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PAGAN ROOTS OF EASTER

BY SIMONE BENNETT

Easter is the most important of all Christian holidays as it celebrates the resurrection of their slain Messiah. As with all Christian festivals, many of the rites and symbols were actually "borrowed" from the pagan religons that pre-dated Christianity. The celebration of Easter falls in the early spring, and is a "movable feast". To calculate the day Easter would be held, a "Golden Number" was used based on the lunar calendars and the old 19-19-18 year eclipse cycle which had been used by the Druids and the builders of the Megaliths. These calculations would give the priests the date of the spring equinox and the correct phase of the moon for each year so that then they could do further calculations and come up with the particular date for the Easter celebration for that year. Easter is traditionally held on the fist Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year, Easter was held on Sunday, March 27th, 1989.

Interestingly enough, the Irish church kept the feast of Easter on a different date than the Roman church did. This aberration is most likely due to the fact that the Irish people held their pagan beliefs for a much longer time than other countries that had made Christianity their national religion. In Ireland, Easter was celebrated on the same day as they had celebrated the festival in honor of their Goddess of Spring. The Irish continued to celebrate Easter on this date for half a century or more following the conversion from their calendar to the Roman calendar in 632 A.D.

It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the Christian ressurection holiday came to be known as Easter. Easter derived its name from the Saxon Goddess of Eostre, also known as Ostara, a northern form of the goddesses Inanna, Ishtar, and Astarte. Eostre was also linked with the Indian Goddess Kali, as written in the Saxon poem "Beowulf" in Beowulf says,"....Ganges waters, whose floodwaves ride down into an unknown sea near Eostre's far home.".

Eostre was a goddess connected with fertility, springtime and the moon. Her festival was held in the springtime on the full moon during her sacred lunar month of Eostre-monath (by our calendar this would be April). Two of the major symbols of Eostre were the hare and eggs, which are still the most widely recognized symbols of modern Easter celebrations as well. Both the hare and the egg are fertility symbols, and therefore closely connected with Eostre's spring festival.

The Easter Bunny is actually a later form of Eostre's moon-hare.\ Eostre's hare was what the Celts believed they saw on the face of the full moon. This belief maybe linked with their early Indo-European roots as in Sanskrit the moon was "cacin", or "that which is marked with a hare". Queen Boadiccea, a great Celtic warrior queen, had banners in which the central figure was a Moon-Hare.

Eggs are another symbol of Eostre and the festival of Easter. Eggs were a symbol of rebirth, and therefore intimately connected with spring and all fertility goddesses. In Persia, up until the 18th century, they presented each other with colored eggs during their New Year festival which was held at about the same time as Easter.

In Saxon households, the children were told that Eostre's Moon-Hare would lay eggs for them on Easter eve if they were good. Easter eggs were traditionally colored red--the color of life--especially in Eastern Europe. Russians used to lay red eggs on graves to serve as charms of resurrection during Easter. Today, children decorate eggs and then they are hidden for hunting on Easter morning. 

In old Bohemia they had an interesting Easter ritual. Christ is honored on Easter Sunday (Sun-Day) and his pagan equivalent. the sacraficial vegetation god, is honored on Easter Monday (Moon-Day).  Young girls would throw an effigy of the god into water singing "Death swims in the water, Spring comes to visit us, with eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes, we carried Death out of the village, we are carrying summer into the village.".

"Creeping to the Cross with eggs and apples" is another egg-related Easter ceremony which was celebrated in the 16th century. Carpets were laid in the church for the king, queen, and their court, who then crept down the aisle on their hands and knees to the altar. It is not exactly understood why the ancient Goddess symbols of eggs and apples were used in a Christian ritual, except that perhaps they were connected with birth and death, and the ending and beginning of cycles of nature, as they had always been even in pagan times.

Throughout the Middle Ages Hot Cross Buns were traditional Easter food, as the cross was considered to be Christ's cross. Actually the cross on these buns symbolized Wotan's cross and the bun itself was associated with the goddess Eostre. Her high priestesses became the "Wudu-Maer", Wood Mothers or Little Wood Women, to whom buns or dumplings are still offered in some parts of Bavaria around Easter time.

Some of the Roman goddess Juno's symbols have also been passed on into the Christian Easter tradition. The feather of the peacock, Juno's sacred bird, is used in the Roman church during the Easter celebration symbolizing "the many-eyed vigilance of the Church". In pagan times, peacock feathers stood for Juno's star-filled heavens and her all-seeing awareness--not so very different from the later interpretation of the symbol by the Christian church.

Easter lilies are also connected with the goddess Juno in her virgin aspect, as well as with Eostre. Their worshippers believed that the lily sprang from the milk of the Goddess' breast. As the Roman's said the lily sprang from Juno's milk, the Roman Catholics gave the honor to Mary.

The lily was a symbol of the impregnation of Mary and virgin pagan goddesses as well. In the pagan version Juno is shown holding a lily when she conceived Mars, and in the Christian version, the lily appears in the hand of the Angel Gabriel ("divine husband") symbolizing her conception through the agent of God. The death and rebirth of the sacrificial vegetation god is another important pagan aspect to the celebration of Easter. Christ dies a sacrificial death and is buried underground. In three days he rises again. In the pagan tales the young lover of the Goddess is killed during the harvest time, goes to the Underworld for the winter, and then returns with the spring vegetation (An interesting variation of this myth is the return of the Greek Goddess Persephone from the Underworld for six months in the spring until fall when she must return for the winter.).

In Germany Easter was "Hoch-Zeit" the "High-Time", or the season of the sacred king's love-death. In England, Easter used to be called "the Hye Tide", a later version of the same term.

In Syria, the Anemone bloomed at Easter time and was identified with Adonis, the every-dying Mediterrainean vegetaton god. Adonis' title and several other attributes were inherited by Jesus, also known as Adonai, "the Lord". Jesus was also worshipped at Bethlehem, which was once the holy place of Adonis. The thorny crown of Myrrh that Adonis wore was also worn by Jesus. Adonis' mother, the virgin Myrrha, was also the name given by early Christians to Jesus' mother. The red flower of the anemone symbolized the fertility of the earth after the God's sacred blood had been spilled.

Up until the 20th century, sacred "Gardens of Adonis", were planted by Italian women each Eastertime. The sprouting kernals of grain were planted in pots (called "kernos" during the period when the Eleusian Mysteries were celebrated) signifying the womb of the Goddess from which the dying god, Adonis, would be reborn.

So, as you can see, the Christians borrowed many of the previously extant pagan symbols in their celebration of their spring/resurrection festival, Easter. As this is not an exhaustive essay I am sure that there are many ideas I have overlooked.

Bibliography

Leach, Maria ed., "Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend"; Harper and Row, New York, 1972; pgs. 334-335.

Sjoo, Monica and Mor, B., "The Great Cosmic Mother"; Harper and Row, New York, 1987; pgs. 321-322.

Walker, Barbara, "The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects"; Harper and Row, New York, 1988; pgs. 116, 150-151, 377, 405-406, 423, 428, and 483.

Walker, Barbara, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets"; Harper and Row, New York, 1983; pg 267-268.