Saturday, April 22, 2006

Happy Ishtar

Depressed this morning to see that Fr. Al Kimel has bought into the idea that the word "Easter" is a horrible pagan holdover that ought to be junked. As fans of Alexander Hislop, Jack Chick, and the endlessly churned-out empire of fake history know, the word Easter is proof that the holiday is actually worship of the fertility goddess Eostra/Austron, who is one and the same as Astarte, and before her, Ishtar, and ipso facto Catholics and all affiliated churches (i.e. nearly everyone) are, despite their protests, engaged in Babylonian Mystery Religion.

Now when I first was told all this many years ago, I foolishly thought I'd just check it out and see if there was any reason to think that it was true, and that that would settle the matter; I mean, the historical record is there for everyone.

The first thing I found is that the crucial passage is in the Venerable Bede's De tempore ratione, where he says that "Eosturmonath," the spring month in which the Paschal celebration fell, was named originally after the goddess Eostre:

"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month,' and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor 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-honored name of the old observance."

The second thing I found is that there is no second thing. That one sentence is it. We have no useful information from anywhere (the Brothers Grimm apparently made some Osterfest goddess guesses, but they're several centuries too late to be useful) about the original meaning of "Easter," where it may have come from, or how the pre-Christian English really spent those cold spring days.

Here's what I ended up with, after my toils:

1. Other than one reference in Bede, there’s no record anywhere of “Easter” being derived from the name of a pagan goddess. No such goddess appears in the (fairly thorough) info we have on pre-Christian northern European pagan beliefs, such as the Eddas. German has a similar word for that time of year, but we have no more reason to link it to a goddess in Germany than in England. We have some reason to link the words to the Old Teutonic for "dawn," but disappointingly that doesn't get us to ancient Babylonian fertility goddess babes. Or even to ancient Teutonic goddess babes.

2. Even in Bede, who was writing well after any living memory of such pagan god/goddess worship in England, the word “Easter,” whatever its derivation, is assigned to the season, and only subsequently to the Christian celebration occurring in that season. So linking the putative goddess-worship to the Christian celebration is exactly like linking Ascension Thursday to Thor-worship.

3. There is extensive discussion elsewhere in Bede about Easter; in none of these discussions is there any suggestion of a link to goddess worship. However there is much testimony to the enthusiasm with which the converted English stamped out every vestige of pagan worship.

Neopagans often use Bede to show that the pope okayed permitting continued pagan worship under Christian guise; but the passage appealed to (it's in Ecclesial History) only shows the pope giving permission to leave standing buildings that had been used for pagan worship if they could still be used for something else. (Bede records that the English nevertheless destroyed the buildings.)

4. The name “Austron” for the putative goddess, which supposedly preceded the name "Eostre" and links it to the word for "dawn," occurs nowhere, not even in Bede. It was a guess made by the editors of the OED, who accordingly place an asterisk next to the word. So in fact we have no etymological source whatsoever for the name "Eostre."

5. Bede doesn’t give any particular province to the goddess he posits; that she might have been a goddess of spring or of fertility are guesses made much later. For all we know, if there really was such a goddess, she might have been a goddess of war, or mushrooms, or egg-delivering bunnies. If the OED guess is right, she would be a dawn-goddess; but your guess is as good as theirs.

My conclusion was that there is good reason for thinking Bede to be in error on this point; and even if his information (which he got from others, who themselves were not alive during pagan times in England) is correct, at most it shows that a season of the English year--like several of our days of the week and months of the year--was named for an obscure and long-forgotten pagan deity.

Unfortunately, I also discovered that once people are determined to believe even counterintuitive "history," such as the strange but popular idea that early Christian missionaries were happy to "baptize" pagan practices and even deities by giving them Christian names and trappings as a means of spreading the faith, it's simply impossible to disprove it. Demonstrating the utter lack of evidence is insufficient in the face of the desire to believe "what everyone knows." Everyone knows that Easter and Christmas were once pagan holidays that had a thin veneer of Christianity overlaid; and nothing will ever change that belief.

Finally, I became aware of an odd feedback cycle that keeps such a strange and ahistorical idea alive. Neopagans want to believe it, because it means that their beliefs weren't just made up day before yesterday, but are really ancient and still around. Certain fundamentalistic Christians want to believe it, because it proves the Catholic Church and all its depraved offspring and practices really are pagan at the core. Mainstream Christians want to believe it, because it shows that Christianity really was never intolerant of other cultures and their beliefs, and can accommodate anything with infinite elasticity. And then each group can appeal to the "evidence" of the others' statements and made-up research, with nobody having any motivation to actually check out the facts for themselves, nor question the underlying assumptions.

But it seems, alas, real history continues to disappoint. Pre-Christian paganism died out a long time ago. Putative ancient pagan customs surviving into the modern day prove, again and again, under examination to be of recent origin. The study of folklore, having recovered from its early, giddy days of finding faeries under every rock and Bridgit-worship in every sacred well, is becoming a respectable branch of the humanities as it sheds wishful thinking as a research tool. Only the popular culture that keeps in business can hope to keep the fun alive.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Seven unhelpful things non-homeschoolers should stop saying

1. But what about socialization?

2. I just think it’s wrong.

3. I could never homeschool. I couldn’t stand to be around my kids that much.

4. I could never homeschool. My children are social and need to have friends.

5. What makes you think you can teach them all they need to know?

6. What makes you think you can teach as well as a trained teacher?

7. Why do you want to rob your children of a normal childhood?

Seven unhelpful things homeschoolers should stop saying

1. I don’t know why anybody would want to put their children in an institution.

2. Public schools are eeeeevil because of anti-Christian bias…

3. … political correctness. …

4. … the mainstreaming of homosexuality …

5. … student violence …

6. … teacher sexual abuse Ritalin prescriptions sex ed classes dumbed-down curriculum lack of discipline age segregation forced attendance zero tolerance policies junk food machines social promotion cliques bullying lockdowns standardized testing random drug searches mainstreaming no prayers in the classroom ability tracking government monopoly evolution creationism socialist propaganda right-wing indoctrination.

7. You know, the whole public school system is really based on the eighteenth-century Prussian educational system. Yep, really.
Ravitch at This Week in Education

The wonderful Diane Ravitch has a Q&A over at Alexander Russo's blog. Check it out.

And if you haven't yet read her book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, do it. Even if your kids are in public school. Especially if your kids are in public school. Ravitch, beholden to neither left nor right, gores everyone's ox with nothing more than a straightforward historical account of the American educational reform movements of the last hundred years.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Seattle fails to notice twenty years of educational reform

School to parents: Look! New "Reform" math! Better!

Parents to school: You have ceased to teach them math. Please resume teaching them math.

School to parents: Oh dear. Yes, this is a problem. We understand your frustration and helpless feelings. But a few informational meetings should help you through your confusion.

Parents to school: Goodbye.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

HFH Reading Group: On-Line RCIA

The Second Lecture, on repentance and forgiveness; and the Third Lecture, on baptism:

"This is in truth a serious matter, brethren, and you must approach it with good heed. Each one of you is about to be presented to God before tens of thousands of the Angelic Hosts: the Holy Ghost is about to seal your souls: ye are to be enrolled in the army of the Great King. Therefore make you ready, and equip yourselves, by putting on I mean, not bright apparel, but piety of soul with a good conscience. Regard not the Laver as simple water, but rather regard the spiritual grace that is given with the water. For just as the offerings brought to the heathen altars, though simple in their nature, become defiled by the invocation of the idols, so contrariwise the simple water having received the invocation of the Holy Ghost, and of Christ, and of the Father, acquires a new power of holiness."

Cyril has an interesting discussion of the sacramental nature of baptismal water. He clearly adheres to the orthodox understanding of the regenerative nature of the sacrament, via the sign of the water itself, but then has this odd dualistic-sounding statement: "Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ; in order that, the soul having been born again by faith, the body also might by the water partake of the grace." Not a theology, if we take him literally here, that is either strictly orthodox nor likely to satisfy those who see baptism as only a token of a spiritual regeneration that has already occurred.

Okay, a stupid pedantic note; but whoever scanned in all these books from the ANF series seems to have let the spell-checker systematically change the word "laver" (from Latin, lavare, to wash) to "layer." And it bugs me.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Happy obedient children

The discussion in homeschooling circles about the Pearls and their punishment methods, and what role, if any, their methods played in the death of a homeschooled boy, rages on. Increasingly, parents who make use of corporal punishment are realizing that the Pearls are not good allies, and that their ideas of discipline cross the line into areas sane parents are unwilling to go. If you doubt, read their own book, To Train Up a Child. There is no shortage of horrifying passages (pulling an infants hair for biting when nursing; using tree branches to strike children; switching infants as young as seven months). Here is the desired goal:

"As we sneaked a peek at the proceedings, she continued her 'mother practice' session. Several situations arose with her rag baby which she promptly and firmly dealt with like an old pro. In fact, I could not have handled the make-believe situations any better. She told the screaming child (a rag doll). 'No! That's not nice. You can't have it now. Stop your crying. SWITCH, SWITCH. If you don't stop crying, Mama will have to spank you again. SWITCH, SWITCH, SWITCH. OK, stop crying now. That's better. Now see if you can play happily.'
Here is a three-year-old 'mother' already prepared to rear happy obedient children."

What is it, anyway, with the "peace churches" (the Pearls are Amish) and hitting children? I have the Rod and Staff teaching handbook for Mennonite schools, and while there's a lot of good teaching advice, the section on corporal punishment is horrific. I quit reading at the part about how you could only whack unbaptized children. I guess "pacifist" means different things to different people.

Meanwhile, here is St. John Bosco on Christian discipline:

"Punishment should be your last resort. In my long career as an educator, how often this has been brought home to me! No doubt it is ten times easier to lose our patience than to control it, to threaten a boy than to persuade him. No doubt too, it is much more gratifying to our pride to punish those who resist us, than to bear them with firm kindness.... To strike a child in any way, to make him kneel in a painful position, to pull his ears, and other similar punishments must be absolutely avoided. The law forbids them, and they greatly irritate the child and degrade the educator."

And Maria Montessori:

"As to punishments, we have many times come in contact with children who disturbed the others without paying any attention to our corrections... When the case proved to be that of a normal child, we placed one of the little tables in a corner of the room, and in this way isolated the child; having him sit in a comfortable little armchair, so placed that he might see his companions at work, and giving him those games and toys to which he was most attracted. This isolation almost always succeeded in calming the child; from his position he could see the entire assembly of his companions, and the way in which they carried on their work was an object lesson much more efficacious than any words of the teacher could possibly have been. Little by little, he would come to see the advantages of being one of the company working so busily before his eyes, and he would really wish to go back and do as the others did... I do not know what happened in the soul of these children whom we found it necessary to discipline, but certainly the conversion was always very complete and lasting. They showed great pride in learning how to work and how to conduct themselves, and always showed a very tender affection for the teacher and for me."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Ten Plagues

The Carnival of Education is up, hosted by The Magic School Bus, with a Passover theme: entries are sorted according to plague.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Maybe they could use this for letters of excommunication

This has been making the rounds of the blogs: a pirated Chinese Revenge of the Sith with less-than-perfectly translated subtitles. One wonders what search of dictionaries and phrasebooks converted the Jedi Council to the PCUSA.
HFH Reading Group: On-Line RCIA

Everyone finish the Prologue? Good. Now we're going to move a little faster on the Catechetical Lectures (i.e. Lent homilies to those preparing to enter the Church) of St. Cyril. Go read The First Lecture.

Notice the many ways of referring to baptism: enlightenment, washing, new birth, earnest of the Holy Spirit, mystical seal, seal of salvation. And the advice to "nourish thy soul with sacred readings." Hey, that's what you're doing right now.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Look for the red binding

If you have fond memories of Jenny and the Cat Club or Eleanor Farjeon's The Little Bookroom, you should know about the New York Review Children's Collection, which has reprinted many of these long out-of-print children's classics.

Among other lost classics, the D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants has been republished as D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, unchanged except for the title. The D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls is forthcoming.

Yes, the point of this project is to cash in on GenX and Late Boomer nostalgia; but who cares. We ordered the whole Cat Club series (after years of searching in used book stores and online, I had only been able to find a few of them). I can hardly wait for E. Nesbit's The House of Arden to be available.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Et cognoscetis veritatem, et veritas vos liberabit

E.D. Hirsch has a new book out, The Knowledge Deficit, in which he continues to argue for a broad base of "cultural" knowledge as the primary goal of education. A review:

"If there are one or two unfamiliar words in an extended paragraph, you can still figure out roughly what the passage means, and also, in that context, what possible meanings the unfamiliar words could have. Encounter those words over and over, and in time you will know what they mean and how to use them, without any conscious effort to memorize their definitions (a highly inefficient way to learn new words, Hirsch points out).

But if the passage has too many unfamiliar words, you not only can't understand it, but you can't use it to bootstrap yourself into a larger vocabulary.
So it is essential, Hirsch believes, that the material children see and hear in the early grades helps to familiarize them with the knowledge their books will take for granted later. Otherwise, the gaps that are already present simply grow larger over time. Some researchers, he notes, have called this 'the Matthew effect.'

If you immediately recognize this as a biblical allusion, your understanding is enhanced. If you don't, the name adds nothing to your understanding. That's Hirsch's point."

Of course, the verse in St. Matthew about much being given to those who have much, and those who have little losing even that, is about the last piece of cultural knowledge a public school is going to touch; but such ironies aside, it's nice to see Hirsch continuing to work out the ground reasons for a liberal education. (Or "classical education" as they call it in homeschooling circles.) Hint to Hirsch, for when he finally gets completely past the clumsy utilitarian rationales: it has something to do with the worth of knowledge for its own sake, genuine participation in the stream of two-and-a-half millennia of Western Civilization, and the reasons for the names "liberal [freeing] arts" and "humanities."

(HT to Joanne Jacobs)