CHAT: Easter & the Saxon Calendar (was: Passover/Easter)
|From:||Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>|
|Date:||Friday, April 28, 2000, 17:42|
At 10:15 pm +0100 27/4/00, Raymond Brown wrote:
>At 12:20 pm -0400 27/4/00, bjm10@CORNELL.EDU wrote:
>>On Wed, 26 Apr 2000, Raymond Brown wrote:[....]
>>> We have IIRC only the Venerable Bede's authority to connecting 'Èastre'
>>> with the name of the goddess Eostre (or Eastre) whose name begins with a
>>> short e. Do we have any independent accounts or evidence about this
>>> goddess. Is here name really derived from the same root as East, Latin &
>>I have yet to find any at all.
>What I was really asking is whether Bede tells us that Eostre's festival
>was at the Vernal Equinox. If he does not, then what evidence do we have
>that it was? As certainly pagans in the mediterranean area used the moon
>as well as the sun for determining festivals, is it not possible that her
>festival was also calculated according to a lunisolar calendar?
>I must track the passage down. The goddess is vanishing before my very eyes.--------------------------------------------------------------
Well, I have tracked it down - and what a search it was!
I patiently waded through site after site after site telling me that Easter
is named after the (Saxon) goddess Eostre whose festival occurred at the
Spring Equinox, *without ever giving one iota of evidence*. Most of these
sites indeed told me that the goddess's name was actually Ostara and, quite
often, I was invited to celebrate her Equinoctial festival with this coven
or that coven.
I also waded through almost the same number of sites where fundamentalists
were telling me that there is no scriptural reference to the celebration of
Easter (which I am well aware of, tho there are references a-plenty to the
Pasch), that the feast is pagan (tell that to the Council of Nicaea!) and
that no right-minded Christian should celebrate it. Well, I have & will
continue to celebrate Easter - but it's not the first time I've been told
that I'm not a right-minded Christian :)
[BEDE'S EVIDENCE & THE "SAXON CALENDAR"]
However, I did, as I said, eventually track down the passage from Bede; it
comes in his "De Temporum Ratione" (Concerning the Reckoning of Seasons),
chapter 13 where one finds:
"Rhedmonath a dea illorum Rheda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur
...... Antiqui Anglorum populi, gens mea.......apud eos Aprilis
Esturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea
illorum, quae Eostra uocabatur et cui in illo festa celebrantur, nomen
habuit; a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae
obseruationis uocabulo gaudia nouae solemnitatis uocantes."
I would dearly like to have the whole passage in context with the lacunae
filled; but this will have to suffice. According to the very few people
who actually referred to this passage with any detail, Bede is telling us
the Old English month names and, indeed, giving us some, tho not full,
information on the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon calendar; John Robert Stone's
web-site attempts to reconstruct the calendar, see:
Bede is telling us the a month corresponding roughly to March was called
Rhedmonath and that April was called Esturmonath. I translate it thus:
"[March] is named Rhedmonth from their goddess Rheda, to whom they make
sacrifice in that [month].......The ancient peoples of the Angles, my
nation.....among them April has the name Eastermonth, which is now
translated as 'paschal month', from a former goddess of theirs who was
called Eostra and for whom feast days [neuter _plural_] were celebrated
during it; from its name they now name the paschal season, calling the joys
of the new sollemnity by a word made customary from ancient observance."
If we assume, for the moment, that Bede is not repeating folk etymology and
that his statements are basically true, then it must be noted that he
*makes no reference whatever to the Spring Equinox*. Indeed, by equating
her month with April and quite specifically making it clear that her
festival occupied more than one day (festa....celebantur [plural]), it
seems to unlikely that her festival was not at the equinox, but rather
occurred later over two or three (or more?) days.
Indeed, John Robert Stone says of the whole Bede passage (this is why I'd
like to see the whole of it and not just the "Easter" extract), and I quote:
- The [Old] English month is a lunation, a cycle of lunar phases.
- The month names are listed with approximate Julian correlates.
- The beginning of the year falls on Christmas Eve, which was called by the
heathens "Mother's Eve".
- The year was divided into two seasons, winter & summer. Winter began at
Winterfylle [final letter is eth], which Bede explains as
- In intercalary years a third month named Lia was inserted in summer and
made a lunar year of thirteen months, which Bede designated a "year of
- The origins and meanings of the month names are speculated upon.
The month names Stone gives are:
Bede's name Normalized West Aprroximate
Saxon Gregorian equivalent
Giuli [after] Geola January
Solmonath Solmona February
Rhedmonath Hremona March
Esturmona Eastermona April
Thrimilchi rimilche [init. eth] May
Lida [ere] Lia June
Lida [after] Lia July
Weodmonath Weodmona August
Halegmonath Haligmona September
Winterfilleth Winterfylle October
Blodmonath Blotmona November
Giuli [ere] Geola December
(Remind anyone of the months used in the Shire? :)
Now, I'm getting onto familiar ground - a lunisolar calendar. A lunation
is 29.5 days; all the lunar calendars I've met, whether the Jewish, Muslim
or the various ancient Greek ones, basically alternate 29 & 30 day months.
Those who, like the ancient Greeks & the Jews also take the sun into
account, intercalate a 13th month at fairly regular intervals to keep the
seasons in line. In days when most people were illiterate and agriculture
was the chief occupation, using the sun & moon as one's calendar was the
obvious thing to do, and I'd already hazarded a guess that the ancient
Germans would've used a similar calendar.
That the moon was important to the ancient Germans is futher confirmed by
the Roman Historian Tacitus:
"[The German Chiefs] assemble, except in the case of a sudden emergency, on
certain fixed days, either at new moon or full moon; for this they consider
the most auspicious season for the transaction of business."
What about the equinoxes and/or solstices? With these other calendars,
_one_ of these dates was significant as it sort of determined when the year
began - in theory, on the new moon/full moon following the event. But
practice varied considerably among the ancients about which event to take.
I can find no evidence whatever that the equinoxes had any particular
relevance for the ancient Germans; but I do agree with Stone when he says:
"Bede's description of the calendar bristles with solstitial clues. The
year began at Christmas which was anciently associated with the winter
solstice [25th Dec was once actually the solstice]. The two double months,
Geola and Lia, bracket the solstices like bookends.......the Geola
("Yule") months, according to Bede, take their name from the turn of the
sun towards the increase of daylight. So, we gain confidance that this
calendar was solstitially bound".
In particular, the eve of the Winter Solstice. "Mother's Eve", marked the
beginning of the year. Exactly how this fitted in with the lunations and
how the intercalation of 'middle' Lithe was determined must, I guess, for
ever remain subjects of speculation. For those who want to follow this up
further, have a look at John Stone's web-site.
OK - Where does this get us? As I see it, so far I find:
- no evidence of a Spring Equinox festival called "Easter".
- a festival of two or more days called "Easter" during the 4th month,
Eastermonth, of the Saxon lunisolar year.
- Eastermonth corresponded roughly to April, thus the pagan "Easter"
occurred roughly at the same time of Spring as the Christian Easters &
Jewish Passover generally occur.
- the feastival and month took their name from that of the festival's
goddess, namely Eostra (in Bede's spelling).
[EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GODDESS]
What of the goddess herself? All the authorities I've been able to track
down agree that there is no other ancient evidence other than the passage
of Bede quoted above. Neither Hreda nor Eastra are mentioned in any other
ancient writings; there are no equivalent names even in either the Prose
Edda or the Poetic Edda. There is certainly no inscriptional, epigraphic
or archeological evidence to support the existence of either goddess.
In fact there is complete silence until the 19th century when Jacob Grimm
discusses them in his Deutsche Mythologie in 1835. So, what evidence does
Grimm adduce for their existence? Volume I of his Mythologie, Chapter 6
deals with goddess, and section 7 of this chapter with the goddess he names
as _Hruoda_ (Hrede) and _Ostara_ (Eastre).
Grimm quotes a document of 1404 which names a month as Redtmonet, tho he
admits it is not clear which month is meant; in the Appenzeller reimchronik
(date?) a month called Redimonet is given, but means "February"; Oberlin,
quoting from Chorion's Ehrenkranz der teutschen sprach (1644) gives
Retmonat for "March". This IMHO does no more than confirm a Germanic name
for a month named something like R(h)edmonath around February or March.
There is no further evidence here for any goddess.
Nevertheless, Grimm is able to say the Saxon goddes was called Hrê, or
Hrêe and reconstructs the Old High German as Hruod or Hruodâ. But whence
is his certainty? I find none. He also admits that the Anglo-Saxon
adjective hrê means 'crudelis' or perhaps 'victoriosus'. He further says
that when the AngloSaxon Menologue, line 70, translates 'Martius' by rêe,
this may stand for hrêe. Indeed it may - 'cruel/victorous' = "martius"
looks fine to me. So why doesn't Grimm make the obvious inference:
hrêmona = martius mensis?
I find no sound evidence in Grimm of any goddess called Hrede or Hruoda -
rather a very clear hint that we have a Germanic month name which is a
calque of a Roman one.
He says that the Germans of his day still called April 'Ostermonat' & that
ôstarmânoth is found "as early as Eginhart". So what? Easter is _the_
major Christian festival; it seems very reasonable to me to call April
'Eastermonth'. He tells us that in Old High German the festival is called
ôstarâ (plural - gen. ôstarûn). He says it's plural because the festival
lasted more than one day. Well, we know that from Bede! And, of course,
both the Jewish & the Christian Pasch last more than one day. Then he
suddenly treats Ostarâ as the name of the goddess - but look as hard as I
can, I can find no evidence for this sudden leap of faith that translates a
plural festival name into a singular personal name. He even connects her
name with Latin 'Auster' - a _masculine_ noun meaning "the _south_ wind".
This seems to me a very desperate attempt to find external verification.
Grimm has to admit that there is no other evidence from Germanic sources
for this goddess; the best he can do is to find a male being in one of the
Eddas called 'Austri', "so a female one might have been called Austra".
Er, yes - but if *Austra was this goddess whose festival was so important
the Christians couldn't supplant its name but had to be content with merely
'christening' it, isn't it a little surprising that her name is not found
except in Bede?
Wondering why the Norsemen called 'Easter' "pâskir" and not *austrur, he
concludes "they had never worshipped a goddess Austra, or her cultus was
already extinct." Strange for a goddess who is supposed to have been so
important. And what of the Goths? Ulpilas writes 'paska', not *áustro.
Only, it seems did the Saxons & the High Germans call the festival
'Easter(n)s' and I have no reason to doubt that there was such a
pre-Christian festival, of several days, held during the 4th month of the
Germanic lunisolar calendar. The east, of course, is the region of radiant
dawn, uprising light, of resurrection of new life after winter; both the
timing & the symbolisms must have fitted well with the Christian
Paschaltide; little wonder, it seems to me, the name was retained.
I have no doubt that Bede is correctly reporting the Saxon month name and
quite correct in saying it took its name from the festival dayS celebrated
during that month (i.e. round about the time of the Passover/Pasch). But
the goddess seems now even more shadowy than ever; the only evidence is the
short passage in Bede. Grimm's attempts of the last century to resurrect
Eastre (still less to rename her Ostara) look desperate to me & IMHO carry
little conviction. I do not for one moment think Bede is deliberately
misleading us; but I am inclined to the view that her name is a bit of
"folk etymology" to explain the name of a festival whose origin had been
A mind which thinks at its own expense
will always interfere with language.
[J.G. Hamann 1760]