“The story of Easter is not simply a Christian story. Not only is the very name 'Easter' 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.” - Easter: its Story and Meaning, by Alan W. Watts, 1950.
On Sunday, all around the world, Christians will be celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, known in America as “Easter.”
But how did we come to call this holiday such? It's not so hard to determine the origin of the name of Christmas -- it's after all a short jump to “Christ's mass” or the church service attached to the day of Jesus' birth.
And then there's that crazy-looking bunny, and all those decorated eggs.
What do any of these things have to do with the miracle of the Resurrection? Directly, not a lot.
Still, echoes of earlier traditions mirror the ones that largely replaced them, and while the details may change, the basic story and rhythms of the seasons of life do not.
Where does the name “Easter” come from?
It might be a surprise to find that the name of Christianity's most sacred holy day most likely takes its roots directly from the name(s) of a pagan goddess and predates the death and resurrection of Christ.
In Europe, the feast of the dawn goddess Eostre, was typically celebrated on the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Thus, what we now call “April” was once called “Eosturmonath” or “Eostre-month” on the Germanic calendar, in about the 8th century, the Venerable Bede tells us.
By comparison, western Christians celebrate Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox, or March 21.
This was not always the case -- this date was first formalized at the Council of Nicea in 325. Before that, the date of the celebration of the Resurrection was a rather big question. It was decided here, too, that Easter should always fall on a Sunday.
This was still the very early days of Christianity, and other, older religions were still flourishing. Church officials were not unaware of this, and co-opting an existing pagan holiday served the purpose of sowing the seeds of a new religion on an existing faith.
In the east, the festival of Ishtar (correctly pronounced 'Easter') and the resurrection of Tammuz also took place shortly after the equinox.
Still, they might have been onto something, even if it wasn't exactly new. The holiday they picked had many of the same connotations attached.
The mystery of death and resurrection is remarkably similar in many places and times, and the time of year when it is recognized is practically universal across the Northern Hemisphere.
The basic story
Whether Tammuz/Ishtar, Attis/Cybele, or Adonis/Aphrodite or another of a multitude of names depicting the same archetype, worshipers began to fast shortly before the spring equinox and abstain from meat for 40 days.
Some would cut down a tree or limb, which would be brought to the temple, or in some cases, the figure brought to a sacred tree, and upon its central trunk would be hung the figure of the young god. In the case of Tammuz, the "tree" was more of a built "T," incidentally the true shape of "crosses" used for crucifixions during Roman times.
During the last days of the fast, the faithful gathered to sing hymns of mourning, and when it was finally over, the figure was taken down and buried at dusk, and the mourning continued well into the night.
As dawn approached, a great fire was lit and...
"The sorrow of the worshipers was turned to joy ... The tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead; and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave. On the morrow ... the divine resurrection was celebrated with a wild outburst of glee. At Rome, and probably elsewhere, the celebration took the form of a carnival...” - The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer, 1922.
So what about the eggs and that crazy bunny?
We forget today, when we can go to the supermarket any time and pick up a dozen, that eggs once were a seasonal commodity. In nature, birds don't lay eggs year-round. Their egg-laying cycles are regulated by the amount of daylight, and when days grow short, so do fresh eggs.
If you check out old books about food, you'll find a number of ways people kept eggs over the winter before refrigeration. Surprisingly good as these methods were, it would have been hard to keep the supply going all winter, and even if you did, a fresh egg would have been quite welcome.
When does laying season begin? You guessed it.
And, if you've ever kept free-range chickens, you know that this time of year they hide them everywhere. Yes, even in the grass. (No, I never kept chickens, but when I was in college, my landlord did, and these are things I can attest to personally.)
But there's no Easter chicken -- so do the bunnies lay the eggs?
Well, actually, according to myth, at least one does. And it's a hare, not a rabbit.
In Europe, the hare is a nocturnal creature -- until mating season, that is. Then, there are bunnies all over the place all day, in a frenzy of fertility.
The totem of Eostre is a hare -- and according to the story, the goddess can turn into a hare at will. In one legend, the goddess comes upon an injured bird, whom she saves by turning it into a hare, the animal she is strongest as. Yet, having been a bird, the hare could still lay eggs, and in gratitude to the goddess, the bird laid colored eggs on her feast day ever since.
Turning back to the Babylonians, Ishtar was supposed to have come to earth from the heavens in a golden egg, while Tammuz is associated with a hare.
The hare is associated with the moon -- people saw a hare there long before they saw a man.
And a golden egg in the sky that brings forth Mother Nature? Surely the sun.
The two together indicate a balance between the sun and moon, appropriate for a holiday that is centered around the vernal equinox, a time of equal day and night, and also to indicate the fertility of the season.
If all that isn't enough, there's always the German Osterhase, literally, the “Easter Hare” in English, brought to America with the German settlers in the 1700s. In a variation of the above legend, Eostre changed her pet bird into a hare that could lay colored eggs to amuse children of whom she is particularly fond.
Christos annesti! Have a happy Easter.