Saturday, March 30, 2013

Of Easter, Påsk and a pagan goddess


Today an Easter greeting from my aunt Kerstin prompted me to look into something I've long idly wondered about, and that’s why the Swedish for Easter is Påsk (pronounced Posk).  I was led to the following information from Wikipedia.  The 8th century English scholar Bede, describing the state of affairs in England a couple of hundred years before his own day, stated that the Anglo-Saxon word for April was Easter Month (Ēosturmōnath) during which feasts were held in honour of the goddess Ēostre. All this had died out by Bede’s time, replaced by the Christian "Paschal month". 

Left: A stained glass window from Germany depicting the Passover Lamb, a concept integral to the foundation of Easter. The inscription reads Osterlam. Pötting parish church of the Holy Cross.
Right: Bede was a priest and monk in the town of Jarrow in England who died in 735, often called the greatest scholar of his time in the Western Church. From a psalter in the British Library.

Paschal (which I suppose I ought to have known already but didn't) means pertaining to Easter or Passover, as in Paschal lamb and Paschal candle - an exceptionally large candle lit in church today (Holy Saturday) and kept on the altar till Ascension Day.  And Paschaltide it turns out is a period in the liturgical calendar, between Easter and Pentecost. 

The word Paschal is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach.  The dates of the two festivals, Easter and Passover, normally coincide within five or fewer days, but about every tenth year they go adrift by a whole month. There's a long history of debates as to how Easter should be calculated which I won’t go into here.

What about Easter in other European languages? In the Romance languages, as in the Scandinavian languages, it's derived from Hebrew (French Pâques, Italian Pasqua). But in German it's Ostern, the same root as English.

The goddess Ēostre is a form of the widely attested Indo-European dawn goddess (hence East), and there are theories connecting Ēostre with records of Germanic Easter customs including hares and eggs.


An invention of Bede's?


Here's a curious note to end on. The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon goddess whose name gives rise to "Easter" has not, it seems, been universally accepted, and some scholars have proposed that Ēostre may have meant "the month of opening" or that the name Easter may have arisen from the designation of Easter Week in Latin as in albis. (Not quite sure how you get from in albis to Easter.)

It's even possible it was Bede who invented the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre.  But whether he did or didn't, it seems odd that the English church should have chosen the name Easter, thereby connecting their principal festival with
either a pagan goddess or a supposed pagan goddess.

My £10 donation to Wikipedia last month was money well spent, but there's more to find out yet.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is Francis the first non-European pope in 1000 years?


A postcard available in all leftwing bookshops, with the words of Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara, a proponent of liberation theology.  George Monbiot quoted them last week in The Guardian to expose what he calls one of the great fissures in the Catholic church, and the emptiness of the Pope Francis's claim to be on the side of the poor. 

If you're tempted to dismiss the Catholic Church and what goes on inside it as irrelevant, read Monbiot’s article.  On Irish radio the other day a panellist suggested Francis may soon surprise us, and regrets his inglorious role in face of the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina. (See good and bad things they say about him.) I doubt it, but we'll see.

Non-European Pope

Argentina suggests a little digression. In the past couple of weeks countless media columns have observed that Pope Francis is a first in many ways, and the first of these firsts is invariably that he's the first non-European pope in 1,272 years.  A statement based on the year 741 being when Pope Gregory III, born in Syria, ended his 10-year reign. 


Now the question I pose is: back in the year 741, was Syria in fact outside Europe?

And I have to reply no. For the concept of Europe didn't yet exist. I can draw a parallel. I could say that in 1966 Angela Rippon became Britain's first female newsreader in 200 years. A true statement in a way, but pointless, since in 1766 there were no newsreaders, male nor female.

Likewise in 741 there were neither Europeans, nor non-Europeans.  So what was there? What idea in 741 did the intelligentsia carry in their heads that most nearly answers what we think of when we think of Europe?

Non-European popes Francis & Gregory III
The question calls for a whole essay on what we think of when we think of Europe, which I'll spare you, and get straight to the point.  About a century before 741, the answer would have been quite clear: the Roman Empire. Meaning primarily all the lands bordering the Mediterranean.  However by 741 the idea of the Roman Empire was somewhat frayed. Syria, one of the empire’s richest provinces, was now in Arab hands.  I wonder though, in 741 was it yet obvious that this was destined to be a permanent state of affairs?  I think the idea of Christendom was taking over. This is a hard concept to pin down. It meant the community of all Christians; and maybe (I'm less sure of this) carried a vague geographical dimension. In 741, according to my understanding, the majority of Syrians would still have been Christians, even though the ruling élite were Muslims.

So back to the original question. I think the statement that Francis is the first non-European pope since 741 is at best pointless. And at worst it's misleading, because Syria was part of Christendom, indeed one could almost say at the heart of Christendom. And a bishop from there could not remotely have been described as a non-anything, in the way that Francis is described as non-European.

These thoughts are tentative. I hope some historian will read this and put me right. Late antiquity and the early middle ages are a fascinating period to me. I've just started a book recommended by my friend Chris, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (2009) by Chris Wickham. In his introduction he says that even by the end of his period, Europe was not yet born. That's what set me thinking about this first non-European pope business.