When we think of Easter today, the holiday is heavily associated with either bunnies, chicks and chocolates, or the Christian tradition of Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection three days later. But many of the traditions associated with Easter have their origins before Christianity. Since Easter is next weekend, I thought I’d look through some mythology books available here at the Thunder Bay Public Library to try to tease out just where these traditions originally came from.
According to Anthony S. Mercante in World Mythology and Legend, the English name for Easter comes from “the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who was associated with the season of new birth” (228). This is seconded by Nigel Pennick in The Pagan Book of Days, who says that the month of April was originally called “Eastermonath” by the Anglo-Saxons, in honour of their goddess Eostre. I had a hard time finding more information about Eostre beyond this, with the exception of a few little tidbits from Stuart Gordon’s The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. Gordon says she is a Teutonic moon goddess of spring’s fertility who is also known as “Oestre.”
While these books didn’t have much information on Eostre herself, they did give me some insights into the origins of the Easter Bunny. Gordon speculates that the Easter rabbit was originally a hare because hares were sacred to Oestre and other moon goddesses; he gives no further detail than that. Mercante gives a little more information: he notes that the rabbit was a pagan fertility symbol. Mercante also notes that the first mention of the Easter rabbit itself was in a 1572 German book but unfortunately he doesn’t say which one. So it sounds like hares and rabbits have long been associated with Easter in some way, but it was the Germans who brought us the more modern idea of the Easter Bunny.
The origin of the Easter egg is equally nebulous. Gordon notes only that eggs were “a pre-Christian symbol of rebirth and renewal at the time of the vernal equinox” (145). Mercatante seconds this, saying eggs were a pagan symbol of rebirth, given out at the pagan New Year, which used to be celebrated at Easter (France considered Easter the start of the New Year until the 1560’s). Mercatante also says that it was tradition to give eggs to servants during Easter in the Middle Ages. Apparently England’s King Edward I gave out 450 boiled and decorated eggs to his household one Easter!
I also found a reference from Ann Stalcup regarding the origins of pysanky (which is the Ukrainian term she uses for Ukrainian Easter Eggs in her book Ukrainian Egg Decoration: A Holiday Tradition): she believes this tradition started around 4000 BC! Stalcup also notes that the word “pysanky” comes from the Ukrainian word “pysaty,” which means “to write.” This is most likely a reference to the way pysanky are decorated: you use a special tool (called a “kistka”) dipped in beeswax to draw on the eggs; the motion is very similar to cursive writing.
So what about the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ? In his book, Gordon links Christ’s crucifixion with the earlier celebration of the fertility god Attis. Attis, who was originally from Asia Minor, was annually killed and reborn, symbolizing the life cycle of plants. His cult eventually reached Rome; Attis was then honoured on March 25th. Christians began celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus on that same day – Gordon even notes that “As late as the fourth century many worshippers of Attis contended that Christ was an imitation or mere counterfeit of their own, older god” (145). Eventually the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus became associated with the phase of the moon (as we celebrate Easter today) instead.
Shauna Kosoris – www.tbpl.ca. If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. Please comment below!