Saturday, March 25, 2006

On Easter, Oestre, Bunnies and Eggs
updated March 18, 2007

It's that time again: The weather has broken, plants are sprouting, the birds are singing in the morning and the frogs are singing at night. And the proliferation of eggs, bunnies and crucifixes means that Easter is right around the corner.

Virtually everyone who has grown up with Western culture understands the symbolism of the crucifixes and is familiar with the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But what about the bunnies, eggs and lilies, and why "Easter?"

As is the case with many mainstream religious holidays, Easter's roots are in ancient beliefs. The holiday itself is named for the Teutonic goddess Oestre, also known in other cultures as Ishtar, Astarte, Esther and Ostara. Since Oestre was the Goddess of Spring, her festival was celebrated on the Vernal Equinox; her sacred month was the third lunar month -- the Moon of Oestre --which runs from mid-February to mid-March.

Oestre didn't just lend her name to Easter but also to the word estrus (sometimes spelled oestrus), which refers to "the periodic state of sexual excitement in the female of most mammals, excluding humans, that immediately precedes ovulation and during which the female is most receptive to mating; heat" and estrogen (also oestrogen), those hormones that are produced chiefly by the ovaries and are responsible for the development and maintenance of female secondary sex characteristics.

The Easter lily is also deeply rooted in Pagan symbolism. The lily is a sacred emblem of Lilith, the Sumero-Babylonian creation Goddess; the lily symbolizes her magic genitals. Similarly, the lily was sacred to and representative of Eostre. The lily as the Goddess' triple yonic emblem can be seen in the French fleur-de-lis, which is a stylized lily, and the Celtic shamrock, which is identified with the lily. (The shamrock did not originate in Ireland but was a sacred symbol among the people of  the Indus Valley some 6,000 years before Christianity.)

And that brings us to eggs and bunnies. As the Goddess of Spring brings fertility and rebirth to the earth, it is only fitting that her symbols include eggs and the legendarily prolific, long-eared furry rodents. Red eggs were used by the Persians to celebrate Spring as early as 3,000 BCE, and ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese also used colored eggs to commemorate the onset of Spring. Since they are symbols of rebirth, in some cultures (notably Greek and Russian) red eggs are placed on graves, while in others (Irish) they are presented to parents after the birth of a child.

Since the pagan Festival of Oestre coincided with the Jewish Passover, the Roman church determined at the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD to schedule the Christian rituals concerning death and rebirth at about the same time. Since then, Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Solstice. (Due to conflicting calendars, this date-fixing mechanism wasn't uniformly established until 729 AD. For more information on that, go here.)

So, let's see: In 2007, the Vernal Equinox is March 20 ... next full moon after that is April 2 ... first Sunday after that is the 8th ... sure enough -- Easter! I plan to spend my day distributing red eggs at cemeteries, planting seeds at home and celebrating life with friends and family. Happy Spring!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

More Indiana Idiocy

This morning's blood pressure check was brought to me by The Indianapolis Star, which reported that Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion County Superior Court, has forbidden a pair of Indianapolis parents to teach their child about Paganism. More specifically, they are enjoined from exposing their child to "non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals."

Bradford, who clearly must store his head in a warm, moist, cilia-lined environment, took it upon himself to insert the provision in the divorce decree he granted to the child's parents last year, over both parents' strenous objections. Apparently the judge was responding to a confidential report from the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau of Marion County, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights.

The child attends a Catholic school, and the agency is apparently afraid that he might overdose on cognitive dissonance if he's exposed to an alternative belief system. "There is a discrepancy between [the parents'] lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . ." the report says. "[The parents] display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon [the boy] as he ages."

Well, guess what? Dealing with divergent belief systems is a part of GROWING UP. Where do Bradford and the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau stand on the issues of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, do you suppose? And isn't it ironic that the child these nincompoops are trying to protect from exposure to Pagan beliefs attends a school run by Catholics, whose religion is built on a foundation of Paganism?

As for being exposed to alternative belief systems, does this mean this child should be "protected" from Greek, Roman and Norse mythology? Is he never to learn about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam? Isn't promoting ignorance a form of child abuse in itself?

My personal experience: When I was a kid, I was provided with Illustrated Bible Stories and Myths and Legends of the Ages at about the same time, as well as my mother's old collection of My Book House books. It was an excellent move on my parents' part, because having to reconcile all those different belief systems introduced me to critical thinking.

Of course, critical thinking may be exactly what Bradford -- who is a Republican, after all -- wants to nip in the bud.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Work, work, work

This weekend we're headed for the second annual New Harmony Wine Festival. New Harmony is about half an hour west of Evansville, which makes it about a three and a half hour drive from Indianapolis. If you have a really good arm, it's a stone's throw from Illinois, since it's on the east bank of the Wabash River.

New Harmony is an interesting, historic place. It was twice settled by Utopians, first by Lutheran separatists from Harmonie, Pennsylvania led by George Rapp and then by Robert Owen, a visionary liberal Welshman. Many of the Harmonists' buildings are still standing, and The New Harmony Inn and Conference Center, built among the historic structures, now specializes in hosting events for arts, educational and spiritual groups. The Inn's excellent restaurant, The Red Geranium, is the home of the New Harmony Wine Society and the driving force behind the festival.

Among other things I'm a wine salesman, and I have the good fortune to count The Red Geranium among my accounts. A small contingent from our company and our mates are headed down to pour a dozen of our wines at the Grand Tasting on Saturday evening, which promises to be a gala event with 500 or so participants. On Sunday we'll make time to see the sights and walk the labyrinths, then take a side trip to Evansville, which was home to some of Katz's ancestors. She's never been there, so we'll be looking for the home and/or grave of her great-great grandfather Charles Denby and also the old Fendrich cigar factory, which made cigars named after him.

Despite all the labor involved (pouring wine, talking about wine, sampling wine -- rough work, but somebody has to do it), we look forward to enjoying a brief getaway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Remembering Mark and Jewel

One of the theater groups we're in did a show a few weeks ago, and we went downtown to Hedback Theater to watch it. We were doing lights and sound that night, which is something we really like to do. The light-and-sound booth has the best seats in the house, and we usually take our own bottle of wine up with us, as long as our part of the show isn't too complicated.

After the show we all headed to The Woodstock Club for drinks, dinner and dancing. Club members can charge drinks to their monthly tabs, but for those of us who aren't it's a cash bar. Our work schedules had dictated that Katz and I drive separate cars that night, so she went ahead to Woodstock and I stopped on the way there to hit up a bank machine for some cocktail cash.

The most convenient cash machine on the way there was one I had been avoiding for 25 years or so. I stopped there anyway, though, and while I was there I talked to one of my college classmates.

Anyone observing me -- and someone may have been, since security cameras are trained on the cash machine -- would have seen a bearded white guy in a tuxedo apparently talking to himself, since no other person was visible. I apparently didn't appear to be threatening, as my cash was dispensed and I left without incident.

One of my college classmates hadn't been as fortunate. His name was Mark French, and due to the similarity of our names we bumped into each other frequently in our political science classes. Mark was a black man in his early- to mid-20s, of slender build and medium height. He was friendly, soft-spoken and a diligent student.

Mark quit coming to classes after he was killed by the Indianapolis police at the bank machine I was using. He was there at night, getting some cash out of his account, just as I was. Unfortunately, while he was there the IPD responded to a false silent alarm from that location, and Mark ran. As he did, he was shot in the back.

An unfortunate mistake; Mark was collateral damage in the war against crime. No reprimands were issued for the shooting -- he had run, after all. If only he hadn't grown up in an environment where it was normal to be scared of police. If only he hadn't been black....

Mark wasn't the first person I had known who had been killed by IPD. But his killing took me by surprise, since he was a bright college student who apparently had a lot of things going for him.

Jewel Ervin had several things working against him: He was black, and big, and stubborn. And he was a very nice guy.

I came to know Jewel when I worked for the Indianapolis Public Works' Division of Flood Control. It had started out as a summer job for me, but when I decided not to return to college right away after my freshman year I ended up staying for a year or so. The work was menial -- basically, we cleaned out ditches -- but it was a broadening experience. There were very few white people who worked at Flood Control, so I became friends with my black coworkers and learned about what life was like for them. Eventually, I came to realize how fortunate I was to be white and middle-class. I could leave Flood Control to go on to better things, which I did. Cleaning muck out of ditches was as good as it was going to get for many of them.

Ervin (we all called each other by our last names) was a big, good-natured guy who had moved to Indiana from Alabama. His broad chest was peppered with dark scars, the result of having been shot with a shotgun. He was strong as an ox, and our go-to guy when a big log or piece of junk needed to be heaved into a truck. He was deathly afraid of snakes, so it was great fun to yell "ERVIN!" and throw a length of rubber hose at him any time we ran across one in a ditch. After he recovered from the initial shock and adrenalin rush, he would always react by reaching into his pocket for his hook-billed carpet-laying knife, flip it open and say, "Finch, I'm going to cut you four ways -- long, deep, wide and often!" After assuring me that he "wasn't playin'," we'd all have a good laugh.

Some time after I had left Flood Control, I read about Jewel Ervin in the paper. For some reason, the police had arrived at the house he and his girlfriend shared to tow their car away. I don't recall if it was being repossessed, if the plates were expired or it was illegally parked, but in any case it was being towed and police were present.

Ervin and his girlfriend had recently had a baby, and there was a fresh package of Pampers in the car. Ervin wanted to get the Pampers before the car was towed, but the police said no. Ervin's stubborn streak got the better of him, so he opened the car door to get them anyway. Faced with a big, black belligerent man with a package of Pampers, IPD did what came naturally: They shot him dead.

A columnist for The Indianapolis Star, William Keating, wrote about what had happened to Jewel Ervin, but again no disciplinary action was taken. Keating died, and Jewel Ervin's name disappeared from the pages of the paper.

He's still in my memory though, along with Mark French. As I sat in the ballroom at Woodstock nursing my cocktail, I thought of them both. I hope they were with me there in spirit, and enjoyed the evening.

Road Closed

Well, the big signs were right. They said the bridge on the road we can see from our house would close "on or after April 25" and it finally was closed yesterday morning. My first clue was the absence of traffic noise; my second was the sound of WRTV's traffic helicopter hovering overhead.

The weather was pleasant enough last night that we could leave the windows open, and it was wonderfully peaceful. Our dogs have a little adjusting to do, since now that the ambient traffic noise is absent they can hear other interesting sounds from miles away -- and some of those sounds demand a response, apparently.

It's not all that peaceful during the day. I can hear heavy equipment working and know when something is moving backwards thanks to the safety beepers everything is equipped with these days. It's not loud enough to be annoying, though, and it stops in mid to late afternoon.

On yesterday's traffic report, they said that the bridge would be closed until December 1, which was a change from the mid-September to mid-October time frame we were told. By that time, we'll have our windows closed all the time anyway, and will be happy to be able to turn left again.