Unfortunately there is nothing more inane than an Easter carol. It is a religious perversion of the activity of Spring in our blood.
~ poet Wallace Stevens
Given that the holy day of the Christian Easter falls this year one day away from the secular holiday of April Fools Day, the GS, may then be forgiven if he fools around with the coincidental timing, as he investigates the pre-Christian origins of Easter. There’s been a lot of speculation about the origins of Easter on social networks in the days leading up to it. Some of this speculation has been on a more esoteric level, hinting that there’s some great mystery behind the Easter event. Admittedly, it’s hard to seriously entertain such when our modern Easter is rife with not only eggs, but also bunnies and hares. Shifting through all this wild speculation for some nugget of a factoid is not an easy task. However, the GS has to admit that so far he’s quite taken with the notion that an ancient secret society (in the Dan Brown sense) is behind Easter. Low and behold the name of this occult society goes under the name “Hare Club For Men!” Okay, April Fools! See, I told you that the GS might take advantage of Easter and April Fools Day being on top of each other this year.
Furthermore, one wonders if this coincidental timing has some deeper import, as in a message that Easter season needs to incorporate some pagan trickster-god energy, such as that from the Native American coyote tradition. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a message about the crowing of a new pope! Okay, never fear, the GS won’t go there! Whatever it may be, the close proximity of the two special days can’t make the Church hierarchy comfortable. Speaking of the pope, why can’t the Pope or Church hierarchy just decide to move this main holy day to another date in order to avoid an embarrassing association and perhaps even a scandalous intermixing of the to celebratory days by wayward Christians? Not possible you say? Well, interestingly enough, that’s actually no more a non-traditional way of settling on an appropriate feast day for the Church! How do you think the official (ecclesiastical) date of the Death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday and his subsequent rising from the dead on Easter Sunday got “nailed down” (so to speak) to the time it is today? A time divinely ordained? No, the plain fact is that a bunch of Church bishops came together to settle once and for all the ongoing, annoying arguments and contradictory feast days on which dates Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection should fall on.
In any event, Easter Sunday is both a holy day and a holiday; a special time when two very different ways of celebrating are lumped together; the Christian holy day when Jesus was resurrected from the dead and the secular holiday when the Easter Bunny hides colored eggs for children to find. Yet most of us manage to acknowledge both and move easily from the solemn holy day to the more playful holiday, and we don’t usually give a thought to how these two very different celebrations got paired up on or after the next full moon after the Spring Equinox. But perhaps its worthwhile to ask ourselves how these two very different celebrations occur on the same day, and if there is any real connection between them. After all, on the one hand we have this story and celebration of a mythical figure whose existence is so fantastic that only little children who don’t know any better could possibly believe in him. On the other hand we have the Easter Bunny story! (Oops, the impingement of April Fools day on Easter again!)
But seriously, there probably an increasing number of families today who spend more time doing the Easter Bunny celebration for the kids than they do in church. Or to put it another way, people who identify as “Christians” and mark the holy day on Easter may go through the motions of honoring the event of the Resurrected Christ, but have a limited understanding of the significance and meaning of the event and thus a harder time seeing how it connects in their secular lives. (Indeed, a growing number of Christians have a hard time believing in the literal truth of the resurrection.) Moreover, their religious and secular lives are very compartmentalized, so that they have to forget the one to live the other. Thus there’s Easter for Jesus and Easter for the kids. Nor do they know why the Church celebrates Christ’s resurrection at a certain time after the Spring Equinox. Then again, whether Christian or not, most people don’t make any connection with Easter to the season; that is, to the seasonal change that was marked by the Vernal or Spring Equinox for ancient pagan peoples.
Therefore, the Gypsy Scholar will attempt in this musical essay to present another way of seeing Easter and its season that will connect the religious and secular aspects of the holiday, discussing the dating, the origins of the story, and tease out the larger significance of what the Christians call Easter. The aim is to evoke a meaning that at once deepens the significance of Christ’s resurrection and universalizes it, opening it up to those who may not be of the Christian faith, or even “religious” at all.
The Easter coincidence of dating with April Fools Day is a rare occurrence. The last time Easter Sunday fell on April 1 was in 1956. (Easter Sunday has previously fallen on this date in the years 1714, 1725, 1736, 1804, 1866, 1877, 1888, 1923, 1934, and 1945.) Easter Sunday will next fall on April 1 in 2018. And if the resurrected Jesus doesn’t come back on earth before April 1, 2249, Christians will be celebrating Easter on this April Fools Day too.
Turning to the question of the dating of Easter, the fact is that it’s tied up with the Vernal or Spring Equinox. This seasonal change has long had strong ties to religious celebrations. In the past, in the pre-modern period, this time was set aside for reasons that today would be recognized as “religious” in nature; that is, having a special sacred meaning that gets expressed in some kind of ritual that celebrates, honors, and gives thanks to the deities or powers of earth/nature, powers beyond the human realm and ego. Most of these ritual festivities that are linked in some way to the Spring Equinox mark the day as a holy day in the pre-Christian era for traditional peoples from Celtic Ireland and the British Isles to the Americas. The Vernal Equinox, celebrated as cosmic renewal, is based upon astronomical calculations, marking the time when the Earth’s axis tilts the northern hemisphere back toward the sun, which moves into the astrological sign of Aries. The Vernal Equinox is one of the two days of the year that the Sun moves across the celestial equator, the imaginary line among the stars that lies directly above the Earth’s equator circling from east to west. Ancient peoples, like the Celts, built megalithic monuments or tombs that announced the time of the Vernal Equinox by aligning the rising sun’s rays with a point in an inner chamber. The exact date and time of the Vernal Equinox varies from year to year, from March 20 to 22.
So how about the dating of Easter? Was this date also based upon sound astronomical timing, just like the festival the Church was trying to replace by observing it around the same time of the month? Did he surviving disciples of the crucified and risen Jesus institute this particular time for the commemoration of these events, with divine inspiration of God of course. Or were there more mundane forces at work?
Actually, the dating of Easter is complex and a result of using both lunar and solar calendars. The early Romans used a lunar calendar in which months alternated between 29 and 30 days. It was not a precise measure; it gradually fell out of step with the seasons. Julius Caesar reformed the calendar by switching its base from lunar to solar. The day on which the Vernal Equinox occurred was defined as March 25th. On the new Julian calendar the length of the year was fixed at 365 days, with an additional leap-year day added every fourth year. This made the average length of a year equal to 365.25 days, which was fairly close to the actual value of 365.2422 days. The annual error of 0.0078 days accumulated over time until it became unmanageable. A second reform of the calendar was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII. Under the new system of the Gregorian calendar, March 21, 1582 CE became the date of the Vernal Equinox, and the year 1582 was shortened by ten days. This replacement did not occur until later in many countries e.g. in September 1752 in England. The Gregorian calendar continues in general usage today in the Western world.
The new Christians of the Western Church waited for Easter Sunday until the first Sunday on or after the next full moon. So today, among the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 20, the nominal date of the Spring Equinox. Easter Sunday can fall on any date from March 22 to April 25th. (However, it should be pointed out that Eastern Orthodox churches, using the Julian calendar, follow a different calculation. With Eastern Christianity’s Julian calendar, Easter always falls from April 4 to May 8 inclusive, which in the Gregorian calendar used by Western Christianity, due to the 13-day difference between the calendars between 1900 and 2099, makes Easter Sunday fall anywhere from March 22 to April 25 inclusively. Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes celebrate Easter on the same day as the Roman Catholics and Protestants. However if that date does not follow Passover, then the Orthodox churches delay their Easter—sometimes by over a month.) In Western Christianity, Easter marks the end of the forty days of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday. The following day, Easter Monday, is a legal holiday in many countries, like Canada, with predominantly Christian traditions.
The fact is that the precise date of Easter has historically been a matter for contention for the Church. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, it was decided that all Christians would celebrate Easter on the same day, which would be a Sunday. In June 325 CE, astronomers approximated astronomical full moon dates for the Christian church, calling them Ecclesiastical Full Moon (EFM) dates. From 326 CE the Paschal Full Moon (PFM) date has always been the EFM date after March 20 (which was the Vernal Equinox date in 325 CE.) Funny that this happened at 325 CE, since, coincidently enough, that was the exact date as The First Council of Nicaea, when a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in (present-day İznik in Turkey) under the direction of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. This first ecumenical council was an effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom, applying to all Christendom. Of the four main accomplishments of this church council (the other three being the settlement of the Christological issue of the nature of The Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Creed of Nicaea, and promulgation of early canon law), the settling the calculation of the date of Easter was made official here. (Oh, I almost forgot, this most famous early church council also met to declare all other sects of Christianity heretical! Constantine was involved in ecclesiastical politics, including the Donatist and Arian heresies. So the Council of Nicaea was a response to a crisis that developed in the church over the teachings of a priest, Arius, of the church in Alexandria. These heretical teachings suggested that Jesus was not fully divine, that he was certainly a supernatural figure of some sort, but was not God in the fullest sense. As we know, the Council did come down on the side of the full divinity of Jesus. Emperor Constantine called this council because at that time he had just completed his consolidation of authority over the whole of the Roman Empire. Up until 324 CE, he had ruled only half of the Roman Empire. He wanted to have uniformity of belief, or at least not major disputes within the church under his rule.)
It is probable that no method of determining the date was specified by the Council of Nicaea. It did not, however, declare the Alexandrian or Roman calculations as normative. Instead, the Council gave the Bishop of Alexandria the privilege of announcing annually the date of Christian Passover to the Roman curia. Although the synod undertook the regulation of the dating of Christian Passover, it contented itself with communicating its decision to the different dioceses, instead of establishing a canon. Its exact words were not preserved, but from scattered notices we can make out that the Council ruled (1) that Easter must be celebrated by all throughout the world on the same Sunday; (2) that this Sunday must follow the fourteenth day of the moon; that the moon was to be accounted the paschal moon whose fourteenth day followed the Vernal Equinox; (3) that some provision should be made, probably by the Church of Alexandria as best skilled in astronomical calculations, for determining the proper date of Easter and communicating it to the rest of the world.
However, it took a while for the Alexandrian rules to be adopted throughout Christian Europe. The Church of Rome continued to use an 84-year lunisolar calendar cycle from the late third century until 457 CE. The Church of Rome continued to use its own methods until the 6th century, when it may have adopted the Alexandrian method as converted into the Julian calendar. Early Christians in Britain and Ireland also used a late third century Roman 84-year cycle until the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE, when they adopted the Alexandrian method. Churches in western continental Europe used a late Roman method until the late 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne, when they finally adopted the Alexandrian method. However, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the Catholic Church in 1582 and the continuing use of the Julian calendar by Eastern Orthodox Churches, the date on which Easter is celebrated again deviated, and continues to this day.
The rule since the Middle Ages has been phrased as “Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the Vernal Equinox.” However, this does not reflect the actual ecclesiastical rules precisely. One reason for this is that the full moon involved (called the “Paschal Full Moon”) is not an astronomical full moon, but an ecclesiastical moon. Another difference is that the astronomical Vernal Equinox is a natural astronomical phenomenon, while the ecclesiastical Vernal Equinox is a fixed March 21. Therefore, the upshot of all this is that Easter is determined from tables that determine Easter based on the ecclesiastical rules described above, which approximate the astronomical full moon. But this, too, has not solved the calendrical discrepancy. In applying the ecclesiastical rules, the various Christian Churches use 21 March as their starting point from which they find the next full moon, etc. However, because Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches use the Julian calendar as their starting point, while Western Christianity uses the Gregorian Calendar the end point, the date for Easter usually diverges. For instance, the Irish kept Easter on a different date from that of the Roman church (probably the original date of the festival of the goddess Ēostre), until the Roman calendar was imposed on them in 632 CE. Nevertheless, the Columban foundation (a missionary Catholic society of apostolic life, founded in Ireland in 1916) and their colonies in Britain kept the old date for another fifty years.
Among ancient peoples, the Celts are most known for their special feast days around the coming of spring. They celebrated the longer days after the Spring Equinox. Their Druid priests, who performed spring fire rites, believed that the Spirit of the Sun sent them live-giving rays over their fields. But the Christian church banned these spring festivals by the Celts, calling them paganistic. This is where St. Patrick is said to have blended the Celtic celebrations with the Christian church by starting a spring celebration called the “Easter Bonfire” to be a part of the Christian mass.
I shall at this point attempt to go into greater detail about the dating of Easter with what is known as the Easter Controversy. The Easter Controversy is a series of controversies about the proper date to celebrate the Christian holiday of Easter. The history of this process of settling on a common date for Easter is long and compacted, but I will try to briefly give an accurate account of it. To date, there are four distinct historical phases of the dispute, which surprisingly enough, has yet to be resolved.
The first phase, which arose in the early 2nd century CE, was mainly concerned with whether Christians should follow Old Testament practices. Up until that time, the customary practice was to fix the celebration of Passover for Christians on the 14th day of the month of Nisan in the Old Testament’s Hebrew Calendar. (Nisan is the first month of the ecclesiastical year and the seventh month of the civil year on the Hebrew calendar. It is a spring month of 30 days, which usually falls in March–April on the Gregorian calendar.) This was the original method of fixing the date of the Passover, which was held to be a “perpetual ordinance.” According to the Gospel of John (John 19:14), this was the day that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. (However a slight discrepancy should be noted here, since the Synoptic Gospels place the day on the 15th day of Nisan.) The Latin Biblical term for this practice is Quartodecimanism. By the end of the 3rd century, however, some Christians had become dissatisfied with what they perceived as the disorderly state of the Jewish calendar. The chief complaint was that the Jewish practice sometimes set the 14th of Nisan before the Spring Equinox.
That this ecclesiastical controversy was an early one in the Church is evidenced by a letter of St. Irenaeus, which shows that the diversity of practice regarding Easter had existed at least from the time of Pope Sixtus I (c. 120 CE). Further, Irenaeus states that the bishop of Smyrna, observed the fourteenth day of the moon, whatever day of the week that might be, following therein the tradition which he claimed to have derived from St. John the Apostle. Yet, for all this, around 195 CE, Pope Victor I attempted to excommunicate the Quartodecimans, turning the divergence of practice into a full-blown ecclesiastical controversy.
The second stage in the Easter controversy centers around the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular age of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself, since Sundays can occur on any date of the month. Shortly before the Nicaean Council, in 314 CE, the Provincial Council of Arles in Gaul had maintained that the Lord’s Pasch should be observed on the same day throughout the world and that each year the Bishop of Rome should send out letters setting the date of Easter.
The Syriac Christians always held their Easter festival on the Sunday after the Jews kept their Pesach. On the other hand at Alexandria, and seemingly throughout the rest of the Roman Empire, the Christians calculated the time of Easter for themselves, paying no attention to the Jews. In this way the date of Easter as kept at Alexandria and Antioch did not always agree. The Jewish communities in some places, possibly including Antioch, used methods of fixing their month of Nisan that sometimes put the 14th day of Nisan before the spring equinox. The Alexandrians, on the other hand, accepted it as a first principle that the Sunday to be kept as Easter Day must necessarily occur after the vernal equinox.
In an attempt to settle this confusion of discrepant Easter dates, the Council of Nicaea ruled that all churches should follow a single rule for Easter, which should be computed independently of the Jewish calendar, as at Alexandria. However, they made few decisions that were of practical use as guidelines for the computation, and it was several decades before the Alexandrine computations stabilized into their final form, and several centuries beyond that before a common method became accepted as normative throughout Christendom. The process of working out the details generated still further controversies.
The third stage in the Easter controversy centers around the Synod of Whitby. The Roman missionaries coming to Britain in the time of St. Gregory the Great (590–604 CE) found the British Christians, and the Irish missionaries who evangelized the English from the north, adhering to a system of Easter computation which differed from that used in the Mediterranean world. This British and Irish system, on the evidence of the 8th-century Christian monk and chronicler, the Venerable Bede of Northumbria, fixed Easter to the Sunday falling in the seven-day period from the 14th to the 20th of its lunar month, according to an 84-year cycle. The method used by the Roman Church was Nisan 15 – Nisan 21. Any of these features alone could have led to occasional discrepancies from the date of Easter as computed by the Alexandrine method. This 84-year cycle (called the latercus) gave way to the Alexandrine computus in stages. The Alexandrine computus may have been adopted in parts of the south of Ireland in the first half of the 7th century. Among the northern English, the use of the Alexandrine computus over the Brittano-Irish cycle was decided at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. The Alexandrine computus was finally adopted by the Irish colonies in northern Britain in the early 8th century, due to the work of the Venerable Bede. But what is important to note here is that the method from Alexandria became authoritative.
In its developed form it was based on the epacts (the ages of the moon) of a reckoned moon according to the 19-year cycle (a.k.a. the Metonic Cycle). The Alexandrian computus was converted from the Alexandrian calendar into the Julian calendar in Rome by Dionysius the Humble, though only for 95 years. Dionysius introduced the Christian Era (counting years from the Incarnation of Christ) when he published new Easter tables in 525 CE. Dionysius’s tables replaced earlier methods, based on 8 year and then 84 year cycles, used by the Church of Rome, as early as 222 CE. These old tables were used in Northumbria, the Venerable Bede’s birthplace, until 664 CE, and by isolated monasteries as late as 931 CE. A modified 84-year cycle was adopted in Rome during the first half of the 4th century. Victorius of Aquitaine tried to adapt the Alexandrian method to Roman rules in 457 CE in the form of a 532-year table, but he introduced serious errors. These Victorian tables were used in Gaul (now France) and Spain until they were displaced by Dionysian tables at the end of the 8th century.
In the British Isles Dionysius’s and Victorius’s tables conflicted with older Roman tables based on an 84-year cycle. The Irish Synod of Mag Léne in 631 CE decided in favor of either the Dionysian or Victorian Easter and the northern English Synod of Whitby in 664 CE adopted the Dionysian tables. The Dionysian reckoning was fully described by the Venerable Bede in 725 CE. In his book, On the Reckoning of Time, an Anglo-Saxon era treatise written in Latin in 725 CE, he asserted that Easter was named after the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess Ēostre or Eastra, who was worshiped during pre-Christian times as the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Ēostre had a festival lasting several days, and this name was adopted in England for the Christian holiday of Easter. Thus we can also credit the dating of Easter to the Venerable Bede, who, as we have seen, was deeply interested in the long-standing Easter dating controversy. Through the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon churches over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date, he tried to scientifically calculate the date of Easter. (In brief, it should be explained here that Christianity reached Roman Britain by the third century of the Christian era, which meant that there came to be a distinction between the Roman and British churches. The British church, which included the Irish, developed traditions not found in the wider Christian world. Among these include a distinctive system for determining the dating of Easter distinct from the older Roman church. But soon a dispute arose with the British church between the native Britons and the Anglo-Saxons over the method of dating Easter. The Anglo-Saxons were the population in Britain partly descended from the Germanic tribes who migrated from continental Europe and settled the south and east of the island beginning in the early 5th century.) Bede, an Anglo-Saxon with some animus against the native Britons, wrote his famous historical chronicle, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 CE), partly to show the unity of the English people and partly to disprove the British method of calculating Easter. Much of the work is devoted to a history of the dispute, including the final resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE. Yet this wasn’t the first work in which Bede took up the issue of the dating of Easter. Bede’s first treatise on historical and astronomical chronology was written in about 703 CE and entitled On Time. It provides an introduction to the principles of what he called Easter “computus” (Latin for “computation”). The next major work after this, in 725 CE, The Reckoning of Time (already cited), was influential throughout the Middle Ages. It includes a description of a variety of ancient calendars, including the Anglo-Saxon calendar, giving some information about its months. The focus of the work was the calculation of the date of Easter, which gave instructions for computing the date of Easter and the related time of the Easter Full Moon, and for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac. The Dionysian/Bedan computus remained in use in Western Europe until the Gregorian calendar reform, and remains in use in most Eastern Churches, including most Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Churches beyond the eastern frontier of the former Byzantine Empire use an Easter that differs four times every 532 years from this Easter, including the Assyrian Church of the East.
After the promulgation of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE, the Catholic and Protestant churches of the West came to follow a different method of computing the date of Easter from the one that had been previously accepted. The Gregorian Easter has been used since 1583 by the Roman Catholic Church and was adopted by most Protestant churches between 1753 and 1845. German Protestant states used an astronomical Easter based on the Rudolphine Tables of Johannes Kepler between 1700 and 1774, while Sweden used it from 1739 to 1844. This astronomical Easter was one week before the Gregorian Easter in 1724, 1744, 1778, 1798, etc. Most Eastern Orthodox churches continued to follow the older practice and this difference has continued to the present time, despite several attempts to achieve a common method for computing the date of Easter. In 1997 the World Council of Churches proposed a reform of the method of determining the date of Easter at a summit in Aleppo, Syria: Easter would be defined as the first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem. The reform would have been implemented starting in 2001, since in that year the Eastern and Western dates of Easter would coincide. This reform has not yet been implemented, and the second century Easter controversy lingers on.
The Vernal equinox is also known as the Spring Equinox because in northern climates it marks the time when the sun gains strength and days become increasingly longer. The sun nurtures and encourages new plants and crops to grow, green returns, and the promise of summer has begun. What we know as Easter celebrations date back into remotest antiquity and are found around the world. The paleo-pagans celebrated the blossoming of spring and revered this life-renewing time of the year, when winter had passed and the sun was “reborn.” After all, Spring is a sort of seasonal resurrection, with the land coming back to life after lying dead and bare during the winter months. Many, many pagan celebrations centered around the return of light and the rebirth of the land, so these ideas are not new themes in the slightest.
English and German are two of the very few languages that use some variation of the word Easter (or, in German, Ostern) as a name for this holiday. Most other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover. Easter is said to get its name from Ēostre (or Ēastre, or Aestre), an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn. Her name comes from an Indo-European root word, aus, meaning “to shine,” from which also comes Eos and Aurora, the Greek and Roman names of the dawn goddess. (Her name may also derive from an earlier Ausrion, meaning “morning”). Her holiday was celebrated near the Spring Equinox, as Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon that follows or falls on the Spring Equinox. Ēostre rites celebrated the vigor of the solar vegetation Gods and Goddesses. They are reborn at the Winter Solstice, when the night begins its retreat, but the light does not conquer the dark until the Spring Equinox, when the Sun triumphs. Naturally, Ēostre was especially honored by Dawn Rites (as is still part of the Easter tradition). The same Indo-European root aus gives us our word “east,” the direction of the dawn, and on the Spring Equinox the Sun rises due east. Since the Spring is the dawn of the new vegetation year (and was often the start of the calendar year in ancient times), Ēostre is also a goddess of Spring. She has been associated with Freya, the Norse goddess associated with love, sexuality, beauty, and fertility (the Germanic counterpart of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite). Freya in this capacity is the goddess of the fertile Spring, the resurrection of life after winter.
The name Ēostre comes from Northumbrian Old English. A variation, Ēastre, comes from West Saxon Old English. Ôstara comes from Old High German. Ēostre/Ôstara is a goddess in Germanic paganism who, by way of the Germanic month bearing her name (the Northumbrian: Ēosturmōnaþ; the West Saxon: Ēastermōnaþ; Old High German: ÔstarmČnoth), is said to be the namesake of the festival of Easter. The Anglo-Saxons called April Oster-monath or Eostur-monath. The Venerable Bede says that this month is the root of the word Easter. It should be pointed out that Ēostre is attested solely by the Venerable Bede in his 8th-century work On the Reckoning of Time, where he states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (the equivalent to the month of April) feasts were held in Ēostre’s honor among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, but had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the Christian “Paschal month” (a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus). In her various forms, she is said to be a “Spring-like fertility goddess” associated with dawn, and is connected to numerous traditions and deities indigenous to Northern Europe. In Old High German, we learn of Ôstara and her connection to dawn and the east. (Again, the word Ostr can be linked to the Latin word aurora and the Greek word eos, which both mean “dawn.” In Latin the word oestrus, from which we derive our English word estrogen, describes the fertile period in animals.
Looking a little deeper into the etymology of Ēostre, we find Ēostre derives from Proto-Germanic Austrō, meaning “the shining one,” and therefore closely related to a reconstructed name of hzausos, the dawn goddess. Her name is reconstructed as Hausōs, which would account for Greek dawn-goddess, Eos, the Roman dawn-goddess Aurora, and Indian dawn-goddess Ushas. By way of linguistic reconstruction, the matter of a Proto-Germanic goddess called Austrō has been examined in detail since the foundation of Germanic philology in the 19th century by scholar Jacob Grimm and others. As the Germanic languages descend from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), linguists have traced the name to a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, H₂ewsṓs (or Ausṓs), from which descends the common Germanic goddess that Ēostre and Ôstara. Scholars have linked the goddess’ name to a variety of Germanic personal names, a series of location names in England, and inscriptions discovered in Germany. Actually, according to Jacob Grimm’s great work, Teutonic Mythology, the idea of resurrection was part and parcel of celebrating the goddess Ôstara:
Ôstara, Eástre 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.
Thus it is safe to say that the modern English term “Easter” is the direct continuation of Old English Ēastre, whose role as a goddess is attested solely by Bede. (It should also be noted here that scholars have debated whether or not Ēostre is an invention of Bede’s, and theories connecting Ēostre with records of Germanic Easter customs, including hares and eggs, have been proposed.) It is interesting that the name for “spring season,” wes-r, is also from the same Indo-European root aus. This indicates that the dawn goddess was also the goddess of Spring, and involved in the mythology of the Indo-European new year, where the dawn goddess is liberated from imprisonment by a god (reflected in the Rigveda as Indra, in Greek mythology as Dionysus and Cronus). One of the most important goddesses of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion is the personification of dawn as a beautiful young woman. The name indicates that the goddess was imagined as a beautiful nubile woman, who also had aspects of a love goddess. Later on, the love goddess aspect was separated from the personification of dawn in a number of traditions, including Roman Venus vs. Aurora, and Greek Aphrodite vs. Eos. The Greek name of Aphrodite (Άφροδίτη) may still preserve her role as a dawn goddess, etymologized as “she who shines from the ocean foam” (from aphros; “foam” and deato; “to shine”).
Originally the English counted months by the moon, which they called mona, and the months were named for the moon with the suffix of mona added. Thus, April was known as Eosturmonath. In ancient times the Anglo Saxon calendar was divided into two seasons, not the four we know today. Originally there was summer and winter, each lasting 6 months, winter began in October and Summer in April. Eosturnmonath was when the fields became green again, sap rose, trees budded, and animals became fertile.
Concerning the makeup of our modern-day Easter, as far as we can tell it is derived from two ancient traditions: one pagan and the other Judeo-Christian. Both pagans and Christians have celebrated death and resurrection themes following the Spring Equinox for millennia. Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier pagan celebrations. Here the Spring Equinox’s ancient linkages to sun and moon worship are obvious.
For paleo-pagans, the Spring Equinox celebrated the renewed life of the Earth that comes with the Spring. It was (and for neo-pagans still is) a solar festival, celebrated when the length of the day and the night are equal. In pre-Christian times, this turn in the seasons was celebrated by cultures throughout history, which held festivals for their gods and goddesses at this time of year, such as Aphrodite from Cyprus, Hathor from Egypt and Ôstara of Scandinavia. The Celts continued the tradition with festivities at this time of year. These Spring festivals celebrated the rebirth of nature, the return the land to fertility, and the birth of young animals. Eggs, rabbits, hares, and other young animals are thought to represent the rebirth and return to fertility of nature in the Spring. In Christian times, the Spring began to be associated with Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. As the Christian religion developed, the idea of the resurrection joined with the pagan ideas of rebirth.
Again, it has come to be recognized by an increasing number of historians of religion today that the Christian holy day of Easter had its origins in the pre-Christian pagan religions, especially those called the “mystery religions” of the Hellenistic age, which worshipped the Great Mother goddess and her dying-and-reborn son/consort. In comparative mythology, the related motifs of a dying god and of a dying-and-rising god (also known as a death-rebirth-deity) have appeared in diverse cultures. The mythological archetype of a dying-and-rising god refers to a deity that returns, is resurrected, or is reborn in either a literal or symbolic sense. Beginning in the 19th century, a number of pagan gods who would fit these motifs were identified. Male god examples include the ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Norse deities, such as Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Tammuz, Ra the Sun god with his fusion with Osiris/Orion, Dionysus, Baldr, and Jesus. Female god examples include Inanna, Ishtar, and Persephone.
Many, perhaps most, pagan religions in the ancient Mediterranean region had a major seasonal day of religious celebration on, or following, the Spring Equinox. For example, in one religion, that of Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, she had a consort who was believed to have been born via a virgin birth. Attis was said to have died and been resurrected each year during the period March 22 to March 25; i.e., at the time of the Vernal Equinox in the Julian calendar. According to Gerald L. Berry, author of Religions of the World:
About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection.
Thus, wherever Christian worship of Jesus and the pagan worship of Attis were active in the same geographical area in Roman times, Christians celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same date, which caused pagans and Christians to quarrel over which of their savior gods was the true prototype and which the imitation. However, since the worship of Cybele was brought to Rome in 204 BCE, about 250 years before Christianity, it is obvious that if any copycatting occurred, it was the Christians that copied and co-opted the dying-and-reborn savior god traditions of the pagan mystery religions.
Today, though there is a general consensus that the pagan dying-and-reborn gods served as the model for the Christian savior-god, no scholarly consensus exists on the linkage between the Attis and Jesus Christ. However, many religious historians believe that the pagan death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Thus, it appears that the myths of dying-and-reborn gods—e.g., Attis, Adonis, Mithras, Osiris—were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus’ life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to the pagans in the Roman Empire, whom the Christian religion sought to convert. But it should be pointed out that the Christians had an alternative explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit pagan deities with many of the same life experiences as Jesus had. Satan and his demons had done this, in advance of the coming of Christ, in order to confuse humanity. To this day, most Christians regard the Attis story as being a pagan myth of little value. They regard Jesus’ death and resurrection account as being an exact description of real events, and unrelated to the earlier pagan mythical traditions. Thus, from the dominant Christian point of view, they have a true, historical savior-god, whereas the Pagans mere mythology; mere fictions based upon poetic tales.
There is a long-standing scholarly disagreement over the derivation of the name Easter and hence a lot of confusion among laymen. Some historians believe that the name comes from the ancient Norse word eostur or ostar, which means “season of the growing sun” or “season of new birth.” Other scholars, while agreeing with this derivation, also believe that source of “Easter” ultimately comes from the Anglo Saxon goddess of dawn and springtime; Ēostre or Ôstara, whose principal festival was kept at the Vernal Equinox and whose symbol is the hare. Again, the source of this etymological connection only comes from the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon chronicler and Christian monk, the Venerable Bede.
Similarly, the Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility was known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos. Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: eastre. Hence we get the Norse goddess of the dawn and fertility, Ôstara, most associated with Easter. Similar goddesses celebrated in the springtime were known by other names in ancient cultures. Thus we can find several goddesses who can be connected with Easter. There is Demeter and Persephone from Mycenae and Aphrodite, known also as Cytherea (Lady of Cythera and Lady of Cyprus) by the Mycenean Greeks. The ancient Greeks also identified her with the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor. Then there was Astarte, the Greek name for the Mesopotamian /Babylonian goddess some have directly associated with Easter, Ishtar, known throughout the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean from the early Bronze Age to Classical times. Also included here are Ashtoreth from Israel and Kali from India.
Again, in looking for one pagan goddess behind Easter, the popular consensus is Ēostre, a name deriving from a springtime Anglo-Saxon/Germanic mother goddess of dawn, fertility, and spring, whose rites were celebrated at the Vernal Equinox. She was also known as Ôstara, a northern form of Astarte, a predominately Phoenician mother-goddess from 1500 BCE and goddess of the evening star. Some have claimed that there is an etymological derivation here that points to Easter coming out of the Babylonian fertility goddess, Ishtar. However this derivation has been challenged to be on shaky ground and most scholars have rejected it. In any case, some scholars believe the name is derived from the Proto-Germanic, austrôn-, meaning “dawn, east” and “illuminate daybreak.” Her sacred month was Eastre-monath, the “Moon of Eoster.” Saxon poets apparently knew Ēostre (a form of the West Germanic goddess called Ôstara) as the same Goddess as India’s Great Mother Kali. The epic poem Beowulf spoke of “Ganges’ waters, whose flood waves ride down into an unknown sea near Eostre’s far home.” So if we look further back into the pagan past, we discover that there is most probably an ancient pagan fertility goddess behind the Christian Easter. The Latin word for Easter is Pascha (Paschal in English), which is simply a form of the Hebrew word for Passover—Pesach. In any case, no matter which source is the origin for the word Easter, most authorities seem to accept that Easter definitely refers to the east, the direction of the rising sun, and the spring season.
Like all the church’s “movable feasts,” Easter shows its pagan origin in a dating system based on the old lunar calendar. It is fixed as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, formerly the “pregnant” phase of Eoster passing into the fertile season. Thus, we know that the Christian festival wasn’t called “Easter” until the fertility goddess’s name was given to it in the late Middle Ages.
I have already mentioned that there is probably no evidence of a direct etymological connection between Easter and Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess. However, that doesn’t rule out a direct mythological connection to the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic fertility goddess, Ôstara. Of all the pagan goddess besides Ôstara, Ishtar and her mythology contain the most intriguing elements of association with Easter. In the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar is a goddess of fertility, love, and sex, and she “was the divine personification of the planet Venus.” Ishtar was above all associated with sexuality, and she herself was the “courtesan of the gods.” Ishtar had many lovers, chief among which was Tammuz, god of vegetation and the harvest. One of the greatest Sumerian rites was the “sacred marriage” between the goddess and the god—Inanna and Dumuzi or Ishtar and Tummuz. The beautiful shepherd-god, Tammuz, was a life-death-rebirth deity who is referred to in the Bible (Ezekiel 8:14). Tammuz was born to a virgin, named Mylitta, on December 25. He also performed miracles and healed the sick. The Greeks knew him as Adonis. Again we have the primordial archetypal divine couple of Halcyon days, the goddess and her dying-and-reborn consort (usually a vegetation god, like that other dying-and-reborn god Dionysus), from which it appears that the god-man Jesus derives.
From all this we can understand that the story of Easter is not exclusively a Christian story. It is true that for more than fifteen hundred years the feast of Easter has celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, as we have seen, not only does the very name “Easter” derive from the name of an ancient and non-Christian deity; the season itself has also, from time immemorial, been the occasion of rites and observances having to do with the mystery of death and resurrection among peoples differing widely in race and religion. It seems probable that around the second century CE, Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribes of northern Europe noticed that the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus roughly coincided with the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon springtime celebrations, which emphasized the triumph of life over death. Thus, the Christian Easter festival gradually absorbed the pagan traditional symbols. Although we see no celebration of Easter in the New Testament, early church fathers celebrated it, and today many churches are offering “sunrise services” at Easter—an obvious borrowing from earlier pagan solar celebrations of the dawn-goddess Ēostre or Ôstara. (Ēostre and Ôstara are sometimes referenced in modern popular culture, and are venerated in some forms of Germanic Neo-paganism.)
As a result, the full story of Easter is a most complex mixture of history and mythology. It is most probable, then, that the Christian Easter absorbed many of the ancient rites and observances associated, not only with the sun, but also with the fertility of the soil. Whereas the ascent of the sun is connected with the world’s salvation, mythology connects its descending journey with creation. Many stories relate that at sunset the sun descends into those mysterious waters of chaos out of which the universe was created, and in the midst of which the World Egg floats. Indeed, the world first came out of the waters because the divine Spirit, symbolized by the sun, descended into them and brought order and life out of chaos. The universe is the Spirit expressing itself through matter, through material, which is of the same root as the word “maternal,” so that myth almost universally equates the primeval waters with the Universal Mother Goddess in whose womb the world is formed by the action of the Spirit. Such mythical ideas survive in Christian symbolism.
As we all know, Easter is a time when the dying-and-reborn savior god of the Christians, Jesus, returns from the dead and from hell, rising from the underworld. However, some mythologists have told us that the mythic theme of the “descent to the underworld” is universal and predates the Jesus story. Interestingly enough, Ishtar, “Queen of the Night,” like her Sumerian counterpart, the goddess Inanna, is known for her famous descent to the underworld. Therefore, I think we can discern an archetypal pattern here, with the Jesus story being a late instance of the archetype. But with Christianity, we end up with the savior-god Jesus replacing both the savior goddess as the first deity to descend and be resurrected and the dying-and-reborn pagan gods, who were her sons/consorts. And speaking of the “sacred marriage” theme again from ancient Mesopotamia, the union of Ishtar and Tammuz (or Inanna and Dummuzi), there could also a parallel here to Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic tradition. The Gnostic Magdalene is Jesus’ “dearly beloved,” the Gnostic counterpart to the savior—Sophia. In the Gnostic Gospels she is “Mary Lucifer” or “Mary the Light-giver.” Here she is equivalent to Ishtar, the morning star Venus.
A few examples should suffice here in order to appreciate how the earlier mythic symbolism associated with pagan deities and their stories got incorporated into the Christian Christ story. We begin with what could be called a solar Ur-myth. This is the archaic myth of the sun’s daily descent and ascent, the general symbolic story of the death and “night-sea journey” of the sun (son) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his overcoming the powers of darkness in rebirth. This was a well-worn story in the ancient world. So we can understand the journey of the sun through the Vernal Equinox, which ushers in Spring, at which time the sun is “resurrected,” as the day begins to become longer than the night, is the archaic nature-myth upon which all later ancient personifications of the sun are based. As the late anthropologist and mythologist Sir James Frazer suggested in his classic The Golden Bough, the solar myth is ultimately a story about the sun, fertility, and vegetation.
As pointed out in my Winter Solstice/Christmas musical essays, in pre-Christian times there were plenty of sun gods, who became resurrected saviors, demonstrating how the sun god became the son of God. The very prominent Roman cult of the sun god Mithras, the main rival of the new Christian cult, identified him as the Sol Invictus, “the Unconquered Sun.” He was born on what we now call Christmas day. Given that the Mithras religion was essentially an astronomical/astrological one (as discussed in my previous musical essay series), it is only natural that his followers celebrated the Spring Equinox. Then there was the cult of the Phrygian Great Mother goddess Cybele (“Magna Mater”). In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis was born of a virgin, died, and was reborn annually. As the story goes, on “Black Friday” Attis was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth, and he descended into the underworld. After three days, Attis was resurrected on March 25th as the “Most High God.” His followers celebrated a Spring festival of rejoicing over the resurrection. According to Sir James Frazer again: “Thus the tradition which placed the death of Christ on the twenty-fifth of March was ancient and deeply rooted. It is all the more remarkable because astronomical considerations prove that it can have had no historical foundation.” (To reiterate, there was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarreled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected-god myths, Christianity found lots of converts. So, it appears that Christianity eventually came to an accommodation with the pagan Spring festival.) Turning to yet another dying-and-reborn savior-god, the originally Syrian god Adonis (the name being a borrowing from the Semitic word adon, meaning “lord,” which is related to the word applied to Christ, Adonai), we find that in Greek mythology this ever-youthful vegetation god was also a life-death-rebirth deity. Adonis was also central figure in various mystery religions. The rites of the “crucified Adonis,” who was seen as remover of sin, were also celebrated in Syria at springtime. As Frazer observes:
When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season.
This mythic motif of a pagan dying-and-resurrected savior god Adonis demonstrates once again that the salvific death and resurrection at the same time of the season at which Easter came to be celebrated is a later Christian rehashing of age-old pagan motifs and mysteries. This pre-Christian archetypal death-and-resurrection motif is exemplified in a pagan text called the “Great Magical Papyrus of Paris,” which is part of a body of papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt containing a number of magical spells, formulae, hymns and rituals: “Lord, being born again I perish in that I am being exalted, and having been exalted I die; from a life-giving birth being born into death I was thus freed and go the way which Thou has founded, as Thou hast ordained and hast made the mystery.”
These, then, are the most famous pre-Christian dying-and-reborn gods who likely served as pagan models for Christ. However, we should not assume that savior deities were limited to the male variety. There were, in fact, female savior deities who made the descent to the underworld and then ascended in a reborn fashion. I should point out here that Christianity and other religions associate three themes with the time of the Vernal Equinox, which signals the rebirth of Spring: (1) Conception and pregnancy leading to birth six months later on the Winter Solstice. (2) The descent into the underworld for a period of three days. (3) The victory of a god of light (or life) over the powers of darkness and death issuing in a rebirth or resurrection at the Vernal Equinox. We need to remember here that in the case of Christianity, the “Apostle’s Creed” contains two of these themes. It states, in part, that Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) was: “crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.” Here, the pagan archetypal theme of the “descent into the underworld,” which originally was made by pagan goddesses, is renamed by the Christian Church fathers as “the harrowing of Hell.” Thus, again, we can see that behind the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the archetypal pattern of the earlier pagan dying-and-reborn deities.
We have already seen a primary mythological connection of Easter to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. (To reiterate, based on the similarity of their names and a shaky etymology, some connect Eostre with Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, but there is no solid evidence for this etymological connection.) The goddess Ishtar was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently ascended from the underworld. (Again, Ishtar’s Sumerian counterpart, Inanna, also made a decent to the underworld and was resurrected.) Then there’s the Greek myth of Persephone or Kore, daughter of the Great Earth-Mother goddess Demeter, which is told in The Homeric Hymn To Demeter (650-550 BCE). The myth of Persephone is one of the oldest of all Greek myths, and her story is a personification of some of the most universal concepts about life and death. The Hymn To Demeter records the story of Persephone’s abduction into the underworld and her eventual rising back up to the world of the gods, which brings the spring and new life to the earth. As the Goddess of Springtime and Rebirth, she is eternally connected to the cycles of the earth, which lies barren in her absence but blooms again each Spring with her return. Is this not an Easter-type story? The story became the backdrop of the mystery religion of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Greece. During what were called the Lesser Mysteries, which were celebrated in the month of “Month of Flowers,” the month preceding the Spring Equinox, the initiates said: “Whoever knows the secrets of Demeter will have joy forever in the world to come.”
I mentioned the “World Egg.” Few Christian historians seem to have any clear ideas about the origin of the Easter egg. Some say that it was traditional to bless and eat eggs at Easter because they were not allowed to be eaten during the fast of Lent, which Easter brings to an end. But the fact is that there are no records of the use of Easter eggs in Western Europe before the 15th century. So there must be another way to make sense of this symbol. Symbolically speaking, an egg is a beginning and Easter is a feast of beginnings, of the emergence of life from darkness and death. The egg in religious iconography is accepted as a symbol of fertility and immortality, so it is easily seen why it goes with Spring when things sprout back to life. Yet, the Easter egg takes us back—way, way back—to some of the oldest known civilizations on earth; to ancient Egypt and India, where the symbol of an egg plays an important part in mythical accounts of the creation of the world. According to religious scholars, the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Hindus and others believed that the world was a cosmic egg. Hindu mythology also tells us of the World Egg which was formed in the “waters of chaos” before the universe and time had begun. We can find the World-Egg symbol in Western mythology also. The egg appears as one of the main symbols in Orphic mythology of ancient Greece and a major symbol in Gnosticism, representing rebirth and gnosis. (See the picture of the Gnostic Mary Magdalene holding up an egg on the ToS website “Playlist & Images” page.) Eggs are a result of being fertile and a life source, as well as a holder of mystery. In the Greek Orphic tradition, the Goddess of Night became pregnant by the God of the Wind and the world was hatched from the egg she laid. In this tradition the egg is a symbol of the mystery of life, creation and resurrection. The Celtic Druids have the cosmic egg of the serpent, Egyptians the cosmic egg that belonged to the sun god Ra. An egg represents potential, because what’s within can’t be seen; yet the secret life inside continues to grow until it’s ready to be born. Eggs are also the food with a round sun suspended in the middle. In the Middle Ages eggs were dyed red to represent the color of life. Thus, the egg is a symbol of death and life alike. It is a symbol of death in so far as it is a shell or tomb in which the life-germ is imprisoned; it is a symbol of life in so far as it is the source of a new creature.
Thus it is by no mere flight of private fancy that we associate our Easter egg with this mysterious World Egg, this original germ from which all life proceeds, and whose shell is the firmament (the ancient word for the limits of space, which our own scientists believe to be curved). But why should Easter, the Feast of Resurrection, be connected with a symbol having to do with the creation of the universe? The answer is because there is an obvious parallel between the rising of Christ from death and the rising of the universe from the original darkness of chaos and nonbeing. Eggs in popular tradition have long been associated with Easter as a symbol of new life and Jesus’ resurrection. From the Christian perspective, Easter eggs are said to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection. One explanation for this custom is that eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season, so people would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the period of penance and fasting, then eat them on Easter as a celebration.
Easter is, of course, a religious holiday, but some of its customs, such as Easter eggs, are linked to earlier pagan traditions. The egg, an ancient symbol of new life, has been associated with pagan festivals celebrating Spring. Eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility through the ages. Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of antiquity. It is believed that for this reason many ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, used eggs during their Spring festivals. Since birds lay eggs and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early Spring, these became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox.
Familiar as the Easter Bunny now is, its beginnings are unknown to most people. Today we assume that for Easter Christ is primary and the Easter Bunny was a modern addition for the children, perhaps a marketing gimmick to commercialize the holiday. Some have said that a rabbit emerging from his burrow is a symbol of Christ rising from his tomb on Easter morning. But whatever the association is between the savior and a rabbit or hare, most people believe that the savior figure of Christ came first. Actually, the reverse is the case—the Easter Bunny is older than Christianity; but it wasn’t originally a bunny; it was a hare, a very different kind of creature. First of all, it should be pointed out that hares are not rabbits. Hares are the cousin to rabbits, who have shorter ears and longer hind legs. Hares do not burrow, but live precariously on the surface in “forms” with strong hind legs as their main asset, in that speed is their best defense against foxes and dogs. Their mad courting behavior is related to March because that is when they are most visible although they continue their mating activities through most of the year, hidden by darkness or long grass. (Hence the popular “Mad as a March hare.) The hare has deep mythological significance and is known in Chinese, American Indian, as well as European stories. The hare was originally the symbol of Ēostre (or Aestre), the pagan goddess of rebirth, before Christianity became prevalent, and as the old religion was overturned so its gods and symbols became associated with the devil and hares were thought to be witches “familiars.” Thus, the Easter bunny is a mutated descendant of the fabled hare. Secondly, there has never been any Christian symbol pertaining to rabbits. It is said that the Easter Bunny came to the United States via German immigrants, who called him “Oschter Haws.” (“Hase” means “hare,” not rabbit, and in Northwest European folklore the “Easter Bunny” is a hare, not a rabbit.) The Moon Hare was sacred to the Goddess in both eastern and western nations. Relying on the myths of Hathor-Astarte who laid the Golden Egg of the sun, Germans used to say the hare would lay eggs for good children on Easter Eve. Thus, in German folklore, the goddess Ôstara, the Spring Festival goddess, was always accompanied by a fabled hare.
Folklorists give us some information as to the origins of the Easter Bunny. Because the word Easter comes from the ancient celebrations of Ēostre, the coming of Spring, rebirth and fertility of new life, some folklorists hold that the story of the fabled hare is historically tied to the Mother Goddess of Ancient European lore, and came to be associated with the Northern European Goddess of Spring, Ēostre. Her symbols were the hare, egg, bird and flower, representing the fertility of Spring. The hare (or rabbit) is known to be most commonly associated with the moon (“the hare in the moon”), rebirth, rejuvenation and resurrection. In Celtic lore, hares are associated with lunar deities and are shape-shifters traveling easily between the worlds. Hare bones and figurines were buried in ritual pits as they represented rebirth and immortality in the Goddess. It has been said that this hare was once a bird whom Ēostre, the Anglo Saxon dawn goddess, changed into a four-footed creature. It is easily possible that hare may have been a symbol of fertility, being notably prolific. (Being prolific breeders, it’s therefore not surprising that hares and rabbits should become fertility symbols, or that their springtime mating antics should enter into popular Easter folklore.) The hare or rabbit is also a representation of the female reproductive cycle in Western culture. The hare may also be connected with the corn-spirit, because in many parts of Europe the last sheaf of corn to be cut is called the “hare,” and the cutting is sometimes called “cutting the tail of the hare.”
There is also a connection of the hare with Christian iconography, which may have gradually filtered into the Easter theme. The hare was a popular motif in medieval church art. In ancient times it was widely believed (by Pliny, Plutarch, Philostratus and Aelian) that the hare was a hermaphrodite. The idea that a hare could reproduce without loss of virginity led to an association with the Virgin Mary, with hares sometimes occurring in illuminated manuscripts and Northern European paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child. It may also have been associated with the Holy Trinity, as in the three hares motif, representing the “One in Three and Three in One,” of which the triangle or three interlocking shapes such as rings are common symbols. The interlocking hares are also a symbol of the ancient Celtic Triple-Goddess. (See “Playlists & Images” webpage for images of this.) In England, this motif usually appears in a prominent place in the church, such as the central rib of the chancel roof, or on a central rib of the nave. This suggests that the symbol held significance to the church.
Furthermore, an Easter hare hunt was observed in parts of England from quite early times, and in Hungary and South Germany it has long been the custom for children to put the effigy of a hare in the basket prepared for the Easter eggs. Thus the inclusion of the hare into Easter customs appears to have originated in Germany, where tales were told of an “Easter hare” who laid eggs for children to find. In European legend and folklore, the Easter Bunny carries colored eggs in his basket, candy, and sometimes also toys to the homes of children. It was first mentioned in Georg Franck von Frankenau’s About Easter Eggs in 1682, referring to an Alsace tradition of an Easter hare bringing Easter eggs. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter. In 1835, Jakob Grimm wrote of long-standing similar myths in Germany itself and suggested that these derived from legends of the reconstructed continental Germanic goddess Ôstara. It appears that German immigrants to America (particularly Pennsylvania) brought the tradition with them and spread it to a wider public. They also baked cakes for Easter in the shape of hares, and may have pioneered the practice of making chocolate bunnies and eggs.
As for the association of the Easter Bunny and eggs, there are found innumerable European folk customs, since the fifteenth century, in connection with the Easter Egg. According to German folklore, the Easter Bunny lays them and hides them in gardens. In modern American folklore, the Easter egg is the production of a hare or rabbit, which is a tradition brought to this continent from Central and Western Europe. Decorating eggs for Easter is a tradition that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to some sources, but no one is sure how this got started. Sometimes the eggs are left white; sometimes they are dyed in plain colors. The most elaborate Easter egg traditions appear to have emerged in Eastern Europe. In parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries they are elaborately painted with symbols. Many Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red, the color of blood, in recognition of the blood of the sacrificed Christ (and of the renewal of life in springtime). Some also use the color green, in honor of the new foliage emerging after the long dead time of winter. This green egg, then, clearly seems to be a symbol of rebirth.
‘Twas Easter-Sunday. The full-blossomed trees
Filled all the air with fragrance and with joy.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
See the land, her Easter keeping,
Rises as her Maker rose.
Seeds, so long in darkness sleeping,
Burst at last from winter snows.
Earth with heaven above rejoices...
In the Christian Bible, Jesus returned to Jerusalem from his forty days in the desert just before Passover. In fact, in the Gospel according to John, Jesus was killed on the day before the first night of Passover, at the time when lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Passover feast (because Jesus was the Lamb of God, etc.). There are a few differing accounts of when Jesus actually died, but most Christian texts, theologians, and scholars agree that it was around the time of Passover. Easter is still celebrated the week after Passover, which is why it’s a different day each year, because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar. It has been said that the eight days of Holy Week and Easter mark out a drama, at once a History and a Mystery. (Easter also seems to be based upon Passover, the Jewish holiday beginning on the 14th of Nisan at sundown and continuing for eight days, which runs from sundown March 25 to sundown April 2 in 2013 by the Gregorian Calendar. It commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.)
Again, let me remind you that Christianity and other religions associate three themes with the Vernal Equinox: (1) Conception and pregnancy leading to birth six months later on the Winter Solstice. (2) The descent into the underworld for a period of three days. (3) The victory of a god of light (or life) over the powers of darkness and death issuing in a rebirth or resurrection at the Vernal Equinox.
In the liturgy of the Christian mass, near midnight, the deacon on Holy Saturday mass, before he lights the candle, he sings of the mystery of the light that comes out of darkness. “Now is come the night whereof David said: Behold, the night is as clear as the day: then shall my night he turned into day . . .” —words that take us back to the Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Greece some 2000 years before, where the night upon which the initiation was completed was called “that holy night, clearer than the light of the sun.” So, too, the initiate of the Mysteries of Osiris said: “About midnight I saw the sun brightly shine.” To implement his words, the deacon lights the Paschal Candle. As dawn is on the horizon, the high windows of the Cathedral are faintly luminous with the returning blue of the sky. Having taken upon themselves the gift of union with Christ, the newly baptized are now, to witness for the first time the inmost mystery of Christianity, the celebration of the Eucharist (thanksgiving) that we are one with his substance (the Body) and his life (the Blood). The dawn has arrived. (In the olden days, this would be the springtime goddess of the dawn, Eostre” or “Ostara.”)
While a litany is sung, the bishop ascends to the altar, and his deacons change their vestments from purple to white and gold. They bring incense to him, and as the smoke from the censer hangs above the altar candles like a light-filled cloud, the choir sings:
I am risen, and am present with thee, alleluia!
Thou hart laid thine hand upon we, alleluia!
Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for
me, alleluia, alleluia!
This is the way they do it in the Catholic Church for the faithful. However, those of us who have sought other sources of wisdom and commemoration of a sacred mystery can also join in the Easter festivities, if we remember that the story of death and resurrection is not only universal to all religious traditions, but also part and parcel of the human experience, whether or not it gets expressed in religious ritual or secular form. I will have more to say about this “universal significance” of Easter, but for the present it seems that we don’t have to settle for just one true commemoration of the archaic spring festival of renewal and rebirth, for there is a choice personal to each one of us, whether religious or not, who want to connect with the seasonal energies of rebirth. Thus the title of this Spring/Easter musical essay: “Many Easters & Eosters for the Many: A Choice of Hallelujahs.” Therefore the Gypsy Scholar would suggest for those with similar sensibilities in this realm as himself, if we must have the religious trappings, at least we could go for a ritual that was more in keeping with the post-modern experience. In other words (or lyrics) not an orthodox Hallelujah for Easter, but a “broken Hallelujah.”
Well pleaseth me the sweet time of Easter
That maketh the leaf and the flower come out.
~Bertran de Born, Troubadour
Easter is not a time for groping through dusty, musty tomes or tombs to disprove spontaneous generation or even to prove life eternal. It is a day to fan the ashes of dead hope, a day to banish doubts and seek the slopes where the sun is rising, to revel in the faith which transports us out of ourselves and the dead past into the vast and inviting unknown. ~Anonymous
The stars shall fade away, the sun himself
Grow dim with age, and Nature sink in years;
But thou shalt flourish in immortal youth,
Unhurt amid the war of elements,
The wreck of matter, and the crush of worlds.
Easter theme is expressed not so much in doctrines as in stories, myths, and dramatic rituals having to do with the adventures of hero gods and other symbolic figures. At first sight it is surprising to find so many of these stories and symbols of death and resurrection in so many different places. The points of resemblance between the Christ story, on the one hand, and the myth and ritual of ancient and “pagan” cults, on the other, is at times startling enough to look like there is not one new element in Christianity that it didn’t borrow from previous religions. Earlier I mentioned the ancient mystery religions of the Hellenistic period, whose universal theme of the dying-and-reborn savior gods was the drama of death and resurrection.
If we go back far enough—way, way back—, the universal meaning of Easter seems to come out of an agricultural or vegetation Ur-myth that goes back to the dawn of the first human settlements. Simply put, it goes something like this: The seed, before it can come to life as a plant, must be buried in the earth. Before the splendor of spring, all the earth is shrouded in the gray, cold death of winter. Fast forward to the late-coming Galilean version: “Unless a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it remains alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.” In those words Jesus of Nazareth summed up the ancient strange truth that life is ever dependent upon death. We also know his parable of the multitude of grains that are gathered together and die under the grinding stone, and out of this second death comes bread, the “staff of life.” That, in brief, is the theme of the Easter story, of the rising from death of him who called himself the Bread of Life.
For this reason, the whole point of Easter is lost if the feast is taken out of its context. The resurrection of Christ into eternal life is an event stripped of its meaning if it be set apart from the sacrificial death which preceded it. So Easter must begin with the Good Friday crucifixion, and so the condition of eternal life is that incessant dying to oneself, which is called “love.” The story of Easter cannot, therefore, be told apart from the story of the Passion. The two events are inseparable in the life of Christ, and wherever and whenever people have kept the springtime feast of life’s everlasting renewal they have never failed to represent its dependence upon death. In this sense then, Easter is, indeed, far older than Christianity. Thus, however much Christianity may have taken the archetypal story in its own direction, the same essential theme has been celebrated under many different names and circumstances from time immemorial. But the distinguishing and all-important mark of this Easter theme is not resurrection alone, but death and resurrection—the coming of life out of sacrifice.
In the simplest of terms, shorn of all the dogmatic trappings, it can be said that Easter symbolizes the fact that life in this world is dependent on death—death and rebirth. Thus the Gypsy Scholar would suggest that Easter—by whatever name it may be known—is a death and rebirth theme common to almost every religion and every people. We have seen that there is nothing peculiarly original in the Easter story; not even that Jesus returned from death, for that, too, has been recorded of other dying-and-reborn savior gods. In recognizing this, we are getting to the bedrock of religion in the archaic mythico-rituals of natural religion and its universal vegetation Ur-myth.
As anthropologist Sir James Frazer suggested in his classic The Golden Bough, the myth is ultimately a story about the sun or the crops. The setting and rising of the sun, the sowing and sprouting of the corn, are ritually dramatized as the actions of hero gods—Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis, Ra, and even Jesus—all of whom undergo death and resurrection. The Easter theme is found, for instance, in the Egyptian story of the annual death and resurrection of the corn spirit, personified as Tammuz or Osiris. But it is also found in probably the greatest of the ancient sun gods, the Egyptian Ra. The world’s oldest book on death and resurrection, the so called Book of the Dead, whose true title is The Book of Coining Forth by Day, opens with a number of “Hymns to Ra when he Riseth,” wherein so plain a connection is made between the rising of the sun and the resurrection of the soul from death that they might well be called the first Easter hymns.
These are part of the universal complex of the dying-and-reborn pagan fertility deities which figured in the so prominently in The Golden Bough. One of the most archaic of these is the so-called “Horned God,” who is associated with nature, wilderness, the hunt, sexuality, and the life cycle; the personification of the life force energy in animals and the wild. And, as the Sun God, he is “the Lord of Death and Resurrection.” The Horned God, as a nature and fertility god, has appeared in a multitude of forms and made himself known by many names to nearly every culture throughout time.
Usually, but not always, observed with special rites at a certain time of year, it is the myth-theme that through death an individual can enter an eternal life. Sometimes the “death” in question is a physical death. But at other times it is, and has long been understood, as a “psychic death”—that is, as self denial, self sacrifice, or self forgetting, while yet in the midst of life. This was the main them is the pre-Christian pagan mystery religions. No one who knows anything of the ancient Mystery Cults can fail to recognize that the full form of the Christian Holy Week and Easter rites is a Mystery—a tremendous drama of the Christian’s union with Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection. In terms of the story of Easter, as it gets translated from the theme of life-death-rebirth in the ancient mystery traditions, this is a universal theme, and as such part and parcel of the essence of the human condition—of the time in the underworld of death and darkness when we long to be born again.