A look at the Pagan tales of Easter before its adoption into Christianity
Written by Ashley Lubecky
Easter has long been known as a Christian holiday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his three days of death upon his crucifixion. However, there are many adaptations of Pagan traditions in the celebration of Easter. Every year, Easter is celebrated in the Springtime, between March 25 and April 25th, always falling on a Sunday — due to the Sundays being considered holy days within Christianity. These dates vary based on the spring (or vernal) equinox and the moon. In Western traditions, Easter is set to be celebrated every year on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, otherwise known as The Paschal Full Moon. According to Christianity, Easter is aligned with the moon and the spring equinox to coincide with Passover — a Jewish holiday. This is because the Resurrection took place after this holiday. However, Easter’s alignment with the moon and the spring equinox also brings into question its relation to Paganism.
So what exactly is Pagan or Paganism? Originally, Pagan was a term used to describe a person who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Today, Paganism is recognized as a religion of its own, and often closely linked to spirituality. Paganism is a religion whose worship centers around Nature and deities — both gods and goddesses. The various deities within Paganism represent the diversity of Nature. The spirit of Nature is recognized by the Pagan religion, and many see the Earth itself as a sacred being. Different emphases and practices are observed within Paganism to bring about growth and renewal with each season, usually marked by a festival and an offering to different deities. The rules and practices of Paganism are not strict, however, and many who identify with Paganism practice how they see fit, with Nature as their divinity.
Before Easter became a traditional Christian holiday, Pagan Anglo-Saxons brought about springtime with a feast during Eostur-moanth which is now translated to Paschal month — the month of the spring equinox. This feast focused on the celebration of Ēostre (pronounced yow-str) — Germanic spring goddess and the goddess of dawn, who represents rebirth and renewal. Jacob Grimm, an 18th and 19th-century linguist, writes “Ēostre seems to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian's God." The celebration and focus of Ēostre is just one popular belief of the Pagan origins of Easter.
Another belief of the Pagan origins of Easter begins with Ishtar (or Inanna) — the Pagan goddess of summer, sex, fertility and war. The story of Ishtar goes a little something like this: Ishtar journeyed into the underworld, crossing seven gates, and was required to remove a layer of clothing at each gate, leaving her without her power. Ishtar then arrives naked in front of her sister, Ereshkigal — Queen of the Ancient Mesopotamian Underworld, Kur — and, without any power, is killed and hung on a stake. There are various reasons as to why Ishtar journeyed into the Underworld, from seeking to her deceased husband to a desire to increase her own power. Ishtar’s story relates to the Christian traditions of Easter because she was later resurrected and ascended back into the world — much like Jesus Christ. After Ishtar is missing for three days, help is sought from other gods to bring her back. One god gives Ishtar the power to return, but with a price: she is allowed to return to Earth for six months every year to pose as the light and the sun and must return to the Underworld during winter months. The myth of Ishtar was discovered on tablets dating to 7th century BC, in ancient northern Mesopotamian — which is now northern Iraq.
Additionally, many of the symbols and traditions of the Christian holiday Easter are believed to stem from Paganism. For example, the tradition of the Easter egg — often hard boiled colored eggs or plastic eggs that are hidden and stored with candy or money — has been adapted from Paganism. Within the Pagan tradition, eggs symbolize new life and fertility, as with many other cultures. Further, “many ancient pagan cultures exchanged eggs as a celebration of the changing season into spring” (historic mysteries). The symbolic meaning of the egg has since been adapted into Christianity to represent Jesus' resurrection, with the eggshell symbolizing his tomb cracking upon his emergence. Similarly to eggs, rabbits also symbolize life and fertility, and also serve as an image of springtime. In today’s celebration of the Christian holiday Easter, the Easter Bunny brings children gifts and leaves his eggs full of goodies for them to find. The diverse symbolism of fertility represented by these Easter traditions also highlights the myth of Pagan goddess Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, in the adoption of Pagan traditions into Easter. Lastly, hot cross buns, a Easter tradition that represents the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, are believed to have pagan origins. When the Pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated the Pagan goddess Ēostre with a feast to bring about springtime, buns were marked with a cross — to represent the four seasons.
This springtime, whether people choose to celebrate Easter, the welcoming of a new season, or nothing in particular, is entirely up to them. Painting and searching for eggs, eating lots of candy and hot cross buns, and gathering with others has become a wide tradition within the Western culture around this time of year, and a good way to celebrate whatever one believes in, or to just have a little fun.