Sunday, April 17, 2011

Obama and Ostara: The President Ponders Easter’s Essence

A year ago, President Obama celebrated Easter with “Christian leaders from all across America” at the White House Prayer Breakfast. In his address to the congregants, he repeatedly referred to “the meaning of Easter” and said, “I can't tell any of you anything about Easter that you don't already know.” This article respectfully attempts to tell the president some things about Easter that he himself may not already know – things that have implications for public discourse in the 21st century.

President Obama at 2010 Easter Prayer Breakfast (AP Photo)

What is the meaning of Easter, really? It does not have a descriptive name like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday or Christmas (“Christ Mass”). The word itself has no relation to Christian lore but is the proper name of a holiday that historically honored Eostre, a pre-Christian Germanic goddess whose name has ancient roots connecting her to the verb to shine and to nouns meaning dawn, morning, and east. For Christian fundamentalists who assert that Halloween is a pagan celebration, this etymology may come as a somewhat unpleasant surprise.

In the early 8th century, a Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede mentioned pagan Anglo-Saxon Easter celebrations in his De Temporum Ratione (“On the Reckoning of Time”). The month of April was known as Eosturmonath (“Easter-month”) and was named for the goddess Eostre. Christian leaders overwrote springtime celebrations in her honor with ritual celebrating Christ’s resurrection. “Now they designate that Paschal season by her name,” Bede writes, “calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance.” Written records dating to the early 9th century show that continental Germans referred to April as Ôstarmânoth, naming it for Ostarâ, the German version of the fertility goddess. Nearly 1,500 years ago, Easter was a multicultural, interfaith celebration.

Of course, the president was speaking of the spiritual meaning of the holiday, not the etymology of its name. He said, “We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him. We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.” These concepts are not unique to Christianity; Norse mythology also features a god’s son who is associated with grace, sacrifice and resurrection. His name is Balder, one of the major Norse gods, and he was appropriated by Christian missionaries at the end of the Viking Age to ease the transition for converts from paganism to Christianity.

Similar to the way in which Christian celebrations of the Resurrection were written over pagan springtime rites honoring Eostre, the worship of Christ subsumed that of Balder. Like Eostre, Balder was associated with brightness; his dwelling is called Breiðablik (“broad-gleam”) and his name may also be etymologically connected to the verb to shine and to the nouns light and day. In Norse mythology, he is linked to the president’s three Christian concepts: grace, sacrifice, and resurrection.

Balder is associated with grace in the Edda (1220); Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson writes that Balder “is the wisest of the [gods], and the fairest-spoken and most gracious.” Balder’s home “is in heaven” and “nothing impure is allowed” within it. Like Christ showing grace “even to those who would have killed him,” Balder makes no hostile action when dream-visions foretell his own murder and, according to the 12th-century poem Baldrs draumar (“Balder’s dreams”), it is discovered that his own brother will be the killer.

Like Christ, Balder is a god-son sacrificed so that humanity may someday live in a just, verdant and peaceful world. Balder’s father is Odin, the leader of the Norse gods. After Balder dreams of his own death, Odin journeys to the realm of Hel (daughter of the Norse god Loki, not the Christian afterlife) and questions a mystically-reanimated seeress about his son’s future. Despite Odin’s foreknowledge and the best efforts of the united gods to protect Balder, the god of light is fatally shot with an arrow of mistletoe. After his death, Loki, the traitorous god responsible for instigating Balder’s brother to murder, is bound with unbreakable bonds as punishment.

Balder’s Christ-like resurrection occurs after Ragnarök (“Doom of the Powers”), the End Times of Norse mythology in which the world of gods and men is destroyed and a new world rises to take its place. The post-Ragnarök era of bliss is free from evil and led by Balder, who has returned from the dead to rule in peace. Without his earlier death, he would have been destroyed along with his fellow gods in the Final Battle. His sacrifice, like that of Christ, makes it possible for him to return and usher in a New Age.

In tales of Balder and Christ, two faith traditions in earthly conflict found a common spiritual touchstone. Tales of Christ could easily have been connected with the story of Balder during the conversion of northern Europe. Both figures are associated with grace, spoken wisdom, kindness, and a pure vision of heaven. A foreboding of personal sacrifice is central to both of their stories, and both are fatally betrayed by a confidant who is bound/hung for his betrayal. Perhaps most importantly, both will be resurrected and return at an unspecified End Time to rule over a new era of peace.

Making these connections was especially important in England, where the newly-converted were particularly obstinate in giving up pagan traditions. In 601, Pope Gregory sent his English missionaries instructions for dealing with these troublesome new Christians. Giving up on the possibility of completely stamping out pagan ritual, he decided to convert pagan temples to Christian churches rather than raze them. He reconsecrated pagan holidays as holy days dedicated to Christian martyrs and recontextualized pagan animal sacrifice as “religious feasting.” The ritual killing of cattle was now a form of “returning thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance,” a concept predating the American national holiday of Thanksgiving by over 1,200 years. Rather than attempting to completely eliminate pagan practices, Gregory decided on a very political solution: “whilst some outward gratifications are permitted them, they may more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.” This lines up with Bede’s statements regarding the Christianization of Easter.

The Gosforth Cross

Pope Gregory’s historic compromise is reflected in the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon cross in Gosforth, England, which makes the connections between Balder and Christ explicit. This Christian crucifix is covered with detailed carvings of scenes from the life of Balder, and several images point out direct parallels with Christian myth. Balder is portrayed in a Christlike pose with blood pouring from a spear-wound inflicted in his side. A woman stands at his feet like the Virgin Mary, but she is represented in the traditional guise of a valkyrie welcoming a departed soul into the pagan afterlife – a familiar image from other artifacts of the period. Loki is shown bound about the neck in an echo of the self-hanging of the traitor Judas. The cross also portrays the slaying of the wolf Fenrir by the god Vidar, an act which signals the end of Ragnarök and the promised Second Coming of Balder.

Interfaith understanding was not limited to the English. Nearly 1,000 years later, the connections between Balder and Christ were restated by Bishop Esaias Tegnér of Sweden in Fridthjof’s Saga (1825). Set in the 8th century, the epic poem features the following lines spoken by “Balder’s priest supreme.”
In lands far south, ‘tis said,
Is some new Balder worshiped, -
He, the pure virgin’s son from heav’n who sped,
Sent by the Allfather’s self to explain the dim
And yet unfathom’d runes which crowd the rim
Bord’ring the shield of darkness, that dread shield
Worn by the norns. And never would this Balder wield
Our earth’s dark blood-stain’d arms. No! Still in his glad field
Was peace his battle cry, his bright sword, love,
And o’er his silver helmet sat the dove
Of brooding innocence. His pious days
In sweet instruction pass’d, or pray’r or praise;
And when he died, his dying voice forgave, -
And now, ‘neath far-off palms, still stands his shining grave.
Notably, Tegnér portrays Christ as a son of Odin, whose many names include Alföðr (“Allfather”). Christ is seen as a new incarnation of Balder, much as he was on the Gosforth cross. Although Tegnér’s poem is a Romantic work of the 19th century, it offers a psychological portrait of how pagans in the Viking Age may have viewed the new mythology of Christianity by fitting it into their own longstanding spiritual worldview. Talk of runes, shields, norns and swords would have been much easier for a Norseman to relate to than Biblical tales of events occurring “’neath far-off palms.” Once again, spiritual commonalities overcame cultural differences.

Pendant from Fossi, Iceland

Bishop Tegnér’s poem leads us back to President Obama. For a millennium, it was possible for religious leaders and writers to acknowledge that Christ’s message was not something totally new to the pagan North. The idea of new birth in Christ was compatible with pagan springtime ritual, and concepts of grace, sacrifice, and resurrection were consistent with Norse mythology. According to the sagas, some Icelanders were blandinn í trú (“mixed in faith”), as demonstrated by a silver pendant from Fossi, Iceland, that exhibits elements of both Thor’s hammer and Christ’s crucifix. For them, the celebration of Easter could have multiple meanings.

President Obama, however, expresses little interest in Easter’s different meanings. At the prayer breakfast, he was unequivocal about his own beliefs, stating that, “as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered - by faith in Jesus Christ.” He also referred to Christ’s final words as “spoken by our Lord and Savior.” Several months later, a woman at a town-hall style event in the yard of an Albuquerque home asked the president about his religious beliefs. According to the official White House transcript, he answered,
I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith. And it’s – but the one thing I want to emphasize, having spoken about something that obviously relates to me very personally, as President of the United States, I’m also somebody who deeply believes that the – part of the bedrock strength of this company is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith – that this is a country that is still predominantly Christian.
It is nothing new for American presidents to make public declarations of their religious faith. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for the job. In a 2007 USA Today poll leading up to the political conventions of the last presidential election, 53% of respondents said, “No, they would not vote for a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be atheist.” Atheism was, by far, the attribute that most disqualified a candidate from consideration. Homosexuality, that bane of the religious right, was a distant second at 43%. Only 5% wouldn’t elect a Black candidate based on his race. With these numbers, how can we expect the president to publicly offer a nuanced view of religious belief? To preserve his status with the electorate, he must act like a true believer.

In England, where Christians had such a hard time giving up pagan ritual, a 2006 Guardian poll had very different results. Religion was seen by 82% of respondents as “a cause of division/tension between people.” Only 17% considered Britain “a Christian country.” These attitudes lead to very different behavior from elected leaders. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair only revealed his deeply-held Christian beliefs after leaving public office. In a 2007 BBC interview, he said,
Well, it's difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system. I mean, if you are in the American political system or others, then you can talk about religious faith, and people say, “Yes, that's fair enough,” and it is something they respond to quite naturally.

You talk about it in our system, and frankly people do think you're a nutter. I mean they sort of, you know, you maybe go off and sit in the corner and, you know, commune with - with the man upstairs and then come back and say, “Right, I've been told the answer and that's it.”
President Obama clearly does not share Mr. Blair’s reticence in talking about faith, but he does limit which faiths he will include in the discussion. The White House has hosted religious events for Judaism, Islam and Christianity – the three major, Creator-driven, monotheistic religions. At the Easter breakfast, the president said, “We held a Seder here to mark the first Passover. We held an Iftar here with Muslim Americans to break the daily fast during Ramadan. And today, I'm particularly blessed to welcome you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for this Easter breakfast.” While visiting India in November, President Obama spoke of “the common truth of all the world’s great religions, that we are all children of God.” The logical conclusion from this is that the president does not consider polytheistic faiths such as Hinduism to be “great religions,” since they do not subscribe to the notion of a single, patriarchal god shared by the Big Three.

This is no surprise, really; we expect that politicians will cater to the electorate’s dominant faiths (and voting blocs). However, from a president who ran an election campaign steeped in multiculturalism and diversity, can’t we expect a little more change and a little less politics as usual? In a nation where public religious display such as prayer in school is an ongoing and unsettled matter (despite repeated rulings by the Supreme Court), it seems a little odd that the head of the Executive Branch would even host prayer breakfasts. There is, of course, no law against such events, but they do raise questions of privilege and access.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states that
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first clause legally prevents the government from creating a state religion; in effect, it declares that America is a secular nation. Do President Obama’s prayer breakfasts and statements of belief imply government endorsement of a particular religion? If the president wants to prove that his attempt at inclusiveness is honest (and not politically-motivated), he would have to include all faiths – not only the ones with wealth, power and votes. The White House would need to hold prayer breakfasts for each religion, not just those with politically-powerful constituencies. Somehow, I can’t imagine the president presiding over a pasta dinner for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or hosting a jazz jam session for the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

The president’s privileging of certain religious groups became an issue in February of this year, when the White House released the names of twelve religious leaders appointed by President Obama to his advisory council on faith-based programs. Reverend Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, remarked on the lack of diversity of the group, which was almost exclusively Christian and Jewish: “I would think that it would have been a priority to have had a Muslim leader on there and at least one representative from the non-Abrahamic traditions.” In the end, will the president speak for the voiceless or cater to those who raise their voices with power?

Maybe President Obama can learn from the history of Easter and apply its meaning to the remainder of his term. Whether from a Norse or Christian perspective, this is a celebration of rebirth and renewal, of dawn and light, of hope and change. Easter is a fundamentally multicultural combination of pagan and Christian elements. This combination is possible because of themes and values that are common to both belief systems. These values are shared by various faiths throughout the world, not just the Big Three. This commonality suggests that they are human values, not solely religious ones.

Perhaps the president can find a way to talk about these themes without the divisiveness of religious rhetoric. To do so, he would have to realize that the spirit of the First Amendment suggests that the president shouldn’t preach and testify at prayer breakfasts. He would also have to “express [his] Christian faith” through action rather than public prayer and religious speech. This would lead to confronting the wealthy and the powerful, to siding with the disaffected of the world against America-friendly dictators, to privileging diplomacy over military action, and to a host of other things that would guarantee his impeachment. That would be, perhaps, too difficult a cross for him to bear.


Freckles said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this. It's beautifully composed and it's about time that this information is brought out into public view. Major kudos.

Anonymous said...

Quite interesting. Thanks!

Kurt said...

This is a great article, Karl. I learned something new! I'll keep that connection to Balder in my pocket as I've heard a number of Christians claim that our religion is unique in its "sacrificial savior" bit. They usually use such a claim to assert superiority over Islam. My initial contention with this is judging the merits of other religions by the extent to which they mirror yours. Now I have another bone with which to pick.

I would like to know some more clarification, however. I am not sure about the intention of Obama in referring to the "grace" of Jesus. Maybe he was only referring to Jesus being nice to the people who were killing him. However, most Protestant theologians take the "grace" of God as a reference to God offering blessings, gifts and salvations even to those who oppose God, or to those who do not "deserve" (by our human standards) it.

This is not to say, "Ha! Jesus is better!" Rather, I think that if you can find some examples of or expound upon how Balder offers blessings and gifts even to those who don't deserve it, then your argument will be even stronger.

At any rate, well done, sir.

Anonymous said...

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Holding an Easter breakfast and claiming to be Christian is not the same as passing a law. Now, if Obama and Congress said that everyone had to participate in Christian Easter celebrations, that would be a problem. But Obama has done no such thing. The rights of the people who work in government need to be protected as well. Obama has the right to practice is faith publicly like anyone else as long as he and Congress aren't out passing laws prohibiting or forcing religious practices.

With that being said, I am suspicious of the political motivations behind this.

Anonymous said...

I've been a Free-thinker for a little over a year now. I am familiar with the barrowed myths the Christian Church used to replace and create its own. Thank you for sharing what you've learned so that others can read and try to grasp the big picture.

If the people of this country are truly free, our leaders should not refer to literature that keeps the common man bound. Understanding that the Bible is not unique, is the beginning of freeing one's mind because so many of us live and govern our lives by it. The truth should and must be told.

Thank you.

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