Keeping the Eostre in Easter

By  Kenny Smith

As Lauri Lebo noted in her March 23, 2010 Religion Dispatch post, “although most Christians assume that the ideas and practices surrounding the Easter holiday are native to Christianity, Easter’s historical origins in fact lie in the pre-Christian, pagan religious worlds of Northern Europe. “The word ‘Easter,’”  Lebo explains, “is actually the name of an ancient, heathen goddess who represents fertility, springtime, and the dawn.”  Contemporary Pagans, Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, and other such communities working to re-create, preserve, and practice various pre-Christian traditions (whom I will group together here under the term “Neo-Pagan”) agree entirely! Popular websites such as Covenant of the Goddess, Witches Voice, and Witchology, discuss the ancient roots of the Easter holiday as grounded in Germanic goddess-figures alternately known as Eostre or Ostara.  Some have also begun to suggest that we “not forget the REAL reason for the season!,” and work to “Keep the Eostre in Easter.”

Now, we know that new and alternative movements, over time, typically grow more and more like the larger culture in which they live.  A good example of this process (which scholars refer to as “accommodation”), can be seen in the Unificationist Church (popularly known as the Moonies).  As Barbara Bradley Hagerty reported for NPR, with its membership “dwindling,” the Unificationist church has brought some of its teachings into greater alignment with the larger Western culture. For example, although marriages with the Unificationist community have been traditionally (and controversially) arranged by the movement’s founder, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, parents have now been granted the authority to arrange marriages for their own children. While past generations of converts were expected to sacrifice their careers and dedicate their lives to laboring on behalf of the church, personal achievement and financial success are now explicitly encouraged: “[t]oday, the church wants college valedictorians, not dropouts… [it] wants the second generation to fit into society — not fight it.”

This raises a very interesting question about the direction in which American Neo-Pagan traditions are headed. When we think about  Christian communities insisting that the Christmas holiday be configured in explicitly religious terms, rather than, a more secular holiday defined by bright and colorful lights, decorating a tree, giving gifts, the myth of Santa Claus, and spending celebratory time with fiends and family, images of a religious militancy seem as if they are not that far behind. Indeed, while I sometimes grow weary of Christmas shopping, I always dread the shrill religious voices demanding that I observe a Christmas defined along certain pre-approved, sectarian lines.

Are American Neo-Pagans taking on some of these characteristics in their gradual accommodation to the larger culture? Can we expect increasingly shrill Neo-Pagan voices demanding adherence to sectarian understandings of Eostre over and above all competing others?  I would argue that this is unlikely to be case, and that efforts to “keep the Eostre in Easter” differ significantly from those to “keep the Christ in Christmas.” This is so for at least two reasons.

Firstly, the positionality of Neo-Pagans within the broader culture differs radically from that of most Christians. While Christian communities often perceive themselves as a persecuted minority, as living in a time when all things Christian “are being discouraged and swept away,” this is a very difficult argument to sustain. As numerous sociological studies have shown, most Americans (72%) continue to self-identify as Christian, and most seats of political, economic, and social power are filled by those who see themselves as Christian. One suspects that, within some Christian communities, “being persecuted” has come to be mean “no longer enjoying an hegemonic presence” in American culture.  NeoPagans, however, occupy a very different position. While their numbers continue to grow at impressive rates, if grouped with all other “new movements,” they only represent approximately 1.2% of the adult population. ( Consequently, they are much more likely to experience not only discrimination in various forms, but social invisibility.

Secondly, unlike most Christian communities, NeoPagan traditions are not at all evangelical. They do not assume a mandate to make their worldview everyone else’s worldview, and so they do not actively seek converts. To the contrary, many such groups rebuff those who seek to join them and require the completion of lengthy periods of study (a year and a day is not uncommon), tests of competency, initiations, and group consensus as to the appropriateness of applicants, prior to admittance. In such contexts, rates of attrition may run as high as 90%.  Neo-Pagan traditions, then, tend to regard their own teachings and practices as suitable only for a small number of persons with particular interests and temperaments.

Taken together, these differences suggest quite varied frames of reference for Christmas and Eostre purity concerns. Christians who seek to police the ways in which Christmas is conceptualized and lived are hoping to reestablish clear cultural control. For many, this is not simply a matter of preference, but a cosmological and eschatological necessity.

For Neo-Pagans, who are better understood as a religious species recently returned from the brink of extinction, and who practice a largely esoteric religious craft, Eostre purity concerns represent an act of resistance and a struggle to assert one’s cultural identity within a culture where such Neo-Pagan identities are often demonized or unrecognized.

Still, when we consider the sustained rates of growth with this community, the diffusion of its symbols into popular culture (e.g., in the Harry Potter novels and films), and the tendency towards accommodation over time, one wonders whether Neo-Pagan traditions might come to resemble more closely the dominant religion in ways that could shift Eostre purity concerns in a different direction. In my own research with Wiccans, more than a few have expressed concerns about precisely this issue. “I’m not sure I would be comfortable,” a Wiccan priestess remarked to me several years ago, “if Wicca became the dominant religion in our culture, the way Christianity is now. I’m not sure I would it would remain ‘Wicca’ anymore.”


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