The Problem of Apples

Author’s Note: The length of this article got too big for a comfortable readership on the format of this blog, and so I have broken it up into four parts which will be released consecutively.  Endnotes will be released along with each part, but will maintain a running total throughout all four parts consecutively.  If there is demand, I will format it properly into a .pdf for future use.

Heathenry’s approach to conceptions of divinity is unnecessarily limited and self-curtailing, despite being a reconstructed polytheistic revivalist religion.  Evidence most often used within Heathen reconstruction generally consists of literary, material, toponymic, or folkloric elements and despite the value of these disciplines, the material with which Heathens have to reconstruct the knowledge of their religious fundamentals is limited. This is especially true when compared to the restoration of other polytheistic traditions.  The paucity of this information appears to reinforce a an unwillingness in exploring new theological perspectives outside of a few specialized corners.  The end result is a narrow, stunted, and misinformed interpretation of divinity that is transmitted into the general Heathen population.

When the idea of “Heathenry” is brought up in discussion, it  is often done so in terms of a singular religious monolith.  This is excusable perhaps from the position of viewing it as a new religious movement and one that is still getting its religious identity and basic foundation built underneath it.  In this regard, a singular religious identity is often easier to work with, especially concerning the development of comprehensive ideas and their eventual transmission.  

Religiously, of course, Heathen practice and belief are both descended from a continuum of common religious ancestry that of the related Germanic cultures.  These cultures themselves are indebted to both Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European antecedents and share some similarities.  As a result common themes exist across the spectrum of Heathen religious identity, in some cases a mirror of common cultural themes shared between the Germanic peoples of the pre-Christian era.  This similarity of expression is what ultimately provides for a mutually intelligible religious dialogue between practitioners, regardless of the historic cultural expression of choice.

Yet the cultural expressions which form a core component to any individual Heathen religious practice nevertheless have an understated impact on that resulting practice.  Composed of linguistic considerations, geographic influences, or cultural and historic divergences, these factors are just as inherently important in the identification of a unique religious tradition and often help to separate the identity of one practice from another.  It is ultimately what marks a difference between a Heathen with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon practices and a Heathen who focuses on Norse practices.

It is an unfortunate fact that these unique expressions and developments are often placed to the wayside in the discussion of the religion.  They are most often ignored, either in favor of advancing the religious understanding of the whole of the religion, or due to some other consideration.  

These cultural mores and historic interpretations are, at best, treated as extraneous hangers-on in the discussion of Heathenry in a communal space.  They exist as a cultural ‘skin’, draped around the common skeleton of identifiable “Heathen” practice and belief, but are ultimately viewed as an aesthetic with no true formative distinctions.  Despite an ever-increasing willingness within modern Heathenry to embrace the uniqueness of regional variations of Heathen identity, this tendency remains unfortunately common in the public sphere.

At worst, and all the more frequently, these cultural differences are ignored or simply subsumed under the most dominant cultural paradigm in Heathenry, eg. Eddic or Nordic Heathenry.  Worse yet, some of these cultural differences are cherry picked or negatively appropriated into the larger, creating an untenable and unstable pan-Germanic morass.  The end result limits and diminishes the even-more minority expressions in favor of the wider dissemination of information for appeal and consumption in public.

In some cases this practice is innocuous and ultimately harmless: instead of referring to urðr it is commonly known by the Old English wyrd.  The two terms and two interpretations are close enough that referring to it as either does neither harm, although their expressions may differ somewhat within their cultures of origin.

In other cases it is a more deleterious force in regards to the traditional understanding of individual group identity.  This is often the case with the Anglo-Saxon deity Ēastre (Ēostre), who is perhaps the most well known of the native pre-Christian deities of Anglo-Saxon England who does not have an identified mirror elsewhere.  Due to the association of her name with the Christian observance of Easter (Pascha), she has become a popular entree into general Heathen consciousness, having been lifted out of her native Anglo-Saxon context and embraced by Heathens regardless of their own cultural orientations.  This is done despite having little in the way of external identifiable reflection in much of the wider Germanic linguistic and etymological corpus.

Ultimately, Ēastre is an enigmatic and putative figure.  She exists only in a Christian recording of contemporary month names, and is generally associated with the coming dawn, and contemporaneously with the Spring and fertility [1].  

The veracity of these accounts or the existence of this figure is not the focus of this piece and will not be discussed here, despite there being some debate to this end in both Heathen and academic circles.  Suffice to say, Philip A. Shaw’s work Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World provides a compelling argument for the figure’s historic existence – albeit in a far more limited scope and minor divine role than commonly portrayed in Heathen religion.  It is that perspective which is used here.

This enigmatic nature has both benefited and hindered the development of Ēastre’s cult and, more importantly, has encouraged her appropriation into extra-Anglo-Saxon cultural enactments.

As an Anglo-Saxon deity – or, rather, a deity arising strictly within a native Anglo-Saxon cultural Context – Ēastre is contextually very much a suitable representation of the conditions of early pre-Christian England as well as of the people who venerated her.  She fits into the Anglo-Saxon worldview through her positions as a near-tutelary goddess and representative divinity of her group of people [2].  In comparison, she is markedly out of place within the wider community of pan-cultural Heathens, given their focus on Norse and Icelandic cultural lore, or the even smaller Germanic cultural groups drawing their traditions from the Continent.  In order to fit, her figure has taken on roles which it did not originally have.

Those changes are similarly not up for discussion.

Regardless of her adoption outside Anglo-Saxon circles, Ēastre is  nevertheless wedged into a pan-Germanic Heathen identity.  This is most often done in a reductive association with the Norse deities of Frigg, Sif, or even Iðunn [3].  All of these conflations are problematic and inexact in their interpretation and etymologically false, providing no baseline for the association between the figures.  For the purposes of this discussion, the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn will be the focus of the piece.  In this way we will see how an incorrect equivalency will not only harm the understanding of the cults of the deities in question, but also perpetuate poor history and effectively whitewash a minority perspective within a larger, dominating culture.

Endnotes, Part I:

[1] Bede, De Temporum Ratione.  “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.”

[2] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddess in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, (London: Bristol Classic Press, 2011) p. 70.

[3] “Edmund”, r/Pagan Discord message to the author, February 8, 2017.


Part II can be found here.

~ by thelettuceman on June 3, 2017.

17 Responses to “The Problem of Apples”

  1. APPLES!

  2. A good point here. My practice is generally brought under the umbrella of Heathen as my Northern Tradition influences take our cues from a number of ancient cultures, most often between Iceland and Norway with some Germanic influence as well.

    I think this is a challenge within Heathenry at large not only for the reasons you state here, but also because the sheer lack of numbers encourage a cultural lumping that would be out of place otherwise.

    I think another factor is that many of us came to Heathenry from Wicca or Wicca-derived religions, so celebrating Her then is something that clicks into a familiar, comfortable place, especially for newcomers.

    • Yeah, it is challenging, and people are going to do what they do. I’m just going to try to give them the tools to make a more informed decision about it.

      • Anglo-Saxon culture is generally not my bag. Most of my research and focus is Icelandic and Germanic, so I appreciate that you are engaging in the work you are here.

  3. The way that I approach the differences in cultures, as much as I am able, is just that: these are different cultures.

    I’m not sure if you plan on addressing this later in your posts, but are there ways you would recommend those of us whose cultural focus is not Anglo-Saxon Heathenry should come to approach, worship, and celebrate this Goddess if we’re so called?

    • I don’t really discuss how to worship her, just identify the problems of the conflation between unrelated deities.

      The problem with Ēastre is that there are two distinct variations of her character. Shaw argues that she’s a local geographic deity (From Kent) and that her associations with “the Dawn” might be problematic, in that her name elements Ēa- and Ēo- are potentially indicative of a tribal association. In essence, Bede revived her by writing about her.

      Then there are those who believe that she’s a Spring and fertility goddess, following Grimm and others. This, and the conflation with Ostara, is the most common association.

      Is one more right than the other? Is it both? I don’t know. I don’t try to make that decision in this piece.

  4. I’m definitely excited for this series! I’ve been dying for someone to cover cultural differences and pan-Germanic ideology and the like.

    • I think, if you want an alternative view on particularly Anglo-Saxon cults, you should try to pick up Philip A. Shaw’s “Pagan Goddess in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons”, which is a far more comprehensive book than I can ever hope to produce here. But I hope you find some value in this, although I’m not sure that I cover too much in the way of pan-Germanic ideology.

  5. Hello! It’s good to see someone tackling this issue. The problem, it seems to me, is one of focus and nuance, and is therefore difficult for the larger number of people to grasp without instruction.

    Specifically, it seems to me that there are two extreme ends of a spectrum (neither of which I think you are promoting) that are both wrong: one, that Germanic religion was everywhere and at all times the same across the Germanic cultural area; two, that Germanic religiosity was so varied across that area that we can’t even speak of “Germanic religion” as a unitary thing.

    I think that the resolution of these poles can be seen in something like the definition of “Hinduism” (or “Sanatana Dharma”), a somewhat “fuzzy” definition that covers a large number of religious practices and approaches that vary by region, by social class, or by any number of other classifications of congeners. These various approaches, practices, and understandings of religion nevertheless have a common basis, and are rightly grouped together under a common rubric. Hindus from disparate regions and cults can nevertheless recognize one another as Hindus.

    I think that the same held true for Germanic religion during its heyday; religious approaches, practices, and understandings that were broadly similar enough for Germanic tribe A to recognize Germanic tribe B as practicing the same religion, with a good deal of practices that were purely local. The same, I think goes for gods: there was a “core group” that was largely the same across the Germanic world, and there were also deities that were purely local but that fit into a broad overall pattern: Zîsa is a good example of this, as also perhaps Hréðe, as also perhaps Skaði.

    I think that the extreme all-or-nothing kinds of definitions flow from an underlying assumption that a religion can only be one thing, that doesn’t permit of regional variation (or variation through time): this leads to the assumption that there was either one pan-Germanic religion with no variation, or that the variations mean that there wasn’t such a thing as “Germanic religion”. The nuanced view that I hold was that there was a Germanic religion that, by definition, allowed for regional variation.

    • I agree, absolutely. And I hope to show that in the coming parts (all of which are written, just pending release).

      I have a lot of problems with the reduction of divinities to fit a preconceived role (Seaxneat is Tiw, Seaxneat is Ing) simply because it’s not treated as a unique incidence on its own. It denies tribal and divine agency in favor of a streamlined and limited view. My next part actually goes into some of the reasons behind this and some concerns I have. Hope that you enjoy it.

  6. […] Part I can be found here. […]

  7. […] Part I can be found here. […]

  8. […] Part I can be found here. […]

  9. One small suggestion: change the color of your font to black on white; it is much easier to read….otherwise an interesting article….

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