The Pagan Origins of Easter
Though it is one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar, the trappings of Easter are derived from pagan practices. By Jenny Ashford
To the casual observer, the two aspects of Easter seem somewhat incongruous. On the one hand is the secular holiday, where children hunt for brightly colored eggs in the grass and receive candy and toys in baskets brought by an anthropomorphic rabbit. On the other hand is the religious observance, where the Christian faithful mark the miraculous resurrection of their savior. While the two sides seem to have nothing at all in common, they begin to make greater sense when one considers the pagan roots of the holiday.
The word Easter itself is likely derived from Eostre, the Saxon mother goddess, whose name in turn was adapted from Eastre, an ancient word for spring. The Norse equivalent of Eostre was the goddess Ostara, whose symbols were an egg and a hare, both denoting fertility. Festivals honoring these goddesses were celebrated on or around the vernal equinox, and even today, when Easter has supposedly been Christianized, the date of the holiday falls according to rather pagan reckonings, i.e. on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
Bunnies, Eggs and Lilies
Rabbits, of course, are a potent symbol of fertility due to their prodigious output of young. Eggs, likewise, have always been considered representative of new life, fertility, and reincarnation. Painted eggs, thought to imitate the bright sunlight and gaily colored flowers of spring, have been used in rituals since the days of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. Lilies were also seen as fertility symbols because of their perceived resemblance to male genitalia. Even hot cross buns, associated with Lent, derive from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who baked «magic» wheat cakes with crosses scored in the top; two of these cakes were discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Roots of Resurrection
The pagan celebrations most associated with modern Christian practices derive from Mediterranean cultures. The Phrygians celebrated a spring festival honoring Cybele, a fertility goddess. Cybele had a consort god named Attis, who was born of a virgin, and who died and was resurrected after three days, an occurrence commemorated sometime around the vernal equinox. Worshippers of Attis mourned the god’s death on Black Friday, then celebrated his rebirth on the following Sunday.
Attis was simply the latest manifestation of earlier resurrection myths, like those of Osiris, Orpheus, Tammuz and Dionysus, who were likewise said to have been born of virgins and resurrected three days after their deaths. In areas where Christian beliefs later took hold, these already existing tales were grafted onto the story of Jesus Christ, and continue to be retold to this day. It seems that ever since the dawn of civilization, ancient peoples have always associated spring with rebirth and resurrection, with nature’s reawakening after the «death» of barren winter, and have further embodied the concept in the person of a god or goddess.