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Pagan Origins of Easter

The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter

Easter Sunday is a festival and holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world who honour the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the day that children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive and deliver their treats of chocolate eggs. Easter is a ‘movable feast’ which is chosen to correspond with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox, and occurs on different dates around the world since western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?

Easter - Christianity

Christian’s today celebrate Easter Sunday as the resurrection of Jesus. Image source .

Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival. According to the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary says: “The word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered about Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.” However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.

Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth

One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun. 

According to some scholars, such as Dr. Tony Nugent, teacher of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University, and Presbyterian minister, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. "Naked and bowed low" she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.

After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.

The Descent of Inanna

The Descent of Inanna. Image source .

Dr Nugent is quick to point out that drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that, if there was, the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”

The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, "Ishtar". In ancient Canaan Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the So Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.

Dr Nugent points out that the story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.

Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring

A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal. 

Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season.

According to Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, the idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.”

Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English 'Month of Ēostre', translated in Bede's time as "Paschal month") was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month".

The origins of Easter customs

The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg.  As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal.  In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.

Relief with Phanes

Relief with Phanes, c. 2nd century A.D. Orphic god Phanes emerging from the cosmic egg, surrounded by the zodiac. Image source .

In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus' resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb.

Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.

While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus.  The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.

Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.

Featured image: Main: ‘A Hare in the Forest by Hans Hoffmann (public domain). Inset: Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts (public domain)

By April Holloway

References

The pagan roots of Easter - Heather McDougall

Ancient Sumerian Origins of the Easter Story – by Valerie Tarico

History of Easter: Exploring the Ancient Origins of the Modern Holiday – by Shawna Burreson

The Origins of Easter – by Ross Abasolo

Comments

Isn't that convenient? You can dismiss any and all conversation because others must be "in darkness." It's got to be pretty dark with your head buried.

a lot of people don't realize that Christmas and Easter are both mentioned in the Bible....read Jerimiah 10:3 ( Christmas tree) It speaks about the heathen, that they cut a tree out of the forest and nail it so it stands upright and moves not and they deck it with silver and gold....it says that we should not be as the heathen and do these things...but we do. Easter was mentioned in the new testament Acts 12:1-4 (KJV) on this day (Easter) King Herrod beheaded James the brother of john with a sword and when he saw the Jews liked it he went after peter too. Galatians 4:8-10 talks about when we knew not God we did as others but now that we know God or are known by God how can we turn to the weak and beggarly elements of observing days, months, times, and years. I (and this is what I believe) believe that we follow suit we are worldly and do as others do even when we know God and are known by Him. All so-called Holidays have pagan roots, they are traditions and people follow, adding bunnies and eggs and trees, santa and presents and candy are all commercial things to get kids hooked. just remember switch a few words around in santa and what do you have? santa= satan only God knows when you been sleeping or awake....wake up.

That book you are mentioning is at most around a few thousand years old. Paganism is literally everything that goes _before_ that book, as that is implied in the very definition of "pagan". The so-called "pagans" were intended to _convert_ to christianity, meaning that they believed in something else until that conversion.

Hence, this part of your post is pure nonsense:
"tating that Easter is rooted in paganism, but now is embraced and incorporated into Christianity may appear to be true on the surface, but for those who have really dug in and studied the Bible to find out what it has to say, will know that is not true in actuality."

You can not study a book on, say, cars in order to find out about, say, apple pie. Heathenry/paganism is by defiinition not Christian, as these names are merely catch-all phrases used _by_ Christians to refer to all phenomena that are _not_ Christian. As you read like a Christian please enjoy your faith as you please, but do not asssume that other beliefs have anything in common with your religion, or even approves of it.

You really screwed up the Descent myth here. Although there are many variations later, all the way up to the Rape of Persephone, in the original, Inanna goes to visit her sister Ereshkigal in the underworld under a thin pretext, and with the evident intent of taking over. She had told her handmaiden Ninshubur to recruit some God to send help if she wasn't back in three days. Ea (Enki) was the only one with the stones to actually help.

When she was revived, she was allowed to leave, but only if she sent a substitute. Dumuzi was the only one who wasn't mourning the loss of Inanna. When she got back to her palace, he was lounging around eating grapes and diddling the household girls. Inanna had refused to send the first several people she met to death in her place, but seeing her husband acting this way made her angry, and she told the Galla demons to take the ungrateful sod out of her sight.

She was sad later, and there was a deal made where Dumuzi's sister Geshtinanna would take half of his punishment so he could be in the live world for six months.

Easter was derived from the Egyptian goddess Ast or Est (ISIS), whose name was spelt with the egg-glyph (the Easter-egg glyph). See 'Eden in Egypt'.

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