The ancient pagan origins of Easter
Easter: a secular culture celebrates the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection.
In religious (and obvious) terms, Easter is a holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world, with more or less curious traditions, who honor the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament and occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. But it is also, in different cultures, the day that children wait for the Easter bunny to arrive and a day to eat more or less delicious chocolate eggs.
The date upon which Easter is held varies from year to year, and corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. Around the world dates are different since western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar.
In any case Easter, as we know it today, was never a pagan festival. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy still today at Easter.
The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well popular story in the ancient world, together with a lot of parallel resurrected saviours.
First, the word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, who was the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered in this period each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is a pure symbolic of rebirth and renewal, and represents the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.
According to some scholars the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi and his wife Inanna, an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Damuzi dies, Inanna is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld, where she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. Naked and bowed low she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end. Three days later her assistant asks to other gods for help and one of them, Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Damuzi returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Inanna pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. The results were the cycles of winter death and spring life.
The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”, in ancient Canaan she is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus.
In any case the story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars.
One of the oldest resurrection myths is Egyptian Horus. Born on 25 December, Horus and his damaged eye became symbols of life and rebirth. Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime, was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome. Dionysus was a divine child, resurrected by his grandmother. Dionysus also brought his mum, Semele, back to life.
All stories with the same moral of fertility, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.
An other perspective is that Easter was originally a celebration of a great northern goddess, Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, or Eastre as spirit of renewal.
Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season (but the Easter bunny and its origin is another story…).
The word Ostara itself is of Germanic origin, where she was revered as the Great Mother Goddess. But even goddesses of love and beauty, such as Aphrodite in ancient Greece and Freya of Norse mythology, share several characteristics with Ostara, including her companion, the rabbit.
Most analyses of the origin of the word “Easter” agree that it was named after Eostre, an ancient word meaning “spring”, while many European languages use the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover.
Some early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the same date as Passover, because Easter entered Christianity during its earliest Jewish period.
Evidence of a more developed Christian festival of Easter emerged around the mid-second century.
In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine convened a meeting of Christian leaders to resolve important disputes at the Council of Nicaea. Since the church believed that the resurrection took place on a Sunday, the Council determined that Easter should always fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Easter has since remained without a fixed date but proximate to the full moon, which coincided with the start of Passover.
Despite there are distinct differences between the celebrations of Pesach and Easter, both festivals celebrate rebirth: in Christianity through the resurrection of Jesus, while in Jewish traditions through the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.