Looking into the mists of Easter history
By Stephan Drew
The month of April has always held great promise of momentous gatherings for myself and my family.
It is not only my birthday month but also my father’s, two of my uncles’ and a few other members of our family. Easter has also been included in our April festivities many times over the past six decades.
Usually, it’s in March but, oftentimes, April becomes quite full of activities. We bake cakes and pies, cook the ham (or lamb), dye the eggs, hide them, and bring out all the trappings of the season.
Rabbits, whether stuffed or chocolate, have always had their place in the festivities. Each year, as children, we would proudly parade our bright-colored Easter outfits at church for all to see.
It has always been a wonderful time. As Christians, we honor this season as the time when our Savior gave His life in order to redeem our souls and give us our chance to join Him and live in celestial peace in Heaven.
Most of us gather for worship, the egg hunts and traditional times of fellowship, celebrating the complete arrival of spring and the rebirth of all things. It has always been this way.
But, this year, I wanted to do some research into our Easter traditions and find out not only where they come from but also how long we have been doing this, as well as what all these symbols really mean. What I found shocked me and may shake you up a little as well.
I hope none of this upsets you but, as a journalist, I had to find out. As an honest person, it is my job to tell you the truth of what I found. It is important to know the true origins of our traditions, our rituals and why we hold them so dear and believe in them so profoundly.
So, let’s look at it historically, scientifically and honestly. First of all, there is no mention of the word “Easter” in the Bible. Look for it if you wish. The word doesn’t appear in either the Old or New Testament. Christianity did not become a major force or world religion until after 330 AD, when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, held the Nicaean Council and proclaimed it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was almost 1,700 years ago.
Because Rome already had many of their own pagan holidays, this new “Christian” theology had to be woven into something the Romans could accept. Their old celebrations were merged with Judaeo/Christian doctrine (Saturnalia became Christmas, Lupercalia became Passover, etc.) Written history tells us the term “Easter” comes from the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, the mother goddess of fertility.
English legend says she was walking in a field one day and, upon finding a bird with a broken wing, her heart grew heavy and she decided she would take it in her charge to heal it. She didn’t really like birds. Her favorite creature was the rabbit.
But, carrying this broken bird back to her home, she gave it medical attention (whatever that meant 1,200 years ago) and nursed it to health. Since she was a powerful goddess, Eostre decided she would “change it” to rabbit form. The animal (now a bunny) recovered completely.
However, since it had ONCE been a bird, the creature retained the ability to lay eggs. That is why we celebrate the Easter (Eostre) “bunny” who lays eggs. But long before that … as a matter of fact, 3,000 years previous to Eostre, there was another pagan goddess known among the Mesopotamian culture.
In ancient Sumeria, the goddess Ishtar was also worshipped as the goddess of fertility. It is Sumerian legend that Ishtar descended, from heaven to Earth, in an oval or “egg-shaped” object. Every spring, festivals were held to honor her existence and celebrate her gifts to mankind. Since she was considered the “mother of all life,” yearly festivities were held to show obeisance to her.
Strangely, she also had an affinity for bunnies. Rabbits were (and still are) known for their prolific breeding. So, during these celebrations, young bunnies were cut, from throat to belly, and the blood was spread upon those young mothers who wished to have children. The blood (as well as a lot of alcohol) was also drunk by those in attendance, in hopes of making them more fertile and productive. Some even bathed in the blood of these poor little creatures.
Through the years, they also began to dip (or “paint”) the eggs with the rabbits’ blood, dyeing them red as a symbol of new life. However, according to Sumerian legend, Ishtar was not alone.
She had a husband, the god Tammuz (Dimmuzi). One day, while hunting, Tammuz was killed by a wild boar. Upon hearing this, the goddess Ishtar was thrown into a maddening rage and ordered that all pigs that could be found were to be sacrificed.
These animals weren’t wasted, though. The pigs were cooked and given to the poor and all other townspeople in honor of the love of her life, the great Tammuz. The poor people greatly appreciated this and celebrated her even more. After that, baked ham became a traditional meal for many spring and fertility celebrations. And, that’s just a short history of the food involved in our Easter history. Since that time, 5,000 years ago, each culture has emerged with its own legends and traditions, suiting its own beliefs, styles and tastes.
Now, in America, we are a nation which has a Christian majority. Most of us celebrate Easter as the day our gracious Savior redeemed us, rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven taking all our sin and pain with Him.
But, regardless of your faith, it really is a beautiful time. Whether you believe in a god or not. Whether you add bunnies, ham, lamb or dyed eggs to your festivities, for whatever reason is no concern of mine. Faithful or faithless, the air is sweet, flowers are blooming again, birds are singing and the breath of life is everywhere to be found. We enjoyed time (and a lot of good food) with family. I hope you did the same. Regardless of what you believe (or don’t believe) or how you celebrated it, I sincerely pray that you enjoyed this season that we call Easter.