If you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that the early Christians took a lot of their influences from the pagans of the lands they spread out to. The same is true of Easter.
Obviously, Easter in the Christian tradition is the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after being crucified. But it was shoehorned in with a bunch of other pagan traditions in Western and Northern Europe. We’ve mentioned before that the Christians had a good reason for doing this: it made celebrating their holidays more acceptable to the local pagans– and it made it easier for them to convert.
We don’t know what time of year Jesus was actually crucified– but we do know that it was right after Passover, which takes place in the spring. Easter is determined following the liturgical calendar each year, but it typically falls around the Spring Equinox– which is the sacred day for many pagan goddesses of fertility. This is obviously because things tend to get pretty damn fertile in spring– flowers start blooming, animals start breeding, and it’s time to sew the crops so that they can be ready by fall.
Here are some of the goddesses that come into power in spring:
Ishtar— Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, love, sex, war, and power
Hare Ke— A goddess from Songhai who blesses the world with sweet water, returning fertility to the soil
Artio— Swiss bear goddess who awakens from hibernation in spring and pulls the world back into order
Persephone— Greek goddess and wife of Hades who returns from the Underworld in spring
Proserpina— The Roman counterpart to Persephone
Lada— Goddess of love from Lithuania, Russia, and Poland
Freya— Yes, even our beloved goddess of love and war celebrates her time in spring
Dziewanna— An Eastern-European spring goddess
Brigit— This Celtic goddess celebrates her maidenhood at the festival of Imbolc
There are many others from the world over. But if you’re savvy to all this mythology stuff, you might have realized we’ve left a certain name off the above list: Eostre, or Ostara, the goddess who gave her very name to our springtime celebration of chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits.
Eostre is reportedly a goddess celebrated by the ancient Germanic people. Her name comes from the Proto-Germanic word for, ‘dawn,’ making her the goddess of the dawn. But there is some reluctance in the academic community to acknowledge Eostre as a true goddess. For one, there is no reference to her before St. Bede, and English monk and historian from the 600s. Bede wrote that the Christian celebrations of spring took on many of the traditions of the celebrations of Eostre, and yet there is no historical mention of a goddess named Eostre before St. Bede.
Some lines of thought think that she may have actually been one of the above goddesses (most particularly Freya or another Norse goddess of spring, Idunn, who we wrote about a few weeks ago). Or St. Bede could have been confused for the month of April, which, at the time, was called Ēosturmōnaþ by the locals.
Whatever happened, the Christian holiday of Easter has held on to its pagan name for centuries and that probably won’t stop any time soon.