As the Rational Heathen, I’ve been called out occasionally on agreeing with the beliefs that Christianity appropriated the trappings and dates of pagan festivals and gave them a shiny new coat of paint and something for the masses to celebrate instead of their old customs. While I agree that in some cases, particularly Eostre/Ostara
, we don’t have the proof, my gut tells me that the trappings surrounding Easter has more to do with pagan origins than Christian ones. Let me explain.
Easter Bunnies Do Not Make Sense from a Christian Standpoint
While growing up, I had a tough time swallowing the whole rabbit/egg/chicks thing when it came to the resurrection of Christ. Don’t get me wrong–I love chocolate and eggs and the whole idea of renewal, BUT…nowhere in the Christian bible is there a rabbit handing out eggs and candy. Nor is a rabbit or an egg linked as a symbol of resurrection in the bible. I suppose we could look at these as symbols of resurrection, but that sounds remarkably like a rite of spring and not Christ rising from the dead. Yes, yes, we could point to spring as the earth resurrecting from winter, but given that Christ’s crucifixion was only during spring because of Passover (Jesus went to Jerusalem during the feast of Passover), there’s no real bunny-earth-chocolate connection there. The bible doesn’t make that connection, so why do we? More likely we’ve had something that pointed to rabbits and birds as symbols of springtime as a time of renewal. I suspect it is the way we celebrated the return of fertility and birth of animals and plants. Being the clever Christians, they quickly pointed to the rabbits and baby birds and said they’re symbols of the Christian Easter. Easter, which existed for Christians, needed a shiny paint job to get everyone on board with it. Why not go with the fluffy and cute, which probably was already there in the pagan world?
The Easter Bunny
Even History.com admits the ubiquitous Easter bunny most likely has pagan roots because rabbits are prolific little buggers. What better way to show fertility and new life than something that breeds…er, like rabbits? The Germans who showed up in the United States in the early 1700s are said to have brought their stories of “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws,” an egg-laying rabbit. (Incidentally, this isn’t the only occasion Germanic peoples have brought holiday customs to the United States–Christmas is a biggie too.) It’s interesting to note that Osterhase has a similar root to Ostara. A coincidence? Unlikely.
Other candidates for passing out eggs included foxes, storks, and other birds. Let’s continue.
I’m pretty sure Christ wasn’t hatched, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that the colored egg thing isn’t really a Christian thing. A nice stretch the History Channel made–and to be honest, I’ve heard this too–is that the egg symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. Okay, then. The custom of painting eggs goes back to the 1200s. Why? Well, they think that maybe eggs weren’t allowed to be eaten during Lent and painting the eggs for Easter made them extra special. I can see that…maybe. In which case, it was a way to make nasty old eggs look yummy. (The fasting in Lent generally lasts 40 days–you’d have a lot of eggs by then.) I grew up Roman Catholic, but not eating eggs wasn’t part of Lent when I was growing up. In fact, the Catholic Bishops say eggs are okay, even if you go with the traditional fast. Maybe this is something pre-Vatican II?
But then we still have the Osterhase who lays colored eggs. Who knows? Maybe both contributed to it. One German site I found says that the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Persians looked at eggs as the symbol for rebirth and fertility. I’m not relying on this site, but it does make sense that a Middle East death cult would take on the trappings of pagan symbols.
I’d love to claim candy as a pagan/heathen tradition, but really the Easter candy started with chocolate eggs in the early 1800s. Probably a nice little marketing idea. I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t give out chocolate eggs at the crucifixion or at the resurrection.
But What About Eostre/Ostara?
Eostre/Ostara isn’t a goddess we know much about. But I suspect we’ve lost much since the rise of Christianity. It’s interesting that St. Bede is the reason we even know about Eostre. He wrote in the 8th century about Eostre who had the month of April bearing her name. There are some folk who even dispute whether or not Eostre was a goddess, but I think it is likely she was. Given the general fertility rites of spring, we can guess that Eostre was a dawn and fertility goddess, akin in some ways to Freyja. Wikipedia states:
“As the Germanic languages descend from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), historical linguists have traced the name to a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn *H₂ewsṓs (→ *Ausṓs), from which descends the Common Germanic divinity from whom Ēostre and Ostara are held to descend…”
I suspect that Eostre and Ostara are names for the Greek goddess of the dawn, Aurora, but this is conjecture on my part. Still the names have basically the same roots, which means that the goddess was worshiped well before our ancestors separated. It also gives me credence when I say that Eostre/Ostara was a goddess and not just a name for opening or new things.
When we talk about Eostre existing or not, this is all more or less by guess and by golly. Yes, there has been at least one person who has put forth some very convincing arguments that she didn’t exist. No, I’m not convinced, but with good reason. We just don’t know. The problem with his arguments is no one has a time machine (yet) that allows us to go back and see what really happened. Where is the Doctor when you need him? (Did you REALLY think I was going to write a post without a Doctor Who reference? Oh, ye of little faith!)
Trying to Reconstruct from the Ashes
Doctor Who aside, we Heathens are basically left with the smoldering remnants of what used to be a rich and detailed belief system. We can only gain glimpses of what our ancestors believed and try our best to reconstruct and fill in the blanks. Some of us hear the gods and goddesses and can write about our UPGs, but there’s really no way we can find out scientifically what actually existed without some new artifacts, or someone somehow going back in time and bringing us the information.
Our neolithic ancestors were very sophisticated people who were unlucky enough to not have invented a written language. Even the Norse and Germanic tribes, while they did have the runes, they were used for ceremonies and inscriptions. Looking at the stone age construction we’ve discovered in recent times, shows that our ancestors were quite capable of building impressive temples, stone homes such as those in Skara Brae, and stone monuments. But much of what they created did not survive. Statues made of wood rotted or were burned. Metal statues of gods were most likely melted down and reused. Without identifiable written language and without much art of gods or goddesses available (and knowing that’s what the art depicted), it’s questionable that we can ever truly reconstruct what happened in our past.
Whether you believe Eostre is a construct of Bede or not, the point is that Christians took on pagan trappings to ease the masses into their religion. After all, if your god accepts bunnies, chicks, and colored eggs–which is something you did to celebrate your former god–it probably doesn’t matter much to you that the names changed. It’s the same thing, just a slightly different flavor if you keep the basics intact.