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).



  1. Would this be a good summary for the Eostre part:
    1) Easter is a Christian holiday (duh)
    2) It got it's English name from a pagan goddess, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxons had a festival in her honour that coincided with Easter
    3) It's possible that the goddess and the putative festival were (West) Germanic, but it's also possible that the name was spread by English missionaries to the continent.
    On 3): The form ostar- on the continent makes it IMO more likely that there was a West Germanic goddess (I'm not convinced that the continentals would have re-engineered such a form from Eostre), and so only the transfer of the name to the new Christian festival would be due to English influence on the continent, not the name of the goddess itself.

    1. I'd say that's a very fair summary. On ostar-: personally I feel it's about fifty-fifty whether there's a proto-Germanic goddess associated with that name or not. I'm prepared to accept IE origins for Eostre, but the lack of direct evidence for Ostara gives me some doubt. Still, if that argument is at least debateable, I feel I've done my job here!

    2. This is where I don't quite understand...
      If 'Eostre' & 'Ostara' are both terms with Germanic origins, share the same linguistic roots of 'east'/'sunrise', are from the same approximate time frame, and both refer to the same Christian holiday--then why don't you consider these terms to be interchangeable? Maybe one is a variant of the other--used in different regions of the area? Or perhaps one was used and then later changed to the other?

      On another note: when is the first documented instance of the English word "Easter" first recorded? (Bede used the word "Eostre," not "Easter" & most others used words derived from the Hebrew word for Passover). So when was it first called "Easter"?

  2. For those who might have come here after having seen a certain meme shared by the so-called "Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason," I have written an article that goes into much greater depth debunking the specific claim that Easter was originally a holiday for Ishtar.

    (Ancient Mesopotamian mythology happens to be a particular interest of mine and I always get really annoyed by people who think Easter originated as a festival of Ishtar.)