[Please welcome Liz Williams our new UK correspondent and journalist.]
UNITED KINGDOM — You can always tell that it’s spring when the UK online Pagan community starts linking to articles by writer Adrian Bott, also known as Cavalorn. Bott came into prominence a few years ago with his blog posts regarding the origins of Ostara. Rather than taking on board the received wisdom about this festival, he began a rigorous examination of the actual origins of the holiday’s name.
Bott began by linking Ostara back to an obscure reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede called The Reckoning of Time, which was then picked up by the Brothers Grimm. His posts were often contentious, challenging the accepted idea that Ostara was an ancient Germanic goddess of the dawn or of springtime, or that she had anything to do with hares, eggs, or indeed chocolate.Gradually, however, Bott’s meticulously researched findings began to find their way into the wider Pagan community, enhancing the understanding of where this popular part of the celebrations actually come from. In addition, Bott has been featured in the national press and is now on board with a working group funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Bott agreed to talk to us about his research and why it is important.
The Wild Hunt: Why did you start the project in the first place?
Adrian Bott: As I recall, it was a combination of two factors. The first was the wave of introspection and critical reappraisal that swept over the British Neopagan movement in the wake of Triumph of the Moon. There was a growing unwillingness to accept inherited ideas at face value and a redoubled respect for academic standards. The second was the colossal upsurge in misinformation and fakelore that inevitably accompanied the rise in Internet access across the world. The Internet allowed the propagation of more appealing but unfounded Neopagan myths than ever before, and of course the more people read them and believed them, the more they were circulated.
So as I see it, my own work was just one part of the backlash against the tidal wave of unsubstantiated nonsense that the Internet unleashed. This led to my earlier articles having quite a hectoring, negative tone to them which is now absent. I hope.
TWH: And what findings particularly surprised you?
AB: It’s always startling to see how much has been made out of next to nothing. Every year new claims circulate. A single reference in Bede has given rise to a deranged tapestry of inventions: people are no longer content with the basic Eostre myth in which she’s popularly deemed to be a fertility goddess whose symbols are the bunny and the egg, even though there’s no evidence for any of this. For example, this year I’ve also seen a claim that the Christian ‘Easter lily’ is an appropriated Pagan tradition in which the lily represented Eostre’s genitalia.
I expect there’s potential for a fascinating study into how people create myths to fulfill needs. Around that basic kernel – the name Eostre as attested by Bede – a whole mythic structure has crystallised, without the slightest need for primary sources. It’s like a sort of communal fanfiction project as applied to religion.
One of the recent discoveries that excited me is folklorist Stephen Winick’s detailed and exhaustive research into the origin of the ‘Ostara and the Hare’ story. It was obviously not genuinely ancient, but its actual point of origin was about a hundred years earlier than I had previously thought. You can read about it here.
I’ve also been excited to discover that the Easter Bunny and its forerunner, the Easter Hare, weren’t the only egg-bringers. There’s a Germanic tradition of the Easter Fox that may in fact be older than the bunny. Given that foxes are known to steal and bury eggs, the existence of an Easter Fox makes a lot of sense.
TWH: Can you tell us more about your involvement with the Arts & Humanities Research Council initiative?
AB: The project I’m involved with is tremendously exciting and I’m delighted to be able to talk more about it. In brief, the Arts & Humanities Research Council has funded a major cross-disciplinary project to study the history of Easter and its associated lore, with a particular emphasis on the animals that have come to be associated with the festival. The project’s full title is ‘Exploring the Easter E.g. – Shifting Baselines and Changing Perceptions of Cultural and Biological Aliens’, which relates to the fact that the brown hare, rabbit and chicken, all iconic Easter animals, were all originally ‘alien’ to the country. The team includes geneticists, archaeologists, theologians, linguists and other specialists, so it’s a bit like an Ocean’s Eleven remake but with knowledge instead of money as the payoff.
I’m on board because I’ve put so much time and work into ranting about Easter and the extent to which it is or is not pagan, so I know my way around the topic despite coming from a layman’s background. I’m particularly excited to be working alongside Dr Philip Shaw, author of Eostre, Hretha and the Cult of Matrons, which had a surprising (to him) impact on the Neopagan scene.
TWH: How do you think pagan perceptions (and possibly Christian perceptions) of the spring equinox festival are changing?
AB: I think there’s growing enthusiasm for fact-checking and source citation out there, which can only be a good thing. People are only prepared to tolerate so much blatant nonsense before they draw the line and say something.
There are two recent examples of line-drawing that I think are particularly worth noting here. One is the way in which some neopagans who identify as part of a Germanic tradition have angrily debunked the popular, wildly erroneous meme that identifies Easter with Ishtar. One can understand their anger: if you’re going to identify Easter as the festival of a Goddess, at least make sure it’s the right one!
The other current I’ve noticed (on such sites as Tumblr, among others) is a backlash from Jewish voices, addressing – quite rightly – the erasure of the Jewish influence on the Easter festival. To insist that Easter was originally pagan is to ignore its Jewish content and history, which is a frankly asinine thing to do. After all, it’s only in a very small part of the world that Easter was called Easter; most countries have a variant on Pascha, which of course derives from Passover. The date of Easter is calculated by reference to a full moon: again, this derives from Jewish calendrical antecedents, though some Neopagans can’t imagine that anything with a full moon in it could possibly be other than pagan.
It’s not all change out there, though. There are plenty of Neopagans who just don’t want to give up the inherited Evil Christians Stole Our Festivals myth, and there are plenty of Christians who are too scared to give up the Easter Is Tainted With Paganism myth. The moment you stick your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get told that ‘everyone knows’ Easter was originally pagan, or some such guff. There’s still a lot of work left to do.
On the subject of the Spring Equinox, it’s possibly worth mentioning that neither the Christian Easter nor the Anglo-Saxon pagan festival of Eostur that preceded it were Spring Equinox festivals, in that neither of them happens on the Equinox. There doesn’t seem to be a documented Northern European tradition of celebrating the Equinox per se; it’s much more a feature of neopagan or ceremonial traditions such as the Golden Dawn. I believe it was through the GD that the practice entered Wicca and thus neopaganism at large.
If you want to get pedantic about it, the festival of Eostur was probably the fourth full moon of the Anglo-Saxon year, that year beginning with the first new moon after the Winter Solstice. We know that the full moon of the month Winterfilleth marked the formal commencement of winter, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that the full moon of Eosturmonath marked the opening of summer in a similar way. It would certainly tally with Bede’s assertion that Eostre’s festival included ‘feasts’, and the frequent coincidence of the full moon betokening Eostur with that from which Easter was calculated would go a long way towards explaining why the latter borrowed the former’s name in the first place.
The Spring Equinox festival of ‘Ostara’ is of course an entirely modern invention that we can attribute to Aidan Kelly.
TWH: What would you encourage pagans to do in terms of looking into the origins of some of these prevailing myths?
AB: It is always worth your while to ask two questions: ‘how do we know?’ and ‘who said this first?’ Instead of accepting a story uncritically, try to find out where it originally comes from. What’s the documentary evidence? Even something as basic as a few minutes with Google can be enlightening. And if you end up on a Wikipedia page, don’t just absorb the information – check the footnotes and the sources. That’s what the citations are there for. (It’s particularly depressing to me that the best known of the debunking sites, Snopes, has a poorly researched page on Easter that repeats a lot of the popular myths.)
Fact-checking is a surprisingly addictive and rewarding habit to get into. I think some people recoil from it because it’s seen as a contrary impulse to the religious one, but there needn’t be any contradiction involved. Many neopagans find that knowing the limitations of our historical sources actually opens the door to the possibility of personal insight. In conclusion I can only echo Professor Ronald Hutton, who said ‘I wish that Pagans did usually impose their own narratives on ancient places, and indeed on the past, either by actual research or by genuinely visionary experience.
TWH: Thank you for you time, Adrian
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While there is still push back, Adrian Bott’s work on the origins of Ostara is commended and supported by many. His writings do not suggest that Pagans shouldn’t name the festival as they please, or have a concept of the Goddess of Springtime. However, he encourages an awareness of the origins of mythology. His work is complementary, perhaps, to the Hutton’s concept of ‘visionary experience’ is a complement to the rigor of our research, and neither need replace the other.
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On a related topic, Easter began in the UK with a major row over an Easter egg hunt – a controversy which involved Prime Minister Theresa May criticizing the National Trust for removing the mention of Easter from its annual egg hunt. The Archbishop of York claimed that this “was tantamount to spitting on the grave of [John] Cadbury,” the Christian founder of the famous chocolate company that sponsors the national event.
The Archbishop’s statement was then contested by Cadbury’s fellow Quakers who pointed out this group does not celebrate Easter, or Christmas. To members of that path, all days are holy, every day is God’s day, and no single day is more holy than any other – so it can involve ‘chocolate every day,’ said Trish, a Quaker member in the audience of the new BBC One show Big Questions.During that program, show host Nicky Campbell cited Eostre and its link to rabbits; he made the claim that current Easter traditions derive from pagan roots and that the festival is all about fecundity. However, a Christian commentator on the panel, Sarah De Nordwall, contended that the most important root of this particular festival is actually the Jewish Passover (Pesach).
Also sitting on the panel was Ashley Mortimer, director of the Centre for Pagan Studies and a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation. He stated that, as human beings, we see cycles and patterns and all religions have a concept of that.
Campbell then prevented Mortimer further examining the earlier claims to the origins of Eostre with which he disagrees. While that may have been disappointing for many Pagan listeners, Mortimer did get to say that we should not squabble over whose festival comes first, and that we can all see that life is returning around us at this time of the year.
Mortimer added that we should be “putting our disco pants on” and celebrating our commonalities. He went on to say that everyone needs to dispense with putting labels on things and begin celebrating our shared belief in renewed life and renewed growth.