By accepting ancient pagan practices, it was easier for pagans to accept Christianity. There were many parallel stories about resurrected gods and heroes in the ancient world dating back at least to the Sumerians. Christianity found many easy converts in pagan religions that featured resurrected god myths so that it accommodated a pagan Spring festival for pragmatic reasons.
Resurrected Pagan Gods and Goddesses
According to one ancient myth, Ishtar, a Sumerian goddess, was hung naked on a stake until she resurrected herself and came up out of the underworld. Horus was an Egyptian god who also represented rebirth from death and new life.
At one time the cult of Cybele was centered on Vatican Hill where there was a violent conflict between Christians and Cybelenes over whose god was the one true god. Cybele’s lover, Attis, was born of a virgin, and every year he died and was reborn at the spring equinox feast. This festival began as a day of death and blood on a Black Friday and reached a crescendo after three days when he resurrected bringing the spring season with him.
There is no mention of an Easter celebration in the New Testament, but the “sunrise services” are a pagan remnant, as is the fact that Easter is a movable holiday in that the date is governed by the phases of the moon. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox according to the Julian calendar. The Christian Orthodox church in the east sets its own date by the Gregorian calendar for the holiday.
According to Newman in his book, A Manual of Church History, “The fact that vernal festivals were general among pagan people no doubt had much to do with the form assumed by the Eastern festival in the Christian churches. The English term Easter is of pagan origin.”
The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and the first English historian, wrote that Easter derives its name from Eostre who was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and the month corresponding to April was called “Eostremonat” or Eostre’s month.
Pagan Easter Traditions
The symbol for the goddess Eostre is the rabbit which represented fertility. Today the bunny has morphed into the cuddly critter that delivers the Easter eggs, jelly beans and other sweet goodies. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Gauls and Chinese all regarded the egg as a symbol of the renewing universe and new life.
During the medieval times, eggs were forbidden during Lent and any eggs laid during that time were hard-boiled for preservation. In the Middle East and Greece, Orthodox Christians painted their eggs red to represent the blood of Christ. The Germans painted their eggs green and gave them as presents on Holy Thursday. They also blew out the egg yolks and albumen and hung them on trees as decorations. Throughout Europe children used them in holiday games, and the parents would hide the eggs for them to find.
One favorite game was rolling eggs down hills. Thanks to Dolly Madison, who organized the first egg roll on the lawn of the new Capitol building, today the White House sponsors the famous egg rolls on the lawn every year. This practice originally developed from the Roman races on oval tracks and awarding eggs on their spring pagan holiday.
Easter baskets grew from the pagan representation of birds weaving their nests as they mated. The children used the baskets when they hunted for Easter eggs.
The forerunner of the Easter parade grew out of Medieval Europe when the priests carrying candles or a crucifix would lead the parishioners on a walk after the Easter mass. This was the day when all the laity wore new clothes to represent their new life as represented by the resurrection.
Today the secular culture celebrates spring with new plantings and Easter candies, while the religious folk celebrate the resurrection. There’s something in the Easter festival for everyone.