Today, I read a very thought-provoking post by The Domestic Witch about the Goddesses Eostre and Ishtar.
On finding out that there is no definite proof for the existence of a Goddess named Eostre, nor of Her attributes such as the hare or eggs, the author said she felt – and I quote – “the exact same way now as I felt as a kid when I found out that the Easter Bunny wasn't real!”
I perfectly understand how much it can affect you when something you believed to be valid is shown not to be so. So it got me thinking – how can we as pagans make sure to prevent this from happening to us?
Most of our sources that detail the legends of our Gods and Goddesses have been put to writing by Christians, mostly monks, writing a) with their very own agenda, b) from a Christian perspective, and c) perhaps not knowing the whole picture and belief system they were describing. So obviously there will be inconsistencies and we have to accept that apart from archaeological or historical facts, we can never truly *know* whether a given piece of information about our Gods is truly correct (‘correct’ as in ‘believed by practitioners in the time of or prior to writing’).
Considering this problematic source material, for me it raises the question: Is something “wrong” because there is no ultimate proof for it? After all, there is no ultimate proof that a man named Jeshua existed about 2000 years ago, that he believed himself to be or actually was the son of Jahweh, and that he died and rose again from the dead. Yet Christianity has built a whole church on these ‘facts’ and engage with Jesus on a day-to-day basis in prayer, meditations and Mass.*
Obviously, in the case of Easter/Eostre, a case can be made for it being if not outright wrong, then at least untraceable to pre-Christian roots. But in other cases, it might not be as easy to tell.
So the question is: how do we build a living, flourishing tradition if there aren’t any sources that definitely hand us the truth? Just assuming pagan roots everywhere will only get us to more myths that need debunking.
Eostre with hares - truth or myth?
In my opinion, what we need are the following three things:
a) a healthy dose of historic and linguistic knowledge (e.g. knowledge of the writers of, say, the Eddas, their time and possible agenda in setting down the texts, as well as knowledge of other texts dealing with historical evidence and/or folklore of the geographical region you’re interested in);
b) a healthy dose of scepticism. Ask for proof of somebody’s claims – if a book doesn’t cite resources (nor tells you straight ahead that it relies on UPG), how will you know where the author got their information? For example, Llewellyn’s Spell-A-Day Almanac lists an associated “colour/incense of the day” – where does this information come from, I wonder? (disclaimer: I don’t own the book myself, so maybe they do state whether it’s UPG or some other source). Also, ask people (on the internet and IRL) where their claims stem from – can they point you to a source? (Note: I don’t count references like “From a friend who analyzed the myth: Adrian Bott” as a proper quotation – linking to an article by Mr Bott, however, is helpful in that I can go and build my own opinion on the matter). Just don’t go and believe everything you’re told just because the other person is pagan and “knows that XYZ is true.” – If you check myths like this, it only takes you about half an hour on the internet to find out that the Venerable Bede is the first one mentioning the Goddess Eostre and that hares and eggs are a much later addition (see e.g. Mr Bott or this article).
c) a healthy dose of UPG (which you should verify with others in your community, as you could mistake your own mind-clutter for the voice of your deity, especially, say, in times of stress, when listening is hard enough as it is) – UPG can help us build a tradition in those areas where information is scarce (For example, we don’t know much about Loki’s sons Narvi and Vali apart from Their fate and Their names – and even these have been questioned by scholars. However, veneration of Them flourishes in the Lokean community. Why? Because people have listened and used the little resources we have to build a connection to Them.)
To come back to Eostre: as a pagan, I’d also rather have a long-standing tradition that relates back to pre-Christian times. But we cannot prove such a tradition exists, or rather, with the sources available it does seem very unlikely.
However, and this is what I find important: we can still celebrate spring using symbols such as the hare if it reminds us of spring and new life. Even if another tradition uses the same symbols, where’s the problem? Cultures have always borrowed from one-another when they lived in close proximity. So instead of trying to establish whose tradition was here first (which, with the way the sources are, is not possible in most cases anyway), shouldn’t we rather aim at finding common ground and reducing friction between the faiths?
So maybe we cannot prove that there was a Goddess named Eostre. But with scepticism and UPG we can still build a meaningful celebration of spring. Spring is a natural phenomenon, and since we celebrate and venerate nature, we should rejoice in the coming of spring, whether there is a Goddess associated with it or not.
* Note: I’m writing ‘facts’ here as I do not see the Bible as God’s own word, but as a man-made and therefore fallible creation.
Llewellyn's 2013 Spell-A-Day Almanac: Holidays and Lore. 2012. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
Bott, Adrian. 2011. “The modern myth of the Easter bunny” (article on guardian.co.uk; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/23/easter-pagan-roots)
Eostre image: http://n.nshrine.com/233/iconurl.jpg