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'The Pagan Roots of Easter' rejected & rebutted

Monday, April 08, 2013

Last week I blogged about what I believed to be the Pagan roots of Easter, and stirred up quite a brouhaha on facebook, twitter and in the comments feed. Nothing I like better than a little controversy!

Many people pointed out, quite rightly, that the roots of the Easter festival are found in the Jewish Passover feast … and told me that, although such symbols as eggs and bunnies and so on may ‘feel’ pagan, they were actually added much later on in the evolution of Easter.  

The topic sent me back to my books, all of which support my own rather shallow and narrow view … but then my library is filled with many books on Paganism and Wicca and very few on the history of Christianity. So I admit I may have a few holes in my theological knowledge … and I’m always happy to learn more about this wonderful world and its history.

One reader has prepared an essay for me on the matter:

Cary Lenehan is by training a sociologist and mathematician, has designed games, and is by profession currently a truck driver. He aspires to one day be a novelist. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania with his wife Marjorie, an eclectic garden, and a lot of books.

This is what Cary has written for me:

In our multi-cultural world, there is often contention over symbols: who owns them and what they mean. We see one of these clashes at many holiday periods where there are a lot of claims and counterclaims as to whose holiday it is and what that festival means to people.  

This is perhaps most contentious at Easter.  Unlike Christmas, where there is clear proof that the festival had its date changed from January, Easter is a lot more difficult to pin down.  This is a very short look at the subject and only the books I quote are cited here.

Easter's  name: One myth current is that there was a goddess that the Festival is named from. However, there is no archaeological evidence of this.  This quote from Weiser (p217) is the best summary I can find on the subject:

“The English word Easter and the German ‘Ostern’ come from a common origin (‘Eostur’, ‘Eastur’, ‘Ostara’, ‘Ostar’), which to the Norsemen meant the season of the rising (growing) sun, the season of new birth. The word was used by our ancestors to designate the Feast of New Life in the spring. The same root is found in the name for the place where the sun rises (East, ‘Ost’). The word Easter, then, originally meant the celebration of the spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This symbolism was transferred to the supernatural meaning of our Easter, to the new life of the Risen Christ, the eternal and uncreated Light. 

Picture of dawn from Pixel Tango

Based on a passage in the writings of Saint Bede the Venerable (735), the term Easter has often been explained as the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess (‘Eostre’), though no such goddess is known in the mythologies of any Germanic tribe. Modern research has made it quite clear that Saint Bede erroneously interpreted the name of the season as that of a goddess.”

Prior to this time, the time from the start of Lent was known as Paschal Month in England & the Germanic countries.  It culminated in Holy Week (and still does in most cultures).

“The early Church, following apostolic tradition, employed the hallowed term ‘Pasch’ (from Hebrew ‘pesach’, passover) both to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Thus Good Friday is called the ‘Pasch of Crucifixion’ (‘pascha staurosimon’), Easter the ‘Pasch of Resurrection’ (‘pascha anastasimon’), and the Eastern Church has kept these names up to our day.” (Weiser, p191)

The timing: Easter gains its timing solely from the association with the Hebrew festival of Passover.  The Jews left Egypt without much regard to the seasons. By their history their concerns were more immediate (possibly this occurred around 1313BCE). Coincidentally the time that Passover is celebrated is close to the Vernal Equinox (20 March) although the actual start of Passover is very rarely the same date as this event. At this time Egypt had a three-season year of Inundation, Germination and Warmth and no major religious marking of the equinox as they based their calendar on the stars. (Aveni p13).  Although its exact meaning is highly contested, the co-incidences between the Book of Exodus and a document called the Ipuwer papyrus, dating from this same period, indicate that they may refer to the same events and the Hebrew account is not lightly dismissed without real contrary evidence.

Eggs: The use of eggs probably was taken from Zoroastrian practice where the egg was used as symbol of rebirth at New Year (the Spring Equinox, which comes soon before the more variable Holy Week). 

There was no worship of Ishtar in Babylon at this time.  In a Christian role they came in as red-dyed eggs representing the blood of Christ for Kyriaki tou Pascha in Mesopotamia by at least the second century.  They were not coloured for New Year.

Rabbits: Rabbits were first noted to deliver eggs in the sixteenth century in Alsace and spread from there.  It is a late addition to the Easter traditions, but is unlikely to be pagan as, by then there were no pagans left in this part of Europe. Quoting Weiser (at p263) again:

“What seems to be the first mention of the Easter bunny and his eggs is a short admonition in a German book of 1572: ‘Do not worry if the bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest.’ ”

In brief, although some of the individual practices (most not covered here) in some countries or even towns have pagan origins; Easter is solely a Christian Festival.  It was originally timed in connection with Passover.  It has no pagan connection.

Aveni, Anthony F (2003) The Book of the Year: A brief History of Seasonal Holidays Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515024-4
Enmarch, Roland (2005) The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All, The Griffith Institute, Griffith Institute Publications, Oxford 2005 ISBN0-900416-86-6
Weiser, Francis X S.J. (1952) Handbook of Christian Feasts and Festivals Harcourt, Brace and Company, LOC 58-10908

And just to prove ignorance is rife on both sides of the argument, this photo of the 'pagan' Easter bunny comes from the religious site New2Torah - got to love the bit about "sacrficing" (sic) babies ....

So what do you think? Is Carey and Patrick and all the others who disagreed with me right? Or do I have a good pagan leg to stand on?

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

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