Archive for April, 2012

The Pagan Roots of Easter

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, even the death and resurrection of a God are all far older traditions than you might think.

This Easter, let us celebrate a God, born from a virgin, who was sacrificed on a Friday only to resurrect three days later and bring with him the promise of eternal life. No, it wasn’t Jesus (he resurrected after only two days), this was Attis, an older God and consort of Cybele. Attis was a God of vegetation and it was the burgeoning Spring that he represented.

Worshipers of Attis used to mingle in ancient Rome with those following Jesus and doubtless they used to have some humdingers over which was the true God and which the usurper. Even then, they were not unique and virtually every civilisation has an equivalent deity: Tammuz, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, and Dionysus are a few.

Easter itself was first recorded by Venerable Bede who says that the Anglo-Saxons called the entire month Eosturmonath (now April) after their Earth Goddess, Eostre. He also recorded that the Pagan festival had, by the beginning of the Eighth Century, been entirely replaced by the Christian custom. Entirely? Bede may be Venerable but he is clearly not infallible; elements of the Pagan festival survive even today.

Let’s start with the Easter bunny.

The story goes that, after a cold winter, Eostre (the Saxon Goddess) was late to usher in the Spring. Unfortunately, this meant that a bird succumbed to the cold and died. Feeling responsible, Eostre revived the bird and, for reasons known only to herself, changed it into a hare, whom she called Lepus. Since Lepus had once been a bird, every year as the Spring returned, he laid eggs. He gave one to Eostre to thank her for saving his life and Eostre, thinking that everyone would appreciate a similar gift, encouraged Lepus to go round the world distributing eggs. Hence, our custom of the Easter bunny bringing us eggs.

Hares are particularly active at this time of year and we might see the ‘mad March’ females boxing the overly amorous males. They are clearly sexual beings (they do breed like, well…rabbits) and the Romans believed that consuming the meat of a hare increased your attractiveness to the opposite sex. If you want to try it, you best get in quick as the effect lasts only nine days.

Returning to Eostre and Lepus, unfortunately all did not go smoothly (it was probably the sex) and so she flung him into the sky where he turned into a small constellation of stars at Orion’s feet (sort of a rectangular shape if you look for it). The constellation is still called Lepus today. For Eostre, I suppose it was a case of hare today, gone tomorrow.

The Pagan celebration of the Spring Equinox also got tied up with the Christian Easter, partly because the date for Easter is always the first Sunday after the full moon immediately following the equinox (like that was easy to remember).

At one time, the Spring Equinox marked the beginning of the year. Ever wondered why September is the seventh month, October the eighth, November the ninth and December the tenth – septem, octo, novem, decem is seven, eight, nine and ten in Latin – now you know. It was Julius Caesar who moved the beginning of the year back to January and also added July – named after himself. The next Emperor, Augustus, did the same for August. Roman Emperors were not entirely ego free.

If you want to go the whole hog this Easter and purchase not only an egg but a chocolate bunny, research has shown that almost everyone eats the ears first (seriously, people research these things). So get munching.

And a Happy Eosturmonath to everyone!