(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Agora last Spring. It’s been updated, changed and reworked, but if you are a long-time Patheos Pagan reader you might recognize a paragraph or three.)
I kind of celebrate Easter. I know that to a lot of Pagans that’s a sort of blasphemy, and if you grew up in a household lacking such traditions I totally get it. However, if you grew up with Easter egg hunts, baskets full of jelly beans, and huge ham dinners it’s hard to leave all of that behind. Besides, since I don’t want to have children over during ritual, it’s much easier to have an egg hunt on a Sunday morning. Much like Christmas, the trappings of the Easter Holiday aren’t Biblical, they are a hodgepodge of Christian, pagan, culture, and circumstance.
Christians would have you believe that Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and to a large extent, that’s certainly true, but Easter is about more than that. In many ways Easter is a traditional pagan holiday, celebrating Spring and the renewal of life. Since Beltane and the Spring Equinox are not generally celebrated by our society as a whole, Easter fills the void of “secular Spring holiday.” I think we all know that eggs, plastic grass, and chocolate bunnies have nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with the ideas of renewal and fertility (along with crass commercial marketing, but I digress).
The word “Easter” is problematic for many reasons. In non-English speaking countries the commemoration of Jesus’s return from the dead is called something else entirely, we simply translate it as “Easter” out of laziness. In Greece for example, “Easter” is called “Lambros” which translates as “shining” or “bright.” This is problematic because many Pagans like to make the argument that Easter is a specifically pagan holiday, because of the alleged origins of the word Easter. According to the British historian Bede (673-735 CE) the word “Easter” comes from the name of a Germanic fertility goddess named Eostre, whose name was given to an entire month “Eostur-month,” and then eventually to one specific holiday occurring in that month, the one we now call Easter.
The problem with all of this is that the only source for the goddess Eostre is Bede. There aren’t any tales of Eostre throwing eggs to all of the good little Germanic pagans, or of her riding a giant rabbit, so it’s hard to say with certainty that she existed and is the source for the word “Easter.” The only thing really pointing towards her existence in Ancient History is that her name shares a linguistic origin with that of various Indo-European goddesses of the dawn (like the Greek Eos for example). The questions then becomes whether the dawn was named after the deities in question, or if the deities were named after the rising sun. The word Easter then could be linked directly to a pagan goddess, or simply mean beginnings (1).
(Since originally writing this article new scholarship suggests that the worship of Eostre might have been more wide spread than previously believed, and more easily proven. While we do lack shrines, stories, and other indicators of worship, linguistic studies indicate that the names Eostre and Ostara were used in conjunction with various place names from Germany to Great Britain. In addition to those place names, votive inscriptions also indicate a robust worship of our Easter goddess. There is more work and more research to undertake on this point, but it’s a fascinating development. Much of this is spelled out in the book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons by Phillip A. Shaw. Thanks to Aelfwynne over on the Northern Grove Facebook page and Ian Corrigan for sharing that information.)
So while the word “Easter” may or may not be pagan in origin, many of the trappings certainly are, and I’m not talking about eggs or that bunny either. The most pagan element of Easter is probably Jesus himself as the dying and resurrecting god. At Easter, Jesus has more in common with Dionysus, Tammuz, and Adonis than he does with Moses or the various apostles. The idea of a man or god overcoming death would have been alien to Second Temple Judaism, but not to the millions of pagans living in the Roman Empire.
I think it’s important to remember that Jesus was one of many deities on the “god buffet” during antiquity. To be taken seriously as a deity he had to match up with the other gods of the era miracle for miracle. I don’t think it’s honest to suggest that Jesus turned aside the grave because he was a vegetation god in the tradition of Tammuz, but his pedigree demanded equal power over life and death. There are many unique elements in Christianity; the dead man walking is not one of them.
Jesus as a dying and resurrecting god is a two thousand year old tradition, there’s no question of its connection to ancient antiquity. The other trappings of Easter, the egg and the bunny, are far more problematic. I’ve been conditioned to always think of them as ancient pagan practices, but researching this article has brought up more questions than answers in that regard. I can say with certainty that eggs as a symbol of fertility and rebirth have a long pedigree, but they were also very common items whose symbolism and role certainly could have changed and evolved over time.
In the Greek Orphic tradition the god Phanes was said to have hatched from a “world egg,” illustrating that the Ancient Greeks believed in the egg as a symbol of rebirth and new life. A direct link to Easter Eggs and Pagan Rome can be found in a legend surrounding the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The day when Marcus was born his mother’s red hen is said to have laid an egg spotted with red. That spekled egg was seen as a sign that young Marcus would become a great Emperor. When Marcus eventually assumed the throne colored eggs began to be passed around throughout the Empire as a symbol of congratulations(2). Later Christians adopted the custom. It’s hard to say with any certainty if that Marcus Aurelius legend is the origin of the Easter Egg, as it’s likely that eggs were being passed around before Marcus assumed the throne.
While colored eggs were shared in the Ancient World, there’s no continuous history linking the colored egg of pagandom to the Easter Egg. Eggs were relatively common in the Middle Ages, and an important source of nutrition in a society where meat was a rare treat. Monks and priests were often given “presents” (payment) on important Christian holidays, with Easter being one of those. Eggs were a common gift, and they were often given to priests in baskets. In Russia it was common for priests (and later, members of the nobility) to give out eggs as gift, especially around Easter. Eventually the eggs that were passed out were elaborately decorated, and the custom spread throughout the country. Eggs were also generally banned during the period of Lent, so people sometimes would decorate them as they waited on their Easter feast and the return to eating eggs.
Eggs were also begged for by children in Great Britain during the Seventeenth Century. Before important holidays it was common for the poor to “trick or treat” for food, and at Easter children begged for eggs. (3) It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to picture poor children begging for eggs to put in a basket transforming into the modern Easter basket full of sacred goodies like waxy chocolate bunnies and stale jelly beans.
Rabbits have been associated with fertility from pagan times into the present. (I have friends who like to say “they go at it like rabbits” when discussing the sexual habits of others.) It seems likely that the Easter Bunny is an ancient pagan tradition (though the association of the bunny with the myth-less Eostra is most certainly a modern invention), but the first references to the Easter Bunny only date back to the 1500′s. That doesn’t mean the Easter Bunny didn’t exist before those first references to the Germanic Oschter Haws (or Osterhase), it just can’t be documented.
There’s a part of me that believes human beings have a natural tendency to venerate “Pagan things,” and tend to be drawn to things in the natural world that correlate to what is going on in their own environments. Venerating a rabbit in April during the Earth’s annual period of rebirth makes complete sense. That doesn’t mean it’s pagan in the sense that people worshipped a rabbit in the year 100, but it’s Pagan in the sense that it taps into the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s also possible that now forgotten myths transformed into now lost folk tales and then into the egg laying rabbit we now call the Easter Bunny.
No matter how pagan certain beliefs are at Easter, it’s a very difficult holiday to ignore. Many businesses are closed and millions of Americans celebrate it as both a Christian and/or a secular holiday. (I remember lots of Easter Baskets as a kid piled with candy and a toy or two, and my family certainly didn’t associate it with Jesus.) Instead of being bitter about the whole situation I prefer to celebrate it with food and egg hunts. Since many Modern Pagan traditions lack an April holiday, and I tend to think of April as the most “Spring-like” month, it’s nice to get an extra Spring holiday to celebrate, no matter what its origins.
1. “The Stations of the Sun” by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press, 1996. Page 180
2. “An Egg at Easter” by Venetia Newall. Indiana University Press, 1971. Page 268
3. “The Stations of the Sun,” Hutton pg. 198