Bunnies, eggs and Easter

It seems to have become a tradition that every year at this chocolatey time I talk about what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The answer is, nothing at all!   The word Easter comes from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. It just so happens that the month we call April, the people who spoke Old English called Eostre's Month.

The first mention in history of the original Easter festival comes from no less than the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monk who lived in England in the 600s AD. Bede was a major player in the hot subject of his day: how to calculate when the death and rebirth of Jesus should be celebrated. He wrote a book about it called De Ratione Temporum which means On Calculating Time.

Bede's calculation landed the Christian event in Eostre's Month (April!). Bede commented in the same book, in an almost offhand way, that Eostre's Month traditionally saw the locals hold festivals in honour of the pagan goddess Eostre.

Bunnies are particularly good at doing the fertility thing, and eggs have the obvious meaning.  Bunnies and eggs therefore are the symbols of the German fertility goddess.  This all got mixed up with the Christian event and since no one in their right minds turns down chocolate, I don't think they'll be separating any time soon.

I went looking for a decent translation of Bede's original comment and the best I could find was from tertullian.org, who in turn got it from a translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54.
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.  

Happy Eostre / Ostara / Easter !

Sisyphus has the ultimate hard day at the office

You all know of Sisyphus as the guy who had to roll a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down again.  He was doomed to do this pointless activity over and over, for all eternity.  He gets a lot of sympathy from modern office workers.

What's less well known is that Sisyphus got what was coming to him.  His famous fate was an addendum to what, to the Greeks, was a much more important story.

The original Sisyphus of legend was the first king of Corinth, and he was a nasty and sneaky individual.  He used to murder people who passed through his land, just for the lulz.

Sisyphus hated his brother Salmoneus.   Sisyphus was told by an oracle that if he had children by the daughter of Salmoneus, a woman named Tyro, then the children would grow to kill their grandfather.  So Sisyphus seduced his niece (this while he was married, mind you).  But Tyro learned of the oracle and killed her own children to prevent them killing her father.

While this was seriously antisocial, what eventually got Sisyphus into major trouble was when he divulged some of Zeus's more embarrassing indiscretions to the world at large.

The king of the gods was not amused.  He sent Thanatos, the god of death, to cart Sisyphus off to Hades.  (There are different versions of this story.  In some, it's Hades himself who turns up to snaffle Sisyphus.  Thanatos was a minor god who doesn't usually get much airplay.)

Thanatos duly arrived to collect his victim, bearing with him chains in which to wrap Sisyphus.  Sisyphus expressed great interest in how the chains worked and asked for a demonstration.  Thanatos obliged, using himself as the subject.  Sisyphus instantly caught up the chained Thanatos and threw him in the palace cupboard.  Sisyphus then carried on in the living world for some years.  Meanwhile Thanatos was stuck in the cupboard, no doubt doing multiple facepalms.

But with Thanatos out of business no one ever died, which upset the balance of the world.  Eventually Ares the god of war got sick of battles in which no one died, no matter how often they were skewered with spears.  Ares went to free Thanatos, and Sisyphus was sent to Hades.

It doesn't end there.  Sisyphus sweet-talked the goddess Persephone, queen of the dead, into letting him back up again.  There are multiple versions of how he did this, but the usual is he ordered his wife not to give him a proper burial, then convinced Persephone he had to return to the world to arrange his own funeral.

So Sisyphus returned to the world and carried on with riotous living.  Leaving Persephone to wait for Sisyphus to return to Hades, and she waited a long time, no doubt doing multiple facepalms.

Zeus eventually realized that if you want something done right, then you have to do it yourself.  He carried Sisyphus off to Hades and set up the boulder scheme.

And that's why Sisyphus is still down there, pushing that boulder uphill.

Vampires and zombies

Ancient Greece was depressingly short on vampires, zombies and ninjas, though they were well stocked for pirates.

Ninjas of course are just totally the wrong culture.

Zombies don't work out because once you're in Hades, there's no coming back, so living dead isn't a concept; they did however manage to have quite a few psyches wandering the earth.

Vampires again are the wrong culture.  Though if vampires are your thing, I note that regular reader of this blog Carrie Clevenger has a vampire novel appearing next year, which she announced via an interview with her main character.

On the plus side, they did have titans, ladies with stony expressions and snakes for hair, various demigods, three-headed dogs, cyclops, minotaurs  etc.  Also the odd god and goddess.  My favourite movie of ancient, mythological Greece isn't the recent stuff about Alexander and Troy.  My fave is definitely the original Jason and the Argonauts, complete with special effects that were incredible for their time, and for my money, remain more dramatic than the smoother but less interesting computer generated effects.  Here's the famous fight with the skeletons (yes, I know they're not Greek).  Keep in mind, this entire scene was done with stop-motion cinematography.