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Everything You Might Want to Know about Easter

The fun thing about critiquing religions is that you never need to make up ridiculous stories–that part of the job is already done for you.

Every Easter, many Christian parents are put in the awkward position of having to explain how it is that the torture, execution, and supposed resurrection of Jesus is celebrated with bright happy eggs and fuzzy bunnies. Some more-kindly Christians acknowledge that the day is also linked to the Judaic Passover celebration, but as Yahweh didn’t send a plague of fuzzy bunnies into Egypt, the link is still rather tenuous. In an attempt to help those poor Christian parents struggling to understand the bunny connection, we will now examine the history and creation of Easter.

The name of the holiday, “Easter,” is the name of a pagan goddess that no decent Christian should be worshipping. A Christian theologian known as “The Venerable Bede” (672-735 CE) first identified this goddess as the origin of the holiday in his book De Ratione Temporum. The name “Easter” has a lot of variations (Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Ester, Eastra, Eastur, Austron, Ausos, etc.) but all of these come from the same Roman goddess, the goddess of the dawn, named “Eos” or “Easter.” Eos is the daughter of Hyperion and is the Greek equivalent of the Roman goddess Aurora.

Christian apologists maintain that the name of the goddess Easter is just a coincidence and that the name of the holy day actually came from the Germanic word “ostern.” The trouble is, this Germanic interpretation of the origin doesn’t explain all those bunnies and eggs. The Catholics–ever willing to find a good cover story–explain that the brightly covered eggs symbolize the rebirth of humankind after the resurrection of Jesus. The bright paint on the eggs is meant to show the joy that humanity feels at the revelation that we were saved through the blood of Jesus, sacrificed for us on the cross. Of course, these same theologians also believe in people rising from the dead, walking on water, and floating off into the sky, so you have to be a tad dubious.

Like much of the Christian holiday lore, Easter was established in Christendom at the first council at Nicaea in 325 A.D. After shedding a few dissenting points of view, the council unanimously agreed that the Easter festival would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. Ever diligent to avoid confusion with the Judaic holidays, this council further declared that if the full moon occurred on a Sunday and coincided with the Judaic Passover festival, Easter would then be moved to the following Sunday, thus preventing Christians from being mistaken for the evil, Passover-celebrating Jews–whom Christians blamed for killing Jesus to begin with.

This whole April date thing had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. You see, Rome was still Hellenistic at the time. Emperor Constantine (who convened the council) was a worshipper of Apollo, not Jesus. All the gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon were still going strong at this time, as were their festivals. Many of these festivals, including the celebration of Eos and Tithonius in early April, were “fertility rites.”

The story goes that Eos, the Goddess of Dawn, was (to put it in present-day slang) a slut. She had a real thing for mortal men, whom she kept sneaking down to sleep with. Among her many conquests was the mortal she fell in love with, a Trojan (not the condom) named “Tithonius.” The problem was that Eos was a god and Tithonius was not. As he started to get old, the two of them decided to beg Zeus to make him immortal so that they could live happily ever after. Zeus, having conquered his fair share of human women, sympathized with the whole mixed-marriage thing and agreed to make Tithonius immortal. Unfortunately Zeus didn’t give him eternal youth, just immortality. The whole love affair turns really tragic as Tithonius continues to age, getting uglier and uglier, until he’s nothing but a dried-up prune who is in eternal agony. As near as I can tell, whatever priest came up with this story couldn’t come up with a decent ending for it because, out of the blue, Eos decides to turn Tithonius into a grasshopper–which for some unknown reason solved the whole problem. (Apparently grasshoppers age better than humans.) Anyway, she let her grasshopper go in April, and the festival, in the first week of that month, celebrated the return of Tithonius, and the fertility and love of Eos.

This is by no means the only origin of the Easter myth, however. We get the name, Easter, from Eos. We also got the idea of a fertility celebration from the fact that she loved human men. But many of the practices and rituals of Easter are a cross section of fertility rites that were practiced in Rome at the time.

Cybele, a Phrygian fertility goddess, had a lover named “Attis” who was born of a virgin. Attis supposedly died and was resurrected in late March each year. His festival started on what was called “Black Friday” (as opposed to “Good Friday”) and ran for three days, ending in the celebration of Attis’ resurrection. This festival was still going on in Rome in 325 when the Bishops and Constantine adopted the Easter celebration. Even back then, however, there were arguments between the Christians and the Attis worshippers about who was mimicking whom. The Christians then (as now) maintain that the story of Cybele and Attis is just a rip-off of the One True Faith and that the Attis worshippers were just trying to cash in on a Christian festival. For the record, Attis worship came to Rome in 204 BCE. Christianity came to Rome more than 200 years later. It was obviously the Christians who were mimicking the preexisting festivals that had been occurring in Rome for centuries before they got there.

On the surface, Hot Cross Buns seem entirely Christian. After all, they have a cross right on them. Like the Christmas tree, however, they are overtly distained in the scriptures. Hot Cross buns, or “bouns” as they were called in Rome, were made round as a symbol of the sun in the Eos celebration (Eos being the daughter of the sun and goddess of the dawn). The “cross” inscribed on it was not the cross of Jesus but a “solar cross.” The buns were taken home after the fertility rituals and hung in the house for good luck. Such practice was forbidden in the bible in Jer 7.18: “The women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”

The rabbit was a natural addition to any fertility rite, rabbits being what they are. But the Easter Bunny we all know (and want to shoot?) wasn’t tacked on to the Easter celebrations until Christianity made it to Germany. There, the myth of the Easter fertility meshed well with the Germanic celebration of the “Moon Hare.” (I kid you not–a rabbit that lived on the moon. Think of him as a Teddy Ruxpin wanna-be.) The Germans believed in this moon hare that was a sacred animal to a bunch of different goddesses (possibly Eos as well, but who knows?). According to Germanic myth, Hathor-Astarte laid a Golden Egg that became the sun. To celebrate the sun, they exchanged colored eggs each year in a spring festival. When Christianity came along, the practice (and the story of egg-laying rabbits) was adopted into the Easter tail. Er, tale.

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