For many, Easter starts and ends with Jesus, but throughout history, there are strangely similar holidays that predate it.
It’s Easter again, one of those feasts that over the centuries has combined elements of religion, folklore, superstition and cultural practice. Say what?
Consider this scenario from way back. You’re trying to set up a new religion – Christianity – in new lands and there’s a fair bit of resistance from the locals who, after all, have been doing things a certain way for donkey’s years. In Britain, for example, people had heard about the teachings of Jesus from Roman traders who travelled to their country in the first and second centuries after the death of Christ, but you know, meh.
Then in 597ce, Augustine popped over from Rome to Britain to do some serious converting to the new faith. His was a concerted push to get the word out, but it was an uphill battle, so the early clergy decided to appropriate some festivals and rituals already in play to get their message across. A Spring festival? Mmmm, that will do nicely, thank you.
Spring, of course, marks the end of the cold hard winter months; it’s the season of rebirth, regeneration, bountiful harvests, new life. What better analogy than the resurrection of Jesus to mirror what was happening in nature? But the Easter Bunny? Where’d he come from?
We’ve been told there was a major festival held in the northern hemisphere Spring not long after the March equinox, in honour of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre whose totem, if you will, was a rabbit. This knowledge comes from the Venerable Bede, a learned monk who wrote about this very thing back in the eighth century. He also noted that the month of April was then known as Eosturmonath, in honour of Ēostre. You can see where the word “Easter” comes from. But it turns out he probably made up the whole thing. Yes, it seems Bede was pulling our legs because nothing he wrote on the subject has any credible evidential backup.
The Christian story is much more spiritual. Spring, new life, new hope. Salvation from sin, hoping to wipe the slate clean, the light coming from the darkness. The analogies are easy to discern.
Still, it’s a nice story and people love the idea of Easter eggs being given out with gay abandon by a rabbit. The fact that a mammal distributes eggs is biologically ridiculous (platypuses and echidnas notwithstanding), but it does hammer home the fertility aspect of the season – Spring, the key to all these stories.
The Easter story too is one of new life – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Interestingly, some ancient myths have a very similar message. The abduction of Persephone in Greek myth led her mother, the earth goddess Demeter, to stop controlling the harvests and the life cycle. The earth was in disarray until Persephone was returned to the earth for half the year. There’s also an ancient Sumerian/Babylonian account of fertility goddess Ishtar (sounds a bit like “Easter” perhaps?) who followed her dead lover to the underworld. While she was gone, crops died, babies weren’t born, fertility became sterility. After three days, she and her resurrected lover returned to earth, balance was restored, life continued. Both legends have death and resurrection at their core.
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The Christian story is much more spiritual – crops and calving cows don’t really come into the picture – but the message has parallels in the old stories. Spring, new life, new hope. Christians celebrate their salvation from sin, hoping to wipe the slate clean, the light coming from the darkness. The analogies are easy to discern.
So there’s a bit of a nod to those old traditions rooted in ancient belief systems.
Now consider this. In many European languages, the word for “Easter” comes from the Greek word “pascha”, in turn derived from “Pesach”, Hebrew for Passover. Easter and Passover tend to roughly coincide, and many say that Easter is the Christian version of Passover. In the Old Testament, a lamb is sacrificed so the chosen people could pass from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Christianity, Jesus is the “paschal lamb” who dies to save the souls of the faithful.
For devout Jews and Christians, this is a deeply significant time, and the Easter Bunny phenomenon has no bearing on the season. Yet there is a common thread and that’s new life, new beginnings both natural and spiritual, all the good stuff you associate with Spring.
If you’re not religious and you’re here for the chocolate, the bunny-ear-headbands and the hot cross buns, then it’s just another holiday, and in the southern hemisphere, it’s basically all nonsense because it’s Autumn here.
Mind you, the rabbits don’t stop breeding.