Easter and its pagan origins

Think a gigantic, elusive bunny bearing food and egg hunts all across the land are of Christian origin? Not so fast. As with much of the Christian religion (see: Valentine’s Day), Easter has its pagan origins.

First of all, the list of resurrection gods is not limited to Christ—there are Osiris, Dionysus, Ba?al, Ishtar and Orpheus, amongst others. Osiris, an Egyptian god of the underworld, was killed by his brother Set and resurrected by his wife Isis. Dionysus was eviscerated by the Titans, but resurrected with his heart grown in Zeus’s thigh. Ba?al, a god of fertility, descended to the underworld and was restored to life. Ishtar, a Babylonian fertility goddess, descended into the underworld and returned, while Orpheus travelled to the underworld to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Thus, it can be said that Good Friday, a holiday celebrating a so-called god’s resurrection, is not particularly unique.

The word Easter itself seems to be a cognate of ?ostre, the name of a Germanic dawn goddess. ?ostre is attested by a Northumbrian monk named Venerable Bede in his book “Temporum Ratione” or “The Reckoning of Time.”

Bede wrote:

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath […]

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, associated ?ostre with an Old High German adverb “ostar,” which described a movement toward the sun. Grimm wrote, “Eostre seems therefore to have been a divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”

Aside from these two sources, it’s hard to reconstruct any definitive pagan Easter-like holidays, perhaps because pagan peoples weren’t in the habit of keeping records in the first millenium; but also because the Catholic Church had a truly brilliant talent for erasing both pagans and their religion from Europe and beyond.

Grimm, writing in “Deutsche Mythologie,” states:

The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate : I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people’s amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.

And while it’s uncertain if pagans celebrated an ?ostre festival, humans have long held eggs and rabbits (which reproduce because they, well, fuck like rabbits) as symbols of fertility. Another interesting Easter tradition is that its date is not fixed. Instead, it is governed by the lunar calendar; that is, the moon’s phases, which is not a Christian characteristic, but an ancient pagan one. The hot cross bun might also have pre-Christian origins.

So, when you see a gigantic Easter Bunny this weekend, or some ornately-painted eggs, remember that the Christian holiday is not all that it seems. That, or Christians have a very healthy imagination. Probably both.