anybody think they'd care?

[1] In a manner similar to that used by modern Bible scholars when separating belief from historicity, I have no problem pointing out that today's neo-Pagans are not the Pagans of history. Their traditions and rituals are not those used historically. Though it may ruffle a feather or two to apply the same standard, we must.

[2] And what's with that "patron" bit anyway? That's more than a bit out of character for people who'd like you to be more sensitive to gender equality. Read Schuler, Elizabeth: A Balancing Act: A Discussion of Gender Roles Within Wiccan Ritual [PDF]

[3] Though the Gospels may be disputed to various degrees, they are at the very least attributed to historical human figures, and within a relatively short time of their passing. This differs greatly from traditional paganism, in which gods and goddesses are metaphors for natural events. ("goddess of the dawn", "god of thunder", etc.)

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