The Pagan Origins of Easter
By Amber C. Snider
Did you know that the symbolism of the hare, egg, and rebirth/renewal cycle celebrated at Easter all have their roots in ancient pagan traditions?
Spring is a time for renewal, rebirth, and fertility –– when the earth reawakens from its winter slumber and the bounty of nature reveals itself once again. Celebrating the cyclical nature of earth (and all of life) has been part of Pagan and Indigenous tradition for thousands of years, including the Summer/Winter Solstices and Spring/Fall Equinoxes. The entire year (the Wheel of the Year) is made up of these sacred points, as a time to give thanks to the gods and goddesses, acknowledge that we are a part of a greater harmony, and learn the deep lessons inherent in each season.
Many Christian holidays are actually based on these ancient time markers and can be traced back to Pagan gods and goddesses. In ancient Rome, for instance, December 25th was Sol Invictus, the celebration day for the birth of the sun god, Sol, or Mithra (which goes back to Persia), although there were also other festivals associated with the day like Saturnalia to mark the winter solstice and coming of the new year.
The spring equinox (which occurs on March 20th) and Easter (which occurs after the spring equinox on the first full moon) is also connected to the ancient spiritual traditions of Anglo-Saxon Pagans. For starters, have you ever wondered why Easter is often associated with the Easter bunny and eggs? Interestingly enough, rabbits don’t lay eggs –– so what’s the connection with decorating them, passing them around, and seeking them out on little hunts during this holiday? There’s no mention of these things in the Christian bible as associated with Christ’s resurrection, so why and how are they associated with this time of year? And how are they connected to the Christ figure? For that answer, we have to turn back to ancient times.
The quick answer is, there's no connection between the bunny, egg, and the resurrection of Christ. The bunny and egg are actually associated with the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic fertility goddess of Ēostre or Ostara. In ancient times, ensuring the survival of the species and future generations was of utmost importance, and the hare (although slightly different from a rabbit) was the symbol for the goddess and associated with fecundity. Neither hares nor rabbits lay eggs, but the egg was representative of fertility, birth, and new life. Just as the earth becomes “alive” again, so do we.
So how did this get incorporated into the celebration of Easter in the Christian tradition? For that, syncretization is the answer.
You see, when the Emperor Constantine I (306–337 AD) converted to Christianity and signed the Edict of Milan in the 4th century AD, ending the persecution of Christians and allowing for religious tolerance, the old pagan gods slowly started to dissipate from the political-religious sphere. A decade after the treaty was signed, Christianity became the official religion of Rome and soon spread throughout the world.
Since the majority of people were Pagan, holding their traditions and rituals sacred, getting everyone to convert wasn’t easy. So these rituals, celebrations, and festivals had to be syncretized with the Christian religion, instead of eliminating them all together. Less than 100 years later, worshiping any god outside the Christian cannon was deemed illegal in Rome.
Jesus’s rebirth and resurrection soon became synonymous with the spring equinox, and the celebration of rebirth and renewal continued, just in a different guise. Ēostre/Ostara’s symbol of the hare became the Easter Bunny and the egg…well, you get the picture. Over the centuries, this symbolism became embedded in Western culture in new ways, adapting and evolving with time. But this goes to show the deep connection between ancient and contemporary spiritual practices, highlighting just how intertwined we all are with the past, as well as the sacredness of this time of year.
However you choose to celebrate, honor, and acknowledge this sacred season, whatever your individual spiritual practice may be, it's a time to marvel at the miracle of life itself. It's a time to recognize our connection with the earth, celebrate our collective “rebirth” from winter and new beginnings, cast off the old, and embrace a renewed sense of hope and wonder. Spring is here, bringing along the promise of summer and new possibility.
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