It is widely known that many Christian traditions and holidays were modified forms of pagan festivals. In 313 CE, Constantine the Great (you know, the Roman Emperor who converted and turned the Western world Christian overnight), declared the official religion of the Roman Empire as Christianity. To smooth this idea over with the public and assist with the conversion process, he tied many Christian holidays to pagan ones which the public already celebrated. He didn’t want a revolt on his hands. (Although it’s an oversimplification, just imagine if the President of the United States declared the official religion of the United States wasn’t Judaism or Christianity. That is essentially what Constantine did in 313 CE.).
But, if we know that most holidays have their roots in ancient cultures, where does Easter come from? By using symbology and finding the common threads throughout the ancient world’s religions, we can understand why we celebrate our holidays the way we do.
Let’s start with something simple, the Easter bunny. Ancient Egyptian history tells us that Egyptians believed that the divine spark was in every creature, everything we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. And, they associated gods to creatures, which is why Thoth is depicted with the head of an ibis, Horus the head of a falcon, Bastet the head of a cat, Sekhmet the head of a lion and so on. Yet, although she was not one of the most popular goddesses, the goddess Unut, also called Wenet (The Swift One)or (the Lady of Unu), was depicted as a woman with the head of a hare.
“The hare, the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt, a symbol that was kept later in Europe…Its place has been taken by the Easter rabbit.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1991 ed., Vol. 4, p. 333).
As a symbol of fertility, the ancient Egyptians thought of the new moon and new season spring brings after cold, harsh winters. Because Easter is determined by the new moon on a lunar calendar (the same calendar ancient Egyptians used), the hare was connected to the resurrection of Osiris.
Lest we forget the resurrection myth, Osiris was murdered by his brother, Seth. As I’ll do many other blog posts on the Osiris myth, a paraphrased version is this. Seth dismembers Osiris’ body in fourteen different pieces. Isis, goddess of magic and the moon, is Osiris’ lover and reassembles his body. With the help of Thoth, the god of wisdom and magic, Isis makes love to Osiris to bring him back to life. Out of their communion, the son of god (Horus, the child), grows up and takes revenge on Seth for the murder of his father.
Ancient Egyptians always identified themselves with Osiris, for they too wanted to be resurrected and live in his glory. That is why, during the new spring, they celebrated his resurrection.
Now that we can see the connection between the hare and the celebration of a god’s resurrection, let us turn to the second most iconic symbol of Easter, the Easter egg.
“The origin of the Easter egg is based on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races…The egg to them was a symbol of spring…In Christian times the egg had bestowed upon it a religious interpretation, becoming a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His resurrection.” (Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 233).
From Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, James Bonwick, pp. 211-212: “Eggs were hung up in the Egyptian temples. Bunsen calls attention to the mundane egg, the emblem of generative life, proceeding from the mouth of the great god of Egypt. The mystic egg of Babylon, hatching the Venus Ishtar, fell from heaven to the Euphrates. Dyed eggs were sacred Easter offerings in Egypt, as they are still in China and Europe. Easter, or spring, was the season of birth, terrestrial and celestial.”
Although almost every culture in the modern world has a tradition of coloring eggs, since the Roman world wasn’t established until around 300 BCE, and we know that Egyptians influenced ancient Greece, who in turn influenced ancient Rome, we can infer that Ancient Egyptians were coloring eggs three thousand years before Rome existed.
The Name of Easter.
Will Durant, in his famous and respected work, Story of Civilization, pp. 235, 244-245, writes, “Ishtar [Astarte to the Greeks, Ashtoreth to the Jews], interests us not only as analogue of the Egyptian Isis and prototype of the Grecian Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, but as the formal beneficiary of one of the strangest of Babylonian customs…” The rest of the quote is unimportant as it has to do with the custom of virginity. What is important is the linkage between Venus, Aphrodite, Isis, and Astarte.
Astarte was the Queen of Heaven in ancient Middle East. Links can be traced to Assyrian, Sumerian, Phoenician, and Egyptian origins. Nevertheless, her worship was associated with the sun. It is widely believed that the name EASTER is a Greek and Latinized derivative of the original pronunciation of Astarte.
“The term Easter was derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Eostre’, the name of the goddess of spring. In her honor sacrifices were offered at the time of the vernal equinox. By the 8th century the term came to be applied to the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by Geoffrey Bromiley, Vol. 2 of 4, p.6, article: Easter).
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven…Now, the Assyrian goddess, or Astarte, is identified with Semiramis by Athenagoras (Legatio, vol. ii. p. 179), and by Lucian (De Dea Syria, vol iii. p. 382)…Now, no name could more exactly picture forth the character of Semiramis, as queen of Babylon, than the name of ‘Asht-tart,’ for that just means ‘The woman that made towers’…Ashturit, then…is obviously the same as the Hebrew ‘Ashtoreth’” (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, pp. 103, 307-308).”
Like everything, religion and spirituality borrows from one another. Easter is not a duplication of Egyptian history and traditions but a modified and modernized festival which was influenced by over 3,000 years of cultures and civilizations before Constantine the Great turned the Roman Empire Christian.