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Easter, the Sparrow, Myth and the Bede

Wikipedia tells me that Easter began as a celebration of spring and the goddess of the dawn. The old Anglo-Saxon word for Easter first appeared in the writings of the Venerable Bede (673-735ad). Bede wrote:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance

Jacob Grimm, who J.R.R. Tolkien would later study, wrote this about the original Easter:

OstaraEástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great Christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.[8]

And who could argue with that? Leaping for joy, dancing, healing, bonfires. Sounds like fun.

Incidentally, Bede recorded the details for the Easter dating controversy of the 7th century. The Synod of Whitby, presided over by St. Hilda of Whitby, happened before Bede but Bede was the smartest person in Britain in his lifetime and he wrote prolifically. Well, as prolifically as one can on vellum. At the time of the synod, the Christian church in Britain was divided. There was a Celtic version in the north and west of Britain in which confession was private, monks shaved their heads in a weird wayhaircut and Easter was celebrated on a particular date. The Roman Catholic church was spreading northward and it believed in public confession, shaving heads in a completely different way and calculating Easter by a different lunar method. The outcome of the Synod of Whitby was a typical merger and acquisition where the Roman Catholic church took over, appointed the pope as the new CEO and threw the Celts a bone by adopting the private confession. Oh, and everyone had to cut their hair the same way.

It was also probably the last time a woman presided over a synod.

It should be noted that under the Ionan (Celtic) Christian tradition, the King was the head of the church. Hilda, who was from a royal family, was pro-Ionan but diplomatically converted to Roman tradition once she saw how the vote was going. Under the Roman tradition, the pope was head of the church. In 1534, England reverted. But it kept the Roman calculation for Easter.


Bede wrote about the conversion of the English people in his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One of his most notable stories concerns the King Edwin, pagan king of Northumbria who wanted to marry Christian princess Ethelberga. But she wouldn’t marry him unless he converted. So Edwin called for a Christian emissary to meet with his pagan priest, Coifi,  to explain what Christianity was all about. Coifi then reported to the king:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

The king converted. Ok, it took two years before he converted.

The rest is history.


There are as many concepts of God as there are people on earth. Some of us are comfortable with no God at all, or at least not an anthropomorphic God. Our celebration of Easter probably leans toward the ancient spring festival without the goddess. It seems right to celebrate the changing of the seasons and admire the recreation of green and warmth every year. I prefer the Sparrow to the resurrection. We choose our own myths.

J.R.R Tolkien was a Catholic who believed in the power of mythology. He wrote:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

That’s an Easter message I can live with.