Easter and Its Links to Other Traditions
This weekend is the Christian festival of Easter.
I grew up in a small Scottish town, where, at a young age, I occasionally went to Sunday School. There, and in the spaces I grew up, I learnt a bit about that guy you may know, Jesus, who was said to have been crucified and then resurrected three days later, now known as Easter Sunday (sometimes referred to as Resurrection Sunday). The Friday before is known as Good Friday
There are several different religious traditions at this time (the Jewish festival Pesach/Passover for example), but growing up where I did, and having to go to church during times like Easter while at school, Christianity was the main thing.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from those Sunday School days. My family didn’t really go to church outside that, other than some of my grandparents, I just remember hearing a small number of stories and not thinking much of it. I then got given books on Paganism and Wicca when I was a teen and that started to interest me more.
But then there were distant talks of a bunny, decorating boiled eggs at school (including the recollection of competitions and making an egg version of Blind Date), and the occasional gifted chocolate Easter egg.
It got me thinking. Where did some of these traditions come from? Why is Easter when it is, always a changing date? Why do people decorate eggs or eat chocolate eggs? Who is the Easter bunny?
Well, a few things I did not learn till my later years are some of the pagan and old Germanic traditions many of the current Easter ones are said to have come from, as well as several other myths and stories that have some similarities.
Resurrection, and the topic of life and death
Many will know the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but what of other older myths and stories concerning similar themes?
It is said that the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Inanna (later also worshipped by Babylonians and Assyrians under the name Ishtar, and also associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite), was also ‘crucified’ and then resurrected.
Inanna was the goddess of love, fertility (more on that later), procreation and war. In ancient Sumeria, Inanna descended into the underworld to visit her sister, the Goddess of the underworld Erishkigal. Erishkigal kills Inanna and three days later Inanna is resurrected, and replaced in the underworld by her husband Dumuzid. This story is told in The Descent of Inanna, a translation of which is here. It is also told in another form, under the name Ishtar, shown in the image below.
In Ancient Rome, there is also a similar tale about a young shepherd named Attis, who is castrated and dies behind an evergreen tree, being resurrected at the Temple of Cybele.
These stories all happen to coincide with the same time of year – spring. New beginnings, as they say. An article that delves deeper in to these can be found here.
And talking of spring, there is of course the Spring Equinox. In pagan traditions, Spring Equinox is also called Ostara, after the Germanic goddess namesake Ostara, or Ēostre. You’ll see the similarity with the name Easter there, of course.
Ostara/the Spring Equinox celebrates the first day of Spring, determined by the vernal equinox – when the amount of daylight and darkness are almost equal. Many traditions come from solar or lunar cycles, and the Christian festival of Easter is observed on the Sunday following the Paschal Full moon (the first full moon on or after the equinox).
The goddess Ēostre/Ostara was traditionally honoured with festivals to celebrate fertility and renewal, and re-birth (there is that connection to fertility and resurrection/rebirth again!). The hormone estrogen, is also seen as etymologically linked to or Ēostre.
The Easter bunny…or should that be hare?
Also said to be linked to the goddess Ostara is the Hare.
There is probably no other animal seen as much as the hare is in different myths, traditions, and folklore. Due to the hare’s nocturnal nature, it is often linked to lunar movements and lunar goddesses; it was said that both the hare and the moon would ‘die’ and be ‘reborn’ daily.
Hare’s can, in fact, conceive while already pregnant, so carrying more than one foetus at a different growth stages at once. It is therefore not surprising that, alongside lunar movement, hares are closely associated with fertility and seen as a symbol of this and spring.
And of course, the egg is associated with fertility and rebirth. The decoration of eggs dates back to pre-Christian times, with many cultures decorating different types of eggs. Ostrich eggs were decorated and traded around the ancient Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East thousands of years ago.
The Pyanska egg is another art form, traditionally decorated in Ukraine using a resist dying method with beeswax. And of course the ostentatious Fabergé eggs, made for the Russian royal family between 1885 and 1917. The first of these was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as an Easter gift for his wife, Tsarina Maria Fedorovna.
It is believed that earlier Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs to represent the blood of Christ, but were not linked to Jesus’ resurrection till around the 17th Century.
Hare’s and eggs and their associations with fertility have been included in several folk tales, more commonly with that of Germanic folklore in the 16th and 17th centuries. Generally they are connected to one another through the story of a mythical hare leaving colourful eggs for ‘good’ children to find at Easter, similar to that of the gift giving tales of Santa Claus – and with Easter gradually becoming more commercialised this changed to a rabbit and chocolate eggs.
There is, of course, a lot more to many of these traditions, and many others besides, but an insight none the less! Just love me some Spring.