Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Ancient Greeks climbing Mount Olympus

Why didn’t ancient Greeks just climb up Mount Olympus and notice that there were no gods pottering around up there?

Mount Olympus as seen from the Dion Archaeological Park, Greece

This is a pretty common question on Q&A websites. The answers are usually wrong. Here’s a selection (all sic):
Quora, Jan. 2017:
Why didn't the Greeks climb Mt Olympus (Mytikas) and see that there weren't any Gods up there?
Answers: ‘it’s a really hard mountain to climb’; ‘hubris’; ‘some did climb Mt Olympus and felt the presence of the gods’; ‘they were afraid to climb it’.

Quora, August 2016:
Did the ancient greeks ever scale to the summit of Mount Olympus?
Answers: ‘a really difficult mountain to climb’; first climbed in 1913; ‘would be kind of taboo’; there were actually three Mount Olympuses, ‘one in sparta, one in thay and one outside athens’.

Stack Exchange, June 2016:
Did the ancient Greeks ever climb Mt. Olympus?
Answers: one correct answer, but also plenty of ‘it’s impossible to ascertain for sure’; ‘people didn’t climb mountains until the 19th century’; ‘Olympus was first climbed in 1913’.

The Straight Dope, February 2009:
Why did the Ancient Greeks not ever climb Mount Olympus?
Answers: ‘it would be blasphemy’; anyone who did climb ‘probably would have "seen" [the gods]. A sceptic's account would have been ignored’; they probably did and ‘concluded theiy were in the wrong place’.

‘The home of the Greek gods [was] on the Mytikas peak’; ‘in all regions settled by Greek tribes, the highest local elevation tended to be ... named [Olympus]’; ‘Ancient Greeks likely never tried to climb the two main peaks’.
Mt Olympus’ highest peaks:
  1. Mitikas (2918 m)
  2. Skolio (2911 m)
  3. Stefani (2909 m)
  4. Skala (2866 m)
  5. Agios Antonios (2817 m)
The answers that focus on the idea of gods as ‘metaphors’, or a distinction between the divine and visible worlds, are the best ones here. They’re a pretty good take on the topic.

But even they miss a reasonably important point. And that is that we know, perfectly well, that ancient Greeks did climb up Mount Olympus. Plutarch (2nd century) and St Augustine (4th-5th century) report on annual pilgrimages up the mountain. Ceramic plates have been found dotted around the various plateaus and passes at the top, similar to ones found at Dion, a small city to the northeast which was the home of the ancient sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Zeus the Highest). The clearest evidence comes from the Agios Antonios peak, where burned sacrifices were offered to Zeus and various other religious offerings deposited. Agios Antonios is somewhat separated to the south of the highest cluster of peaks, running Skolio-Skala-Mitikas-Stefani in a curve from southwest to northeast.

(Wikipedia does report the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios, to be fair. But the article takes the additional leap that the Agios Antonios finds somehow imply that the ancients didn’t climb up the higher peaks -- and that obviously makes no sense at all.)

The weather station on Agios Antonios, where remnants of ancient sacrifices to Zeus were found in 1961. (Source:

The textual evidence comes from ancient discussions of the fact that cloud cover is often lower than high mountain peaks. One ancient interpretation of this was that clouds and wind are confined to lower altitudes: and this leads to some factoids about mountain-tops. Here’s Plutarch:
For people who have placed ash on top of some mountains, or have left it behind after sacrifices there, have when investigating many years later found that it was still lying as they left it. ... Plutarch reports that letters, too, remained from one ascent of the priests to the next on Olympus, in Macedonia.
-- Plutarch fr. 191 Sandbach, reported by Philoponus, On Aristotle’s Meteorologica i.82
And Augustine:
In that air [at high altitudes] they say that clouds to not gather and no stormy weather exists. Indeed where there is no wind, as on the peak of Mount Olympus, which is said to rise above the area of this humid air, we are told, certain letters are regularly made in the dust and are a year later found whole and unmarred by those who climb that mountain for their solemn memorials.
Where Augustine’s Latin has ‘letters’ (litteras), Plutarch’s Greek has grammata, which can mean either ‘letters’ or ‘writings’. ‘Writings’ is the correct interpretation -- we’re not talking about letters scrawled into the ashes, like Augustine thought! -- and indeed the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios do include some inscriptions, including two dedications to ‘Olympian Zeus’.

The distinction Augustine is making between different types of air is a standard feature of ancient cosmology. As sea level is thick, humid aēr; higher up is the clear, fiery aithēr. (These are the Greek terms.) These were regarded as distinct layers or spheres surrounding the earth, with the fieriest layer of aithēr in the neighbourhood of heavenly bodies like the sun. Augustine mentions in a few other places that rain doesn’t fall on the summit of Olympus, and in one place he attributes it to ‘one of the pagan poets’. The setting on Olympus, and Augustine’s misunderstanding of grammata, both suggest that the story originates in a Greek source. The most likely ‘pagan poet’ is Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46, which reports that Olympus
is not shaken by winds, nor ever wet by rain,
and snow does not come near, but pure cloudless aithrē (= aithēr)
is spread out, and a white brightness plays on it.
The story is fairly likely to have come to Plutarch and Augustine from a commentary on Homer: maybe the 1st century BCE scholar Didymus.

The peaks of Mt Olympus, rendered in Google Earth looking from the west, with slopes exaggerated by a factor of 1.5. Notice the walking tracks up gentle slopes from the south-west (there are more tracks on the other sides).

The main archaeological evidence was discovered in 1961, when the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki was building a meteorological observatory on Agios Antonios. Excavators found a thick layer of ash, with ancient ceramic vessels, inscriptions dedicated to ‘Olympian Zeus’, and coins. Most of the evidence on that spot appears to date to the 300s CE, when Christianity was well established in the Roman empire, and not long before pagan religion was banned by emperor Theodosius. One older coin has also been found, from the 200s BCE, which may or may not suggest a long-standing tradition.

Now, there are some half truths among the answers above. For example it’s true that, as Wikipedia reports, the first recorded climb of Mitikas was in July-August 1913. But even Wikipedia emphasises that that’s just the first recorded climb. But it does at least appear to be true that no modern-style mountaineers had been up Mitikas before that date.

However, there are also outright falsehoods. Here are some corrections:
  • Mt Olympus is not a hard climb. It is free of snow for five months of the year, it is not high enough for oxygen deprivation to be a concern, temperatures are normally above freezing in summer, and Agios Antonios in particular is a basic walk for someone who’s moderately fit. A return trip can in principle be done in a single day from the trailhead. People even do organised runs up the mountain. Mitikas and Stefani are more challenging, in that they actually involve some climbing.
  • There is no evidence to suggest any taboo or blasphemy.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that people who did climb to the top believed they had seen or ‘felt’ the gods there. (It’s not impossible, but we have no testimony on the subject.)
  • It’s true that there are several Mt Olympuses, but they’re not relevant to the question, and they aren’t generally the ‘highest local elevations’. The Olympus near Athens, out of Anavyssos, is under 500 m high; the one just outside Sparta is only about 150 m. (Not even a very significant hillock, by Greek standards!)
  • There is no evidence to suggest that it was specifically Mitikas that was regarded as the home of the gods.
The 16th century chapel on Profitis Elias (source: YouTube)

On that last point -- whether one peak in particular was especially sacred to Zeus -- even Agios Antonios isn’t the strongest candidate. That honour should probably go to the northernmost prominence, Profitis Elias (2803 m).

First: Elias, the Greek form of Elijah, supplanted Zeus in many parts of the Greek world, and is strongly associated with mountain-tops. Several peaks that were called ‘Olympus’ in antiquity are now named for Elias.

Second: the archaeological evidence mentioned above comes from Agios Antonios, the main southern peak, but the urban sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos was on the northeast side of the mountain, in the city of Dion. From Dion, Profitis Elias is the nearest (14 km) and most prominent peak. Physical remains of the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion were discovered in 2003, and included a nearly complete cult statue of Zeus enthroned. (Dion itself is named after Zeus: oblique forms of ‘Zeus’ take the stem Di(w)-, e.g. Dios ‘belonging to Zeus’.)

Third: in the mid-1500s, St Dionysius of Olympus built a chapel dedicated to Elias on Profitis Elias, which is still standing. Reportedly the chapel was built on the site of an older ruin. I’m guessing that report comes from records kept by the Monastery of Agios Dionysios, on the north-eastern slope of the mountain. We don’t know how old the ruin was, unfortunately, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever find out: no one’s going to go digging up a 16th century chapel of intense interest to a nearby monastery, and the highest-altitude chapel in Greece to boot. But even without physical remains being dug up, there’s a fairly strong suggestion of a long-standing religious significance to the site.

Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Dion (source: Wikipedia)

Just as an interesting end-note: we have on record an ancient measurement of the height of Mt Olympus, and it’s intriguingly accurate. Plutarch quotes an inscription at Pythion, on the west slope of the mountain, which stated that one Xeinagoras, son of Eumelus, measured the height of the mountain as follows:
The sacred height over Apollo’s Pythion
    of Olympus’ peak, in vertical measure,
is ten full stadia, and in addition
    a plethron less four feet in size.
Eumelus’ son placed a measure of the distance,
    Xeinagoras. Farewell, lord, and grant your blessings.
We’ve got no idea what methodology Xeinagoras used, but the measurement isn’t too shabby. A plethron is 100 feet, and a stadion is 600 feet, so this comes out to exactly 10.16 stadia. The length of a stadion is not exact, but usually ranged between 181.3 and 192.25 m (figures quoted by the New Pauly); conversion to Roman measurements allowed greater precision, which made the stadion between 184.4 and 185.1 m. Taking the mean of those two figures, 184.75 m, Xeinagoras’ measurement comes out as 1877 m over the elevation of Pythion. Pythion is at about 700 m, so this gives a total of 2577 m for the summit of Olympus. It’s definitely not perfect -- 341 m short of the elevation of Mitikas, 226 m short of Profitis Elias -- but not half bad considering that Xeinagoras probably didn’t even have access to Roman surveying techniques, let alone modern ones.

Further reading

Monday, 16 April 2018

Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’?

Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus were common Roman personal names, or praenomina. They come from numbers: they mean ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’.

But only some numbers are represented. Why don’t we see Romans named ‘Primus’, ‘Secundus’, ‘Tertius’, or ‘Quartus’? Or for that matter ‘Septimus’, ‘Octavus’, or ‘Nonus’?

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (Sorry, too late for a spoiler alert.) Gaiman bucks Roman custom and has the princes of a royal family named for Latin ordinal numbers from ‘first’ to ‘seventh’. Here they appear as ghosts in the 2007 film based on the novel: left to right are Quintus, Tertius, Primus, Septimus, Secundus, Quartus, and Sextus. Septimus, in the middle, is one of the main antagonists in the story.

Today’s post isn’t really a debunking of a popular myth. An unpopular myth, maybe. I’m posting it because it’s something I just learned this morning, and it shocked me. It’s one of those things that’s staring you in the face all the time when you’re reading about the Greco-Roman world. So when I found out the true explanation, I felt a little bit betrayed -- as though it was something I ought to have known all along.

I guess it’s hard to find the time to get around to thinking about why Romans had names that meant ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’. If you do think about it, you’re likely to make the same assumption that I did: that children were named for the order in which they were born. The 1st son would be Primus, the 2nd Secundus, the 3rd Tertius, and so on.

But that isn’t the case. If it were, we’d see corresponding names for the first to fourth children. And they just don’t exist. We do find Primus, Secundus, Tertius, and Quartus as regular cognomina -- official nicknames -- but not as personal names, and not at an early period. They start to pop up in the imperial period, and they’re not in Rome: they appear in Celtic contexts, which tends to suggest contamination from Celtic naming customs (Petersen 1962: 349 n. 6).

What’s the solution, then? Should we assume that the first four sons would get ‘real’ names, like Marcus, Titus, Publius, and so on? And when the parents got to their fifth child, suddenly they’d be all like ‘Hey let’s start using numbers now.’

Nope. The scholarly consensus is that these names originally came from the names of the months in which they were born.

If that surprises you, you’re not alone. I was startled too. It was originally suggested by the 1st century BCE scholar Varro, and it appears he was dead right. The standard modern discussion is 56 years old, Petersen 1962, but Petersen’s argument hasn’t been superceded. If anything the argument has been strengthened by parallels that have been found in other ancient Italian languages.

There are a couple of complications. First: Quintus and Sextus don’t sound like month names. However, prior to the lives of Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, the Romans had different names for the 7th and 8th months of the year: Quintilis (‘fifth-ilis’) and Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’). (see this previous post from March for more details, and for discussion of why the months’ names don’t match up to their position in the year.)

Second: it’s not just the number-months. March, May and June aren’t named for Latin numbers, but children born in those months got names related to the months anyway: not Martus, but Marcus; Maius is a rare name, but it exists; and June gave Iunius both as a praenomen and as a gentilician (family) name.

And third, there’s a semi-regular pattern of praenomina ending in -us with corresponding family names ending in -ius: hence Marcus ≈ Marcius. This helps fill in the gaps with some of the numbers. We don’t see Octavus as a praenomen, but we do see Octavius; Iunius is rare as a praenomen, but common as a family name; Maius appears both as a praenomen and a family name.

Month praenomen gentilician name
Martius (March) Marcus Marcius
Aprilis (April) -- --
Maius (May) Maius Maius
Iunius (June) Iunius (very rare) Iunius
Quintilis (July) Quintus Quinctius
Sextilis (August) Sextus Sextius
September Septimus (rare, archaic) Septimius
October -- Octavius
November -- Nonius
December Decimus Decius (Roman),
Decimius (Samnite)

Varro, who first came up with this explanation, was bothered a bit by the lack of any names corresponding to April. But not enough to prevent him from proposing it anyway, and not enough to put off modern proponents. (The fact that the name ‘April’ appears to come from Etruscan may have a lot to do with this gap in the table. Maybe one of the other traditional Roman praenomina, like Gaius and Publius and Titus, was related to an older Latin name for April? Who knows.)

The Cambridge Latin Course, volume 1, stage 11. I think the appearance of ‘Quartus Tullius’ here is an unintentional error. In the story he has a brother, Marcus, and Marcus at least was a real historical person: he served three terms as a duumvir in Pompeii. (The lesson? Even professional classicists can jump to conclusions.)

What are the arguments in favour of Varro’s theory? Well, first is the fact that the number-based praenomina start with Quintus and end with Decimus, and this constraint corresponds tidily to the fact that month-names also start at ‘fifth’ (Quintilis) and end at ‘ten’ (December).

Second is the fact that we find some related names in two ancient Italic languages related to Latin, Oscan and Faliscan, in ways that suggest they’re also related to month names.

Oscan was spoken by the ancient Samnites, in the Appenine mountains south of Rome, and we have a Samnite family named Decimius attested in Roman sources. In Rome itself the corresponding name was ‘Decius’. In a study of the ancient Samnites, E. T. Salmon (1967: 53) cites the Oscan names Mamerkis ≈ Marcus, Sepis ≈ Septimus, and Dekis ≈ Decimus, and states that Mamerkis is actually formed from the Oscan name for the month of March. I haven’t been able to confirm the last point, but it’s certainly true that Mamerkis is related to the god Mars, who was called Mamertis in Oscan.

Petersen cites some parallels from Faliscan and Oscan too. Marcius only appears as a family name in Rome, but Petersen points to an example of Marcius as a praenomen in a Faliscan inscription (1962: 352 n. 16).

And most strikingly of all, he cites an Oscan family name Sehsimbriis. This is transparently based on an alternate formation for the name of the month of August. In republican-era Latin, August was called Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’); Sehsimbriis must reflect an Oscan formation which would correspond to Latin *Seximber.
Note, a day later: I’m no longer too sure of this. If Sehsimbriis did correspond to *Seximber, it’d be an artificial formation, based on analogy with September, November, etc.: the Latin for ‘six’ is sex, not *sexem/sexim. A strict formation ought to be just *Sexiber. (Or in Oscan maybe something like *Sehsikbri-: sehsik- appears to be the Oscan for ‘six’.)

So there we have it: some of the most common praenomina in Latin, Marcus, Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus, come from month names. If your name is Mark, you’re named after the month of March. The idea must surely be that in the earliest times, the names would have corresponded to the month in which the boy was born.

There are some caveats and provisos, mind. First, customs changed over time. The practice of naming children directly for months was long gone by the historical period. And in the imperial era, some number-based names were formed by analogy with the traditional names: as a result we start to see some innovations like Decimius as a praenomen, as in the name of the poet Decimius Magnus Ausonius.

Second, women’s names are different. Men’s names followed a regular pattern of praenomen plus gentilician name; women’s names were much less regulated. And among women we do see Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Quarta as personal names alongside Quinta. So however exactly the month-name custom worked originally, it didn’t work the same way for women’s names. It could be that for women these names did originally indicate order of birth.

And third: we do see some other number-names popping up as gentilician names which do not correspond to month names. These names seem to come from non-Roman contexts. For example, the Roman name Pomponius is based on a non-Roman word for ‘five’. ‘Five’ in proto-Italic was *kwenkwe. Latin preserved /kw/ sounds relatively faithfully, and so ended up with the form quinque ‘five’. But in many languages, /kw/ transformed into /p/: so in Oscan the word for ‘five’ was pumperias or pompe. This or a related language must have provided the gentilician name Pomponius, basically an Oscan equivalent of Quinctius. In the same way proto-Italic *kwetwōr ‘four’ ended up as quattuor in Latin, but pettiur or pitora in Oscan: a form related to these must be the origin of the Roman gentilician name Petronius.


  • Petersen, Hans 1962. ‘The numeral praenomina of the Romans.Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 347-354.
  • Salmon, E. T. 1967. Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Christian scribes interfering with ancient texts?

Are texts like Herodotus’ Histories and Petronius’ Satyrica the same as when the authors wrote them? Or have they been irreparably messed around with by the dozens of scribes who copied them and re-copied them over the centuries?

How likely is it that mediaeval scribes with a Christianising agenda haven’t meddled with ancient texts?
Modern readers of ancient literature often don’t spare a moment to think about the many steps separating modern editions from the ancient ones. When they do, though, sometimes they’ll begin to have serious doubts about how well they match the originals. They may even completely lose trust in the textual tradition.

Passages like the following don’t exactly inspire confidence.
At this time came Jesus, a wise man. If indeed it is right to call him a man: for he was a wonder-worker, a teacher of people who delight in receiving the truth, and he attracted many Jews, but also many of the Greek (world). This man was the Messiah [Christos].

And when he was accused by the leading men amongst us, Pilate sentenced him to crucifixion. Even then, those who had loved him at the beginning did not stop doing so. For he appeared to them on the third day, alive again. The divine prophets had announced these things and countless other marvels concerning him. And even now the tribe named after him, of the Christians, have not yet disappeared.
-- Josephus(?), Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64 (§3.3)
This passage appears in manuscripts of the 1st century historian Josephus. But it’s basically impossible to accept that Josephus really wrote it. He was a romanised Jew, and definitely no Christian. The passage is so notorious that it has its own nickname: the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’. (‘Flavius’ is the Roman name that Josephus acquired when he defected to the Romans.)

It’s nearly certain that a Christian scribe or scribes interfered with the text of Josephus at this point. Origen knew book 18 of the Antiquities, and he flatly states that Josephus did not accept Jesus’ messiahship. That was in the 200s. By the 300s, though, the damage had been done: Eusebius quotes the corrupt passage in full, three times, as an example of a non-Christian Jew accepting Jesus’ divinity.
Note. Origen on Josephus: Against Celsus 1.47 (referring to Ant. 20.200, but also with knowledge of book 18); Comm. Matthew 10.17 (referring to Ant. 20.200). Eusebius on Josephus: Demonstratio evangelica 124b-c (3.5); Ecclesiastical history 1.11; Theophany 250 ed. Gressmann. Later witnesses to Josephus also quote or paraphrase the Testimonium.

There’s room for disagreement over the extent of the scribal misdeeds here -- some scholars think it’s a complete fabrication, maybe even forged by Eusebius himself; others think that maybe only the bits in bold have been tampered with -- but there’s no doubt that tampering did happen.

The Testimonium Flavianum as it appears in cod. Ambrosianus F 128, 11th century. (source: Roger Viklund’s blog)

When we look at this, shouldn’t we just give up all hope of ever reading the texts that ancient writers actually wrote? Shouldn’t we take it for granted that ancient texts are riddled with forgeries? -- and that the Christian church, which transmitted ancient texts through the mediaeval period -- well, Latin texts, anyway -- sanitised everything it could, and destroyed anything it couldn’t?

Well, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news. We know that there are loads and loads of ancient forgeries -- that is, ‘forgeries’ in the sense that we can be sure they weren’t really written by the author that they’re linked to. We know that Euclid didn’t write large chunks of the Elements, that Simonides didn’t write the famous epigram about the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, that Euripides didn’t write the Rhesus, that Seneca didn’t write the Octavia, and that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the Christian gospels of those names.

This is called ‘upward attribution’. When people don’t know who the real author of a book is, they very often end up assigning it to a famous name. You can see the same process in recent stuff too. When people assign spurious quotations to Albert Einstein, or any Japanese animé to Hayao Miyazaki, or the ‘Windows 95 song’ to Weird Al Yankovic, that’s upward attribution. It’s not usually a deliberate deception. It’s a natural consequence of a group of people having an interest in a book, but imperfect information about it. Errors can often go viral in that situation.

And now, the good news. Authorial attributions may sometimes be doubtful or wrong, but the texts themselves are comparatively robust. Did you notice, when I introduced the Testimonium above, I said ‘passages like the following’? That was intentionally misleading. In fact there is nothing like the Testimonium. As an example of religiously-motivated tampering, which has completely displaced the original text, it is unique.

We know of other examples of Christian interference, but none where that interference was anything like as successful as it was in the case of the Testimonium, and hardly any of a comparable size. (If Christian scribes had really censored and re-written ancient texts that way, how would we ever have got the bawdy humour of Aristophanes or Petronius? And no, Sappho isn’t a counter-example. Ancient moralists sometimes took issue with her sexual reputation, both pagan and Christian, but no one took a decision to destroy her poems. There was still an edition of her poems in use in Egyptian schools as late as the 7th century. Sappho wasn’t lost because she was a woman or because of her sexuality: she was lost because she was a lyric poet, and all early lyric poets ended up being lost.)

Critical edition of Herodotus, with the apparatus showing the omission of Histories 1.199 in three of the twelve manuscripts that the modern editor used for this edition. (Herodoti Historiae, ed. C. Hude, Oxford, 1908)

The biggest parallel I’m aware of is in Herodotus. Some manuscripts leave out a chapter, Histories 1.199, that describes sacred prostitution at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon. But I’d better repeat: some manuscripts. The bowdleriser’s limited success only goes to show how unrealistic it was for a misbehaving scribe to expect to taint the entire manuscript tradition.

You see, scribes were on the whole a conscientious lot. Sure, there were exceptions, like the assholes who tampered with Josephus and Herodotus. But there was no Mediterranean-wide conspiracy. Dishonesty and ulterior motives have always existed, but scribes in different places and times acted independently of one another. The ulterior motives that drove scribes in one generation, or in one place, had no guarantee of persisting into the next.

As a result, when scribes spotted problems in a text they were copying, they very often took pains to correct them. It’d be going a little far to say that the system was self-correcting, but the system did overall aim at faithful reproduction and restoration. That’s why Herodotus’ bowdleriser didn’t get away with it. In Josephus’ case, the forger got luckier -- but also bear in mind that there we aren’t talking about a mediaeval forger, but an ancient one, probably earlier than the 300s.

Nearly all transmission errors that we see in mediaeval copies of ancient texts are accidental. Where we do see damage caused by a scribe’s deliberate action, it’s normally because the scribe is trying to fix it, but botching the job. Most ‘deliberate’ errors are caused by scribes spotting a problem, trying to correct it, but not getting it quite right; or else spotting something that looks like a problem but is actually correct.

Here’s an example of a Christian scribe ‘correcting’ something that looked like a mistake, when it was actually right. Maybe, once you know the details, you’ll agree with me that the scribe was conscientious.

Petronius’ bawdy Satyrica (1st century CE) is a novel about the hapless Encolpius, his love-slave Giton, and friend Ascyltos, and their misadventures in the Greek parts of southern Italy. At one point they attend a party where many of the guests can barely speak Latin. The language jokes make this an exceptionally difficult text, especially for mediaeval scribes who normally didn’t know any Greek. According to the sole surviving manuscript, a character says
aut ego non me novi, aut non deridebis, licet barbam auream habeas. Sathana tibi irata sit, curabo ...

‘Either I don’t know who I am, or you won’t get the last laugh, even if you have a golden beard! I’ll make sure Satan is angry at you ...’
-- Petronius, Satyrica 58
Now, Satan clearly doesn’t belong in a 1st century novel written by a Roman aristocrat. Petronius probably never even heard of Satan. He must originally have written Athana, not Sathana: the Greek goddess Athena, but with her name in the Doric dialect. The episode is set near Naples, and there was more than one temple of Athena nearby: one on the cape south-west of Sorrento, and another in Paestum a little further south.

The scribe who introduced the error had a source text that didn’t look like the one I printed above. The manuscript he was copying from would have looked more like this:
Latin manuscripts usually don’t have word breaks or punctuation. Now, our scribe knew perfectly well that ATHANA wasn’t a Latin word or name. But he didn’t know Greek, and he certainly didn’t know Doric! So he didn’t realise it was a deliberate solecism: he very reasonably inferred it was a copying error. He imagined that Petronius had originally written HABEASSATHANA, with a name that was very familiar to the scribe and which happens to work very nicely in the context: ‘Satan’. At some point, he guessed, another scribe had accidentally missed out the second S. And so he added it back in.

Critical edition of the Petronius passage, with the apparatus showing editorial repairs to the manuscript readings. Notice also the obeluses or ‘daggers of despair’ on the following line, indicating a place where the text is so corrupt that it can’t be restored with confidence -- not because of scribal malevolence, but once again because there’s too much Greek (ἀλογίας and maybe more), and the scribe couldn’t understand it. (Petronii Arbitri Cena Trimalchionis, ed. Martin S. Smith, Oxford, 1975)

This is what actual Christianising interference usually looks like. It’s an error, but it arises out of the scribe’s conscientiousness, as an attempt to restore the text, not erase it. This kind of thing is much more typical than the intentional damage that we see in Josephus, anyway!

In a sense, Antiquities 18.63-64 is a precious treasure: it’s one of the very, very few cases of deliberate forgery that was so comprehensively done that we actually can’t be confident in restoring the correct text. Irreparable textual forgery is a real rarity! Texts that have been attributed to the wrong authors are common; textual mistakes are very common. But malicious textual inaccuracies -- not so much.

Where we have multiple manuscript traditions, they’ll normally provide enough evidence for a modern editor to fix malicious alterations. The entire process of modern textual criticism is devoted to teasing out transmission errors and forgeries, and repairing them. When even that isn’t enough, when it just isn’t possible to restore the original text -- as with the Testimonium Flavianum -- any responsible critical edition will highlight that fact very transparently. Because that’s the entire point of critical editions.

Further reading

  • Olson, K. A. 1999. ‘Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum.Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2: 305-322.
  • Reynolds, L. D.; Wilson, N. G. 1991 [1968]. Scribes and scholars: a guide to the transmission of Greek & Latin literature, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 2

Timeline of some key moments in the history of Easter and western Easter customs

The Easter Rabbit; the hot cross bun; and the Easter egg. One of these three things has a reasonable chance of having a pagan origin. A chance, mind. Let’s find out which one ...

Claim #4. The Easter Rabbit is pagan

Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.
-- Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010
Remember that passage from Bede, last week? That sentence that is the sum total of all testimony in the world that exists about Eostre? Did you notice the bit where he said that rabbits are sacred to Eostre? No? Three guesses why Bede might have forgotten to mention that.

Robert Downey Jr is ... Iron Rabbit!

If you guessed that it’s because Bede is unreliable, biased, and trying to cover up the pagan origins of the rabbit, then full marks for scepticism. However, you also get -100 for mistreatment of evidence. (1) Bede explicitly talks about a festival in honour of a pagan goddess, so he’s not exactly trying hard to cover up pagan links. (2) We have no reason even to try to draw links between Eostre and rabbits. The Easter Rabbit is first attested in 1682 in Germany; Bede’s report on Eostre comes from 950 years earlier in northern England.

Some studies have tried to link the Easter Rabbit to rabbit imagery from all over history. But it won’t do to treat the history of the Easter Rabbit and the history of rabbit imagery in general as the same thing. No matter how many images of hares are found in 12th century Devon churches or in ancient art, if there’s no reason to infer a connection to Easter, they’re not evidence for a connection! If anyone wants to say the Easter Rabbit is based on images in 6th century Chinese temples, we might as well say Santa and his reindeer are based on the domestication of white-tailed deer by the Olmecs. Nuh-uh. Trace a link, then we’ll talk.

We don’t know much about how the Easter Rabbit came about, but we can be pretty confident that it was originally German. So whatever precursors you may find, you also need to find a link connecting them to early modern Germany. Even more of a problem for the ‘Easter-is-pagan’ mythbusters is that it probably didn’t start out as a rabbit, but as any old critter depending on which part of Germany you’re in.

The earliest appearance of the Easter Rabbit comes from a 1682 discussion of Easter egg traditions in central Germany: Georg Franck von Franckenau (1682: 6) tells us that the eggs were called di Hasen-Eier because of a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children.
Note: some recent internet sources claim an earlier German appearance in 1572. That’s an error. The 1572 claim originates from a March 2016 article in The Conversation. The author, Katie Edwards at Sheffield University, cites no source, and when I asked her for help in tracking it down she didn’t reply. My conclusion is that it was a typo for ‘1682’, the correct date of the Franck von Franckenau reference, with the ‘6’ and the ‘8’ mistyped.

An old study by Charles Billson tries to draw earlier links in England, but the evidence there isn’t nearly as close to the modern tradition: he cites evidence of a tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter in southern and central England going back to 1620 (Billson 1892: 442) and perhaps as early as 1574 (443). Unlike the German situation, though, that custom has no connection to Easter eggs.

The evidence trail ends with Franck von Franckenau. Going back beyond that involves a trolley-trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Jacob Grimm is responsible for the speculation that rabbits might be linked to ‘Ostara’; but it’s just that, a speculation, and a tenuous one at that, given that Ostara herself is conjectural. Some mythbusters like to draw links to rabbit symbolism from antiquity, but that’s just fantasy: there’s a 1400-year gap between ancient testimony on rabbits and Franck von Franckenau’s report, and none of the ancient evidence has anything to do with Germany.

It’s probably a wild goose chase anyway. Different animals appear in the folklore of Easter-egg-delivery in different parts of Germany. The best-known is the Easter Fox, attested in northern Germany into the early 1900s, and the only rabbit alternative to have its own Wikipedia article. However, the Easter Stork is still a regular Easter visitor in Franconia (that is, in Thüringen and northern Bavaria). There are reports of several other birds too: the Easter Cuckoo in Switzerland, the Easter Chicken in the Tirol, and the Easter Rooster in Schleswig-Holstein.
Note: on the Easter Cuckoo, etc., see Newall 1971: 326-327, with bibliography. I haven’t dug into Newall’s sources, but they don’t fill me with confidence. One of them sounds like an arts and crafts book (it’s called Wir farben Eier, ‘Let’s paint eggs!’); the other two are encyclopaedias, not dedicated studies, and probably don’t cite any sources themselves. There are loads of more recent books with the same claims, but they’re just repeating Newall -- usually without citing her.

This strongly implies that the Easter Rabbit’s rabbit-ness wasn’t integral to its role. I’m inclined to conclude that its true ancestor wasn’t a made-up rabbit god, or a conjectural dawn goddess, but rather any smallish animal or bird found in German-speaking lands. We’re looking for an Easter Critter, not an Easter Rabbit. And the search for the Easter Critter’s origin belongs much more to the realm of folklore than to religious history.

Claim #5. Hot cross buns are pagan

No, they just aren’t. Hot cross buns originated in 18th century England. They are Christian in origin. There is no reason to think otherwise, and no remotely sensible reason to suspect any link to any pagan practice. You’d think the fact that they’re marked with a cross, the archetypal Christian symbol, ought to be a bit of a giveaway.

The earliest attestation of them is a well-known rhyme that appears in a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733:
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
Wikipedia reports a half-baked 19th century idea that hot cross buns come from ancient Greece. The source cited is a 1912 issue of The New York Times, but it originally comes from an 1876 book -- and even the author of that book doesn’t endorse the idea.
Note: the NYT and the 1876 book report that the idea was based on linking ‘bun’ to the Greek word boun. Well, it’s true that boun is a Greek word. But it means ‘cow’. Moreover, it’s an oblique form: the proper ‘dictionary form’ is bous. Any student in my 1st-year Greek class would know better, and they’ve only been learning Greek for three weeks. This idea is in turn based on drawing a link between ‘bun’, a word dating to the 13th century, and an obscure explanation of bous found in the ancient grammarian Hesychius, referring to a kind of sacred cake ‘resembling a cow’. That’s a colossal stretch, and if you read the original source for that link, published in 1774, you’ll see that the man who came up with the idea was pretty seriously bonkers: his central idea was that all mythology everywhere in the world was derived from the Hebrew bible. Be that as it may: bous meaning ‘cow’ is super-common, bous meaning ‘cow cake’ is ... not. The OED isn’t confident about the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects it comes from French.

For an idea that has literally not a shred of evidence for it, the ‘ancient Greek hot cross buns’ thing has become weirdly widespread. This snippet appeared in a number of American local newspapers in March-April 1949, and some of its falsehoods still get trotted out now and then:
The ancient Greeks, not Christians, deserve credit for baking the first buns marked with crosses. To the Greeks, the crosses cut in the bread symbolized the four quarters of the moon; and they ate the buns to honor their goddess of nocturnal light. The custom was centuries old when the Christian church adopted it, translating the meaning of the cross into their own terms, and distributing the buns after mass on Easter Sunday.
-- Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, 24 March 1949, page 19
This is so crammed with falsehoods that it takes longer to point them out than the article does to say them. We have no evidence of ancient Greek buns with crosses; nothing to link those non-existent crosses to the quarters of the moon; nothing to link the non-existent cross buns to any night goddess; the Christian church never ‘adopted’ the custom (hot cross buns have always been solidly commercial); they’re traditionally associated with Good Friday, not Easter Sunday; and they developed in Protestant England, and the Anglican church doesn’t call its services ‘mass’. Holy crazy nutballs, Batman.

When people claim that hot cross buns are ancient, they usually gloss over the ‘cross’ bit -- the feature that is the exact point of them. The exception is when people suggest that the cross on the bun is based on the quadrae of Roman loaves. There, at least, there is a visual resemblance.

But quadrae weren’t a religious symbol. They were simply to make the loaf a pull-apart. And, judging from the loaves that turned up in the ruins of Herculaneum, Roman loaves more often had octavae. More importantly, once again there’s nothing to link ancient Roman bread to 18th century England. It relies on ignoring a 1700 year gap in the evidence. So: nuts to the idea of ancient hot cross buns.

Left: Roman bread with octavae, carbonised in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Right: a modern pull-apart loaf with quadrae. Neither of these is a hot cross bun.

The only halfway sensible candidate for a precursor to the modern hot cross bun is the St Albans bun or Alban bun. St Albans buns have the cross incised, rather than piped. The modern story goes that they were invented by a Hertfordshire monk, Thomas Rocliff or Rocliffe, at St Albans Abbey in 1361.

That isn’t a pagan origin, of course. But I’ve investigated it anyway. Regrettably, the St Albans story doesn’t hold water either.

I’ve been in touch with cathedral staff and a local historian in St Albans, and the earliest evidence anyone had was an 1862 article in a local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser. The St Albans bun does go back a little bit further than that: its earliest appearance is in an advertising flyer for a London baker, dating to 1851.
On the approach of Good Friday, 1851, G. Collier, 66 Wardour Street, Soho, advertised:
‘Superior Hot+Buns.’
... G. Collier then gives the following account of the origin of his buns. On Good Friday, 1361, Thomas Rocliff, a monk of St. Albans Abbey, caused a quantity of small, sweet, spiced cakes to be made and one of these was to be given to each poor person who came to the Abbey on Good Friday, in addition to the usual basin of soup. This so pleased the people that it ultimately grew into a general custom all over the country, but nowhere did they produce such good cakes as the monks of St. Albans, who kept the Recipe of Father Rocliff secret. A curious old work ... well-known to learned Antiquaries, called ‘Ye Boke of St. Albans,’ mentions not only the historical fact but gives, in Latin, the ingredients of the cakes. Having been ‘favoured with a translation of this Recipe,’ G. Collier undertakes to treat the Public to a very superior article called in the aforesaid ancient record ‘panis parvus dulciarius impressum cum signo crucis, a small, sweet cake stamped with the sign of the cross.’ ... (Handbill, dated 1851, in my possession, A. R. W.)
-- Wright 1936: i.70
This flyer is the basis for the 1862 local newspaper piece, and also for an 1859 magazine column written by a German expatriate living in London who visited Collier’s bakery (Anon. 1859: 550). Both of them copy the Thomas Rocliff story from Collier’s flyer closely, with only minor changes.

Collier claims the recipe comes from The Book of St Albans. This is a real book, dating to 1486. But the claim is spurious:
  1. The Book is in English, not Latin.
  2. It’s a treatise on hawking, hunting, and heraldry, not a collection of recipes or local anecdotes.
  3. It doesn’t mention Thomas Rocliff or bun recipes. There’s an interesting collection of medicinal recipes for hawk ailments, but ... somehow that’s just not the same. And, for the record, there are also no references to Rocliff, buns, or crosses marked into food items, in other chronicles of the time that might loosely be called a ‘book of St Albans’ -- at least not in Thomas Walsingham’s St Albans Chronicle (ca. 1422) or the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (early 1390s).
  4. Panis impressum is bad Latin. A 15th century aristocrat, like the author of The Book of St Albans, would know better ... but a 19th century baker spinning a tall tale might not.
The natural conclusion is that Collier invented St Albans buns out of thin air, around 1850, to make his own buns sound a bit special. The mainstream hot cross bun is the real original.

In principle I suppose it’s theoretically possible there’s a unique variant of the Book somewhere that includes a Latin bun recipe among the English hawk medicines. But given that it’s a printed book, not a manuscript with scribal variations; given the lack of any testimony earlier than 1851, and a cluster of sources in the decade after that date; and given the other problems ... well, it’s not looking good.

66 Wardour St, Soho: the birthplace of the St Albans bun. Any Londoners want to pop into that bar and see if they’re still on sale? Not exactly my kind of scene, but apparently their cocktails are delicious. (source: Google Streetview)

And now I can never ever visit St Albans, for fear of being stoned with St Albans buns. I regret that, as I’ve never visited. Such is life.

By the way, the German expat who tried Collier’s buns in 1859 was distinctly unimpressed:
Ich habe die Kreuzküchlein (Crossbuns) des Verfassers dieser Anzeige versucht, und muß gestehen, sie haben mir keine sondeliche Achtung für die Kochtalente des Bruders Rocliffe eingeflößt.

I have tried the cross buns of the author of this advertisement, and must confess they have not instilled in me any particular respect for Brother Rocliffe’s cooking talent.

Claim #6. Easter eggs are pagan

New Atheists will be glad to hear that there’s at least a plausible case for Easter eggs having a pre-Christian origin. But it’s still just an argument from likelihood, not from any direct evidence. Once again, Grimm suggests a link to Eostre; once again, it’s speculation on top of conjecture. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and/or Greek Orphic mystical thought. Again, though, there’s a huge gap in the evidence: a gap of over 1000 years, and no geographical continuity. They’re very separate places, and very separate times.

Easter eggs in ancient Mesopotamia. This sub-myth comes from a really severe case of mangled misreadings.
The Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red colouring ‘in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion’.
-- Wikipedia, ‘Easter egg
The Wikipedia article has lots of citations, but each and every one of them is ultimately derived from a single source: a 1694 book by Thomas Hyde called De ludis orientalibus (‘On eastern games’). Here’s what Hyde says, translated:
Among the Turks this game is called Yumúrda ojúni, that is, ‘egg-play’ or ‘game of eggs’. Among Mesopotamian Christians it is customarily played from Easter time for 40 days. Consequently that time of year, when the game begins and carries on, in the easterners’ calendar is called in Turkish Kizil Yumúrda, and in Persian something that means the same, Beida surch, that is, ‘red-egg’. In the Turkish calendar you will find this period in the month of Adâr or March. For in this period, Christian children buy themselves as many eggs as they can, and make them red in colour, in memory of the blood shed by the crucified Saviour at that time...

This game is not preserved in central England, but seems to be hinted at in the proverbial phrase ‘an Egge at Easter’, and in northern England ‘an Egge at Paese’, that is, ‘an egg at Easter’. For when Easter returns each year, there also returns permission to eat eggs, and this was the reason for the Festival of Eggs. For neither papists nor eastern Christians eat eggs during the 40 days (of Lent), until the Easter festival arrives; and then they begin. This was also once the case at the University of Oxford...
-- Hyde 1694: 237-9
There’s no solid reason to disbelieve Hyde: the phrases are authentic Turkish and Persian, at least -- aside from the fact that bydh srkh بيضه سرخ apparently means ‘red testicles’ nowadays, not ‘red egg’. (I can’t answer for whether that’s modern slang based on a more innocent 17th century phrase, though.)

The point is that Hyde is the earliest available evidence for ‘Mesopotamian’ Easter eggs.

The Wikipedia article goes on to mention that Easter eggs were recognised in Catholic liturgy by 1610, and then claims -- on the basis of Hyde’s book, 84 years later than that -- that Easter eggs made their way from Persia to Greek churches, then Russia, and only then western Europe. The argument is that Easter eggs were thoroughly integrated into western Christian traditions 84 years before anyone connected them to the Near Eastern traditions they supposedly came from!

Steaming. Hot. Nonsense. How did this mix-up happen? I suspect the name ‘Mesopotamia’ is at the root of it: maybe people see it and assume that it automatically means ancient Mesopotamia. It doesn’t. Hyde’s story is about 17th century Christians, not ancient Akkadians, Achaemenid Persians, Parthians, or anything of the kind. The Turkish and Persian egg games he describes are definitely interesting in their own right, but they have no implications for the origins of Easter eggs. Because western Easter eggs go back a lot earlier than Hyde.

Easter eggs and the phoenix. Another effort to find Easter eggs in antiquity relates to early Christian use of the mythical phoenix bird as a paradigm of resurrection. True, resurrection and rebirth must be the idea behind the Easter egg, and are also what the phoenix represented for ancient Christians. But drawing any other link between them is an error.

Phoenix symbolism appears in a number of early Christian texts, starting already in the late 1st century: First Clement 25; Tertullian, On the resurrection of the flesh 13; Origen, Against Celsus 4.98; Cyril, Catechetical lectures 18.8. The phoenix also appears in Christian pictorial art starting in the 3rd century, often perched among palm leaves (Greek phoinix also means ‘palm leaf’). The textual sources cite the phoenix’s resurrection as a model for the resurrection of Jesus’ followers, or of Jesus himself. All nicely symbolic, right?

Just one small problem. The phoenix doesn’t hatch out of an egg. In all these reports, it builds a tomb or a nest for itself, dies there, and starts anew as a worm in the rotting flesh of the old phoenix. No eggs in sight.

So Easter eggs have nothing to do with Christian phoenix symbolism -- or if they do, it’s purely conjectural. To get actual testimony on phoenix eggs, you need to go all the way back to Herodotus (Histories 2.73) -- and Herodotus is a few centuries too early to have much to say about Christian allegory!

Easter eggs in mediaeval Europe. Actual documentation for Easter eggs goes back to mediaeval Christian sources, with an especially rich crop in the 1200s: see here, under ‘Ovum’. Some of them are formulas used for egg blessings. One French source from 1399 uses ‘Easter eggs’ (Eufs de Pasques) as a proverbial phrase. So we’re looking at a European origin, with the custom developing throughout the 10th to 13th centuries.

Mediaevalist scholars normally conclude that the custom of Easter eggs has its roots in the prohibition of eggs during Lent. Once Lent was finished, nutritious eggs suddenly came back on the menu. They were blessed for the occasion, and so Easter eggs became a thing.
The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
-- Gougaud 1925: 185
If we’re going to look for early evidence on Easter eggs, it’s probably best to listen to the mediaevalists, because they’re the experts. And because that’s as early as the evidence goes.

The cross-cultural case. The main argument in favour of pagan origins for Easter eggs has always been, and always will be, that egg-decorating is a widespread custom, stretching over many different cultures and many millennia. That gives reasonable grounds to suspect that there is some genuine influence from pre-Christian customs. It’s just that we can’t document that influence.

Does that amount to pagan origins? Well, it can. But it’s a matter of emphasis. If you want, you can emphasise the documented development of the custom in mediaeval Europe; or, if you prefer, you can emphasise the cross-cultural universality of painted eggs.

But that’s a long, long way from saying that Easter eggs are plundered or plagiarised from some particular source.


Monday, 19 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 1

Easter is regularly charged with being derivative from pagan traditions. How much truth there is in that? The short answer is: a little bit, in some respects, but definitely not enough to sustain the general claim. As far as non-Christian influences go, there’s a much bigger impact from astronomy and 18th-19th century marketing practices than from any pagan religion.

You might assume that the ‘Easter is pagan’ claims come from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. They’re certainly happy with the idea. But really it’s some brands of Christianity that are the most fervent proponents: the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sure, but also a number of very small but very vocal fundamentalist groups (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4).

The thing that bothers the Easter-mythbusters isn’t (usually) Christians’ belief in the resurrection of their central deity. It’s more about how the festival is celebrated: eggs, rabbits, and so on. Individually, some of these elements may possibly have been influenced by some form of pagan religion. I’m not here to declare that Easter is definitely non-pagan: just that we don’t have evidence for pagan origins, and in many ways, no good reason even to suspect pagan origins. Imagining a link to pagan religion is easy. Finding evidence for that link is another matter.

Incidentally, I did a post on ‘Easter and its supposed pagan origins’ two years ago, but it was a bit jumbled, and fresh research for me. This is an updated and better-organised version. (Also long, so I’ll split it over two posts.)

Kristin Chenoweth as Easter/Ostara (American Gods TV series, 2017)

Claim #1. The name ‘Easter’ comes from ‘Eostre’, therefore Easter is pagan

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday’s square grey hand. ‘I’m telling you,’ she said, ‘I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.’
-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001), chapter 11
The English name for Easter is the only thing about the festival where there’s direct evidence to support a pagan origin -- and only in two languages, English and German (Easter and Ostern respectively). Sure, those are important languages. But the festival didn’t originate in England or Germany.

We have exactly one piece of testimony about Eostre. It is a tract on time reckoning by Bede, a Christian monk writing in Northumbria (northern England) ca. 730 CE. Bede discusses local month names and tells us:
...Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

...and ‘Easter-month’, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month, since it had the name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and they celebrated her festival in that (month); now they give the Paschal season a nickname after her name, referring to the joys of the new solemnity with a word customary for the old observance.
Some people genuinely seem to be under the impression that the Easter festival in the 2nd century Mediterranean was derived from Eostre worship 600 years later in northern England. The absurdity of that should be obvious. Still, just to be explicit:
  1. Easter had existed for centuries prior to Bede, just not with that name. Easter was a part of the Christian calendar in Rome and Anatolia as early as pope Anicetus.
  2. The name ‘Easter’ isn’t just late, it’s also a localised anomaly. The vast majority of languages use a name derived from the Hebrew Passover or Pesach via Greco-Latin Pascha: Romance Pâques, Pascua, Paşti; Germanic Pasen, påske, Peaske; Finnish pääsiäinen, Russian Paskha, Welsh Pasg, and so on. Most Slavic languages (except Russian) instead call it a variant of ‘Great Day’ or ‘Great Night’.
  3. Even if the above points weren’t true, it’s bonkers to imagine that ancient Christians in far-flung places like Constantinople, Syria, and Ethiopia based their most important festival on a very obscure Northumbrian goddess.
It’s utter tosh. The modern English name ‘Easter’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess. But nothing else does -- not the event it’s supposed to celebrate, not the theology, not the eggs, not the rabbits. The name ‘Easter’ is late, localised, and anomalous. This claim of pagan origins would be obviously nonsensical to anyone who speaks any other language.

Side-note: ‘Ostara’. Some especially keen mythbusters insist that even Bede’s testimony for Eostre can’t be trusted. (See Sermon 2008 for more discussion.) Personally I’m inclined to give Bede the benefit of the doubt: he’s generally reasonably reliable in reporting what he knows. He may be wrong, but I think it’d be tendentious to assume he’s dishonest. Still, it’s true that if you take Bede by himself, the evidence for Eostre is weak. If we take him in conjunction with other factors, though, as Jacob Grimm did, the evidence is stronger. It still allows for some interpretations that Grimm didn’t account for.

In 1835 Grimm argued that Eostre was an English form of a conjectural Germanic goddess which he called ‘Ostara’ (1835: 180-2; cf. English translation). The evidence for Ostara can be summed up as follows:
  1. English ‘Eostre’. That is, Bede’s reference to Eostur-monath and his statement that it is named after a goddess.
  2. German ‘ostara’. The Christian Easter festival was called ostara in Old High German: a form of the name appears in the earliest extant German manuscript, the Abrogans (ca. 790 CE: St. Gallen Stiftsbibl. Cod. Sang. 911, f. 226, line 2), and the month of April was called ostarmanoth in Charlemagne’s calendar (Vita Caroli Magni §29). (Forms derived from this also appear in Old Dutch, Old Saxon, and some mediaeval Slavonic languages.)
  3. Comparative evidence. Linguistically, Eostre and ostara appear to be reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *h2eusṓs, ‘east, sunrise’. This root furnished the names of dawn goddesses in several pantheons: Roman Aurora, Greek Eos, Lithuanian Aušra, and Vedic Ushas (see further West 2007: 217-227).
This isn’t exactly compelling. The biggest weakness is that Old High German ostara consistently refers to the Christian festival, not to a pagan goddess. And -- you might want to grab hold of something for this bit -- it may be a British export. Sermon (2008: 341-2) points out that the christianisation of Germany was dominated by English missionaries like St Boniface, well before the earliest appearance of ostara in the Abrogans. It’s entirely possible that they brought ‘Easter-month’ over the Channel with them. If so, point 2 disappears.

So ‘Ostara’ is a very weak conjecture. But point 3, the comparative evidence, still stands as reasonably compelling corroboration -- not for Ostara, but for the Northumbrian Eostre. There’s a decent likelihood that Bede was telling the truth and talking about an authentic pagan goddess.

Conclusion. Assuming Bede’s story is true, we know (1) Eostre’s name; (2) that she existed as a goddess in Northumbria sometime before the 8th century; (3) that she had a festival in spring; (4) and, on linguistic grounds, that she may have been a dawn goddess.

However, we know basically nothing else. We can’t say how far Eostre-worship extended, how long it lasted, or anything else about her or her cult. (And we certainly don’t have rabbits, eggs, or hot cross buns linked to her.)

Incidentally, we may as well take a moment to dispose of the idea that Easter has anything to do with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, as is often claimed by certain very vocal people (*cough* Richard Dawkins *cough*). To argue that you have to have a really reckless disregard for reality. Ishtar had her heyday in Mesopotamia in the 2000s and 1000s BCE, and her name is linguistically Semitic; the name ‘Easter’ first appears nearly two thousand years later in northern England, and is linguistically Indo-European.

There’s dying-and-rising-gods, and then there’s dying-and-rising gods. The Greek divinities Aphrodite and Adonis (Attic lekythos, ca. 410 BCE; Louvre)

Claim #2. Jesus is a dying-and-rising god, and that’s pagan

I won’t deal with this at length because I wrote a post on it back in February 2017, and it’s a bit complicated. The upshot is this: resemblances between Jesus and other ‘dying-and-rising gods’ have been greatly exaggerated.

It isn’t really the Easter-mythbusters that latch onto this claim: it’s more interesting for ‘Jesus mythicists’ -- people who refuse to believe that cult-leaders were a real thing in antiquity, and who often operate under the assumption that we have copious official records of court-cases and executions from 1st-century Judaea (we don‘t) and the absence of such a record for Jesus is something suspicious (it isn’t.) Still, let’s spare a moment to summarise.

Most supposed ‘DRGs’ either move annually between the underworld and heaven (the Greek divinities Persephone and the Dioskouroi), or the whole point of them is that they die and stay dead (Egyptian Osiris, Greco-Phrygian Attis). A couple of gods don’t fit into tidy pigeonholes (Greek Adonis, the Orphic version of Dionysus). Gods within each of these groups have much more similarity to each other than to other groups. Moreover, ancient believers were happy to equate some of these gods with each other, but definitely not all. We find ancient cults happily equating Osiris with Dionysus, or with a Syrian-Egyptian version of Adonis. But some other equations are later impositions on those cults. No pagan worshipper ever equated Adonis with the Babylonian Dumuzi/Tammuz, for example: that equation was made up by early Christian biblical interpreters. Equations between any of these gods and Jesus are a recent invention, imposed by 19th century thinkers.

In any case, in the very earliest days of the Jesus cult there ought to have been a time when Jesus’ followers did not think of him as divine. (That’s certainly the picture that the gospel of Mark tries to paint: Mark 2:6-7, 3:12, 3:21-22, 4:40-41, 6:2-3, etc.) If so, that would rule out looking at Christianity as a cult derived from dying-and-rising gods. It is reasonable to assume that it took a non-zero amount of time for Jesus’ followers to stop thinking of him as a human and to start thinking of him as God. One possibility that’s been suggested is that the transition occurred after his death: he may initially have been considered to be a mortal who underwent apotheosis -- ‘god-ification’ -- exalted to divine or near-divine status like Enoch, Moses, or Elijah, who were all bodily assumed into heaven according to various traditions. The biblical episode of the Transfiguration strongly implies that at one point Jesus was grouped with these figures: see the earliest version in Mark 9:2-8. (For an accessible statement of this view see Ehrman 2014, chapters 6 and 7.)

Still, even if everyone genuinely, historically, regarded Jesus as divine the instant they saw him, the best parallels for him -- as a divinity who dies once and rises once -- are stories like the Hittite story of Telipinu or the Sumerian story of Inanna’s trip to the underworld. They’re 1300 to 2000 years too early.

Anyway, like I said earlier, the Easter-mythbusters aren’t usually interested in the resurrection itself, but more in the supposed paganism of Easter customs. So let’s move back to those.

If calendars were easy to organise, and one solar year were the same as twelve lunar months ... well, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion.

Claim #3. The date of Easter is linked to the equinox and moon phases, and that’s pagan

‘Since pre-historic times, people have celebrated the equinoxes and the solstices as sacred times,’ University of Sydney Professor Carole Cusack said. ... ‘There’s a defined period between March 25 and April 25 on which Easter Sunday must fall, and that's determined by the movement of the planets and the Sun.’
The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?
-- Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010
This claim is meant to conjure up visions of Neo-pagan druids gathering at stone circles on the solstice. Contrary to popular belief -- and maybe remarkably, for a claim that comes from a Religious Studies professor at a respectable university -- the idea that equinoxes or solstices have always had deep meaning in pagan religions is a huge exaggeration. Equinox and solstice festivals were not a dime a dozen in pagan antiquity.

In particular, the Romans (who we’re especially concerned with here) had no equinox or solstice festivals at all. Until Easter came along, that is. Then, as now, it was astronomers that took the most interest in the motions of the sun and moon -- not priests.

The fact that Easter is linked to lunar and solar events simply reflects the state of the art for calendars of the time. All ancient calendars were lunar or lunisolar. The first truly solar calendars appeared only a few decades before Jesus’ lifetime: the Julian calendar, instituted at Rome in 46 BCE, and the Alexandrian calendar in Egypt around 30 BCE. The Hebrew calendar, which determined the date of Passover and so influenced Easter as well, remained lunar until Hillel II led a switch to lunisolar in the 300s CE.

Easter was being celebrated by Christians in Rome by the mid-100s CE. In the 150s there was a dispute between the Roman Christians, led by pope Anicetus, and an Anatolian group called the Quartodecimans, led by Polycarp. The disagreement was over whether Christians should celebrate the crucifixion according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, at the Jewish Passover (on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan: quartodecimani = ‘14th-ers’). The Roman Christians, who were predominantly gentiles, preferred to have Easter fall on the right day of the week. Anicetus and Polycarp didn’t settle the matter, but they agreed to disagree.

So already in the 150s Christians were deeply interested in the relationship between liturgical observances and the calendar. Many of them were keen to adopt contemporary standards, not stick with ancient traditions. The algorithm we use today for setting the date of Easter is a compromise, putting Easter on a Sunday while preserving some of the lunisolar elements of the Hebrew calendar. It was set down by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, but it reflects a long period of head-scratching that goes all the way back to Anicetus.

(Incidentally, there’s been more talk recently about simplifying the algorithm set down at Nicaea in 325. The question continues to be pressing because some Christian denominations still use the Julian calendar, which puts everything out of synch. Apparently the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches have come to a preliminary agreement that would simply put Easter on either the second or third Sunday in April. If it’s finalised, this new arrangement could even be put into practice before 2030.)

Next time:
  • the Easter Rabbit (can be traced back to 17th century Germany),
  • hot cross buns (18th century England), and
  • Easter eggs (10th-13th century western Europe).