The Pagan Roots of Easter
From Ishtar to Eostre, the roots of the resurrection story go deep. We should embrace the pagan symbolism of Easter
Easter is a pagan festival.
If Easter isn't really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection.
However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient
pagan practices, most of which we enjoy 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 worn story in the ancient world. There
were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected Saviors too.
Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was
subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld. 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 was born
on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the
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.
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today's Vatican Hill.
Cybele's lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn
annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday,
rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the
resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early
days of Christianity between the Jesus worshipers and pagans who quarreled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is
interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had
popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
So, eventually Christianity came to an accommodation with the pagan
Spring festival. Although we see no celebration of Easter in the New
Testament, early church fathers celebrated it, and today many churches
are offering "sunrise services" at Easter – an obvious pagan solar
celebration. The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by
the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?
All the fun things
about Easter are pagan. Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival
of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.
Exchange of eggs is an ancient custom, celebrated by many cultures. Hot
cross buns are very ancient too. In the Old Testament we see the Israelites baking sweet buns for an idol, and religious leaders trying
to put a stop to it. The early church clergy also tried to put a stop to
sacred cakes being baked at Easter. In the end, in the face of defiant
cake-baking pagan women, they gave up and blessed the cake instead.
Easter is essentially a pagan festival which is celebrated with cards,
gifts and novelty Easter products, because it's fun and the ancient
symbolism still works. It's always struck me that the power of nature
and the longer days are often most felt in modern towns and cities,
where we set off to work without putting on our car headlights and when
our alarm clock goes off in the mornings, the streetlights outside are
not still on because of the darkness.
What better way to
celebrate, than to bite the head off the bunny goddess, go to a "sunrise
service", get yourself a sticky-footed fluffy chick and stick it on
your TV, whilst helping yourself to a hefty slice of pagan simnel cake?
Happy Easter everyone!