Bunnies, Eggs, and Goddesses: Is Easter a Pagan or a Christian Festival?

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Symbol of the resurrection of Christ from a Fourth Century Roman sarcophagus.

Symbol of the resurrection of Christ from a Fourth Century Roman sarcophagus.
Photo credit: Jastrow

On the face of it, Easter appears to be one of those Christian festival with pagan antecedents. With its theme of death and rebirth and symbols of eggs and bunnies, even its very name seems to suggest a pagan festival usurped by Christianity.

But just how Pagan is the basis for modern Easter celebrations? Examination of the facts suggests the matter is not so clear-cut.

The Potential Pagan Precursors of Easter

Many people believe that the spring timing of Easter is a sure indicator of pagan origins.

The Council of Nicaea set the timing of the festival in 325 AD, when it ruled that people should celebrate the resurrection on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.

The equinox is a sacred time for many pagans, marking the point where day and night are of equal length. This fits in nicely with the themes of death and resurrection Christians celebrate.

Gerald L. Berry, author of Religions of the World, speculates that the cult of Cybele, which celebrated the death and resurrection of the goddess’s consort Attis between the 22-25 March, was one of those festivals that influenced Easter.

The similarity between Attis’s death  and that of Jesus have led some to speculate that Christianity actually ‘grafted on’ the pagan resurrection stories of Attis, Dionysus and Orpheus to the story of Jesus in order to allow the Christian resurrection story to usurp their celebrations.

Professor Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, and expert in pre-Christian religion and contemporary paganism does not agree. He spoke to Decoded Past, and explained:

‘There is no evidence of any contribution of the Cybele cult to the evolution of Easter,’ said Professor Hutton, Indeed the mystery religion of Cybele may well postdate Christianity and so be influenced by it, rather than vice versa.’

So much for southern European paganism; but, can the date of the resurrection be associated with any specific northern European pagan festivals around the date of the equinox?

‘There is no known northern European pagan festival in March: there seems to have been a festival gap between early February and late April (which would suit farming rhythms,’ Professor Hutton tells us.

Easter and Passover

In fact, the timing of Easter has more to do with Jewish Passover than any pagan festival. The Council of Nicaea’s ruling had nothing to do with superimposing their holy day over an existing pagan spring event. Rather, church officials designed it to ensure Easter stayed distinct from the Passover, and to settle squabbles within the church.

Passover may have formed the backdrop to the crucifixion and resurrection, but the church wanted to ensure that the Christian celebrations were distinct from those of the Jews. In addition, there was some debate over the exact day to mark the resurrection.

So, the Council of Nicaea chose the timing of Easter to reach a compromise between the Eastern Church, who calculated Easter according to the phases of the moon, and the Church of Rome, which had fixed their celebrations on a particular Sunday.

Eostre and Easter

But even if the spring equinox has no bearing on Easter, many argue that the festival’s name alone establishes its roots in paganism- in Northern Europe at least.

Most of Europe refers to ‘Easter’ using a range of words derived from the Hebrew for Passover ‘Pesach.’ So in Italy, it is Pascha; in Spain, Pascua; and Pasques in France; and Pasti in Romanian. It is only the German and English-speaking nations that refer to it as Easter.

Experts assume that the name derives from  an Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostra/Eostre whose celebrations fell sometime in April. Historians base this on a single reference in Bede’s Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) written in the seventh century AD.

The reference is brief and tantalizingly elusive and refers to the Anglo-Saxon names for the calendar:

‘The first month, which the Latin’s call January, is Giuli: February is called Solmonath: March Hrethmonath: April, Eosturmonath….’

Bede explains Eosturmonath as :

‘now translated “Paschal month” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs [the heathens] named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance.’

In the 19th century, Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology embellished the theme. He relates Eostre to Ostar, the old German expression for movement towards the sun: ‘ostara, eostre seems therefore to have been a divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian’s god.’

Easter eggs are a pagan symbol of spring and renewal. They are also a part of the easter traditions of Christians due to their prohibition at Lent

Easter eggs are a pagan symbol of spring and renewal. They are also a part of the easter traditions of Christians due to their prohibition at Lent.
Photocredit: Roland Geider

A Germanic Anomaly

The trouble is that there is no evidence to substantiate Bede and Grimm’s goddesses.

Professor Hutton, in his book, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year, mentions that German speakers used versions of the name ‘eostur’ to refer to Easter in and around the 8th and 9th centuries. But he doesn’t believe it refers to a goddess.

‘Ostara is merely the German word for Easter, taken from the Anglo-Saxon and probably from English missionaries,’ said Professor Hutton. Easter would not be named after the goddess directly but after the month (equivalent to April) named after her.’

In the absence of an identifiable goddess Eostra, some scholars have attempted to suggest that as Grimm suggests, the name ‘eostra’ is associated with various Indo-European dawn goddesses such as the Greek Eos, Roman Aurora and Indian Ushas. The Encyclopedia Britannica suggests Easter is actually derived from an Old High German translation of the Latin ‘in albis’ which refers to white or dawn. This gave the world ‘eostarum’, from which we possibly derive the word Easter.

But there is no firm historical basis for this.The suggestion about “in albis” is highly speculative and merely a possibility,’ said Professor Hutton.

Instead, Professor Hutton suggests a possible solution:

‘It is equally valid , however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon “Estormonath”simply meant the “month of opening” or the “month of beginnings” and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all or was never associated with a particular season.’

But Professor Hutton can offer no explanation as to why only one group of European Christians adopted the term Easter.

 ‘It is a mystery why the Germanic world chose another term,’ he told Decoded Past. 

The easter bunny began life as The German Hare - a symbol of fertility. Hare hunting was once a popular Easter pastime in parts of rural England. Image by ItsLassieTime

The Easter bunny began life as the German Hare – a symbol of fertility. Hare hunting was once a popular Easter pastime in parts of rural England. Image by ItsLassieTime

Easter Eggs and Bunnies

But according to Professor Hutton, there is justification for regarding Easter eggs and the Easter bunny as rooted in paganism. Christians justify eggs as an Easter treat because they were prohibited during Lent.

‘People all over the world, as far as China, have given eggs at spring festival as symbols of the season so the Lenten prohibition just absorbed that,’ said Professor Hutton.

And the Easter bunny?

‘The Easter bunny started out as the German Easter hare which may have pagan origins as the hare is a numinous animal [which possesses a strong religious quality] and clearly has a connection with spring,’ explained Professor Hutton, ‘but there is no evidence that takes the custom back more than a few hundred years.’

Easter: Christian or Pagan?

So, Easter’s timing is based around the Passover and although it cannot be linked to any particular pagan god or festival, it does contain some pagan practices relating to the celebration of spring.

Decoded Past asked Professor Hutton what he thinks about Easter: is it a Christian festival that supplanted pagan celebrations or is it a melding of various traditions in to one festival?

‘The latter,’ he said. ‘Easter is much less clearly directly based on previous pagan festivals than many other Christian holy days.’

© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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