Mar 03 2016

Easter, Eostre, Ostara – Cavalry’s analysis (2016)

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These are reprinted without permission, from Cavalorn’s LiveJournal posts.  Original posts linked below.  I’m adding this to the “Commonplace” section for my own future reference. Well worth the read, as it’s approaching “that” time again.

Part I:

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

Last Easter and the Easter before that, and for several more Easters, a story circulated both among neopagans and those they wished to educate. It concerned the origin of the Easter Bunny. The story goes something like this:

Once, when the Goddess was late in coming, a little girl found a bird close to death from the cold and turned to Eostre for help. A rainbow bridge appreared and Eostre came, clothed in her red robe of warm, vibrant sunlight which melted the snows. Spring arrived. Because the little bird was wonded beyond repair, Eostre changed it into a snow hare who then brought rainbow eggs. As a sign of spring, Eostre instructed the little girl to watch for the snow hare to come to the woods.

The story is increasingly popular among neopagans, because it provides a solid confirmation of several important points of dogma. Christian traditions are shown to have sprung from Pagan ones; a seemingly innocuous tradition is shown to have a little-known (thus implying that it was repressed) history; and a male God took a festival over from a female Goddess, replacing a celebration of joyous renewal with one of sacrifice and death. Given the ease with which the story has been circulated and the receptiveness of the audience – a version appeared in Cricket magazine, which is targeted at under 10s – it seems likely to pass into the popular consciousness as an unchallenged Easter Fact.

Eostre herself is documented in an abundance of modern sources, as a quick Internet search will reveal. She is said to be

… the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, from whom “East” (where the sun rises) and “Easter” got its name
– as the fertility goddess of the Northern European peoples, her legend was manipulated by the invading Romans – newly Christianised, they merged Eostre’s spring legend to coincide with the time of Christ’s resurrection.

We can also learn that Eostre is depicted with a hare’s head or hares’ ears, that her consort is the Sun God, and that her symbols are eggs and rabbits.
She was known as Eostre in Britain, and Ostara in Germany. In short, in Eostre we have a thoroughly rounded and well known Goddess, with a myth that confirms exactly the kind of things that neopagans want confirmed, and which an outsider can readily understand.

This in itself ought to arouse suspicion. The scenario seems just a little too good. How much of the modern doctrine of Eostre, her attributes and her legend, can we deem authentic?

The Facts About Eostre
Given the sheer quantity of modern material, the answer may be shocking to some, but it stands as testimony to the myth-making abilities of neopagans.

The total sum of available information about Eostre amounts to two lines of text.

The Venerable Bede, in his De Temporum Ratione (“On the Reckoning of Time”), explains the naming of the Easter festival as follows:

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.

And that is all there is. There is no hare connection, no suggestion of a bunny story, no link to eggs. Bede’s passage is the only evidence we have that there ever was a goddess called Eostre; worse still, he may even have been making it up. Doctor Elizabeth Freeman of the University of Tasmania asserts exactly that, adding that ‘Bede was extremely influential and his view has survived until the last 50 years when scholarship developed to the level it could show he was wrong’. Such a fabrication would, allegedly, not have been unknown; some academics propose that Bede made up quite a lot of material, or included his own supposition as fact. Perhaps significantly, Bede also assets that ‘Hrethmonath’, corresponding to March, was named after a Goddess Hretha, who seems to have been every bit as obscure as Eostre; she, too, is unknown outside his writings.

A contrary position comes from Professor Ronald Hutton, who needs no introduction. He explains that ‘modern scholarship finds her name cognate with many Indo-European words for dawn, which presents a high possibility that she was a dawn-goddess, and so April as the Eostre-month was the month of opening and new beginning, which makes sense in a North German climate.’ (Personal correspondence).

So, we can at least say that a goddess called Eostre may have existed as a figure of worship. But what of her alleged German version, Ostara? Here there is no primary evidence at all. No sources mention an Ostara, and it is not until Jakob Grimm’s Deustche Mythologie, written in 1835, that she appears even as a supposition.

According to Grimm, Ostarâ is the name in Old High German of the Easter festival. Ostarâ is, however, a plural noun, the singular form being ôstarûn. Grimm explains this by saying that the festival lasted several days, which ties in to Bede’s account of ‘feasts’. The Ostarâ would therefore have been ‘the Easterns’. Following this, and without any obvious justification or grounds, he suddenly begins to treat Ostarâ as the name of a Goddess. Her existence begins here. We can thus trace the existence of Ostara to the point where Grimm, for reasons best known to himself, decided to treat the name of a multiple festival as that of a single Goddess. (To get some idea of what this entails, imagine a putative pagan goddess called ‘Schoolholidays’. Now reflect on the degree to which ‘Ostara’ the supposed Goddess is established in neopaganism. This may give you cause for concern. It certainly does me.)

Having created a Goddess where there was none, and admitting that Germanic sources offer no substantiation, Grimm then begins to look for verification. He does not find any, and makes some serious (and desperate) fudges in his attempts to do so. For example, he attempts to connect her name with the Latin ‘Auster’, which is a masculine noun meaning ‘the south wind’ – not the most convincing of associations – and suggests that because there is a male figure called Austri in the Eddas, ‘a female one might have been called Austra’.

We will never know whether or not Bede invented Eostre, but Grimm’s fiddling is evident; the only remaining question is one of motive. Why did Grimm attempt to concoct a Goddess? We can answer that by looking at the cultural context of the times. The Grimm brothers had a clear nationalist and ethnic agenda. In the time of the brothers Grimm, Germany as we now know it did not exist and was essentially a collection of principalities following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Their purpose in amassing folk tales, myths and fragments of oral history was to rediscover the ‘real’ roots of German culture, beneath the Christian surface, and in doing so to create a German identity along with the German language that tied the people together. In short, the fiction of Ostara was a propaganda exercise.

We have seen how Grimm worked on Bede’s two lines and fleshed out the myth further, but how did we come to the present situation, with its egg-laying bunny myth?

Neopagan Accretions
One name stands out among Eostre-manufacturers. The modern author Nigel Pennick appears to have carried on the Grimm tradition, making statements about Eostre that are completely unsupported, or in some cases, flat wrong. In The Pagan Book of Days he makes a series of astounding assertions including the
following:

‘The original feast of Eostre was celebrated in the Pagan calendar at the Vernal Equinox.’ (Untrue, as the Eosturmonath was a lunar month, and thus not tied to the Equinoxes at all; they are solar.) ‘In addition to “Easter”, this Goddess name is also the source of the word “estrus”- the restricted, recurring period of sexual receptivity in the female mammals.’ (Untrue, as the etymology of ‘estrus’ is well known, and actually refers to the gadfly. There is no etymological link between Eostre and oestrogen.) ‘Saxon poets equated Eostre with India’s, Great Mother, Kali.’ (no comment necessary)

The most stunning of all Pennick’s statements is however found in Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, in which he describes an image as “the moon-goddess, Mani (or Eostre in her spring guise), depicted as a woman in a short coat, wearing a hood with two long hare’s ears, crescent moon in hand”.

The image to which he refers is of a male deity; it is a reproduction of the image of ‘Mani’, the alleged ‘Saxon moon god’ from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, and nothing to do with Eostre at all. Here it is.

Neopagans are not the only creators of fake myth. A particular kind of Christian group has been enthusiastically adding to the Eostre myth, with the curious intent of proving it to be completely pagan.

This is because their version of Christianity does not accept Easter, or indeed anything else that is not found in the Bible. Associating Easter with paganism has allowed them to villify secular traditions, and presumably become more truly Christian in their own minds. Christians are thus responsible for some of the more ludicrous suggestions concerning Easter and paganism, such as an attempt to identify Eostre with Ishtar, and the assertion that ‘Eostre’s hare was the shape that Celts imagined on the surface of the full moon’, which manages to garble together Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Chinese myth in one sentence. (Pagan Origins of Holidays). It seems that not a year goes by without more spurious Eostre nonsense being thrown on to the heap, a far cry indeed from Bede’s two sparse lines.

The Bunny
So where does the tale of the bird in the snow come from? This is in fact an authentic folk tale, except for the Eostre element, which was added in later. The ingredients can be found in a Ukranian tale, one of many that explains the origin of pysanky, the decorated eggs found in that part of the world. The story was retold as Bird’s Gift by Eric A Kimmel, summarised thus:

When winter comes early one year, Katrusya stumbles upon a terrible discovery — hundreds of golden birds buried in the snow. She begs her fellow villagers to help save the birds, and one by one, the little creatures are gathered into hats and gloves, coats and baskets, until they are all brought safely inside. But toward winter’s end, Katrusya knows that the time has come to say goodbye, and the birds are freed. That spring, as Katrusya makes her way to church on Easter Sunday, she finds something wonderful hidden in the grass — a beautifully decorated egg. And there’s another and another! The birds’ gift to their rescuers marks the beginning of the Ukrainian tradition of pysanky and provides a reminder of God’s endless love for all creatures.

Take this story, add a manufactured neopagan goddess who turns the bird into a rabbit that then lays rainbow eggs, and the quintessential Eostre myth is born.

How did the manufactured myth of the Eostre Bunny come to public attention, and thus to the massive popularity it now has? This seems to have come about via the work of Sarah Ben Breathnach, author of SImple Abundance and similar feelgood new age works. The story appears in her book Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions.

Mrs. Sharp is a fictional Victorian woman who dispenses homespun wisdom for modern age people.
Allegedly, the source material for the book came from ‘a trunk full of Victorian era magazines’ that was discovered by chance; a neat way of avoiding having to substantiate anything that the author presents as old.

From there, the story appears to have migrated via word of mouth and the Internet, until most recently it appeared as The Coming of Eostre in the American children’s magazine Cricket.

Pagans and Propaganda
So, a Goddess who may never have existed has been purposefully fleshed out over the years into the ‘real meaning of Easter’. As in Grimm’s time, there is an agenda at work here. Academic standards and respect for research have given way to stories that tell people what they want to hear. Modern pagans are apparently less concerned with finding out the facts than they are with putting the damn uppity ‘festival-stealing’ Christians firmly in their place, even if the truth has to be bent completely out of shape in order to achieve this.

There is a bitter irony to this moral high ground, too: if the concocted Eostre story proves anything, it proves that neopagans are just as capable of disseminating lies and propaganda about other religions as the Christians ever were.

Part II:

There’s not all that much to add to the original article, but I’d like to pass on some information and correct one fairly daft misapprehension that’s circulating.

The daft misapprehension is this: the shifting date of Easter, based as it is upon lunation (Easter falls upon the first Sunday after first Full Moon to occur on or after the Vernal Equinox) ties Easter into the old Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar, and thus means that the date of Easter is derived from paganism.

This is bullshit. Easter’s date is based on the Biblical account of the Crucifixion taking place at the time of the Passover feast. If you’re going to commemorate the Crucifixion, then Passover is the only calendrical landmark there is. The date of Passover was ‘basically the first full moon of Spring’, and thus we get the basis for Easter. It’s derived from the Hebrew lunar calendar, not the Anglo-Saxon one.

It’s emerged that there are sound reasons for doubting Bede’s statement that Eosturmonath was named for a Goddess called Eostre. (This article is sound and helpful, despite the Christian bias.) Anglo-Saxon days were named after Gods (Woden’s Day, Freya’s Day and so on) but their months were typically named after calendrical events, seasonal weather conditions, or customary activities. For example, Guili (which survives as ‘Yule’) meant ‘wheel’, being the point on which the year turned. (I love that we still use the phrase ‘the turning of the year’.) Solmónath, around February, was ‘mud-month’ (soil month, one assumes?); Blótmónath was ‘blood month’, in which animals were killed.

If Eosturmonath and Hrethmonath really were named after Goddesses as Bede attests, then they would be the only two months in the whole calendar to be so named. One might expect the only deities to warrant having whole months named after them to be slightly better documented! Given that there is no mention at all of ‘Eostre’ nor of ‘Hretha’ anywhere outside of the single passage in Bede, we should consider whether the months are not in fact named in the manner of the other 10. In this light, ‘Eosturmonath’ would simply be ‘the month of opening’, i.e. the month of opening buds, while ‘Hrethmonath’ could be ‘the month of glory’, or possibly ‘the harsh/cruel month’. (This corresponds rather well to martial March.)

So, Bede’s account is not only lacking coroborration, it goes against the whole trend of the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

Is it unfair to Bede to suggest that he was wrong? Not when we bear in mind his own admitted uncertainty where other names from the Anglo-Saxon calendar are concerned. From the start, moreover, he makes it clear that he is not speaking about usages with which he was directly familiar: he speaks of the Anglo-Saxon names for the months as pertaining to ‘olden time’, and thus does not consider that culture at all contemporary. Much more tellingly, his comments on Modranecht reveal him to be unafraid of making educated guesses:

‘That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mother’s night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.’

Please note the ‘we suspect’ that Bede fortuitously added in the middle. He admits that his analysis of the name is based on what he thinks was the case. It follows, then, that he was not in a position to expound upon the old pagan calendar from first-hand knowledge. And why, indeed, should he have been? Bede was sent to one monastery at the age of seven, and remained for the rest of his life in another one. However excellent the library at Yarrow may have been, I doubt any of the sources there documented the customs of Anglo-Saxon pagans. (Had they done so, Bede would have been able to be far less hesitant about Modranecht.)

Yet another reason for doubting that any of the Anglo-Saxon months were named after pagan deities can be found in the actions of Charlemagne, whose behaviour would suggest that the Germanic Ostarmonath was no more named after a Goddess than the Anglo-Saxon Eosturmonath was. Rather than even attempt to paraphrase, I’m going to quote the source article directly, because I don’t think I can do better:

Another problem with Bede’s explanation concerns the Saxons in continental Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, tells us that among Charlemagne’s reforms was the renaming of the months. April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.

Oh, and just as a final word, it seems some people are still confused about where the tradition of Easter Eggs comes from. It’s not actually anything to do with ‘symbols of returning life’. Eggs were commonly forbidden during Lent, so on Shrove Tuesday you’d use up any remaining eggs (and sometimes milk) you had, and making pancakes was the obvious way to do that. This is also why Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is called Fat Tuesday. You pig out before you fast.

But Easter marks the end of the Lenten fast, so eggs are on the menu again. And that, dear readers, is why we have a tradition of eggs appearing at Easter.

AFTERWORD: It’s fascinating what you find out when you go digging. Snorri, writing in Heimskringla (a history of the Kings of Norway) gives some potentially useful information, although he’s writing some 200 years after the fact. The story is of how the Christian King Olaf killed Olver of Eggja (yes, of Eggja, I am not making this up) for carrying out clandestine pagan practices.  Text here, see part 115.

The king called (Thoralde) in and in a private conversation asked him what truth there was in what had been told him of the principles and living of the people of the interior of Throndhjem, and if it really was so that they practised sacrifices to heathen gods. “I will,” says the king, “that thou declare to me the things as they are, and as thou knowest to be true; for it is thy duty to tell me the truth, as thou art my man.”

Thoralde replies, “Sire, I will first tell you that I have brought here to the town my two children, my wife, and all my loose property that I could take with me, and if thou desirest to know the truth it shall be told according to thy command; but if I declare it, thou must take care of me and mine.”

The king replies, “Say only what is true on what I ask thee, and I will take care that no evil befall thee.”

Then said Thoralde, “If I must say the truth, king, as it is, I must declare that in the interior of the Throndhjem land almost all the people are heathen in faith, although some of them are baptized. It is their custom to offer sacrifice in autumn for a good winter, a second at mid-winter, and a third in summer. In this the people of Eyna, Sparby, Veradal, and Skaun partake. There are twelve men who preside over these sacrifice-feasts; and in spring it is Olver who has to get the feast in order, and he is now busy transporting to Maerin everything needful for it.”

Some have taken this as evidence of a pagan feast occurring at the same time as the Christian Easter, and thus as evidence of an Ostara celebration: ‘in spring it is Olver who has to get the feast in order’. But Thoralde, we note, speaks of three and only three ‘sacrifice-feasts’. What Olver is doing in Spring, therefore, seems to me to be explicitly a preparation for the Summer ‘sacrifice-feast’ rather than for some unnamed Spring event. A later excerpt gives an idea of the sort of preparation that was being made:

‘Then the king took all the provision for the feast, and had it brought to his ships; and also all the goods, both furniture, clothes, and valuables, which the people had brought there, and divided the booty among his men.’

I’ll freely admit there are problems with this interpretation, though, and that there may indeed be an indication of an Eastertime pagan feast (though this of course doesn’t substantiate any hypothetical Goddesses!) Why bring ‘provision’ for a summer feast as early as Easter? One clever interpretation that occurs to me is that you might well want to pick out sacrificial animals in Spring and raise them to be ceremonially offed, but that’s wanton speculation on my part. Thoralde might also be saying ‘there are twelve men who preside over the three main sacrifice-feasts, and Olver gets to handle the sacrifice-free feast in Spring all by himself.’

The other, deeper message, which remains true to this day, is ‘You don’t ever want to be the one left in charge of arranging a feast for a bunch of pagans.’

Part III:

The interesting question now, to me, is when this spurious association between Eostre and hares arose. It’s not in Bede, as we’ve already established. It’s not in Grimm. (EDIT: WRONG, SEE FURTHER EDIT NOTE BELOW.) Adolf Holtzmann, writing in 1874 in German Mythology, states “The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara.” This is the earliest example of this association I can find, and it is still speculative at this point.

K. A. Oberle, in the catchily titled Überreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, oder die Wochentage, Monate und christlichen Feste etymologisch, mythologisch, symbolisch und historisch erklärt (1883), writes “Wahrscheinlich ist der Hase das heilige Tier der Ostara gewesen” (Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara), echoing Holtzmann.

However, it’s worth noting that in 1892, Charles J Billson writing in the the British journal Folk-Lore states flatly that “Oberle also concludes that the hare which lay the particoloured Easter eggs was sacred to the same goddess,” ignoring the ‘probably’ that both Holtzmann and Oberle included.

We find another speculative association in Charles Isaac Elton’s Origins of English History (1890), in which it is suggested that certain Easter customs “were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre”, the customs in question being those in which “the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the ‘Hare-pie Bank”.

Elton’s speculation is still a far cry from the modern assertion that Eostre’s sacred beast was the hare, so who first made that assertion? John Lanyard’s Lady of the Hare (1944) refers back to Billson, but writes as if the question were more or less settled, rather than being a matter of speculation: ‘Since the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare, and the hare so widely symbolizes ‘dawn’, and as dawn comes from the east, and Easter is the festival of the Resurrection symbolizing the birth of new life, it had occurred to me to wonder whether the actual word “Easter” might have a very simple explanation indeed – so simple that philologists and churchmen alike had missed it – namely that it was cognate to the word “east” as symbolizing the dawn from which new light came.’

By 1976, we have Christina Hole writing in Easter and its Customs: ‘The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.’ Any suggestion that this is a speculative association is entirely extinct. Somehow, along the way, supposition has become unexamined fact. I am not aware of any source between John Lanyard and Christina Hole who makes this outright statement, and would welcome any breadcrumbs from readers of this blog who know of one.

So, in summary, here is a very tentative timeline of Eostre’s Bunny:

725 CE: Bede mentions Eostre. He does not associate her with hares.
1835 CE: Grim, in Deustche Mythologie, postulates Ostara; he does not associate Eostre with hares. (WRONG – SEE EDIT)
1874 CE: Adolf Holtzmann states ‘probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’.
1883 CE: K.A. Oberle also states ‘probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’.
1890 CE: Charles Isaac Elton states that Easter customs at ‘Hare-pie Bank’ at ‘Harecrop Leys’ ‘were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre’
1892 CE: Charles J Billson refers to Oberle’s association of the hare with Ostara as a conclusion, rather than as a speculation
1944 CE: John Lanyard states that ‘the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare’.
1976 CE: Christina Hole states that ‘The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.’

Please bear in mind that no new evidence arose during this time to change the speculative association into a definite one. The shift from ‘probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara’ to ‘the hare was the sacred beast of Eastre’ wasn’t based on any archaeological discoveries, collected oral traditions or unearthed documents. It appears to have been based completely upon authors borrowing from other authors, and in so doing, shifting the goalposts of certainty until one person’s speculation had become another’s unchallenged fact.

Afterword: it’s an interesting time in Eostre studies, folks. As you’ll know, I have never been inclined to dismiss Eostre herself out of hand, though I am happy to take the axe to the massive amount of unsupported codswallop that is circulated concerning her, such as the bunny story. As far as Eostre herself goes, if she’s good enough for Professor Hutton, she’s good enough for me. She may have been a real figure of worship, she may not. The jury’s still out on that one.

And now Doctor Philip A. Shaw of the University of Leicester has added something entirely new (to me) to the ongoing debate, namely linking Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the ‘matron Austriahenea’ to Eostre. I am therefore going to pick up a copy of his work ‘Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons’ just as soon as the next pay cheque arrives. Though one does have to facepalm at the sole comment on Amazon: ‘It is not surprising that there is little “hard evidence” considering that there was literally a war waged over hundreds of years to stamp out “the old religion.”‘ I imagine Dr Shaw would probably have a few words to say on that, too.

EDIT: This is fascinating stuff. According to Swain Wodening’s review of the book, Dr. Shaw believes that Eostre really existed but that she and Hretha were entirely local to Kent! So, the selfsame academic who offers up new evidence for Eostre’s existence also limits her to a very small part of south-eastern England. Not a pan-Germanic Goddess at all, then; and in affirming an entirely local Kentish Eostre, Dr. Shaw is effectively demolishing the hypothetical Germanic ‘Ostara’ proposed by Grimm. Indeed, he suggests that ‘the German month names Ostermonat and Redmanot were carried to Germany and France by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and uses this to back his claim that they were local goddesses’! So, the stance is that Christian Anglo-Saxons took those month names over, and (presumably) there is no connection at all to any cognate pagan goddesses in those regions. Well, that certainly jives with Charlemagne renaming the month of April to the old High German Ostarmanot; he would hardly have done so if there were lingering pagan associations.

IMPORTANT EDIT: I done screwed up, folks. Bound to happen one of these days. Holzmann’s Deustche Mythologie was simply a reissue of Grimm. So it *was* Grimm who made the initial association between Ostara and hares. I’m going to leave the original with this correction in place rather than edit it out, because I’d rather not pretend to be infallible.

Finally:

So, as an aperitif of sorts, something a little different. I’d like to cite, once again, the magnificent prologue to The English Year by Steve Roud:

‘The real danger is from a far more virulent virus – the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of ‘folkiness’, are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.’

That last line is so chilling, isn’t it? ‘All customs will soon end up with the same story’. And that’s exactly what we are seeing.

Please consider how many of the neopagan ‘explanations’ for modern customs refer to the most entrenched, corporate-enshrined, iconic versions of those customs. In an age of instant mass communication, the holiday traditions and the characters associated with them have become standardised. Regional variation steadily vanishes. So, when neopagan ‘explanations’ of The Easter Bunny or Santa appear, they often sound like probes into the secrets of well-known celebrities. The modern icons have become monolithic.

No surprise, then, that the neopagan Easter Bunny origin stories are equally monolithic, attempting as they do to appropriate a standardized, ubiquitous, iconic rabbit by means of a standardized line about a Goddess and her sacred hare. We thus arrive at a notion of Paganism which, in responding to globalised imagery, has become equally timeless, placeless and divorced from actual practice. The Eostre business becomes ‘the story’, regardless of what your inherited traditions may be, how they may have changed over the years, or what regional nuances may have shaped them. It is both ironic and tragic that pagan religion, which placed so much emphasis on the local, should now have been reimagined as Paganism (TM) in all its amorphous boundary-crossing homogenity.

This relentless standardization and homogenization of our common pagan past, with its wilful blindness to any research that does not serve the grim purpose of appropriation, drowns out many exciting and fascinating aspects of folklore that are much more deserving of our attention. It’s as if a historical site of immense significance had been buried under a huge concrete bunny with a neon pentagram stuck on top.

Take, for example, the Osterfuchs – the Easter Fox.

You could be forgiven for not even having heard of the Easter Fox, and yet it’s described as an older Germanic tradition than the Easter Bunny. In some places, it was supposedly more popular. A translation of some Easter Fox information by Arkady Rose:

Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox.

Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter fox was not disturbed during his visit – for example by shutting up pets for the night.

Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that “… it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. ”

Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.

You won’t see any neopagan interpretations of the Easter Fox, or any suggestion that Eostre’s sacred animals were a fox and a rabbit. That’s because fakelore interpretations only concern themselves with imagery that it is assumed you already know. You continually see attempts to appropriate Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because everyone is familiar with them. It never seems to occur to anyone that these traditional figures were not always so standardized or internationally accepted, even in the English-speaking world.

In the Easter Fox, however, there is a sniff – possibly no more than a sniff – of a tradition that may be genuinely old, forgotten and occluded. Personally, I find that wonderful.

 

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