Easter is almost upon us.
I am not even a little bit religious, but I like religious festivals: mostly because of the Bank Holidays, but also because they contain within them a host of interesting folklore and mythology which says a lot about who we are, where we came from and how the ancient mind worked.
Easter is one of the most fascinating of the religious festivals and its pagan origins aren’t buried very deeply.
If you are a Christian, Easter is perhaps the most important of the year’s religious festivals. It celebrates the crucifixion of Christ at Calvary (Good Friday), his resurrection on the third day (Easter Sunday) and his ascension to heaven (Easter Monday), all as described in New Testament.
So important is this festival that it goes on for ages: to the devout it is not just the one long weekend, but the culmination of the Passion of Christ. It is preceded by Lent, a forty day period that is supposed to be about fasting, prayer and penance, but these days is mostly just about giving up chocolate.
As if that isn’t enough, it is followed by a fifty day period called Eastertide, which ends with Pentecost Sunday. So, in total this whole festival takes up about a quarter of the year!
So it strikes me as weird that such an important Christian festival roams around the calendar at the whim of that most pagan of symbols, the moon. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox (21 March). The date therefore varies between 22 March and 25 April.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the festival has suspicious similarities with Christianity’s Jewish origins: Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover by much of its symbolism, as well as by its position in the calendar. In many languages, the words for “Easter” and “Passover” are identical or very similar. The Jewish festival commemorates the story of the Exodus.
But the fact that it is a ‘movable feast’ is still odd and speaks of pagan origins.
The whole story of death and resurrection is not unique to Christianity, in fact it appears in most religions around the Mediterranean. Most notable is the tale of the Phrygian fertility goddess, Cybele. She had a consort called Attis, who was believed to have been born of a virgin birth, to have died and been resurrected each year during the period between 22nd and 25th March. Sound familiar at all?
Mystery cults started very early and before Attis there was Tammuz (Sumerian), Osiris (Egyptian), Dionysus (Greek) and Orpheus (Greek). The mystery cults begun to appear in Rome by 200 B.C. and the Cybele cult was centred on Vatican Hill.
In the early days of Christianity the death and resurrection of Jesus and Attis were celebrated on the same day, leading to bitter quarrels over which was the true god.
Closer to home, the word Easter is thought to originate in the Old English Ēostre or Ēastre, which is generally held to have originally referred to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: “eastre.”
Of course the origins of all of this mythology are not hard to deduce as ancient man celebrated and anthropomorphised the re-birth of the land following its death over winter: and this would indeed have been something to celebrate after the long, dark, cold, hungry winter months.
Most of the modern Easter traditions derive from paganism: Hot Cross Buns originate from ritual bread with the crossed horns of the sacrificial ox carved into it; Easter rabbits and eggs fairly clearly represent fertility.
So whatever your religion, let’s just celebrate the coming of spring in whatever way takes your fancy and enjoy the long weekend.