April 20, 2014

Eostara what?

 Springtime and Easter are here. With it comes the flood of internet memes arguing about the origins of Easter, from the same folks who fought "The War on Christmas". Meh.

Christ of the Bible was a Jew. He celebrated Passover, not Easter. Many of the Easter traditions that are now celebrated derive directly from Passover. The timing comes from the timing of Passover, the symbolism of the Lamb, the unleavened bread and wine of Christian communion come from the Jewish seder, etc. In Orthodox Christian traditions, Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, which was a Passover feast.

Here's the deal. Mythology and storytelling go all the way back to our invention of language. We have told stories about heroes and gods forever. And through the centuries, themes have emerged that have resonated with people and are retold over and over. Names change, locations move, details shift, but some characteristics of these stories remain. Christianity neither invented nor "stole" these stories, it just participates in a timeless tradition of recasting and remaking them.

Reading accounts of the actual myths is fun and can be quite eye-opening

 The Story of Dionysus

Dionysus is the god of the vine. He invented wine and spread the art of tending grapes. He has a dual nature. On the one hand bringing joy and divine ecstasy. On the other brutal, unthinking, rage. Thus reflecting both sides of wines nature. If he chooses Dionysus can drive a man mad. No normal fetters can hold him or his followers.
Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Semele. He is the only god to have a mortal parent. Zeus came to Semele in the night, invisible, felt only as a divine presence. Semele was pleased to be a lover of a god, even though she did not know which one. Word soon got around and Hera quickly assumed who was responsible. Hera went to Semele in disguise and convinced her she should see her lover as he really was. When Zeus next came to her she made him promise to grant her one wish. She went so far as to make him swear on the River Styx that he would grant her request. Zeus was madly in love and agreed. She then asked him to show her his true form. Zeus, was unhappy, and knew what would happen but, having sworn he had no choice. He appeared in his true form and Semele was instantly burnt to a crisp by the sight of his glory. Zeus did manage to rescue Dionysus and stitched him into his thigh to hold him until he was ready to be born. His birth from Zeus alone conferred immortality upon him.
Dionysus problems with Hera were not yet over. She was still jealous and arranged for the Titans to kill him. The Titans ripped him into to pieces. However, Rhea brought him back to life. After this Zeus arranged for his protection and turned him over the mountain nymphs to be raised.
Dionysus wandered the world actively encouraging his cult. He was accompanied by the Maenads, wild women, flush with wine, shoulders draped with a fawn skin, carrying rods tipped with pine cones. While other gods had temples the followers of Dionysus worshipped him in the woods. Here they might go into mad states where they would rip apart and eat raw any animal they came upon.
Dionysus is also one of the very few that was able to bring a dead person out of the underworld. Even though he had never seen Semele he was concerned for her. Eventually he journeyed into the underworld to find her. He faced down Thanatos and brought her back to Mount Olympus.
Dionysus became one of the most important gods in everyday life. He became associated with several key concepts. One was rebirth after death. Here his dismemberment by the Titans and return to life is symbolically echoed in tending vines, where the vines must be pruned back sharply, and then become dormant in winter for them to bear fruit. The other is the idea that under the influence of wine, one could feel possessed by a greater power. Unlike the other gods Dionysus was not only outside his believers but, also within them. At these times a man might be greater then himself and do works he otherwise could not.
The festival for Dionysus is in the spring when the leaves begin to reappear on the vine. It became one of the most important events of the year. It's focus became the theater. Most of the great Greek plays were initially written to be performed at the feast of Dionysus. All who took part writers, actors, spectators were regarded as scared servants of Dionysus during the festival.

Our Germanic friends get credit for naming the holiday, along with some of our other current traditions:
   According to the historian Bede the Venerable (673?-735), writing in chapter 13 of his De temporum ratione, the heathen Anglo-Saxons called the third and fourth months "Rhedmonath" and "Esturmonath" after their goddesses Rheda and Eostra respectively.
Rheda, except for the brief citation above, has been forgotten.
Eostra (Ostara) has fared somewhat better, although there is little direct evidence of her and her followers.
The following views, advanced by Jacob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835), are generally held by Germanic scholars:
  • April, in Anglo Saxon, Old High German, and some modern German dialects, is called "Ostara's month."
  • All cultures living in temperate (or winter dominated) climates celebrate the coming of spring with major rituals and festivals. One of the most important of spring festivals among pre-Christian Germanic tribes apparently was dedicated to the goddess Ostara, whose name suggests "east" and thus "dawn" and "morning light."
  • The name of Ostara's (Eostra's) festival was transferred to the celebration of Christ's resurrection when Anglo-Saxon and German heathens converted to Christianity. Thus, unlike other European cultures, English and German Christians still attach the name of a heathen goddess to their most sacred holiday: Easter or Ostern. In other European languages the holiday's name is based on the Hebrew word "pasah," to pass over, thus reflecting the Christian holiday's Biblical connection with the Jewish Passover.
  • In addition to the name, other popular Easter customs also have heathen origins:
    • The belief in the curative properties of water drawn early on Easter morning. These beliefs were common in Germany into the nineteenth century.
    • The veneration (if now only playful) of rabbits and hares.
    • The decoration of eggs (obvious fertility symbols).
  • Place names suggest that Ostara was venerated throughout ancient Germany and Denmark.
  • Although neither the Prose Edda nor the Poetic Edda mentions Ostara, both works refer to a male dwarf named Austri, whose name also means "east."

Return of Persephone

The Easter themes of Resurrection, Rebirth and travel to the underworld and back appear in many ancient myths:


Isis & Osiris


More from Wikipedia

Classic ideas and themes that keep repeating and repeating! If anyone has survived the linkfest to this point, I give you a last link in anticipation of December:

The Myth of the Myth of Mithras 

No Bull!

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