Bunnies, eggs and Easter

It seems to have become a tradition that every year at this chocolatey time I talk about what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The answer is, nothing at all!   The word Easter comes from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. It just so happens that the month we call April, the people who spoke Old English called Eostre's Month.

The first mention in history of the original Easter festival comes from no less than the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monk who lived in England in the 600s AD. Bede was a major player in the hot subject of his day: how to calculate when the death and rebirth of Jesus should be celebrated. He wrote a book about it called De Ratione Temporum which means On Calculating Time.

Bede's calculation landed the Christian event in Eostre's Month (April!). Bede commented in the same book, in an almost offhand way, that Eostre's Month traditionally saw the locals hold festivals in honour of the pagan goddess Eostre.

Bunnies are particularly good at doing the fertility thing, and eggs have the obvious meaning.  Bunnies and eggs therefore are the symbols of the German fertility goddess.  This all got mixed up with the Christian event and since no one in their right minds turns down chocolate, I don't think they'll be separating any time soon.

I went looking for a decent translation of Bede's original comment and the best I could find was from tertullian.org, who in turn got it from a translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54.
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.  

Happy Eostre / Ostara / Easter !


Colin Smith said...

Actually, the celebration of "Easter"--even if not know by that name until later--was practiced by the church from a very early time. Melito of Sardis mentions it as an established practice in the mid-second century AD. And the fact that the Quartodeciman debate was such a big deal toward the end of the second century demonstrates how important establishing the correct date for "Easter" was to the church at that time.

Oh, and to speak of the "death and rebirth" of Jesus is not accurate. It sounds like you're trying to associate the Resurrection, something believed by monotheistic Jews, with pagan mystery "death-and-rebirth" cults. I know the association is often made, but it is an apples-and-oranges comparison. The idea that monotheistic Jews would have adopted pagan, polytheistic mythology is a huge stretch. And the theological ideas behind both are a world apart. Beware Paralellomania! :)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Colin, hope you're having a good Easter! The niceties of the Christian terminology I'll leave to experts, which it seems I just demonstrated clearly isn't me. But it's sort of hard to talk about Easter-before-it-was-called-Easter without actually calling it Easter. Bede called it the Paschal Season, which maybe I should have done too.

But Easter as we know it wasn't Easter until post-Bede. The very name Easter, the bunnies and the eggs come from the pagan source.

gamma said...

Just as well. I love Easter as spiritual celebration, but I'm all about the chocolate too. But chocolate crosses or stones-rolled-away-from-the-tomb? Ew. Bunnies and eggs are fine, and a sheaf of lilies. Happy Easter.

Orange said...

In France, Easter is called Paques, as in the Latin languages the link to Scripture is maintained.

When I was in France in the early 1990s, I was amazed that all the Easter chocolates were fish. No eggs or rabbits. There were clever things like a tin of sardines, each individually wrapped, which were all made of chocolate.

I hope everyone had a Happy Easter. I believe in the Good Old Custom of Eastertide. It means if you have a festival you go on celebrating for month afterwards.

Gary Corby said...

That's interesting, Orange. I had no idea about French Easter, but now that you tell us it does make sense.

I'm liking your idea of a month-long festival.