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Easter: Season of Bunnies and Chickens… Wait, What?

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Easter is a holiday that everyone knows is Christian, right? Or is it another pagan festival corrupted to fit the recruitment needs of the early church? Just like a paraphrase of the old Reese’s commercial, you got your pagan in my Christianity or vice versa.

Easter as the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of man is undeniably Christian. It’s not misplaced in the year like Christmas, to help offset the yule festivities, or made up to cover an existing harvest festival like Halloween, All-Saints Day, and All Souls Day. It does have the distinction of being part of the collection of last great moveable feasts along with its associated days of Lent (and for that matter, Mardi Gras). However, it is most certainly a Christian celebration of a Christian concept. There’s no pagan influence in how we celebrate Easter, right? The answer is not so cut and dry as we would like to think. There are three elements of the traditional American Easter celebrations that strike many people as odd. The profusion of rabbits, ducks and chickens is the big one. The inclusion of decorated eggs is another. Finally we have the name. The amazing inundation of pastel colors might be a fourth reason for some of us, but I’m afraid that is an unsolvable mystery.

Colored version of the ancient Mesopotamian eight-pointed star symbol of the goddess Ishtar (Inana/Inanna), representing the planet Venus as morning or evening star

There are a number of theories you will see on the internet or hear from people about the claim that the word Easter is a corruption of the name of the goddess Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess of love fertility and war. You’ll hear how there were eggs full of blood smashed on her alter, rabbits regarded as her sacred animals, and how the whole thing was a sacred ceremony celebrating her aspect of the goddess of spring fertility. Almost all of this is bunk. The animal that was most often associated with her is the lion and the only real time we find that big cat in Easter mythology is as a bit of a joke in a certain English candy companies commercials. While she did have a ceremony in the spring, it had little to nothing to do with eggs and mostly involved the equinox and a concept of sacred marriage which may have been anything from a ritual conjoining of the king and the high priestess to a city-state wide activity that resulted in a lot of births nine months later.

There may actually be a goddess who gave her name to Easter. Eostre is an Anglo Saxon goddess of fertility who has cognates with remarkably similar names throughout the Germanic pagan world. Most languages use their version of the word Pesach (פֶּסַח) which means Passover. Not surprisingly, the languages that use something similar to Easter are all in the Germanic family. In fact she may have been a version of the Norse goddess Freya.

Illustration of Ēostre by Jacques Reich, originally with the caption “Eástre… see the bunny?

The Easter Bunny may come by way of Eostre as well. What little we know of her and her various incarnations from around Europe tells us that the fecund little rabbit was one of her symbols. The version we have today probably stems from the Osterhase, an egg laying rabbit native to German vernal traditions dating back to the 1500s. According to the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung,

“A legend holds that a poor woman living in Germany decorated colorful eggs for her children to find in the garden. As soon as the hidden eggs were found by the children, a large hare was seen hopping away. The children thought the hare (Hase) left the eggs.”

There is no doubt that the legendary reproductive powers of the rabbits and hares have been linked to the fertility of spring, but I’m fairly certain the eggs came from somewhere else.

The egg association may have something stemming back to a pagan root. They can’t help but give one ideas about birth and renewal. However the practice of the Easter egg as we know it relates to the fact that for many years, eggs were on the list of foods forbidden to Lenten penitents. People would celebrate the return of eggs to their diet by giving them to each other as gifts. Decorating them began to become popular as well growing in to the modern dyed egg as well as the ornate Ukrainian eggs and even the priceless Faberge eggs.

It really doesn’t matter where the symbols come from. Many people will argue back and forth for centuries to come over the origins of every little word in every liturgy in every faith the world over if you let them. The important thing is to enjoy these festivities in the manner that pleases you best!

 


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