I don’t know what Easter is like in your country. But I can tell you a little about Easter in England. We loved Easter when I was growing up. Me, my brother and sister loved the chocolate eggs that mom would hide around the house. On visiting our grandparents’ house, nan would do the same. A little Easter egg hunt – the Easter bunny had been!
Now we knew that Easter wasn’t just about delicious chocolate eggs wrapped in shiny foil. I went to a Church of England school – every morning was assembly and prayers were a part of school life. As was, once a year, the Christian Easter story. It was held with a similar degree of importance to the Christmas story at our school. In fact, Easter would prompt a special assembly and the odd school play. Hymns were sung and all the kids in school were left in no doubt as to the true meaning of Easter. Of course, to us children. it was all about the eggs too.
Fast forward to today. The event is hyper commercialised. Easter eggs are available in shops from just after Christmas. I don’t remember that in the late 80s and early 90s – though I was only a nipper, so who knows. I don’t hear much if anything about the Easter story, Jesus’s crucifixion and rising from the grave. What I do hear about a little more, apart from constant Easter egg advertisements, is how Christianity is said to have taken the pre-existing pagan festival that existed at this time of year and overlaid the Christian Easter story over it. When I first heard about this, I was keen to find out more. Was what I’d been taught as a youngster wrong? Well, it depends on your point of view.
The word Easter once meant something different
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain from their homelands of what are now Denmark, northern Germany and the area around the north Dutch coastline, they were not Christian. Christianity existed. The year was around 449 AD and the native Britons were Christians already, having converted from a mixture of British / Roman paganism. It is likely that the Roman British did not entirely let go of their pagan beliefs, at least in private. The tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes had not converted to Christianity when they arrived on these shores. Fiercely independent, they had their own beliefs – gods and goddesses as well as spirits of the land, water and home. Many of our days of the week are named after these deities. Tiw’s daeg is Tuesday, Woden’s Daeg is Wednesday, Thunor’s Daeg is Thursday and Frigg’s Daeg is Friday.
Bede and Grimm
So where does Easter come in? The word itself was Ēostre in Old English and the month April, was called Ēosturmōnaþ to our Anglo-Saxon forebears – Easter month to modern ears. So who, or what, was Ēostre? Ēostre was a goddess, worshipped by Germanic peoples. We know little of her now, except for one mention by Bede, a Northumbrian Benedictine monk in his book, The Reckoning of Time – wrote during the 8th Century. By this time, the proto-English had ‘officially’ converted to Christianity. Bede, born in 672, would have known about the pagan gods and goddesses. It’s likely that people would have been outwardly Christian whilst retaining their old faith at home. Bede tells us that:
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.Venerable Bede – De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time)
Essentially, the old heathen Ēosturmōnaþ, where a festival was held to celebrate the goddess of new life and spring, was replaced by Paschal month, the time when Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ. This is a little more complicated, with links to the Jewish passover – but you can look that up if you want to. The German, Jacob Grimm, writing in 1835 (Deutsche Mythologie), tells us of the German Ostarâ, almost certainly the same goddess as Ēostre –
This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.Jacob Grimm – Deutsche Mythologie
The Germans, until at least the 1800s, called April ‘Ostermonat‘ – from the same linguistic roots as the Old English Ēosturmōnaþ.
So Easter is pagan?
School didn’t teach me this. I doubt you were taught it either. But yes, Easter – its name, its association with rabbits (or hares) and eggs – nature, fertility and rebirth, comes from the pagan practices of our pre-Christian, heathen ancestors. It seems it made sense to Christians of the time to overlay the resurrection onto the heathen celebration of new life. There was already a big celebration held then, so what better way to get people to forget their old ways and accept new ones. After all, if it didn’t work, there was always force (but that’s another blog post).
The way in which the days of the Christian Easter festival is counted is strange in itself. The bible reads that Jesus would emerge from the tomb after three days and three nights. Good Friday to Easter Sunday is not three days and three nights. In fact, a lot of current Christian practice does not mirror what is told in the bible. This, however, seems to be the case for most religions. Unfortunately, those wishing to adhere to the pre-Christian beliefs of our English ancestors will have trouble doing so without borrowing and inventing. The Christians did a relatively good job of converting people – whether by peaceful means or as was often, by the sword. What we do know we know from the few surviving texts – usually written after conversion to Christianity, and corresponding faiths in the continental Germanic lands / Scandinavia.
Whether you’re celebrating Easter in England by visiting church, tucking into a chocolate egg or holding a blot – have a great day.