The pagan roots of Easter

Easter eggs
Dating back to ancient times, eggs, like the rabbits, have also been symbols of new life and fertility| Image: Pixabay

Each and every Easter, children across Britain will go in search of eggs hidden around their house and garden by the Easter Bunny. Millions of chocolate eggs will be purchased, gifted and consumed whilst hot cross buns will fly off the shelves of every supermarket.

Easter is a Christian festival celebrated across the world, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. How then have bunnies, buns and eggs come to be associated with this religious event? The answer lies in pre-Christianity with many of the themes of Easter rooted in pagan traditions.

Easter falls at a time of the year known as the spring equinox when the length of the nights in the Northern Hemisphere becomes identical to the length of the days. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth as winter begins to fall away with the promise of sunnier, longer days lying ahead. For thousands of years, people from varying cultures have marked and celebrated the equinoxes and solstices (longest and shortest days of the year).

The pre-Christian ancient world is filled with stories of resurrection around spring. One of the world’s oldest civilisations, the Sumer who lived in southern Mesopotamia (modern southern Iraq), inscribed a story of their goddess Inanna onto a clay tablet some two thousand years before Christ.

The story goes that Inanna descended into the underworld to find her recently deceased husband. There she was killed before being brought back to life by other gods. She was permitted to return to the world as the sun for six months before having to descend into the underworld once again during the winter for a further six months. It is perhaps the first ancient story of resurrection and rebirth centred on spring.

There were many more stories amongst ancient civilisations that followed a similar theme including the resurrection of Horus, the falcon-headed ancient Egyptian deity and the death and rebirth of the Greek god Dionysus. They are stories that share ideologies about renewal and light conquering darkness.

As Christianity began to sweep across Europe, many pagan festivals and traditions were absorbed and adapted into the Christian faith. It made sense that the already ingrained concept of new life being celebrated during springtime should become associated with Jesus conquering death and being reborn.

If you’ve noticed, the date of Easter changes every year and this is because it is governed by the phases of the moon and not a specific date on which Christ was said to have risen from the dead. It falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox making it a celebration of the seasons, a concept rooted in paganism.

What about the name 'Easter', where did that come from? It is believed that in most European countries, the name came from the Hebrew word 'Pesach', otherwise known as Passover - the Jewish springtime holiday. However, in English-speaking languages and Germany, some historians have argued the word derives from a pagan springtime goddess called Ēostre, who is documented by an Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote during the 8th century AD. Ēostre was a goddess celebrated with a festival during the spring equinox and according to some scholars, her association with hares is the origin of the Easter Bunny story, although this is still hotly debated.

Rabbits and hares have long been an ancient symbol of fertility and life, given their prolific ability to procreate. They are the perfect icons for spring and all that it represents. However, it took until the 17th century before a German tradition about an Easter hare, known as the Osterhase, which delivered eggs to good children caught on. The softer, more amenable looking bunny eventually replaced the hare as the tradition spread across the U.S. via German immigrants during the 1700s.

What about the Easter egg? Where did that come from? Dating back to ancient times, eggs, like the rabbits, have also been symbols of new life and fertility in various cultures. As Christianity absorbed pagan spring traditions, the egg was also adapted to become the perfect representation of Jesus’ resurrection; the eggshell symbolising the tomb, whilst the cracking of it representing Jesus’ emergence; life-conquering death.

In western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks a period of penance and fasting for 40 days leading up to Easter known as Lent. During the Middle Ages, egg painting became a popular tradition around this time as eggs were forbidden during Lent. It is said that people began to decorate the eggs and enjoy them when the fasting was over during Easter celebrations. The custom of painting eggs during Easter is still very popular across the world today.

The industrial revolution combined with the rise of commercialism during the 18th and 19th centuries saw the egg and the bunny cement their places in our Easter traditions. Greeting cards were adorned with their imagery, whilst the confectionary company Cadbury starting manufacturing chocolate eggs during the late 1800s. The rest as they say is history.

The hot cross bun, that delicious Easter staple, whose name and cross are said to symbolise the crucifixion of Jesus, is also believed to have pagan origins. A part of the pagan celebrations of Ēostre, buns marked with a cross would be baked across pre-Christian Europe to celebrate the springtime goddess. The symbolism of the cross on the bun was said to represent the four seasons as well as the four primary phases of the moon. The bun was absorbed by Christianity and the meaning of its cross was adapted.

So it’s clear to see that many of our Easter traditions do not have their roots in the Christian faith. Whilst many people today do mark the occasion by celebrating the resurrection of Christ, many others see Easter as a time to rejoice at the coming of spring - to celebrate with Easter bunnies, egg hunts and hot cross buns and embody the same spirit of hope, renewal and new life that has existed around this time of year for thousands of years.