By Emma Kathan
Easter, as a Christian holiday, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, the son of the Israeli God Yahweh, who died by crucifixion on a cross, was buried in a cave, rose from the dead after three days, and ascended to the heavens in the springtime. Before Christianity, the spring equinox was celebrated in a similar way as the rebirth of the sun in the sky (resurrection of the sun), and is connected to several different festivals around the world. Mostly, it is recognized as a time of the Earth’s returning to Spring after the long, cold winter.
Mythology and religion have associated human qualities to springtime and the vernal equinox in the form of gods and goddesses and their cyclic stories of death in the fall and winter and rebirth in the spring and summer. The Greek goddess Persephone, for instance, was the daughter of the Sky (Zeus) and the Earth (Demeter). Persephone was a symbol of fertile life and blossoming sexuality, a young woman who lived freely in tune with nature. And who should be considered her opposite but the god of the Underworld, the god of death—Hades? He fell in love with her and wanted her to rule with him as Queen of the Underworld. She consented and married him, but her mother Demeter couldn’t bear to lose her daughter forever to the darkness of the Underworld. Demeter proposed a deal with Hades that would allow Persephone to live as his queen for half of the year as long as she came back above ground to be with her mother for the other half of the year. Hades and Persephone agreed, so for half of the year Persephone descends to the underworld to be with Hades, and when she does her mother mourns her loss and the Earth becomes cold and barren as represented by the seasons fall and winter; then, when Persephone returns from the Underworld, her mother, the Earth, rejoices and life and warmth return to the planet for the seasons of spring and summer. The story of Persephone is predated by the story of the Assyrian goddess Ishtar (circa 4,000 BC) who also was revered as a goddess of fertility and sexuality as well as of love and war, and who also descended to the Underworld and returned. These stories are two of many creative and poetic interpretations of the changing seasons. [Of course we don’t take them literally because we all know from science that the changing of the seasons has to do with the Earth’s tilted axis and its location in our yearly orbit around the sun, which create the seasons we observe depending on which hemisphere we are in at the time).]
So in the story of Persephone we see the dying goddess who goes underground in the fall and is reborn in the spring and this idea of the Earth springing back to life was the main idea of Easter. The time of plant and vegetable life returning to the Earth and the return of the warmth of the sun was symbolized by gods and goddesses who die and are reborn again. Jesus has taken the place of the dying god who is reborn and gives life to the Earth. Gods who pre-date Christianity who were also crucified, died and were reborn include Horus of Egypt, Attis of Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), and the Greek god Dionysius. In fact, if you look up these gods you will see many other similarities between their stories and the stories of Jesus Christ. In fact many of the same stories surrounding Jesus predate his existence by thousands of years being attributed to other gods, goddesses and deities.
The ancient traditions and celebrations surrounding the worship of Ishtar presage the Christian traditions associated with Easter; this is common with many pagan customs—once a population established a calendar holiday or observance it continued it after religious conversion/invasion with the new conquerors adapting the captors existing holiday to their new religion. The name Easter derives from the Goddess named Ishtar. In the world outside Assyria she was known as Astarte, Asherah, Ashtoreth, Innanna, Ostara, Eostre, Isis, Aphrodite, and Artemis to name a few. Ishtar was said to have come to Earth from the moon in an egg that landed in the Euphrates River. She was the moon goddess and fell in love with the sun god Baal; they had a son, Tammuz. Tammuz became the god of agriculture and the harvest who taught humans how to farm. Tammuz was a skilled hunter, but at age forty while hunting he was killed by a wild boar. Ishtar proclaimed to the people that when Tammuz died he ascended from Earth to heaven to the be with his father, Baal, but that he would be reborn and return to Earth one day. And so Tammuz comes again symbolically in the form of the crops returning to life in the spring. His mother Ishtar mourned his loss and the people mourned with her. She fasted and wept for forty days (one day for each year of his life), and the people fasted and wept with her. On the first day of mourning, worshipers of Ishtar and Tammuz marked a letter “T” , (the sign of the cross) on their foreheads, they made the shape of a “T” in front of their heart also while praying, and baked breads (suitable for fasting) marked with a “T.” These customs bear similarity to Christian observances, such as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, Christians receive ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads and they serve hot cross buns to celebrate the feast of Easter.
In the pagan worship of Ishtar, Baal, and Tammuz, the feast day was named Ishtar Sunday and was the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. Which is what we now celebrate as Easter. This day was also seen as the first day of spring and marked the Assyrian new year. During the time of fasting before Easter, meat was prohibited so at the end of the fast on Ishtar Sunday the people would kill a wild pig and feast on it as this was the animal that killed their god Tammuz. This is still done today and is what we call the Easter ham.
The symbol of eggs was also connected with Ishtar because she was the Goddess of fertility and female sexuality and of her having descended from the Moon and landing on Earth in an egg shaped craft. Easter rabbits were revered as they were a favorite animal of Tammuz and are also a pretty self explanatory symbol of fertility and reproduction which echoes the sentiments of Spring.
The name and celebration of Easter was later adopted by the Anglo-Saxons in Germany. There they worshipped a Goddess Eostre whom they named the month of April after (Eostur-month). Eostre was known as the Goddesses of fertility, Goddess of the Dawn, and Goddess of the Eastern (Eostre) Star, which some relate to being the rising Sun and some relate to being the planet Venus which along with the Moon was also seen as a planet symbolic to Ishtar. Eostre was known in Anglo-Saxon tribes as Ostara, Astara, Astarte, and Eos. Although her name changed slightly she was still the same Goddess of fertility, sexuality and womanhood. These names have also been associated with the origins of the words estrous/oestrous and estrogen. The estrous cycle is what we refer to in animals as “being in heat”. This is what we call in the human female ovulation, a time of feeling highly sexual, being extremely fertile and actively seeking out partners to mate with. Estrogen and progesterone are the female sexual hormones. Estrous (the word) later in Greek times became synonymous with sexual insanity in women and likened to a gadfly or something that is annoying to deal with. The thought by men at that time was that woman were frenzied, mad and unstable with their sexual desires. Funny, seeing as how modern media depicts men as being the uncontrollable, frenzied sex maniacs ruled by their hormones and women as the being the non-receptive ones annoyed by their advances. Hmm.
The celebration of Easter has since ancient times been a celebration of the return of Spring and a return to all of the life which begins to sprout and grow again. This was typically honored by a feminine deity who resembled fertility and sexuality and by a masculine deity who represented the cycle of death and rebirth. We still use many of these same ancient symbols to honor this time of year: Easter eggs, rabbits, Easter ham and also wearing pastel colors which echo the new blooming springtime flowers. Appreciate this time of physical rebirth and regrowth by planting some vegetables, flowers or trees and also look at it as a great time to start some new creative projects, do some Spring cleaning, let go of old negative habits and ways of thinking and welcome the return of the Sun and witness and admire the new growth that surrounds you.