01 May, 2008

Eosturmonath (April): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The fourth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of April, was called Eosturmonath. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

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.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

“Paschal” is the Christian festival called Easter in modern English. Evidently someone had been following Pope Gregory’s advice to the early Christian missionaries sent to the English! Pope Gregory advised Bishop Mellitus:

The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
--Bede, Book I Chapter 30

So who was Eostre, the goddess who gave her name and her festival to the Christian Easter?

Kathleen Herbert says that ‘eostre’ in the Germanic languages means ‘from the east’ and is cognate with the word for ‘dawn’ in several Indo-European languages including Greek, Latin and Sanskrit (Herbert 1994). The Old English season of summer, when the days are longer than the nights, begins at the spring equinox, and Eostre’s month would be the first month of summer. This would be consistent with Eostre as a goddess of the dawn and the coming of the sun, an altogether kinder and gentler image than the goddess of the previous month, Hretha.

If Eostre’s festival was also associated with the return of life in the spring, this may have helped her feast merge with the Christian festival of Easter, which celebrates the return of Christ to life. (See Lucy Ann White’s post on some of the traditions associated with Easter). It may not have been at all difficult for people to carry on celebrating the return of sun, light, warmth and life, with a different name attached to the associated deity.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.

Edit: The next post on this blog will be on or around Saturday 24 May.


Gabriele Campbell said...

...and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.

Well, the poor animals didn't get a deal out of it. :)

Rick said...

Gabriele - at least they weren't being wasted! Though the Greeks, at least, were very practical about animal sacrifice - they gave the sizzle to the gods, and kept the steak for themselves.

Holidays tend to gravitate to seasonal benchmarks, or take on a seasonal form. The Church (or its worshippers) took over Saturnalia and with zero scriptural basis turned it into Christmas. US Independence Day is a historical incident, but July 4 happens to be close to midsummer, and shooting off fireworks at sunset is a very Midsummer Night thing to do.

So it was a natural path of least resistance to take over the spring festival and turn it into Easter as we know it. The theological meaning works neatly for spring. In the Church calendar it is indirectly linked to Passover - but I wouldn't be surprised if Passover was originally a spring festival, the early Hebrews choosing it as a suitable time to commemorate their national deliverance.

Carla said...

Gabriele, Rick - "dominion over the earth and all the creatures upon it" and all that, no? As Rick says, at least they weren't being wasted. By the way, is it true that the Greeks only gave the sizzle to the gods? I always thought they burned part of the animal (the thigh?) for the gods and ate the rest themselves.

Festivals have to fit into people's lives if they are to thrive and become part of society. So picking up on rituals that already happen to be established and giving them a bit of a makeover is a very sensible approach if you want to have your new faith accepted. Even in our modern industrialised world where food comes from supermarkets, people still notice and respond to the buzz of spring - how much more powerful that must have been in a time when those green shoots and baby animals were going to keep you alive through next winter.

Rick said...

I was being only slightly figurative about the sizzle. As I remember from A Child's Garden of Myths, or whatever I read not long after the Bronze Age, whoever made the first sacrifice put two packets on the altar, and gave the gods their choice. One packet had all the best cuts, but wrapped in gristle; the other had the throwaway stuff, but wrapped in juicy fat, so it sizzled up nicely on the grill. The gods fell for it.

Yes, festivals have to fit the rhythm of life. That is what intrigues me about more recent holidays that - whatever they commemorate - take on the qualities of a seasonal festival.

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