Easter reveals its pagan beginnings

Decorated eggs for Easter have pagan rootsEaster is a deeply religious holiday for Christians but when I did some research on this festive time I learned it pre-dates Christianity and has pagan roots. And that many of the symbols we associate with Christianity – eggs and rabbits and hot cross buns – have nothing at all to do with Christ or the cross. A feast of information and discussion at chez Moore of late…

Easter is marked by the exchange of eggs and usually chocolate eggs, which pleases my children enormously. But with the recent introduction of religious discussions at our house, I wanted them to understand why they were receiving eggs and what the significance of eggs and Easter is. So I turned to the Google machine for an explanation that ran deeper than the one offered by Christianity.

Turns out the humble egg is laden with symbolism beyond its Christian relevance. I confess, I’ve always been partial to the egg shape (and covet egg-shaped jewellery, such as this  Jean Schlumberger-designed  Tiffy & Co necklace, which retails for about $5,000. *sigh*). Anyway, I was really interested to learn about its etymology within the Easter tradition and how it came to be adopted as a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection.

According to Wikipedia, to some people the egg symbolises Christ’s empty tomb. Others also believe the egg is shaped like a stone from Christ’s tomb.

More commonly held was the belief that the egg represented the newly risen Christ emerging from his tomb as symbolised by the new life contained within the egg.

Traditionally, eggs are not eaten during Lent (and are in fact, specifically all used up on Pancake Tuesday), so the proliferation of eggs at Easter is said to celebrate the end of Lent and the return of eggs to the pantry.

Easter’s pagan origins

However, many of the traditions we associate with Easter, such as eggs and rabbits, in fact pre-date Christianity.

The Discovery Channel reports on University of Florida research that indicates pagan worship of the goddess of spring and fertility, Eostra, is where Easter celebrations began, rooted in pre-Christian Germany. Wikipedia also reports on research from Jacob Grimm, that confirms Christians later conveniently adopted the pagan Easter festival for their own calendar and purposes.

This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.

Huh. You don’t say.

So before Christianity the spring equinox was celebrated with a fertility festival that marked the end of the bleak winter and the coming of the bountiful, warmer seasons and  where symbols of fertility – eggs (new life) and rabbits (prolifically fertile breeders) – were found in abundance. Across many cultures the equivalent of the goddess Eostra can be found – the goddess of fertility, the goddess of plenty, of abundance is an oft-occurring deity.

And it wasn’t until the 1700s when Germans settled in the Pennsylvania Dutch region of the US that the notion of an Easter Bunny and a nest of eggs spread.

And as for hot cross buns, which are thought to represent the crucifix, well, not originally.

At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility goddess, an ox, was sacrificed, and its crossed horns became a symbol of the season carved into the bread. The word ‘bun’ derives from the Saxon word ‘boun’ meaning ‘sacred ox’.

And finally, the progression of decorated eggs to chocolate eggs brings us a new ‘god’ in the story of Easter – the god of chocolate, John Cadbury.

The first chocolate Easter eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th Century with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery. John Cadbury made his first ‘French eating Chocolate’ in 1842 but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made.

The launch in 1905 of the famous Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate made a tremendous contribution to the Easter egg market. The popularity of this new kind of chocolate vastly increased sales of Easter eggs and did much to establish them as seasonal best sellers. Today the Easter egg market is predominantly milk chocolate.

So there’s absolutely no religious significance whatsoever in giving chocolate eggs over decorated hen’s eggs, other than paying homage/tithing to the god of capitalism, that is.

Now, there’s nothing terribly startling or new in any of this. It’s actually well documented that Easter has pagan origins, and that the Christian calendar appropriates many pagan festivals, giving them new, Christian meanings. This is how Christianity first spread through pagan-worshipping Europe. It began by combining pagan and Christian festivals as a way of drawing in pagan worshipers and eventually, through persistent publicity and spin, usurped the pagan meanings, completely replacing them with Christian meanings. Which brings us to the modern day and all anyone remembers is the Christian meaning. If that.

This is a simplified version of the facts, for brevity’s sake. But as you munch on the remnants of the chocolate eggs you’ve stashed at the back of the fridge, remember that the egg is not only a symbol of new life and Christ’s resurrection. It is also a symbol of spring and fertility and was used to symbolise the vernal equinox when the cold of winter could be shaken off and new crops would be planted for the coming harvest. I guess you could say the true, original meaning of the eggs and the Easter bunny have pagan origins. Food for thought?

5 comments for “Easter reveals its pagan beginnings

  1. April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Was well aware of the pagan origins and relation to spring coming (where does that leave us in the southern hemisphere?), if not the details, so thanks for filling us in. We explained this to our kids this Easter as well – so they could understand why we could still celebrate Easter as being about ‘life’ while not believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
    Very interesting about the Pennsylvania Deutsch & the connection between rabbits and eggs (never did get that).
    Did you know that in France the eggs are delivered not by a rabbit, but by a bell? A flying bell from Rome in the piece I heard on ABC radio this Easter, or by the bells of the town according to a French friend of mine. Like to try to find the origins of that one for us Felicity?

  2. Liz
    April 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I had a parent ask me once in my classroom if I was going to teach the “true” meaning of Easter. I was very quick to point out that teaching pagan symbolism probably wasn’t appropriate in a preschool setting! Needless to say she huffed and puffed and stomped out of the room. 🙂

    • April 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      Ha! I agree – not really appropriate to talk about religion without the express permission of the parents. I really was offering the information as a counterpoint to the saturation of Christianity’s viewpoints at Easter. There doesn’t seem to be any alternative views represented.

  3. MrFelicityMoore
    April 17, 2012 at 11:33 am

    I don’t know Liz, what’s more appropriate – indoctrinating our children into a Middle Eastern Jewish cult gone viral, or the nature-attuned religion of our European ancestors?

    • April 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      As always I advocate an objective viewpoint and teaching our children about all of life’s fairytales equally.

I would love it if you would tap out a few words here!