The True Origins of Easter
The mythos of Easter unpacked
The origins of Easter aren't as cut and dry as I had initially thought. For decades I was running under the assumption that Easter was named for a Pagan fertility goddess, but that seems to be untrue. However, I soon discovered that my research had been misled by the 8th-century historian Bede who fabricated a few key points that have bred like rabbits ever since. So, what are the true origins of Easter?
The Origins of Easter?
Just because it's in a book doesn't mean it's true. Most of the internet agrees that the origins of Easter begin with the Pagan (Germanic), Hebrew, and Christian cultures, but the ties to some of Easter's most ingrained traditions might go back much further. According to Bede, Easter's origins begin with old Teutonic (ancient Germanic folklore and mythology) mythology and derives its name from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month of April was dedicated. Eostre was celebrated on the Vernal equinox, when the day and night are equal in length.
However, no other source save Bede's speaks on the subject of Eostre. There are no carvings of Eostre, no stories, and no connection to rabbits and eggs. It's likely Bede concocted the goddess Eostre to fulfill his desire for a tidy answer to the origins of the Easter question. So from where in the world does Easter and its iconic bunny come?
Teutonic Mythology and the Omission of Eostre
Teutonic Mythology is a four-book set by Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm. Grimm draws on his vast knowledge of linguistic and comparative mythology to retell various Germanic mythology and folklore that play with the themes of time, creation, destiny, and the soul. Set up as an encyclopedia, each section examines specific topics and looks at the origins of German myths, how they are constructed, and how they compare to other world myths concerning the same themes. Within its pages, Teutonic Mythology gives insight into ancient Germanic life and rituals, yet even Grimm couldn't find any sign of Eostre and her bunny consort described by Bede. Perhaps, Bede pulled the goddess's name from the old German, Osterhase, and ran with it.
Easter's Ties to Passover
Through symbolism, meaning, and its position on the calendar, Easter has become associated with the Jewish festival of Passover. The coinciding of Passover with Easter gives clues into Easter's entering Christianity during its earliest Jewish period (1st century CE) (Gillian, 2019). Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, while Passover celebrates the Israelites' freedom from Egyptian slavery.
In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea, led by Emperor Constantine, decided that Easter should occur on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (not confusing at all). Due to this ruling, Easter has no fixed date but aligns itself with the full moon, coinciding with the start of Passover.
While Easter and Passover are distinctly different, they share a crucial element; the egg. During Passover, a seder plate contains bitter herbs, a roasted shank bone, salt water, matzah, karpas, charoset, maror, and a hard-boiled egg. The egg on the seder plate symbolizes the return of spring and the circle of life, which isn't that far off from what the egg symbolizes for Easter.
So how do the Easter bunny and the egg come together?
Eyes Wide Open and the Origins of the Easter Bunny
While the exact origins of the Easter bunny are unknown, theories abound. The source of Easter Bunny has isn't roots in Germany. The word Easter Bunny originates from the German Osterhase, meaning Easter hare.
Back in the day, German farmers noticed that baby bunnies are born with their eyes open, meaning that they are fully developed, unlike other mammals with their eyes closed. Some ancient Anglo-Saxons took this orbital factoid to its next logical step: bunnies always kept one eye open, meaning they never slept. This notion gave birth to the connection between bunnies and eternal life, much like the egg (Anderson, 2017).
Egg Laying Rabbits?
Bede tells that one day Eostre healed a wounded bird by transforming it into a hare. Remaining part bird, the hare, laid eggs for the goddess to thank her for saving its life. But now we know Bede was a fiction writer, telling a story to fit the already well-established festival. So, how did the two symbols become intertwined?
Eggs and Farming
The Thursday before Easter was the last fiscal day of the year during the Middle Ages. Farmers would settle their debts with their bursting supply of eggs, sometimes boiled, and hares. The connection between eggs and hares became cemented in the collective consciousness. By the 1600s, the idea Easter eggs were delivered via rabbit was the happening story (Anderson, 2017).
Eggs, Fertility, and Vinegar Dye
Ancient Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians celebrated the egg as a symbol of fertility and had a custom of coloring and eating eggs during their spring festival (Encyclopedia Britannic), which predates Christianity. Additionally, Early Germanic tribes decorated eggs. The earliest proof was discovered in a Romano-Germanic sarcophagus near Worms in Rhineland-Palatinate, which dates back to the 4th century (Anderson, 2017), where decorated eggs were left with the interned.
Yet, we can go back even further to 65,000 years ago in Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa, where ancient hunter-gathers decorated eggs by scratching geometric designs into the shells (Ticiaverveer, 2016). To learn more about this history of egg decorating, visit Ticiaverveer, who has a fantastic write-up on the subject.
The Easter we know today took thousands of years to come about. Eggs, throughout many ancient cultures, were seen as a symbol of life eternal that was decorated and eaten for spring festivals around the world. Springtime is filled with new life, and baby rabbits are no exception. The mass abundance of eggs and rabbits and their symbolism of fertility, life, and rebirth melded perfectly, forming a lasting association.
The origins of Easter, while clouded in mystery, developed over the centuries. Yet, however odd an egg-laying bunny might be, unsettling even, it won't stop us from overindulging in chocolates and deviled eggs one full moon after the Vernal equinox. Happy Easter and Passover, everyone.
Anderson, Emma, (2017). Easter in Germany: The very deutsch origins of the Easter Bunny. The Local. https://www.thelocal.de/20170410/made-in-germany-the-very-deutsch-origins-of-the-easter-bunny
Ticiaverveer, (2016). he World's Oldest Decorated Eggs. https://ticiaverveer.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/the-worlds-oldest-decorated-eggs/
About the Creator
Aspiring novelist and award-winning short story writer. Hangs at Twtich & Patreon with AllThatGlittersIsProse. Cynthia resides in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, son, & kitties. She/Her
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