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Modern-day Easter is derived from two ancient traditions: one Judeo-Christian and the other Pagan. Both Christians and Pagans have celebrated death and resurrection themes following the Spring Equinox for millennia.
Ancient civilizations' culture and livelihood centered around weather and the seasons. Fall and winter marked harsh times and the death or hibernation of crops and food sources, while Spring was a time of rebirth. As a result, the changing of the seasons were marked with a wide variety of rituals.
Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations.
The equinox occurs each year on March 20, 21 or 22. Both Neopagans and Christians continue to celebrate religious rituals linked to the equinox in the present day. Wiccans and other Neopagans usually hold their celebrations on the day or eve of the equinox. Western Christians wait until the Sunday on or after the next full moon. The Eastern Orthodox churches follow a different calculation; their celebration is often many weeks after the date selected by the Western churches.
Origin of the name "Easter"
The name "Easter" originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book, De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, the "Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [was] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos." Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: "eastre." Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime. Some were:
- Aphrodite from ancient Cyprus
- Ashtoreth from ancient Israel
- Astarté from ancient Greece
- Demeter from Mycenae
- Hathor from ancient Egypt
- Ishtar from Assyria
- Kali, from India
- Ostara a Norse Goddess of fertility.
An alternative explanation has been suggested. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus' resurrection festival included the Latin word "alba" which means "white." (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) "Alba" also has a second meaning: "sunrise." When the name of the festival was translated into German, the "sunrise" meaning was selected in error. This became "ostern" in German. Ostern has been proposed as the origin of the word "Easter".
Pagan origins of Easter
Many, perhaps most, Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, had a fictional consort who was believed to have been born via a virgin birth. He was Attis, who was believed to have died and been resurrected each year during the period MAR-22 to MAR-25. "About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection."
Wherever Christian worship of Jesus and Pagan worship of Attis were active in the same geographical area in ancient times, Christians "used to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same date; and pagans and Christians used to quarrel bitterly about which of their gods was the true prototype and which the imitation."
Many religious historians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. They were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus' life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to Pagans. Others suggest that many of the events in Jesus' life that were recorded in the gospels were lifted from the life of Krishna, the second person of the Hindu Trinity. Ancient Christians had an alternative explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity. Modern-day Christians generally regard the Attis legend as being a Pagan myth of little value. They regard Jesus' death and resurrection account as being true, and unrelated to the earlier tradition.
Wiccans and other modern-day Neopagans continue to celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their 8 yearly Sabbats (holy days of celebration). Near the Mediterranean, this is a time of sprouting of the summer's crop; farther north, it is the time for seeding. Their rituals at the Spring Equinox are related primarily to the fertility of the crops and to the balance of the day and night times. Where Wiccans can safely celebrate the Sabbat out of doors without threat of religious persecution, they often incorporate a bonfire into their rituals, jumping over the dying embers is believed to assure fertility of people and crops.
There are two popular beliefs about the origin of the English word "Sunday."
- It is derived from the name of the Scandinavian sun Goddess Sunna (a.k.a. Sunne, Frau Sonne).
- It is derived from "Sol," the Roman God of the Sun." Their phrase "Dies Solis" means "day of the Sun." The Christian saint Jerome (d. 420) commented "If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth."
Origins of Easter traditions
So how did Pagan symbols become entwined with the Christian holiday of Easter? When the Christian Church was first trying to convert the Pagans to Christianity, they ran into problems. The Pagans did not want to give up their festivals as well as their gods, so the Christians simply incorporated some Pagan practices into the Christian festivals. This made Christianity more palatable to the Pagan people who were reluctant to give up their festivals for the more sombre Christian practices.
Rabbits and eggs?
1500 years or so after the incorporation, the Germans had a tradition of their own. A rabbit, called Oschter Haws, layed colored eggs in nests and delighted children who then got to 'find' the eggs. This was introduced to America by German settlers in Pennsylvania.
In these modern times, you can buy chocolate representations of rabbits and eggs. While some still hold to old traditions and color eggs by hand, those who do not have the time or inclination can simply go to the store and buy candy, pre-dyed eggs, and other goodies. Ducks, chickens and rabbits are also highly popular choices for childrens' gift baskets on Easter morning.
- . Larry Boemler "Asherah and Easter," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 18, Number 3, 1992-May/June
- . Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Q & A Set 15, "Why do we celebrate a festival called Easter?" at: http://www.wels.net/sab/text/qa/qa15.html
- . Gerald L. Berry, "Religions of the World," Barns & Noble, (1956).
- . J Farrar & S. Farrar, "Eight Sabbats for Witches," Phoenix, Custer, WA, (1988).
- . Sunna,"TeenWitch at: http://www.teenwitch.com; "Dies Solis and other Latin Names for the Days of the Week," Logo Files, at: http://www.logofiles.com/
- . Sunday Observance," Latin Mass News, at: http://www.unavoceca.org/
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