By Vexen Crabtree 2015
The word Easter might have derived from a springtime Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess called Eastre (known as Eostre, in German and in Norse as Ostara), whose symbolism included the hare, the moon and eggs1. But that figure is disputed, and others say it derives from the word 'east', 'dawn'2 or from the Norse word for the spring season3. Whichever it is, Easter is steeped in the symbolism of cycle of the sun, which rises in the East, and which in spring fondles the natural world to life. In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs on the 21st of March when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night4. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and this solar rebirth is celebrated in most ancient pagan religions, where agricultural life depended on the growth of spring. Hence why the images of Easter include two of the most ancient and universal symbols of birth, nature, fertility, life and rebirth: the egg and the rabbit5,6,7,8. We told anthropomorphized stories to explain why the sun, and nature, waxed and waned with the seasons, and thus Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults celebrated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time of year9. Since the very first centuries CE Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths9. The beloved chocolate egg has now come to be the ubiquitous and central image of Easter and the Easter holidays10, and the Easter Bunny can often be seen delivering (and hiding) them, reminding us that Easter is quintessentially a pagan, sun-worshipping festival.
The symbol of the egg has been tied since time immemorial with the concepts of life, birth, rebirth, and in particular, with the time of spring5. It is deeply interwoven with prehistoric creation myths and ancient stories about the creation of life6,8. It has been given cosmic significance, representing the birth and rebirth of many gods and powerful spiritual beings, on account of its link to life and fertility6. The beloved chocolate egg has now come to be the ubiquitous and central image of Easter and the Easter holidays10.
|The Easter Bunny|
The Easter Bunny can often be seen delivering (and hiding) Easter eggs during its mid-spring festival. Because of its prolific breeding, the rabbit and the hare have been symbols of fertility and spring since ancient times and the imagery of those two animals has been somewhat interchangeable over the millennia7,11. In the first century, the Roman academic Pliny noted that rabbit and hare paraphernalia were used for magical purposes, and "both were used as charms against sterility or to encourage pregnancy and easy childbirth"7. Although this prominent pagan symbol of Easter and spring continued to be used after Christianity took over Easter, unlike other symbols of Easter it "has never received any specific Christian interpretation"11.
|Rejuvination and Rebirth|
In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night, which occurs on the 21st of March each year4. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and its rebirth is celebrated. This was an especially important event for early human civilisations that relied upon agriculture. This is why so many ancient religions and cultures celebrate renewal and rebirth at and after the spring equinox, and is why Easter is tied up with the ideas of fertility and growth, hence, the symbols of the egg and the rabbit. Ancient pagans anthropomorphized the forces of nature, and told stories to explain why the sun was resurgent. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults incorporated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time, with the principal dying-and-resurrection god returning to Earth for the sake of humankind9. When Christianity arose, Christians also told stories of Jesus dying and resurrecting at Easter, and since the very first centuries of Christianity, Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the whole Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths but without understanding of the underlying solar symbolism9.
|The Christian Cross and Jesus|
The Christian versions of the Roman resurrection god-man mythos had Jesus, like other god-men such as Dionysus, resurrect at Easter time, and like the others, this occurred after a 3-day descent. So, the solar spring festival at Easter became "the most important of all Christian feasts, [celebrating] the passion, the death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ"3. Once Christianity inherited the power and wealth of the Roman Empire, its Easter celebrations became spectacular affairs with a large number of ancient traditions and practices incorporated with Christian interpretations. After Christianity swept away paganism from Europe, many came to believe (and many still do) that Easter was itself invented by Christianity but thankfully historians nowadays have a wealth of ancient evidence showing us just how ancient the symbols of Easter are.
There was once a fertility goddess, and a goddess of spring, called Eastre, also known as Eostre, in German as Oestra and in Norse as Ostara1, who "owned a hare in the moon which loved eggs and she was sometimes depicted as having the head of a hare"1. But that figure is disputed, and Steve Roud in "The English Year" says that "goddess or not, the English word 'Easter' is derived from the word 'east', and therefore probably from 'dawn'"2 and Eliade Mircea says "the English name Easter, like the German Ostern, probably derives from Eostur, the Norse word for the spring season, and not from Eostre, the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess"3. Whatever the etymological history of the word, it is clear that the concept of the goddess, and the concept of the word, is steeped in the cycle of the sun, which rises in the East, and which in spring fondles the natural world to life. Easter is quintessentially a pagan, sun-worshipping festival.
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(1995, Ed.) New York Public Library Science Desk Reference. Paperback book. Published by The Stonesong Press Inc. and The New York Public Library, New York, USA.
Coleman, J. A.
(2011) The Dictionary of Mythology. Hardback. 2011 edition published by Arcturus Publishing Limited, London, UK. Originally published 2007.
(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hardback book. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles.
(1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Paperback book. 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2006) The English Year. Hardback book. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK. Entries are chronological so I don't give page numbers for references.
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