Friday, April 1, 2011

A Quick History of Easter

As most of you know, Easter is fast approaching. It falls on April 24th this year, and today is the beginning of April. That being the case, I thought I'd talk a little about the holiday, maybe fill in some things that you may not know about it.

In the Christian Liturgical calendar, of course, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. As with many Christian holidays, its place in the calendar is not based on the timing of actual events, but instead corresponds to a pre-existing pagan holy day - in this case, Ēastre (or Ēostre), which is where we get the modern word Easter. Historically, Christian imagery and celebrations of Easter drew heavily from the Jewish festival of Passover (which begins on April 19, this year), and the earliest Christians in all likelihood observed Jewish holy days rather than specifically Christian ones.

Most of that is pretty well known. Where the story gets really interesting is when you start trying to trace the history of the pagan symbolism - a surprising amount of which is still retained in our modern Easter celebrations. (Actually, it may not be all that surprising. Modern Christianity can be a lot more... purist... about meanings and symbols than historical Christianity was.)

The earliest elements of the Easter holiday can be traced to the Assyrian nation in the Fertile Crescent, starting around 2200 B.C. The collapse of the Akkadian empire had left Assyria and Babylonia as the two major powers in the region, and as a result there were both military conflicts and a lot of migrations. During this time, the Gonim Fac Tern (literally, Priests of the Sacred Hare) gained prominence in the Assyrian priesthood. They claimed through their rites to be able to increase fertility, which was very important to an expansionistic nation, and to command the "sacred madness" that hares experienced in the Spring. (This "madness" is actually the mating behavior, which involves a lot of seemingly-random darting back and forth as the males try to impress the females; it's also where we get the phrase "mad as a March Hare.")

By the time Assyria ceased to exist (it was defeated by a coalition of other nations in 608 B.C. but remained a distinct territory under the Persions, Greeks, Romans, and others), these rites and practices had spread throughout Mesopotamia. They had also become conflated with traditions from another group, the Worshippers of the Sacred Egg (Herim Tornt Mardik Sim), who occupied a similar role in Babylonian worship starting around 1,000 B.C.

The practice of actually dying eggs doesn't appear until around 700-800 A.D., and seems to originate with the worship of the goddess Ostara in northern Germany. It may have been introduced as a way to associate the older practices with the blooming flowers which indicate the arrival of the goddess in the Spring. The connection seems fairly natural, as Ostara was also associated with birds (again, returning in the Spring) and their eggs. This is probably also where we get the idea of an "Easter Nest" (which has become a basket in modern practice) where the holy hares can lay their sacred colored eggs.

So there you go: a little bit of history to mark the beginning of April. And now you know the secret origin of the Easter holiday: it all started with a cult of Assyrian bunny-worshippers four thousand years ago.

(Happy April Fool's Day!)

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