Monday 26 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 2

Timeline of some key moments in the history of Easter and western Easter customs

The Easter Rabbit; the hot cross bun; and the Easter egg. One of these three things has a reasonable chance of having a pagan origin. A chance, mind. Let’s find out which one ...

Claim #4. The Easter Rabbit is pagan

Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.
Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010

Remember that passage from Bede, last week? That sentence that is the sum total of all testimony in the world that exists about Eostre? Did you notice the bit where he said that rabbits are sacred to Eostre? No? Three guesses why Bede might have forgotten to mention that.

Robert Downey Jr is ... Iron Rabbit!

If you guessed that it’s because Bede is unreliable, biased, and trying to cover up the pagan origins of the rabbit, then full marks for scepticism. However, you also get –100 for mistreatment of evidence. (1) Bede explicitly talks about a festival in honour of a pagan goddess, so he’s not exactly trying hard to cover up pagan links. (2) We have no reason even to try to draw links between Eostre and rabbits. The Easter Rabbit is first attested in 1682 in Germany; Bede’s report on Eostre comes from 950 years earlier in northern England.

Some studies have tried to link the Easter Rabbit to rabbit imagery from all over history. But it won’t do to treat the history of the Easter Rabbit and the history of rabbit imagery in general as the same thing. No matter how many images of hares are found in 12th century Devon churches or in ancient art, if there’s no reason to infer a connection to Easter, they’re not evidence for a connection! If anyone wants to say the Easter Rabbit is based on images in 6th century Chinese temples, we might as well say Santa and his reindeer are based on the domestication of white-tailed deer by the Olmecs. Nuh-uh. Trace a link, then we’ll talk.

We don’t know much about how the Easter Rabbit came about, but we can be pretty confident that it was originally German. So whatever precursors you may find, you also need to find a link connecting them to early modern Germany. Even more of a problem for the ‘Easter-is-pagan’ mythbusters is that it probably didn’t start out as a rabbit, but as any old critter depending on which part of Germany you’re in.

The earliest appearance of the Easter Rabbit comes from a 1682 discussion of Easter egg traditions in central Germany: Georg Franck von Franckenau (1682: 6) tells us that the eggs were called di Hasen-Eier because of a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children.

Note: some recent internet sources claim an earlier German appearance in 1572. That’s an error. The 1572 claim originates from a March 2016 article in The Conversation. The author, Katie Edwards at Sheffield University, cites no source, and when I asked her for help in tracking it down she didn’t reply. My conclusion is that it was a typo for ‘1682’, the correct date of the Franck von Franckenau reference, with the ‘6’ and the ‘8’ mistyped.

An old study by Charles Billson tries to draw earlier links in England, but the evidence there isn’t nearly as close to the modern tradition: he cites evidence of a tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter in southern and central England going back to 1620 (Billson 1892: 442) and perhaps as early as 1574 (443). Unlike the German situation, though, that custom has no connection to Easter eggs.

The evidence trail ends with Franck von Franckenau. Going back beyond that involves a trolley-trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Jacob Grimm is responsible for the speculation that rabbits might be linked to ‘Ostara’; but it’s just that, a speculation, and a tenuous one at that, given that Ostara herself is conjectural. Some mythbusters like to draw links to rabbit symbolism from antiquity, but that’s just fantasy: there’s a 1400-year gap between ancient testimony on rabbits and Franck von Franckenau’s report, and none of the ancient evidence has anything to do with Germany.

It’s probably a wild goose chase anyway. Different animals appear in the folklore of Easter-egg-delivery in different parts of Germany. The best-known is the Easter Fox, attested in northern Germany into the early 1900s, and the only rabbit alternative to have its own Wikipedia article. However, the Easter Stork is still a regular Easter visitor in Franconia (that is, in Thüringen and northern Bavaria). There are reports of several other birds too: the Easter Cuckoo in Switzerland, the Easter Chicken in the Tirol, and the Easter Rooster in Schleswig-Holstein.

Note: on the Easter Cuckoo, etc., see Newall 1971: 326–327, with bibliography. I haven’t dug into Newall’s sources, but they don’t fill me with confidence. One of them sounds like an arts and crafts book (it’s called Wir farben Eier, ‘Let’s paint eggs!’); the other two are encyclopaedias, not dedicated studies, and probably don’t cite any sources themselves. There are loads of more recent books with the same claims, but they’re just repeating Newall — usually without citing her.

This strongly implies that the Easter Rabbit’s rabbit-ness wasn’t integral to its role. I’m inclined to conclude that its true ancestor wasn’t a made-up rabbit god, or a conjectural dawn goddess, but rather any smallish animal or bird found in German-speaking lands. We’re looking for an Easter Critter, not an Easter Rabbit. And the search for the Easter Critter’s origin belongs much more to the realm of folklore than to religious history.

Claim #5. Hot cross buns are pagan

No, they just aren’t. Hot cross buns originated in 18th century England. They are Christian in origin. There is no reason to think otherwise, and no remotely sensible reason to suspect any link to any pagan practice. You’d think the fact that they’re marked with a cross, the archetypal Christian symbol, ought to be a bit of a giveaway.

The earliest attestation of them is a well-known rhyme that appears in a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733:

Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.

Wikipedia reports a half-baked 19th century idea that hot cross buns come from ancient Greece. The source cited is a 1912 issue of The New York Times, but it originally comes from an 1876 book — and even the author of that book doesn’t endorse the idea.

Note: the NYT and the 1876 book report that the idea was based on linking ‘bun’ to the Greek word boun. Well, it’s true that boun is a Greek word. But it means ‘cow’. Moreover, it’s an oblique form: the proper ‘dictionary form’ is bous. Any student in my 1st-year Greek class would know better, and they’ve only been learning Greek for three weeks. This idea is in turn based on drawing a link between ‘bun’, a word dating to the 13th century, and an obscure explanation of bous found in the ancient grammarian Hesychius, referring to a kind of sacred cake ‘resembling a cow’. That’s a colossal stretch, and if you read the original source for that link, published in 1774, you’ll see that the man who came up with the idea was pretty seriously bonkers: his central idea was that all mythology everywhere in the world was derived from the Hebrew bible. Be that as it may: bous meaning ‘cow’ is super-common, bous meaning ‘cow cake’ is ... not. The OED isn’t confident about the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects it comes from French.

For an idea that has literally not a shred of evidence for it, the ‘ancient Greek hot cross buns’ thing has become weirdly widespread. This snippet appeared in a number of American local newspapers in March-April 1949, and some of its falsehoods still get trotted out now and then:

The ancient Greeks, not Christians, deserve credit for baking the first buns marked with crosses. To the Greeks, the crosses cut in the bread symbolized the four quarters of the moon; and they ate the buns to honor their goddess of nocturnal light. The custom was centuries old when the Christian church adopted it, translating the meaning of the cross into their own terms, and distributing the buns after mass on Easter Sunday.
Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, 24 March 1949, page 19

This is so crammed with falsehoods that it takes longer to point them out than the article does to say them. We have no evidence of ancient Greek buns with crosses; nothing to link those non-existent crosses to the quarters of the moon; nothing to link the non-existent cross buns to any night goddess; the Christian church never ‘adopted’ the custom (hot cross buns have always been solidly commercial); they’re traditionally associated with Good Friday, not Easter Sunday; and they developed in Protestant England, and the Anglican church doesn’t call its services ‘mass’. Holy crazy nutballs, Batman.

When people claim that hot cross buns are ancient, they usually gloss over the ‘cross’ bit — the feature that is the exact point of them. The exception is when people suggest that the cross on the bun is based on the quadrae of Roman loaves. There, at least, there is a visual resemblance.

But quadrae weren’t a religious symbol. They were simply to make the loaf a pull-apart. And, judging from the loaves that turned up in the ruins of Herculaneum, Roman loaves more often had octavae. More importantly, once again there’s nothing to link ancient Roman bread to 18th century England. It relies on ignoring a 1700 year gap in the evidence. So: nuts to the idea of ancient hot cross buns.

Left: Roman bread with octavae, carbonised in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Right: a modern pull-apart loaf with quadrae. Neither of these is a hot cross bun.

The only halfway sensible candidate for a precursor to the modern hot cross bun is the St Albans bun or Alban bun. St Albans buns have the cross incised, rather than piped. The modern story goes that they were invented by a Hertfordshire monk, Thomas Rocliff or Rocliffe, at St Albans Abbey in 1361.

That isn’t a pagan origin, of course. But I’ve investigated it anyway. Regrettably, the St Albans story doesn’t hold water either.

I’ve been in touch with cathedral staff and a local historian in St Albans, and the earliest evidence anyone had was an 1862 article in a local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser. The St Albans bun does go back a little bit further than that: its earliest appearance is in an advertising flyer for a London baker, dating to 1851.

On the approach of Good Friday, 1851, G. Collier, 66 Wardour Street, Soho, advertised:

‘Superior Hot+Buns.’

... G. Collier then gives the following account of the origin of his buns. On Good Friday, 1361, Thomas Rocliff, a monk of St. Albans Abbey, caused a quantity of small, sweet, spiced cakes to be made and one of these was to be given to each poor person who came to the Abbey on Good Friday, in addition to the usual basin of soup. This so pleased the people that it ultimately grew into a general custom all over the country, but nowhere did they produce such good cakes as the monks of St. Albans, who kept the Recipe of Father Rocliff secret. A curious old work ... well-known to learned Antiquaries, called ‘Ye Boke of St. Albans,’ mentions not only the historical fact but gives, in Latin, the ingredients of the cakes. Having been ‘favoured with a translation of this Recipe,’ G. Collier undertakes to treat the Public to a very superior article called in the aforesaid ancient record ‘panis parvus dulciarius impressum cum signo crucis, a small, sweet cake stamped with the sign of the cross.’ ... (Handbill, dated 1851, in my possession, A. R. W.)

Wright 1936: i.70

This flyer is the basis for the 1862 local newspaper piece, and also for an 1859 magazine column written by a German expatriate living in London who visited Collier’s bakery (Anon. 1859: 550). Both of them copy the Thomas Rocliff story from Collier’s flyer closely, with only minor changes.

Collier claims the recipe comes from The Book of St Albans. This is a real book, dating to 1486. But the claim is spurious:

  1. The Book is in English, not Latin.
  2. It’s a treatise on hawking, hunting, and heraldry, not a collection of recipes or local anecdotes.
  3. It doesn’t mention Thomas Rocliff or bun recipes. There’s an interesting collection of medicinal recipes for hawk ailments, but ... somehow that’s just not the same. And, for the record, there are also no references to Rocliff, buns, or crosses marked into food items, in other chronicles of the time that might loosely be called a ‘book of St Albans’ — at least not in Thomas Walsingham’s St Albans Chronicle (ca. 1422) or the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (early 1390s).
  4. Panis impressum is bad Latin. A 15th century aristocrat, like the author of The Book of St Albans, would know better ... but a 19th century baker spinning a tall tale might not.

The natural conclusion is that Collier invented St Albans buns out of thin air, around 1850, to make his own buns sound a bit special. The mainstream hot cross bun is the real original.

In principle I suppose it’s theoretically possible there’s a unique variant of the Book somewhere that includes a Latin bun recipe among the English hawk medicines. But given that it’s a printed book, not a manuscript with scribal variations; given the lack of any testimony earlier than 1851, and a cluster of sources in the decade after that date; and given the other problems ... well, it’s not looking good.

66 Wardour St, Soho: the birthplace of the St Albans bun. Any Londoners want to pop into that bar and see if they’re still on sale? Not exactly my kind of scene, but apparently their cocktails are delicious. (source: Google Streetview)

And now I can never ever visit St Albans, for fear of being stoned with St Albans buns. I regret that, as I’ve never visited. Such is life.

By the way, the German expat who tried Collier’s buns in 1859 was distinctly unimpressed:

Ich habe die Kreuzküchlein (Crossbuns) des Verfassers dieser Anzeige versucht, und muß gestehen, sie haben mir keine sondeliche Achtung für die Kochtalente des Bruders Rocliffe eingeflößt.

I have tried the cross buns of the author of this advertisement, and must confess they have not instilled in me any particular respect for Brother Rocliffe’s cooking talent.

Claim #6. Easter eggs are pagan

New Atheists will be glad to hear that there’s at least a plausible case for Easter eggs having a pre-Christian origin. But it’s still just an argument from likelihood, not from any direct evidence. Once again, Grimm suggests a link to Eostre; once again, it’s speculation on top of conjecture. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and/or Greek Orphic mystical thought. Again, though, there’s a huge gap in the evidence: a gap of over 1000 years, and no geographical continuity. They’re very separate places, and very separate times.

Easter eggs in ancient Mesopotamia. This sub-myth comes from a really severe case of mangled misreadings.

The Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red colouring ‘in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion’.
Wikipedia, ‘Easter egg

The Wikipedia article has lots of citations, but each and every one of them is ultimately derived from a single source: a 1694 book by Thomas Hyde called De ludis orientalibus (‘On eastern games’). Here’s what Hyde says, translated:

Among the Turks this game is called Yumúrda ojúni, that is, ‘egg-play’ or ‘game of eggs’. Among Mesopotamian Christians it is customarily played from Easter time for 40 days. Consequently that time of year, when the game begins and carries on, in the easterners’ calendar is called in Turkish Kizil Yumúrda, and in Persian something that means the same, Beida surch, that is, ‘red-egg’. In the Turkish calendar you will find this period in the month of Adâr or March. For in this period, Christian children buy themselves as many eggs as they can, and make them red in colour, in memory of the blood shed by the crucified Saviour at that time...

This game is not preserved in central England, but seems to be hinted at in the proverbial phrase ‘an Egge at Easter’, and in northern England ‘an Egge at Paese’, that is, ‘an egg at Easter’. For when Easter returns each year, there also returns permission to eat eggs, and this was the reason for the Festival of Eggs. For neither papists nor eastern Christians eat eggs during the 40 days (of Lent), until the Easter festival arrives; and then they begin. This was also once the case at the University of Oxford...

There’s no solid reason to disbelieve Hyde: the phrases are authentic Turkish and Persian, at least — aside from the fact that bydh srkh بيضه سرخ apparently means ‘red testicles’ nowadays, not ‘red egg’. (I can’t answer for whether that’s modern slang based on a more innocent 17th century phrase, though.)

The point is that Hyde is the earliest available evidence for ‘Mesopotamian’ Easter eggs.

The Wikipedia article goes on to mention that Easter eggs were recognised in Catholic liturgy by 1610, and then claims — on the basis of Hyde’s book, 84 years later than that — that Easter eggs made their way from Persia to Greek churches, then Russia, and only then western Europe. The argument is that Easter eggs were thoroughly integrated into western Christian traditions 84 years before anyone connected them to the Near Eastern traditions they supposedly came from!

Steaming. Hot. Nonsense. How did this mix-up happen? I suspect the name ‘Mesopotamia’ is at the root of it: maybe people see it and assume that it automatically means ancient Mesopotamia. It doesn’t. Hyde’s story is about 17th century Christians, not ancient Akkadians, Achaemenid Persians, Parthians, or anything of the kind. The Turkish and Persian egg games he describes are definitely interesting in their own right, but they have no implications for the origins of Easter eggs. Because western Easter eggs go back a lot earlier than Hyde.

Easter eggs and the phoenix. Another effort to find Easter eggs in antiquity relates to early Christian use of the mythical phoenix bird as a paradigm of resurrection. True, resurrection and rebirth must be the idea behind the Easter egg, and are also what the phoenix represented for ancient Christians. But drawing any other link between them is an error.

Phoenix symbolism appears in a number of early Christian texts, starting already in the late 1st century: First Clement 25; Tertullian, On the resurrection of the flesh 13; Origen, Against Celsus 4.98; Cyril, Catechetical lectures 18.8. The phoenix also appears in Christian pictorial art starting in the 3rd century, often perched among palm leaves (Greek phoinix also means ‘palm leaf’). The textual sources cite the phoenix’s resurrection as a model for the resurrection of Jesus’ followers, or of Jesus himself. All nicely symbolic, right?

Just one small problem. The phoenix doesn’t hatch out of an egg. In all these reports, it builds a tomb or a nest for itself, dies there, and starts anew as a worm in the rotting flesh of the old phoenix. No eggs in sight.

So Easter eggs have nothing to do with Christian phoenix symbolism — or if they do, it’s purely conjectural. To get actual testimony on phoenix eggs, you need to go all the way back to Herodotus (Histories 2.73) — and Herodotus is a few centuries too early to have much to say about Christian allegory!

Easter eggs in mediaeval Europe. Actual documentation for Easter eggs goes back to mediaeval Christian sources, with an especially rich crop in the 1200s: see here, under ‘Ovum’. Some of them are formulas used for egg blessings. One French source from 1399 uses ‘Easter eggs’ (Eufs de Pasques) as a proverbial phrase. So we’re looking at a European origin, with the custom developing throughout the 10th to 13th centuries.

Mediaevalist scholars normally conclude that the custom of Easter eggs has its roots in the prohibition of eggs during Lent. Once Lent was finished, nutritious eggs suddenly came back on the menu. They were blessed for the occasion, and so Easter eggs became a thing.

The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
Gougaud 1925: 185

If we’re going to look for early evidence on Easter eggs, it’s probably best to listen to the mediaevalists, because they’re the experts. And because that’s as early as the evidence goes.

The cross-cultural case. The main argument in favour of pagan origins for Easter eggs has always been, and always will be, that egg-decorating is a widespread custom, stretching over many different cultures and many millennia. That gives reasonable grounds to suspect that there is some genuine influence from pre-Christian customs. It’s just that we can’t document that influence.

Does that amount to pagan origins? Well, it can. But it’s a matter of emphasis. If you want, you can emphasise the documented development of the custom in mediaeval Europe; or, if you prefer, you can emphasise the cross-cultural universality of painted eggs.

But that’s a long, long way from saying that Easter eggs are plundered or plagiarised from some particular source.


Monday 19 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 1

Easter is regularly charged with being derivative from pagan traditions. How much truth there is in that? The short answer is: a little bit, in some respects, but definitely not enough to sustain the general claim. As far as non-Christian influences go, there’s a much bigger impact from astronomy and 18th-19th century marketing practices than from any pagan religion.

You might assume that the ‘Easter is pagan’ claims come from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. They’re certainly happy with the idea. But really it’s some brands of Christianity that are the most fervent proponents: the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sure, but also a number of very small but very vocal fundamentalist groups (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4).

The thing that bothers the Easter-mythbusters isn’t (usually) Christians’ belief in the resurrection of their central deity. It’s more about how the festival is celebrated: eggs, rabbits, and so on. Individually, some of these elements may possibly have been influenced by some form of pagan religion. I’m not here to declare that Easter is definitely non-pagan: just that we don’t have evidence for pagan origins, and in many ways, no good reason even to suspect pagan origins. Imagining a link to pagan religion is easy. Finding evidence for that link is another matter.

Incidentally, I did a post on ‘Easter and its supposed pagan origins’ two years ago, but it was a bit jumbled, and fresh research for me. This is an updated and better-organised version. (Also long, so I’ll split it over two posts.)

Kristin Chenoweth as Easter/Ostara (American Gods TV series, 2017)

Claim #1. The name ‘Easter’ comes from ‘Eostre’, therefore Easter is pagan

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday’s square grey hand. ‘I’m telling you,’ she said, ‘I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.’
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001), chapter 11

The English name for Easter is the only thing about the festival where there’s direct evidence to support a pagan origin — and only in two languages, English and German (Easter and Ostern respectively). And sure, those are important languages. But the festival didn’t originate in England or Germany.

We have exactly one piece of testimony about Eostre. It is a tract on time reckoning by Bede, a Christian monk writing in Northumbria (northern England) ca. 730 CE. Bede discusses local month names and tells us:

...Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

...and ‘Easter-month’, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month, since it had the name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and they celebrated her festival in that (month); now they give the Paschal season a nickname after her name, referring to the joys of the new solemnity with a word customary for the old observance.

Bede, De temporum ratione §15

Some people genuinely seem to be under the impression that the Easter festival in the 2nd century Mediterranean was derived from Eostre worship 600 years later in northern England. The absurdity of that should be obvious. Still, just to be explicit:

  1. Easter had existed for centuries prior to Bede, just not with that name. Easter was a part of the Christian calendar in Rome and Anatolia as early as pope Anicetus.
  2. The name ‘Easter’ isn’t just late, it’s also a localised anomaly. The vast majority of languages use a name derived from the Hebrew Passover or Pesach via Greco-Latin Pascha: Romance Pâques, Pascua, Paşti; Germanic Pasen, påske, Peaske; Finnish pääsiäinen, Russian Paskha, Welsh Pasg, and so on. Most Slavic languages (except Russian) instead call it a variant of ‘Great Day’ or ‘Great Night’.
  3. Even if the above points weren’t true, it’s bonkers to imagine that ancient Christians in far-flung places like Constantinople, Syria, and Ethiopia based their most important festival on a very obscure Northumbrian goddess.

It’s utter tosh. The modern English name ‘Easter’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess. But nothing else does — not the event it’s supposed to celebrate, not the theology, not the eggs, not the rabbits. The name ‘Easter’ is late, localised, and anomalous. This claim of pagan origins would be obviously nonsensical to anyone who speaks any other language.

Side-note: ‘Ostara’. Some especially keen mythbusters insist that even Bede’s testimony for Eostre can’t be trusted. (See Sermon 2008 for more discussion.) Personally I’m inclined to give Bede the benefit of the doubt: he’s generally reasonably reliable in reporting what he knows. He may be wrong, but I think it’d be tendentious to assume he’s dishonest. Still, it’s true that if you take Bede by himself, the evidence for Eostre is weak. If we take him in conjunction with other factors, though, as Jacob Grimm did, the evidence is stronger. It still allows for some interpretations that Grimm didn’t account for.

In 1835 Grimm argued that Eostre was an English form of a conjectural Germanic goddess which he called ‘Ostara’ (1835: 180-2; cf. English translation). The evidence for Ostara can be summed up as follows:

  1. English ‘Eostre’. That is, Bede’s reference to Eostur-monath and his statement that it is named after a goddess.
  2. German ‘ostara’. The Christian Easter festival was called ostara in Old High German: a form of the name appears in the earliest extant German manuscript, the Abrogans (ca. 790 CE: St. Gallen Stiftsbibl. Cod. Sang. 911, f. 226, line 2), and the month of April was called ostarmanoth in Charlemagne’s calendar (Vita Caroli Magni §29). (Forms derived from this also appear in Old Dutch, Old Saxon, and some mediaeval Slavonic languages.)
  3. Comparative evidence. Linguistically, Eostre and ostara appear to be reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *h₂eusṓs, ‘east, sunrise’. This root furnished the names of dawn goddesses in several pantheons: Roman Aurora, Greek Eos, Lithuanian Aušra, and Vedic Ushas (see further West 2007: 217-227).

This isn’t exactly compelling. The biggest weakness is that Old High German ostara consistently refers to the Christian festival, not to a pagan goddess. And — you might want to grab hold of something for this bit — it may be a British export. Sermon (2008: 341-2) points out that the christianisation of Germany was dominated by English missionaries like St Boniface, well before the earliest appearance of ostara in the Abrogans. It’s entirely possible that they brought ‘Easter-month’ over the Channel with them. If so, point 2 disappears.

So ‘Ostara’ isn’t a robust conjecture. But point 3, the comparative evidence, still stands as reasonably compelling corroboration — not for Ostara, but for the Northumbrian Eostre. There’s a decent likelihood that Bede was telling the truth and talking about an authentic pagan goddess.

Conclusion. Assuming Bede’s story is true, we know (1) Eostre’s name; (2) that she existed as a goddess in Northumbria sometime before the 8th century; (3) that she had a festival in spring; (4) and, on linguistic grounds, that she may have been a dawn goddess.

However, we know basically nothing else. We can’t say how far Eostre-worship extended, how long it lasted, or anything else about her or her cult. (And we certainly don’t have rabbits, eggs, or hot cross buns linked to her.)

Incidentally, we may as well take a moment to dispose of the idea that Easter has anything to do with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, as is often claimed by certain very vocal people (*cough* Richard Dawkins *cough*). To argue that you have to have a really reckless disregard for reality. Ishtar had her heyday in Mesopotamia in the 2000s and 1000s BCE, and her name is linguistically Semitic; the name ‘Easter’ first appears nearly two thousand years later in northern England, and is linguistically Indo-European.

There’s dying-and-rising-gods, and then there’s dying-and-rising gods. The Greek divinities Aphrodite and Adonis (Attic lekythos, ca. 410 BCE; Louvre)

Claim #2. Jesus is a dying-and-rising god, and that’s pagan

I won’t deal with this at length because I wrote a post on it back in February 2017, and it’s a bit complicated. The upshot is this: resemblances between Jesus and other ‘dying-and-rising gods’ have been greatly exaggerated.

It isn’t really the Easter-mythbusters that latch onto this claim: it’s more interesting for ‘Jesus mythicists’ — people who refuse to believe that cult-leaders were a real thing in antiquity, and who often operate under the assumption that we have copious official records of court-cases and executions from 1st-century Judaea (we don‘t) and the absence of such a record for Jesus is something suspicious (it isn’t.) Still, let’s spare a moment to summarise.

Most supposed ‘DRGs’ either move annually between the underworld and heaven (the Greek divinities Persephone and the Dioskouroi), or the whole point of them is that they die and stay dead (Egyptian Osiris, Greco-Phrygian Attis). A couple of gods don’t fit into tidy pigeonholes (Greek Adonis, the Orphic version of Dionysus). Gods within each of these groups have much more similarity to each other than to other groups. Moreover, ancient believers were happy to equate some of these gods with each other, but definitely not all. We find ancient cults happily equating Osiris with Dionysus, or with a Syrian-Egyptian version of Adonis. But some other equations are later impositions on those cults. No pagan worshipper ever equated Adonis with the Babylonian Dumuzi/Tammuz, for example: that equation was made up by early Christian biblical interpreters. Equations between any of these gods and Jesus are a recent invention, imposed by 19th century thinkers.

In any case, in the very earliest days of the Jesus cult there ought to have been a time when Jesus’ followers did not think of him as divine. (That’s certainly the picture that the gospel of Mark tries to paint: Mark 2:6-7, 3:12, 3:21-22, 4:40-41, 6:2-3, etc.) If so, that would rule out looking at Christianity as a cult derived from dying-and-rising gods. It is reasonable to assume that it took a non-zero amount of time for Jesus’ followers to stop thinking of him as a human and to start thinking of him as God. One possibility that’s been suggested is that the transition occurred after his death: he may initially have been considered to be a mortal who underwent apotheosis — ‘god-ification’ — exalted to divine or near-divine status like Enoch, Moses, or Elijah, who were all bodily assumed into heaven according to various traditions. The biblical episode of the Transfiguration strongly implies that at one point Jesus was grouped with these figures: see the earliest version in Mark 9:2-8. (For an accessible statement of this view see Ehrman 2014, chapters 6 and 7.)

Still, even if everyone genuinely, historically, regarded Jesus as divine the instant they saw him, the best parallels for him — as a divinity who dies once and rises once — are stories like the Hittite story of Telipinu or the Sumerian story of Inanna’s trip to the underworld. They’re 1300 to 2000 years too early.

Anyway, like I said earlier, the Easter-mythbusters aren’t usually interested in the resurrection itself, but more in the supposed paganism of Easter customs. So let’s move back to those.

If calendars were easy to organise, and one solar year were the same as twelve lunar months ... well, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion.

Claim #3. The date of Easter is linked to the equinox and moon phases, and that’s pagan

‘Since pre-historic times, people have celebrated the equinoxes and the solstices as sacred times,’ University of Sydney Professor Carole Cusack said. ... ‘There’s a defined period between March 25 and April 25 on which Easter Sunday must fall, and that's determined by the movement of the planets and the Sun.’
Penny Travers, ABC Radio Canberra, 15 April 2017
The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?
Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010

This claim is meant to conjure up visions of Neo-pagan druids gathering at stone circles on the solstice. Contrary to popular belief — and maybe remarkably, for a claim that comes from a Religious Studies professor at a respectable university — the idea that equinoxes or solstices have always had deep meaning in pagan religions is a huge exaggeration. Equinox and solstice festivals were not a dime a dozen in pagan antiquity.

In particular, the Romans (who we’re especially concerned with here) had no equinox or solstice festivals at all. Until Easter came along, that is. Then, as now, it was astronomers that took the most interest in the motions of the sun and moon — not priests.

The fact that Easter is linked to lunar and solar events simply reflects the state of the art for calendars of the time. All ancient calendars were lunar or lunisolar. The first truly solar calendars appeared only a few decades before Jesus’ lifetime: the Julian calendar, instituted at Rome in 46 BCE, and the Alexandrian calendar in Egypt around 30 BCE. The Hebrew calendar, which determined the date of Passover and so influenced Easter as well, remained lunar until Hillel II led a switch to lunisolar in the 300s CE.

Easter was being celebrated by Christians in Rome by the mid-100s CE. In the 150s there was a dispute between the Roman Christians, led by Pope Anicetus, and an Anatolian group called the Quartodecimans, led by Polycarp. The disagreement was over whether Christians should celebrate the crucifixion according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, at the Jewish Passover (on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan: quartodecimani = ‘14th-ers’). The Roman Christians, who were predominantly gentiles, preferred to have Easter fall on the right day of the week. Anicetus and Polycarp didn’t settle the matter, but they agreed to disagree.

So already in the 150s Christians were deeply interested in the relationship between liturgical observances and the calendar. Many of them were keen to adopt contemporary standards, not stick with ancient traditions. The algorithm we use today for setting the date of Easter is a compromise, putting Easter on a Sunday while preserving some of the lunisolar elements of the Hebrew calendar. It was set down by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, but it reflects a long period of head-scratching that goes all the way back to Anicetus.

(Incidentally, there’s been more talk recently about simplifying the algorithm set down at Nicaea in 325. The question continues to be pressing because some Christian denominations still use the Julian calendar, which puts everything out of synch. Apparently the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches have come to a preliminary agreement that would simply put Easter on either the second or third Sunday in April. If it’s finalised, this new arrangement could even be put into practice before 2030.)

Next time:

  • the Easter Rabbit (can be traced back to 17th century Germany),
  • hot cross buns (18th century England), and
  • Easter eggs (10th-13th century western Europe).


Saturday 10 March 2018

New Year's Day and the Roman calendar

Happy New Year! In early Rome, anyway. Well, maybe ... actually maybe not. Can’t be sure.

‘Date’ and ‘calendar’ are ambiguous words. They can refer to how we label years, but also to how we label days within a year.

But historically, these two things -- year labels and day labels -- haven’t had all that much to do with each other. The date of Julius Caesar’s assassination is the 15th of March, 44 BCE. The Romans called it the 15th of March too (or the equivalent, in Latin) -- but they didn’t call it 44 BCE.

We label years with a number, using the CE/BCE or AD/BC system. This system came into use with 7th-8th century English historians like Bede and Alcuin. It was based on chronological work done by Christian calendrical-liturgical scholars who put a lot of effort into reconciling several different calendar traditions, such as Dionysius Exiguus (‘Dionysius the Puny’) in 525, and going back at least to the 100s.

But we label days within a year using a slightly modified form of the Julian calendar, a system that was introduced under Julius Caesar’s dictatorship in 46 BCE. So these are two independent things.

Just to make things worse: even after both of these systems were in widespread use, from the 700s onwards, 1 January wasn’t necessarily the start of the year. New Year’s Day could be a variety of different days depending on when, where, and whom we’re talking about.

In England before the Norman invasion, the New Year began on 25 March or 25 December -- so the day after 24 March 1050 was 25 March 1051 in the calendar of the time. After 1066 the New Year shifted to 1 January, but was put back on 25 March on the accession of Henry II. It stayed there until switching to 1 January again in 1751. France and Italy also used 25 March or 25 December up until the late 1500s, when they too moved to 1 January. Russia used 1 September up until 1700; that’s still the New Year in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar. In the Catholic church the calendar starts on 1 January for some purposes, but for others (like in lectionaries) it begins on the first Sunday of Advent, at some point in the period 27 November to 3 December. The tax year is out of synch with the calendar year in plenty of countries too. But all of these systems use, or used, the Julian/Gregorian calendar for telling which day it is.

And then we have the Romans. In the past we’ve looked at the myth that the Romans used an ‘AUC’ system for specifying the year (only after the time of Varro, and only rarely). Now let’s talk about the other calendar -- the one for telling which day it is.

The last four months of the year are based on Latin number words. One of the most common complaints about the month-names that we’ve inherited from the Romans is that they’re the wrong numbers:

Month Month number Meaning of name
September 9 septem = 7
October 10 octo = 8
November 11 novem = 9
December 12 decem = 10

A fair number of people have heard a story that these months were originally the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months of the year. That’s what the Romans themselves believed. It may even be true. But there’s quite a lot of misinformation floating around as to how and when it changed (if it did change).

Inscription dating to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’ (CIL XI 5745 = ILS 6644)

Myth #1: July and August

One myth I’ve seen around is that the Roman calendar had 10 months up until the invention of the Julian calendar, and on that occasion Iulius (July) and Augustus (August) were added, named after Julius Caesar and Augustus respectively, to make a total of 12.

That is where the names July and August come from, but it’s false that they were added. They were just re-named: the republican calendar had 12 months too. July had been called Quintilis or Quinctilis, but was renamed after Caesar’s death, partly to honour Caesar himself (whose birthday was in July) and partly because of the new solar calendar that he had instituted in 46; Augustus himself did the renaming of Sextilis, probably in conjunction with another small calendar reform to correct how the Julian calendar was implemented.

If you know your Latin, you’ll spot that these follow a similar pattern to the other ‘number’ months, just with ordinal numbers instead of cardinals:

Month Month number Meaning of name
Quintilis 7 quintus = 5th
Sextilis 8 sextus = 6th

Some later rulers in the principate tried to rename months after themselves too. Thankfully, they never stuck. Gaius (Caligula) renamed September Germanicus, after one of his surnames; Nero renamed April, May, and June all after himself, as Neroneus, Claudius, and Germanicus; Domitian renamed September and October as Germanicus and Domitianus; Commodus renamed all twelve months after his various adopted names. Shudder. (Still, if any of these had stuck, there’d be a bright side: imagine celebrating Nero Fool’s Day on the 1st of Neroneus.)

A passage from one of Cicero’s letters to his brother Quintus, written in 56 BCE, mentioning a few dates: highlighted is K. Quintilis (1 July).

Myth #2: January and February

January and February were put at the start of the year at some point. But we don’t have any real idea how, why, or when, except that it was pretty early.

Roman tradition held that the mythical king Numa, the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, added them onto a pre-existing 10-month calendar. But even if Numa was ever a real person, which is vanishingly unlikely, the Romans certainly didn’t have any records of any kind from that period.

They didn’t have records from anywhere near that period. There’s no authentic Roman history at all before the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king. Even after that point, it’s more myth than history up until the 300s BCE. (As for Priscus, the only reason we suspect he’s real is because of the criterion of embarrassment: we assume that people don’t like inventing embarrassing stories about themselves, and Priscus was a potential embarrassment because he was Etruscan, not Roman.)

Livy, one of Rome’s best known historians, tells us himself that no written records survived from before the 300s. He guessed that the records were all destroyed in the Gaulish sack of Rome, traditionally dated to 390 BCE. More likely, no records ever existed. If Numa had existed, he’d have been in the 700s BCE: four hundred years before any actual written records. For stories set in that period our default assumption has to be that they’re all completely false.

That includes the stories about Numa reforming the Roman calendar. And it also includes the idea that there were originally 10 months in the calendar.

Now, the story that January and February got added to the start of the year looks intrinsically reasonable. First, there ought to be an explanation for the number-names of Quintilis to December; the January-February story explains it nicely. Second, the idea that they were originally intercalary winter months -- adjusted each year to make the dates come out in synch with the seasons -- fits well with the fact that intercalation in historical times was done in February (and still is today). So it looks very plausible that they have a separate origin.

When we see Roman writers coming up with the same story, it’s not because they had access to some kind of secret knowledge from the 700s BCE: it’s because it’s a good theory and they thought of it too. It doesn’t follow that anything else they say about the early calendar is true.

So while it’s completely plausible that January and February were added on, we know nothing at all about how they were added, and nothing about how the early Romans compensated for their absence beforehand. Roman writers tell us stories of extra intercalary months in winter; stories that January and February were originally at the end of the year, after December; stories that the early Romans just lived with having only 304 days in the calendar and as a result it was sometimes summer in December. We can’t draw any conclusions from those, because they’re all just guesses.

Myth #3: the names of the other months

So months 5 to 10 had names based on Latin numbers: ‘fifth-ilis’, ‘sixth-ilis’, ‘seven-ber’, ‘eight-ber’, and so on. What about the other months?

Month Meaning of name
Ianuarius (January) ‘month of the door’ (ianua ‘door’)
Februarius (February) ‘month of the februa’ (related to Lupercalia)
Martius (March) ‘month of Mars’
Aprilis (April) probably Etruscan: ‘month of Fortune’ (from Etruscan afr, apru(n))
Maius (May) ‘month of the elder’ (mai- ‘older, greater’)
Iunius (June) ‘month of the younger’ (iuni- ‘younger’)

January. Popularly thought to be named for the god Janus, but there’s no real basis for that. There was a very minor festival called Agonalia on the 9th of January that some sources claim was in honour of the god Janus -- but Agonalia also took place on the 20th of May and the 10th of December. It looks pretty obvious that the link to Janus was invented in hindsight.

February. Not ‘month of fevers’ (febres), as I vaguely remember being told when I was younger, but month of the februa. These were purification offerings for the festival of Lupercalia, on the 15th of February. For the same reason we also occasionally see Lupercalia referred to as ‘the februated day’ (dies februatus).

March. Mars was always absolutely central to Roman state religion. He was one of the Big Three along with Jupiter and Ceres, and intimately tied to Roman foundation myths. His place here doesn’t need much explanation.

April. Ancient writers liked to think that Aprilis came from the Greek goddess Aphrodite (originally pronounced Ap‘roditē), and this story is still in circulation. But it’s obviously guesswork, and a late idea: Romans in the time of the principate may have liked to think of Latin as a Greek dialect (wrongly), but the early Romans certainly didn’t use Greek like that. Another possibility (De Vaan 2008: 48) is suggested by the fact that Aprilis shares a suffix with two number-named-months, Quintilis and Sextilis. Aprilis could in principle be another one: it would come from an early compound of Latin ab/ap- ‘away from, off’, as in the verb aperio ‘to open’: *ap(e)rus could be then be an ordinal, ‘the following, second in sequence’, with Aprilis as a month-name based on that. But most probably the name is a borrowing from Etruscan. We have the names of some of the months in the Etruscan calendar, and April happens to correspond to Etruscan apru, aprun, or apira. The Etruscan name is based on the word afr or apher ‘fortune’, indicating the meaning ‘month of Fortune’, where ‘Fortune’ was an Etruscan divinity.

May. Maius is sometimes linked to the Roman goddess Maia (not to be confused with the Greek Maia, who was one of the Pleiades and mother of Hermes -- though the Romans eventually came to identify them with each other). That’s the reason we sometimes see Maia equated with the bona dea (‘good goddess’), whose festival was on the 1st of May. But more probably May and June are a pair: May ‘elder’, and June ‘junior’. This too is an ancient theory -- it’s Varro’s idea -- but unlike many ancient attempts at etymology, this one looks pretty likely.

June. This one is often linked to the goddess Juno, but as we just saw it’s pretty likely to mean ‘younger’, paired with May ‘elder’. If the name had come from Juno it would have to be Iunonius, not Iunius. Some sources (like the Oxford Classical Dictionary) suggest that the name is Etruscan -- Juno’s Etruscan name was Uni, and it’s a lot easier to see Iunius coming from that -- but that theory doesn’t hold water. First, Juno is an Indo-European name: the Etruscans borrowed Uni from Iuno, not the other way round. Second, we know what the Etruscans called the month of June, and it ain’t related to Uni: they called it acale or acle.

May and June are still connected to Maia and Juno, just indirectly. The names are linguistic cousins, not linguistic parent and child. That is to say: Maia doesn’t come from Maius, but they do both come from the same origin, mai-, meaning ‘elder’ or ‘greater’. And it’s the same story with Iunius and Iuno. Presumably Maia would originally have meant ‘elder (goddess)’ or ‘greater (goddess)’, and Juno would have been ‘goddess of youth’ at some point.

Just to finish off, here’s Ovid, with a nice mixture of myths and accurate etymologies:
These were the things that Quirinus [= Romulus] paid attention to
    when he gave his laws for the year to the rustic people.
The first month belonged to Mars, the second to Venus [= Aphrodite];
    she was the author of the race, he its father.
The third got its name from old people, the fourth from the young,
    and the crowd that followed were known by number.
-- Ovid, Fasti 1.37-42
Ovid knew his Varro. So he’s got March, May, and June right; but he’s wrong about April, and we just don’t know if he’s right or wrong about March being the first month.


  • De Vaan, Michel 2008. Etymological dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages. Leiden/Boston: Brill.