There is a lot of blather, especially on t’internet, about the origins of Easter. A lot of it bases its claims on a single passage from Chapter 15 of the Venerable Bede’s De ratione temporum (The reckoning of time), written in 725 CE, which reads : -
"Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. 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."
And that’s your lot. The only mention of Eostre in antiquity. But on the evidence of this, a scattering of place names, some Germanic given names, and about 150 Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions from the 2nd Century BCE, the story has grown that Eostre was pinched by the early Christians, then bundled up and rebranded as Easter, much in the manner that other Christian feast-days were simply pagan holidays that had been adapted and recycled for the newly-converted locals.
Jacob Grimm, the German philologist (and yes, half of the fairy story writing pair), linked Eostre to Ostara, a potential Old High German Goddess, with possible associations to Eos, Greek Goddess of the Dawn. And the whole thing snowballed. People started digging around in the Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European vocabularies and finding all sorts of links. That’s what wishful thinking can do.
Having said that, what tends to be overlooked is that Bede wrote “… in whose honour feasts were celebrated … “, and we should turn our attention to these. The Rites of Spring are about rebirth and renewal following the Winter. The Easter Egg is an obvious symbol of rebirth and, long before our chocolate ones, decorated and dyed eggs were given as gifts across Europe, along with brightly coloured fresh flowers. As eggs were not eaten by fasting Catholics during Lent, they were in abundance at Easter-time, the end of Lent. Good children were given coloured eggs, said to have been laid in the fields in the caps of hares.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, writes in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History) : -
“There is also a species of hare, in Spain, which is called the rabbit…”
And he goes on to note that in hares : -
“… the same individual possesses the characteristics of the two sexes, and that it becomes pregnant just as well without the aid of the male.” (Book VIII, Chap. 81.)
This led the hare to be associated with fertility, and with the Virgin Mary – (and, of course, some like to see Eostre as the Virgin in a prior incarnation). In Spring, the bluebells bloom. In the North and Scotland, bluebells are also known as harebells. Hares are witches’ animals – they are familiars, the animal companion of the witch, or are the witch herself in animal form. Other names are the Old Man’s Thimble – The Old Man, of course, is the Devil - the Witches’ Bell, and the Cuckoo’s Shoe. In Ireland they are mearacan puca – the Goblin’s, or Puca’s, Thimble; on the Isle of Man mairanyn ferish – the Fairies’ Thimble. And also, exorcizingly, Our Lady’s Thimble. In olden days, the mashed bulbs of bluebells were used to glue fletching feathers and arrowheads to the shafts. Bluebells, especially the bulbs, are poisonous.
In the Spring, hares can be seen boxing and frolicking in the fields. Recent research has shown that this behaviour is the females fending of unsatisfactory males, not the males boxing for the right to mate, as was once thought. The Mad March Hare came to be a sign of approaching Spring, (and he appears, harebrained, in Alice in Wonderland with the Mad Hatter – of whom we spoke yesterday). As symbols of fertility, hares were said to accompany Aphrodite, and can be seen in illustrations from the Middle Ages accompanying Luxuria, the personification of Lust. Over time, the hare changed into the rabbit, and then the bunny. Hares were native to Britain; rabbits were introduced first by the Romans, and later by the Normans, as a food source.
Pliny also mentions that the foetuses of hares and rabbits : -
“ … either when cut from out of the body of the mother, or taken from the breast, without having the entrails removed, are considered a most delicate food; they are then called laurices”.
Pope Gregory the Great authorized the consumption of laurices during Lent and other fasts, declaring them to be a marine species, like fish or shellfish. Other foods that circumvented the Lenten ban on eating meat were Barnacle Geese, (which were thought to spring from the Goose Barnacle, a shellfish), Puffins, and the tails of Beavers, (which are scaly, like fish, and they live in water). This is the same Pope Gregory who, when he saw the blond, fair-skinned Anglo-Saxons brought as slaves to Rome, declared,” They are not Angles, but Angels”, (Non Angli, sed angeli), which, according to the aforementioned Venerable Bede, led to St. Augustine’s mission to convert the English.
I mentioned yesterday that drinking coffee was claimed to cause effeminacy. Another cause of the same was drinking water from the fountain of Salmacis. Salmacis was a naiad, a water nymph, who came across the youth Hermaphroditus bathing in a pool, and immediately fell in love with him. She tried to seduce him, but he refused her, and, grabbing him, she prayed to the Gods always to be with him. Her wish was granted, but not in the way she desired. Instead, their bodies became one, a creature at once both male and female, and Hermaphroditus cursed the pool, that the same fate should befall any who drank from it. Hence the name Hermaphrodite for anything of both sexes – like, as Pliny wrote, the hare.
In 2006, keepers at Chester Zoo were surprised when Flora, a female Komodo Dragon, produced eggs, as she had never been in contact with a male Dragon. Seven of the eggs hatched, and genetic testing of the embryos in the three eggs that did not hatch showed that Flora was both mother and father of the offspring. Hermaphroditic, asexual reproduction of this sort is called parthenogenesis. Genesis recorded a song called The Fountain of Salmacis in 1971.