Eostre or Ostara
15. The English Months
In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called . . .
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…
From De ratione temporum 15. (The reckoning of time, tr. Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54), full quote and citation courtesy of Roger Pearse’s delightful page.
Read the quote? Congratulations– you know know the whole source of the claims that Easter is a celebration of a pagan festival. The educated guess of the Venerable Bede, a saint and historian who died about 735, based off of the names of the month, which he mentioned as an afterthought in a book about how people talk about time. That’s it. You might find slightly different translations, because over a dozen centuries have passed, but that’s it. No details beyond there were feasts in the same month that Easter falls. (AKA, spring time. I’ll go into that a bit more later on.)
There are later stories that could have their roots in older traditions with personifications of spring fighting winter…or they could be a fairy tale story along the lines of Frozen, with winter being defeated and a wonderful new life starting. (You must admit, Disney laid it on a little thick with the fire and ice metaphor in the character designs…not that I didn’t adore the movie.) It may also be helpful to know that pretty much all the feasts and fasts have female avatars, and the names referenced mean something like “east light.” SuburbanBanshee also has a rather nice look into the background that might contribute to such a mascot, especially with the root of “East” and sun related symbols. She also has another fun post theorizing a link with the heroine Ester. To anyone scoffing at linking to a blog with a studied woman theorizing– please keep in mind that in 732, Bede would’ve been in a similar situation as far as authority to interpret mythology goes; De temporum ratione was not a study of pagan traditions! Incidentally, the quote at the top is also the only mention of the goddess Eostre; the Ostara form is based off of it.
English and German are unusual in not calling our celebration of the victory over death some name related to ‘Paschal’, which kind of kills the whole “that nasty Latin speaking Church stole Easter and didn’t even change the name!” theory.
Marduk Dragon Ishtar Gate
An extremely ancient Mesopotamian goddess with a name that looks a little bit like Easter and Eostre. Unless her name became the word for “east” in ancient German, it has nothing to do with Eostre. She’s somewhat associated with Astarte, Ashtaroth, Inanna and probably a lot more– one encyclopedia even linked her to Isis of Egypt among the other “mother” goddesses. Ishtar was associated with war, sex (prostitution) and fertility of various types, the last of which means that it’s very likely she would have been honored in the spring when the symbols of fertility are all around. I could not find any scholarly association with child sacrifice, although that is a traditional “dark” side of child related goddesses, and the field has a lot of argument even when the bodies of children are found. You may recognize her name because of the famous Ishtar gate– AKA, the one with the dragons. (That creature is actually associated with Marduk, but the images from the Ishtar gate are famous.) Ishtar is said “Ish-Tar.”
Eggs, Bunnies and Flowers
Spring is the time of new life– a return to life. This was, for obviously reasons, associated symbolically with the Resurrection. Given how often God seems to have to repeat Himself before we’ll start listening, Easter may have happened at that time to reinforce the message. So you have symbols of life returning to the earth (flowers, green grass), new life (baby animals such as ducks, chicks, calves and, ahem, lambs) and life in general (eggs and rabbits) associated with the Holy Day. Other symbols come into play– such as the rabbits being white to symbolize purity– and the symbols are often mixed in together– such as the eggs being painted in flower-bright colors, and non-Easter symbols being carried over such as with gold accents or an empty cross draped in flowers or bright cloth.
I hope I don’t have to explain why people like to indulge in treats such as candy and chocolate after 40 days of abstaining and fasting! I have a personal theory that some of the stricter forms of fasting– such as not eating eggs and dairy– contributed to more and healthier young animals the rest of the year, adding to the bone-deep symbolism of sacrifice resulting in good. The egg you don’t eat after Ash Wednesday is the chicken that is laying next winter, and the calf that isn’t weaned until Easter is going to grow up stronger. Easter Eggs of the dyed sort were probably a very welcome treat after a long Lent, and were also very practical!
I am not going to go in depth on theoretical contamination due to names having an origin in paganism, because I don’t think that Sunday is any less holy due to the name having root in a personification of the sun. The concept carries over to any other old name. It’s a basic assumption that can’t be either defeated or validated, because it is a starting point for how you view things; I think that Himself put a lot of thematic ‘echoes’ into what came before– the famous God Shaped Hole in our souls, as well as how many miracles echoed those which had happened before. People have a built in love of life, of babies, of life. God has been trying to tell us what is going on since the beginning; it took Him coming down here for us to listen and follow Him in the right direction.
Conspiracies and Catholicism is a series of posts about things like albino assassin monks, hidden Bible books, pagan Santas and secret councils— popular culture related to Catholicism, sometimes in unexpected ways. If you have a suggestion for a future article, please leave a message in the comments or email me. Prior posts available in the author’s profile.
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