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.


Blogger sophia said...

This is very interesting to me. Even though I haven't done the research, I thought Christmas and Easter were definitely Christian holidays with some pagan aspects adopted in to them in order to "fold in" pagans and the culture who were new to the faith. In fact, I just read an article which was decrying the use of the word "Easter" since it came from the pagan goddess and actually reference Bede. (and Bede only as you point out as a problem). We, Orthodox, are encouraged to use the word "Pascha" (Greek for Passover) instead. As you suggest in your post, though, we don't stop saying the word "Thursday" or the other words in our modern language which refer to pagan gods. Thanks for giving me another possible paradigm to in which to look at this. I'll have to grapple with your ideas for awhile now.

6:26 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


I have to admit that I once bought the idea that major Christian holidays had significant pagan elements. What made me question this conventional wisdom was reading some of the accounts of early Christian missionary activity, such as Bede and Patrick, and realizing that the early missionaries were about as intolerant, in the modern sense, of other beliefs and cultures as one could possibly imagine. There was no way these guys were going to "baptize" anything with the slightest flavor of paganism.

After that, I started questioning some of the claimed "pagan holdovers" and learning some things about nineteenth-century folklorists (who were mostly amateurs out to prove that ancient pagan customs survived into the modern day) and modern scholarship. It was quite an eye-opener. One of the best resources is, ironically, Ronald Hutton, an English neopagan university professor, who has been making himself unpopular amongst neopagans for some time now by doing serious research.

But as real resarch, like Hutton's, starts to be better known, some of the old bits of conventional wisdom are starting to fade. Most people now know that Christmas trees are a Reformation-era custom, not some ancient pagan custom around since forever, for instance.

You might find this article about the dating of Christmas interesting:

3:19 PM  
Anonymous MTM said...

This is a very nice site. Kudos to you. You do homeschoolers proud!

7:49 AM  
Blogger Myrtle said...

I think it smacks of superstition rather than theology. To attach evil to a WORD? It doesn't matter what one calls it, who started it, or what someone else originally did. Your heart and mind is worshipping Christ or it's not.

I dont think a Christian can "catch" paganism like pneumonia from celebrating their religion on the wrong date or using the wrong word any more than a Goths or the hip hop crowd become saved simply by having a large bling bling cross around their neck.

Good grief, that's like saying Euclid's IX book is evil because it's got the unlucky number 13 in it and there is all this talk about pentagons.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Yahmdallah said...

Excellent post! One for the ages.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Darwin said...

I think pretty much the only thing one can persuasively argue Christians adopted from pagan practice is the data of Christmas -- but even there it's not so much a matter of taking the date from pagan practice, as that the Christians and pagans were doubtless influenced by the same astronomical symbolism in picking a feast day near the winter solstice. Something along the lines of "In their ignorance the pagans believed the solstice symbolized XYZ, but in reality the increasing of light each day is a symbol of the coming of the Light of the World to save us from our sins."

Far from baptising pagan practice, intentionally picking the same time for a competing holiday based on the same astronomical event probably helped to stamp out paganism sooner, since it left no reason for people to go back to pagan customs.

5:58 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


The dating of Christmas was something I looked into and came out a little confused by: on the one hand, it did seem to coincide with a pagan Roman sun festival with similar themes. On the other hand, the date of Christmas took a while to settle, and as far as I could tell (with my limited resources), the Dec. 25 date had been used by the third century in monastic communities, which seemed unlikely to have been greatly influenced by doings in the city of Rome.

Wm. Tighe at Touchstone claims that the pagan date was in fact intentionally placed on Dec. 25 by a pagan emperor as a way to co-opt the Christian holiday; an interesting argument that would account for the similarity of theme on the same date. The main difficulty seems to be that we don't know exactly when a Dec. 25 Feast of the Nativity was adopted in the west.

The usual claim, though, isn't that the Emperor Aurelian's "Birthday of the Sun" was coopted by Christians, but that the (much older) Saturnalia was. The problem with this seems to be that, despite attempts to massage Saturnalia into a Christmas-like celebration, it really seems to have been utterly unlike the Feast of the Nativity as it was celebrated in the early centuries, and so an unlikely candidate for Christians to adopt. Usually the gift-giving aspects of Saturnalia are pushed; but I'm not aware of any early tradition of gift exchange at Christmas.

6:55 AM  
Blogger sophia said...

I printed this article out and gave it to some friends to read, and thought it was excellent. They were impressed with the research you did and loved your concluding paragraph as to why different groups want to keep these ideas alive. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I think this is one of your best. I also think you could expand this into a book in lots of different ways.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Richard Sharon said...

i love this post. i am definitely one of those who view the traditional celebrations of christians as pagan in origin. on the other hand, i love seeking the truth, and you have put forward an awesome challenge. i am looking forward to this journey and am eager as to what i find. for christmas, i have already done my own research and have come to my conclusion. i have, unfortunately, not done the research for easter. thank you for pointing out the facts! and i can definitely see the motivations that you painted of the various groups in your conclusion. thank you for sharing your valuable research with the rest of us!!!

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From From De ratione temporum 15. (The reckoning of time, tr. Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54)

"Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. ... Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. 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. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day..."

6:39 PM  

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