Today Easter seems an explosion of bunnies and gaudily wrapped chocolate eggs, but these are symbols that pre-date Christianity. Johnny Scott discovers more about this ancient spring festival
The paschal feast is not complete without a tea time treat. Our chocolate, ginger and orange Easter cake is the perfect chocolate fix for the bank holiday weekend. Or if you cannot bear the thought of any more chocolate, basque cake with Easter spices is a seriously squidgy treat.
EOSTRE AND EASTER
In AD 595, Pope Gregory sent a mission of 40 monks led by a Benedictine called Augustine, prior of St Andrew’s monastery in Rome (and later the first Archbishop of Canterbury), to England with instructions to convert the pagan inhabitants to Christianity. Augustine was advised to allow the outward forms of the old, heathen festivals and beliefs to remain intact, but wherever possible to superimpose Christian ceremonies and philosophy on them.
The sheer scale of the task confronting the little band of missionaries was so colossal that, halfway on the long trudge from Rome, they got cold feet and decided to turn back. They were only too aware, leaving seasonal festivals aside, that pagan Britons believed every plant, tree, spring, stream, rock, hill or animal had its own soul and its own guardian deity. Before a tree could be cut down, a stream dammed, a mountain crossed, a spring drunk from or an animal disturbed, the individual guardian spirit had first to be placated. Every aspect of the wind and the weather also had its own god or goddess. Pleas for permission to return were refused and, two years later, the anxious group of monks arrived in Canterbury and began endeavouring to carry out the papal directives.
Pope Gregory’s mandate of conversion through coercion was brilliant in its simplicity: he surmised that the easy-going but deeply superstitious Anglo-Saxon peasants would not object if the seasonal festivals of the pagan calendar were Christianised, provided the ancient celebrations remained basically unchanged. Gradually, the main heathen feasts became days honouring Christ or one of the Christian martyrs, and the Church had plenty of saints in hand, ready for any eventuality. Over several centuries, all the pagan days of weather prediction – at least 40 in the year – were given saints’ names, and the big feast days were converted to Christian festivals.
Imbolc, on 2 February, celebrating the first sign of new growth and the beginnings of lactation in ewes, became Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Lughnasadh, on 1 August, was the celebration of the start of the harvest; it became Lammas or St Peter in Fetters day, when bread baked from the new crop was blessed. The great festival of Sam-hain on 31 October marked the end of the “light” or growing half of the year and the start of the “dark” or dead half. Pagans believed the spirits of their ancestors became active at nightfall, a superstition substantiated by the ghostly movements of migratory woodcock or geese flying under the moon.
The church was quick to create All Souls’ Night, followed by All Saints’ Day. The 12-day festival of Yule at the end of December became the celebration of Christ’s birth. However, one festival was so ancient and so deeply entrenched in the pagan psyche that, although it was to become the most important and defining event in the ecclesiastical calendar, the Church did not attempt to change its name – Easter.
The Holy Scriptures tell us that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus occurred round about the time of the Jewish Passover, which equates to our spring. Easter was established in western Europe by the First Council of Nicea in AD 325, as being the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, the day from which the hours of sunlight become progressively longer. The equinox had been celebrated as a joyous festival of fertility, regrowth and new birth by early civilisations.
The Anglo-Saxons worshipped the goddess Eostre, referred to by the Venerable Bede in De Temporum Ratione (AD 725), in which he also mentions the indigenous English name of the month: “Eostur-monath has a name that is now translated as ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.” It has often been suggested that Eostre was an invention of Bede’s, as very little is known about her otherwise, and a body of opinion theorising against her existence still has some popular cul-tural currency, but the evidence in Bede’s favour is compelling.
Bede was born in AD 672 during the early stages of the Christianisation of these islands, when the names of the Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses would have been common knowledge and, as the philologist Jacob Grimm (1775 – 1863), folklorist Charles Billson (1858–1932) and, more recently, Dr Venetia Newall have observed, the highly respected father of English history would have been unlikely to invent a goddess of that name. Furthermore, a number of English place names of Saxon origin, such as Eastry in Kent, Eastrea in Cambridgeshire and Eastrington in East Yorkshire, are assumed to be derived from Eostre. There is also an etymological link to Ostara or Austra, the spring goddess worshipped by the tribes of northern Europe, after whom the month of April, Ostermonat, was named, and whose existence was verified in 1958, when more than 150 Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the matronae Austria-henea were discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany, datable to the second century AD.