I am always fascinated when the remnants of Pagan culture are found so obviously woven into mainstream (and often Christian) celebrations. Major examples of this being Halloween (Samhain) and Christmas (Yule). But by the far the most Holy and in my mind the most Pagan, has to be Easter.
The timing of Easter; Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (Ostara) – combining both the Pagan observance of the Moon and the celebration of Ostara. Easter then will always fall between March 22nd and April 25th. This year in the Northern Hemispere the new moon is on the 20th March, just 1 day before Ostara (Spring Equinox) so the next full moon (and therefore the one after the Equinox) is the 4th April – hence Easter Sunday is the 5th April. People often wonder why Easter moves around.
Origin of the name Easter; This is believed to be from the ancient Goddess Ostra or Eostre – and again is a direct link to the pagan festival of Ostara. The names of the Goddess mean ‘Dawn’ or ‘to Shine’ embracing the meaning of Ostara and Easter as the resurrection of light across the land.
- The Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld. Many believe the name Easter may also be from Ishtar.
- 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 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.
- The story of Persephone, Hades and Demeter is a well known resurrection myth – with Persephone forced to spend winter in the Underworld after she ate a pomegranate unwittingly. Although technically it is Demeter who plunges the land into Winter at her grief of losing her daughter Persephone and then awakens the land to Spring and Summer again when she returns. This is personally my preference as it invokes the belief that the strength of love between a Mother and a Daughter is what keeps the seasons turning.
The Cybele Cult – 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 worshippers and pagans who quarrelled 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.
Hares, Rabbits and Witches In Northern Europe, Easter imagery often involves hares and rabbits. The late 19th-century scholar Charles Isaac Elton theorizes a connection between these customs and the worship of Eostre. In his late 19th-century study of the hare in folk custom and mythology, Charles J. Billson cites numerous incidents of folk custom involving the hare around the period of Easter in Northern Europe. Billson says that “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”
My favourite imagery in mythology that I could find to Hares and Rabbits and their link to Easter is that it may have originated in connection with the Norse Goddess Freyja. This is a quote from an etymology dictionary by A.Ernout and A. Meillet “Little else is known about Eostre, but it has been suggested that her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. And she certainly represented spring fecundity, and love and carnal pleasure that leads to fecundity.” Boyle (another Etymologist) responds that nothing is known about Ēostre outside of Bede’s single passage, that the authors had seemingly accepted the identification of Ēostre with the Norse goddess Freyja, yet that the hare is not associated with Freyja either. Boyle writes that “her carriage, we are told by Snorri, was drawn by a pair of cats — animals, it is true, which like hares were the familiars of witches, with whom Freyja seems to have much in common’
So I will leave you with that, Freyja, Demeter or Eostre riding through the Dawn, returning Spring to the land with her light carried by Hares (or cats!) – for me personally an image with far more power than a poor man dying on a cross.
Sources; snopes.com, wikipedia, mythologlyonline.com, the guardian.com