Easter as a Christian celebration goes something like this. After being crucified upon a cross amongst thieves, Christ died on Good Friday (which would have begun around sundown on Thursday according to Jewish tradition) and “descended into Hell.” On the third day, Sunday April 23, 33 AD they say, he “rose again and ascended into heaven.” Sound familiar mythology buffs? It should.
A similar circumstance is presented upon Sumerian tablets from approximately 1750 BC. A story in which the Goddess Inanna sacrifices herself to travel into the Nether World, passes through seven gates suffering humiliation at each, presents before the judges of this world, is flagellated, looks upon death and is hung from a stake dead. Three days and nights pass before she returns again to redeem the world and renew life. This cycle continues to be represented for Pagans at the end of each waning cycle of the moon when for three days no moon can be seen in the sky. The energy of the Divine Feminine returns again at new moon, reminding us of the gift of Rebirth.
According to “The Venerable Bede”, a Christian scholar from 672-735 CE, the word “Easter” was derived from the name of the Teutonic (Germanic Saxon) Mother Goddess Eostre, a name synonymous with the Greek Astarte, which is thought to come from the Syrian Asherah of the 15 century BC, which has possible origins from or links to Ashtoreth, a Phoenician goddess. All three of whom are considered to be synonymous with the Goddess Inanna. Eostre’s symbols were the hare (because of their prolific fertility, and because her people thought they could see a hare in her face, the full moon) and the egg (for Teutonic Cosmic Egg of creation, where all life came from). However it’s likely that even this myth has older origins. In Babylonia the story told is that an egg of wondrous size fell from heaven into the Euphrates River. From this marvelous egg – according to the ancient story – the Goddess Asherah was “hatched”.
Because Eostre is a full moon goddess, her festival was always held on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, which modern Pagans celebrate as the Sabbat Ostara. In 155 AD Catholicism adopted the practices of Asherah worship renaming them Easter, and placing the feast day on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox/ Ostara.
How did this mythology of feminine divinity become associated with a male son/sun god? Easily… Ba’al. Ba’al was a Phoenician sun god, consort of Ashtoreth/Astarte/Inanna. The cult of Ba’al celebrated annually his death and resurrection as a part of the Canaanite fertility rituals. On the first Sunday of the equinox, the families would face east to await the rising of the sun, which was the chief symbol of the sun god, Ba’al, to greet the sun. Later on during the day, the children of the Canaanite parents would often go and hunt for eggs, which were symbolic of sex, fertility and new life. It was believed that these eggs came from rabbits, which in the Pagan world were symbolic of lust, sexual prowess and reproduction. That rabbits laid the eggs comes from the Egyptian belief that rabbits first came from the divine Phoenix, who once ruled the ancient skies until they were attacked by other gods in a power struggle. When they were struck down, they reincarnated into rabbits, but kept the ability to produce eggs, like the ancient birds, to show their origins.
The Easter Bunny came to America in the 1700s by immigrants from Germany where it had been called “Osterhase” – Oster or Oschter being German for Easter, and hase being the German word for hare. As the story goes, to please her children the Goddess Eostre changed her pet bird into a hare that laid brightly colored eggs which she then gave to them. Another story says that a rabbit once wanted so much to make Eostre happy that he laid the eggs himself. He then decorated them prettily and gave them to her as a gift. She was so pleased with this gift that she wanted all the people of the world to share in the joy too. Either way, from then on, little German children left nests out for the bunny to continue to bring them the brightly colored eggs. The tradition of hiding those eggs stems from European sympathetic magic, like attracting like, so burying the eggs into the ground is to ensure the ground is fertile and will yield bountiful harvests.
How did the eggs become chocolate? This dates back to 19th century Europe, where rabbits were first shaped into breads and cake, then later into chocolate. In the United States, the originator of chocolate rabbits is Robert L. Strohecker. He put a five-foot tall chocolate rabbit in his Pennsylvania drugstore as part of the Easter display in 1890 and within 10 years they became a staple in Easter baskets across the country. Then in 1948, when World War II ended, Richard Palmer, returning from his tour overseas, started R.M. Palmer Co., and began mass producing chocolate rabbits that were modeled after his dog’s toy! The tinier egg shaped jelly beans weren’t introduced until the 1930s and those marshmallow Peeps, they didn’t hit until the 1950s.
So the next time you bite into a Cadbury egg, or M&M rabbit, take a moment to reflect on the rich history contained in that little sweet little face, and give a thought to Inanna / Astarte / Asherah / Astoreth and their consort Ba’al, without whom there would be no delicious confections to celebrate the holiday with. 🙂
For my follow up to this post see “You say Easter, I say Eostre … additional thoughts in the age of the meme”