Back when I worked for About.com, I made a blog post debunking some of the common myths about Easter’s connection with pagan beliefs. It gained, by far, the most comments of any post, and every year the post must show up in search engines, because I always got a new crop of complaints around this time of the year.
After a couple of years, one commenter asked If I regretted writing the post, which I don’t. I did regret continuing to read the comments as long as I did, because they endlessly repeated the same complaints, and I doubt most even read my responses, much less considered them. One of my favorites was a response to me posting my credentials: “Anyone who has to throw their qualifications in people’s faces to prove that their view is inevitably right whiles other are wrong is the worse kind of academic snob.” Yet he couldn’t bother to read a mere three posts up, when I was directly asked for such information. I’m confident that had I not answered the question, someone would have taken it as proof I didn’t have any. Lose/lose. Moving on.
It wasn’t the fact that people disagreed that bothered me. Different points of view are helpful, and no one knows everything. (My students recently schooled me on The Odyssey. Of all the Western cultures, Ancient Greece is one of my weakest topics.) Instead, it was the way they debated it, which generally broke down to the following arguments:
- You’re an idiot for thinking Easter wasn’t stolen from the pagans because everyone knows it was. (Lots of people think Europeans thought the world was flat at the time of Columbus. Doesn’t mean it’s true. Please cite a credible source that is informing “everyone” of this idea.)
- You’re an insecure Christian who can’t deal with the truth. (I’m not a Christian, so congratulations on your presumptions. That totally encourages me to take you seriously.)
- How do you think eggs and bunnies became part of Easter? (More to the point, how do you think they did, since this is your argument?)
- You should do better research before writing such an ignorant article. (Sure. Where would you like me to start? What, nothing? This scenario happened repeatedly.)
- Prove that Easter wasn’t pagan. (Sure, just as soon as you prove there was never an apple on my desk. Doesn’t work that way.)
- Christians stole lots of pagan holidays. (Regardless of that statement’s accuracy/inaccuracy, general statements do not prove specific instances. Moving on.)
Some of the complaints didn’t even make sense. I pointed out that the linguistic connections we make only make sense because we speak English. One response to that was “…says the woman writing the article in English.”
Um, yes. That’s exactly my point. To this day I’m not sure what could have confused her.
Or this one: “In the English Bible, Acts 12:4, the word “Easter” actually appears. Hmmm….if that’s not incorporating Eostre into Christianity, I don’t know what is!”
Please tell me this person is a troll. Please?
Also, please set down the King James Bible and back away slowly, as that translation doesn’t even make sense. Most versions read something like this:
After arresting [Peter], [Herod] put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:4, multiple translations)
The KJV says:
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
Why would a Jew wait until after a Christian holiday to do something? Regardless, the presence of the word “Easter” in the KJV contributes nothing to the issue at hand as it’s only 400 years old. Its wording is irrelevant as to the origin of a 2000 year-old holiday.
The Language Issue
One of the primary arguments in connecting Easter with pagan beliefs is the connection between the words Easter and Eostre.
Our evidence of Eostre? A single source. In the 8th century, the Venerable Bede in England wrote:
The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath …
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.
The “Paschal season” is the Easter season. So Bede tells us that the English word Easter comes out of the old word Eostre…or perhaps Eosturmonath, the month of Eostre, because that’s the month Easter occurs in.
Bede is talking about the origin of a word, not of the celebration, which was being recognized in Rome and other places long before Christians had ever heard of Eostre.
And we are only having this conversation because we speak English. In Latin, Easter is called Pascha. In Greek, Paskha, in French, Pasques, and in Spanish, Pascua . While Germany calls Easter Ostern, other Germanic languages follow the more common pattern: the Dutch Pasen, the Danish Paaske, the Norwegian Paske, and so forth.
Suddenly, Eostre is completely out of the picture, because the Eostre argument is about a particular word in a particular language: English, which just so happens to be the language we speak. I doubt there are many French speakers who consider this a reasonable theory.
So where do these other languages get their terms? From the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover, which is what Jesus was celebrating shortly before his execution.
Many cultures have celebrations of birth and renewal in the spring. It’s a logical mindset when the world is coming alive again after the hardships of winter. Easter is also absolutely a celebration of rebirth, as it is the day of Jesus’s resurrection after his death on Good Friday. Is Christianity following pagan practices?
No, Christianity is most directly placing Easter near Passover, which always occurs in spring:
Observe the month of Aviv [spring] and celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you out of Egypt by night. (Deut 16:1)
And even if Christians had specifically planned on celebrating Easter during spring, why should we care? “Spring” is not pagan. It’s a time of the year, and anyone, regardless of religion, can connect springtime with renewal.
Who is Eostre?
The quote from Bede is all we have about Eostre. And yet, I find the most baffling claims on the internet. From my old stomping grounds, About.com (which helpfully collects a whole bunch of common claims scattered throughout the internet):
As you might be able to tell, the name “Easter” was likely derived from Eostre, the name of the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess, as was as the name for the female hormone estrogen.
Estrogen comes from the Latin estrus+gen, with estrus meaning “frenzied passion” and gen meaning “producing”. (source)
Eostre’s feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox — a similar calculation as is used for Easter among Western Christians.
Says who? Not Bede, who says only that she was celebrated during Eosturmonath. This statement is only correct in how Western Christians calculate Easter.
On this date the goddess Eostre is believed by her followers to mate with the solar god, conceiving a child who would be born 9 months later on Yule, the winter solstice which falls on December 21st.
Just…no. But it’s always helpful to drag some other holidays into the argument, as the invoking of Yule never fails to also bring up Christmas.
This sort of mythology (unity of male and female deities with the birth of a child on the solstice) is part of some neopagan practices. It has nothing to do with Eostre.
Two of Eostre’s most important symbols were the hare (both because of its fertility and because ancient people saw a hare in the full moon) and the egg, which symbolized the growing possibility of new life.
Again, no. Eggs and hares (which are not actually rabbits, but let’s just equate them for simplicity) are certainly logical symbols for spring celebrations of generation, but we have no idea how Eostre was honored.
Christianity does often incorporate eggs into Easter celebrations and have for a long time. However, there is nothing religious about the Easter Bunny. He’s folklore, and relatively new at that. The evidence only goes back a couple hundred years, which is actually the case for most celebrations of most holidays. Things Christians do now is not what they were doing 500 years ago or 1000 years ago or 2000 years ago.
Mental Floss, which generally knows better, also repeats much of the Easter silliness:
Eostre was closely linked to the hare and the egg, both symbols of fertility.
As Christianity spread, it was common for missionaries to practice some good salesmanship by placing pagan ideas and rituals within the context of the Christian faith and turning pagan festivals into Christian holidays (e.g. Christmas).
And…Christmas gets to be invoked again.
…The pagans hung on to the rabbit and eventually it became a part of Christian celebration. We don’t know exactly when, but it’s first mentioned in German writings from the 1600s.
If it’s first mentioned in the 1600s, how can we possibly be confident it dates all the way back to pagan times, some 1000 years earlier? This is an error I see over and over again, whether we’re talking Christmas, Halloween (which I wrote about on About.com), or a plethora of other things.
The Germans converted the pagan rabbit image into Oschter Haws, a rabbit that was believed to lay a nest of colored eggs as gifts for good children.
The Oschter Haws is, indeed, the precursor to the Easter Bunny, but there’s nothing that connects it with paganism. Like Santa Claus, the Oschter Haws brings gifts to good children.
Eostre is sometimes equated with Ostara (discussed below) as well as some more far-fetched deities, such as the Mesopotamian Ishtar. Just because some people keep naming random deities doesn’t mean there’s any actual connection. England and Mesopotamia are very distant from one another.
Says other commenter:
You may want to do some more research about Ostara, even Ishtar, as far as origins for the Christian Easter…Bede has very little to do with any of it.
No, seriously, Bede has everything to do with it.
Jacob Grimm’s Contribution
The next person to address Eostre after Bede is the 19th century Jacob Grimm. He connects the German Ostern (Easter) to a goddess named Ostara, which he then equates with Eostre. But, to my knowledge, there’s no evidence of a pre-Christian goddess called Ostara. Grimm is also the source for some of the misinformation about what pagans were doing during these celebrations.
Don’t trust anything written by a 19th century folklorist. Grimm was sincere in his pursuits, but his methods simply don’t approach modern academic standards.
Actually, 19th century sources are highly suspect regardless of field. If the information is still legit, you will find modern academics still using the info.
Grimm was part of a larger movement called Romanticism. It had many aspects, but one of them stressed the simplicity and purity of ancient times and the corruption the modern world has inflicted upon it. Urban areas were representative of this corruption, while rural areas came to be seen as pristine and unchanging examples of antiquity. Thus, Romantics often equated contemporary rural folklore with ancient belief, and a whole lot of nonsense got attributed to pre-Christian culture that just isn’t supported by historical evidence.
These myths about the origins of Easter certainly get repeated among modern neopagans. However, there are also neopagans who are quite aware of the problems of these stories.
If you care to read the nightmare that is the comments on my original article, be sure to look for posts by Adrian Bott, who can not only cite historical sources but also addresses lack of evidence:
How ironic that people crying ‘do the research’ are clearly unaware of the research that has already been done which supports the OP’s position.
And the best of it is, many of us doing that research and debunking are pagan ourselves. Being a pagan doesn’t mean you have to be an ignorant parrot repeating everything you read on the Internet.
Bott recommends these two articles for a lot of the nitty-gritty details:
Here’s an article I found from a specifically pagan website, complete with footnotes:
These sorts of issues are also addressed in length in Prof. Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun. I believe he also addresses it a bit in Triumph of the Moon, but I won’t swear to it.
Setting Myself Up for Headache?
Does writing this open myself up to a new round of insults? Potentially. This time around, however, I’m not going to engage basic logical fallacies. I’ve got better things to do with my time and energy.