Easter & the Rites of Spring

Tracking the Ancient and Universal Celebrations of Rebirth and Renewal

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It is no coincidence that the Christian celebration of Easter and the beginning of Spring seem to be one and the same event. Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, and, of course, the most sacred event in Christianity, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, are related in many ways although some, you may find, are surprising.

It should not be too much of a surprise that the festival that became Passover was celebrated in 621 BC, and that, in turn, was employed by Christianity in picking the date for Easter. Even before the Exodus, the feast that became Passover was celebrated on the first day of the month, Nisan, which occurred on the Vernal Equinox. Passover later became to Jews the symbol of the resurrection of their people. It became the resurrection of the year and the salva­tion of the Jewish people. Exodus describes the events leading to escaping from Egypt. This in part was able to take place as the series of plagues that befell the Egyptians. The worst might have been that every first child would be slaughtered. Jewish families slaughtered a lamb and smeared blood on their doors so the angel of death would passo­ver.

Jesus, of course, was Jewish and would have taken part in that annual feast. Early Christianity would not divorce itself from such celebrations entirely. Jesus took on the role of the sacrificial lamb, dying for the sins of man, opening again the gates of heaven. As Christianity spread in the early centuries, it would make efforts to blend into the cus­toms of other peoples.

The word Easter does not appear in the Bible, but the man known as the Venerable Bede, one of Christianity’s ear­liest historians, explains that the French word for Passover was Paques, and the Italian word Pasqua; the name of the Paschal celebration is truly derived from the Jewish celebration. He also explains how the date of Easter was fixed. It was a movable feast changing every year for a reason. Easter became fixed as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It was now as old as the calendar which had developed from early times when mankind de­cided there was a benefit to understanding the world from above.

Bede did understand that the celebration of spring and Easter had occurred long before Christ and even before Moses. While it cannot be dated, there is little doubt that the agricultural cycles were once very important. They would be reason enough to ask gods and goddesses as well as heavenly bodies to bless their efforts. Bede wouldn’t have minded the “pagan” trappings of Easter bunnies and Easter eggs as such devices survived from other faiths. Ear­ly Christianity shared a world with many religions, cults, and sects. During the Reformation, many Christians thought such pagan symbols took away from the feast. Some, after time, returned to the Easter celebration; others, including Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, still regard such symbols as a return to idolatry. Pilgrims in colonial Massachusetts may have had the most harsh reaction to practices tainted in paganism. They should have read Bede.

He explained that the word Easter itself is from Eostre, a goddess of the dawn who actually had a whole month (Eostremonath) named for her. The root word for Eostre is the Germanic “Ostern,” the east (or the dawn). Celtic and Anglo-Saxon spring festivals included bonfires. When Christianity came, the celebration to the goddess and the Sav­ior simply became fused. On a very interesting note Bede tells us the food for Easter was served on a silver platter, a Graal (as in Holy Grail).

What Bede did not tell us was that even Eostre, the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, spring and fertility goddess had descend­ed from a more ancient goddess, Ishtar of Babylonia. Ishtar was worshipped before Judaism, and her counterpart As­tarte was known to the later Phoenicians. Astarte was known to the Jews and mentioned in the Old Testament as Ash­taroth. Ishtar and Astarte were identified with Venus which was considered the Morningstar. Her worship was once so prominent that the Greek word “Disaster” means literally, “against the star.”

The custom of the Easter Egg also preceded Christianity. In Egypt, eggs (sometimes colored, but not always) were hung in the temples as symbols of generative life. Such custom still exists in modern Lebanon. In ancient Babylon it was said the egg actually hatched to give life to the goddess. The Persian Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year’s celebration which falls on the Vernal Equinox. Sculptures on the walls in Persian cities show eggs being carried to the king. These eggs were often painted red, the color of birth. In Russia red-painted eggs were put on graves in hopes of rebirth in heaven for the departed. The Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches share the custom as well.

The Jewish Passover Seder has hard-boiled eggs being dipped in salt symbolizing the sacrifice offered at the Tem­ple in Jerusalem.

The Sanskrit scriptures of the Indian subcontinent revere the egg as the symbol of the egg-shaped cosmos, the ever expanding universe. In China the myth of Pangu has that entity being born in a hatching egg. Part of the body became the sky; part became the earth. One empress claimed a divine birth for herself from an egg. In Finland the goddess Ilmatar (literally “the Mother”) brought forth the heavens and earth from an egg.

A number of egg games were played on the spring celebration: Easter egg hunts, egg rolling, egg tapping, and a traditional Egg-Dance where contestants dance around eggs and attempt to avoid breaking any. In the UK the Pace Egg is a game of hero vs. villain and ends with the hero killed but brought back to life.

The Egg then was the mystical symbol from prehistoric times of the creatress, whose world egg contained the uni­verse in embryo. Where goddess worship was most prominent, the world egg was identified with the moon; and what became the Easter bunny was the moon-hare. This moon-rabbit connection was not just made in the east. Mean­while, cross the Atlantic Ocean, one of the most important goddesses of Mayan cosmology was Ix-Chel who is often depicted sitting on a crescent moon and cradling a rabbit. The Peruvians called the moon Mama Quilla, who married the Sun and gave birth to Mama Ogllo, the Egg. Just why the crescent moon is sacred is a mystery seated in the trin­ity of aspects of the goddess. In France the crescent moon was Diana. Croissants were communion cakes made to cel­ebrate the goddess.

The rabbit as a fertility symbol dates back to prehistoric time. It’s modern role in the American celebration might be thanks to the Dutch. In Europe they had the myth of a white, egg-laying rabbit they called Osterhase. The custom was to make nests for the rabbit in their bonnets with grass. Dutch and German immigrants carried this custom to America, but it has been refined. Today baskets replaced bonnets, and artificial grass replaced the real thing.

The Son of God and the Sun God

One question that plagued early Christianity was just how original the life of Jesus was. The spring celebrations shared by different faiths have one thing in common. The Sun, or the Son, is killed and resurrected. Two thousand years before Christ, Tammuz was brought back from the underworld by his mother (sometimes wife) Ishtar. The very similar myth of Attis dying and being resurrected by Cybele was celebrated in Rome even as Christianity sprouted in that city. So was the Phoenician Adonis, who was resurrected by Astarte. Adonis (meaning Lord) was born in a cave in Bethlehem, son of the virgin Myrrah; he died at the Vernal Equinox and was buried in the same cave in Bethlehem. His cult was active during the first centuries of Christianity. His feast occurs each year, the annual resurrection of Adonis, on the Christian Easter.

So does the very similar story of the hero-god Attis. His cult was brought to Rome in 204 BC. The Roman Temple to him was on Vatican Hill. He was the son of the Goddess, the virgin Nana, who conceived him eating a pomegran­ate. He was a god without a father, the son of a virgin, who became a sacrificial victim to bring salvation to mankind. His body was eaten in the form of bread. His passion and resurrection occurred on Mar. 25, nine months before his birth on Dec. 25.

One early Christian writer blamed the similarity on Satan. He reversed time to make it look like the life of Jesus imitated Adonis and Attis when it was the other way around. A more likely answer is that the early church understood religion and custom practiced for centuries could not be altered in an instant. Dates, celebrations, and even places were made to accommodate the old while introducing the new.

Pagan sites in Ireland became sacred to St. Patrick. The cathedral of Notre Dame of Chartres in France was built over a pagan site dedicated to the Mother goddess. Rome itself has no problem with referring to a Catholic site as Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. (St. Mary over the shrine to Minerva).

The Calendar with Religion and Myth

There is a much greater significance to the similarities of religions. Many had begun as stories to conceal the complications of timekeeping. The solar calendar, of course, has twelve months. The zodiac has twelve houses. Jesus had 12 apostles. The tale of Ulysses starts with 72 men, and quickly is reduced to 12. Along the way he has 12 adven­tures. The story of Hercules has 12 labors. His mother was Alcmene (Power of the Moon). At the end of his journey he is clothed in red, the scarlet robe of the sacred king, and killed, resurrected, and finally ascended to heaven. Like Je­sus, he was called the Savior (Soter). Unlike Jesus, Hercules, after ascending to Heaven would marry the virgin god­dess.

The magic of the number 12 is shared in the story of King Arthur and the round table. The table fits the 12 knights although it conceals the 12 houses of the zodiac. Arthur in one context is the sacred king. He is mortally wounded and taken to the west (the underworld). He returns to the universal mother at death only to, sometime in the future, rise again.

This device in storytelling, connecting the processions of the heavens to a story on the earth does not mean Ar­thur or Jesus were not actual people.

An even more complex telling of the heavens is hidden in the Odyssey. It tells the story of Ulysses who is away 10 years to fight a war and nearly 10 more to find his way home. The tale actually explains what we today call the Meton­ic Cycle. This cycle reconciles the lunar and solar calendar and takes nineteen and one-half years. The hero god is married to the moon goddess. She like other goddesses spin the fates of man. His wife Penelope weaves during the day and unravels her work at night to insure Ulysses’ return to his home and his wife. Penelope, although given a rel­atively modest role in the Odyssey, should not be considered a minor player. The Egyptian goddess Neith was equally a center of man’s fate; her name gives us the word “Knit.” Athena is the name given to Neith in Europe. Ulysses doesn’t die in his tale; he does, like other resurrected gods and goddesses, descend into hell for a brief time before reaching his salvation.

The Etruscans preserved the tale of Theseus who has to enter the labyrinth to defeat the evil Minotaur. Ariadne gives Theseus a thread to find his way out. The thread is actually called a clewe, which became our word for help in solving a puzzle, clue. On an Etruscan wine jar, a maze is depicted, and the maze is written TRUIA (meaning Troy).

With the help of Ariadne, Theseus escapes the maze and displays the Easter Egg, a counter-charm, the egg of resur­rection.

It may be fair to assume that the ancient stories of the gods conceal learning available to the few, the initiated, and moral tales available to all.

STEVEN SORA

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