The Ancient Roots of Easter

April 20, 2014 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Psychology

Painting Easter Eggs, by Mykhaylo Chornyi 2000

Painting Easter Eggs, by Mykhaylo Chornyi, 2000.

“There is a life pouring into the world, and it pours from an inexhaustible source.”
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

 

We are entering the heart of springtime. In the face of the reborn power of the sun’s light, the cold spells of winter give a last few blustering bows as they exit off the seasonal stage. The chill winds that accompany spring are the final exhalations of winter and its last breaths sweep by like relieved sighs, as though it only freezes so that it may experience this glorious melting.

Regardless of the traditions you follow (whether you’re religious, pagan, atheist, a-mystery-unto-yourself) Easter is another opportunity to celebrate the fulfillment of the long cycle of the seasons: the end of winter and the rebirth of spring. The religious and secular Easter celebrations of today are rooted deep in human history, and these roots can be traced to all cultures who live through a winter season and see the spring return once more. This rebirth in nature mirrors the potential for rebirth in ourselves and is also a common theme in our symbols of the divine.

Today, the Christian Christ is the key figure that most people associate with the holiday of Easter. His willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of all and his subsequent triumphant rebirth is the herald of spring for many. But the story of beings (both divine and human) sacrificing themselves only to be reborn is not new, and the Reborn One that we choose to represent spring can take on many faces: Egyptian Osiris, whose own brother tore him apart but was returned to wholeness through the love of Isis. Greek Dionysus, Persephone, and Adonis all went down to the realm of death only to return to life.

The Awakening of Adonis, J.W. Waterhouse, 1899

The Awakening of Adonis, J.W. Waterhouse, 1899.

Qaun Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion, was executed, journeyed through the realms of hell, and came back to earth to ease suffering. Nordic Odin, hung upon the world tree with a spear in his side for nine days to gain the wisdom necessary to save his world. The ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna descended to death, of her own volition, and was resurrected three days later, creating one of the most symbol-rich myths of rebirth.

These myths all point to the promise hidden in the heart of winter, that is only fulfilled with the spring: that death and life are cyclical, that one needs the other, and the joy and vitality of spring rebirth is only possible because we underwent the sacrifice of winter death.

“The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death.” Joseph Campbell

The return of life is a thrilling joy, and the color and songs and mating that occurs at this time is especially vivifying after the months of cold and stillness. Rabbits and birds are the most common symbolic heralds of spring in cultures around the world, and they appear in nearly every ancient springtime tradition from Europe. Their association with spring is so strong that it has even infiltrated the Christian celebrations of Easter, culminating in an oddly pagan tradition wherein a bunny delivers colored eggs as a springtime offering to children dressed in their Sunday best.

Meyers, Rabbits

Illustration from the 4th edition of the German encyclopedia Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 1885–90.

Rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols, and in the polytheistic nature-based beliefs of our ancestors they were most often associated with various springtime goddesses whose maidenhood reflected fecundity, sensuality, and resurrection. The spring was the time of the fertile feminine deity who blessed the regenerating world and guarded the young as they started their journey through life. The rabbit, with its notable promiscuous and unbridled reproduction after the long winter hibernation, is an obvious choice to join the fertility goddess in her duties of celebrating vitality, sexual desire, and renewal.

Easter eggs are also a remnant of the fertility goddesses, as eggs are a vessel in which life is protected until ready to emerge into the world. Just as the earth, seemingly barren in winter, suddenly bursts forth with life once more, a seemingly lifeless egg will suddenly break open and a baby bird will emerge chirping with vigor. The decorating of eggs was seen as a way to ensure a good harvest, ward off bad spirits, and bring blessings. The Ukrainians are by far the most gifted and fervent egg decorators, creating marvelous psyanka with detail and color that is rivaled by none.

These eggs weren’t just beautified for show, but had a deep spiritual purpose:

“Many legends still flourish about the pysanka but the Hutsuls’ (Ukrainians who inhabit the Carpathian Mountains) lore is the most widespread. They trust that the fate of the world rests on the pysanka. If the decorating ritual endures, the world will exist. However, should the custom be forsaken, malevolence in the form of a horrifying serpent who is chained to a cliff for all eternity, will ravage the world. Each year, the serpent dispatches his underlings into the world to see how many pysanky have been produced. If the number of eggs is minimal, his chains are undone, and the serpent is at liberty to roam the earth causing chaos and destruction. Conversely, if the number of decorated eggs has increased, the chains are tightened and good prevails over evil another year.” Dawn Levesque

A mix of traditional Ukrainian, diasporan and original pysanky, Luba Petrusha 2011.

A mix of traditional Ukrainian, diasporan and original pysanky, Luba Petrusha, 2011.

Springtime rituals were our ancestors way of celebrating the return of life and ensuring that another spring would follow the next cycle of winter. While such beliefs in fertility goddesses and evil-warding eggs may seem silly to us today, there is a vital truth to the nature-based rituals of early peoples: they illuminate an awareness of humankind’s utter dependence on the flourishing of life and our own responsibility to help maintain the well-being of our ecological home.

In contrast to this ancient wisdom, humans today are degrading the biosphere on a level unthinkable just a few generations ago. In light of this lost ecological wisdom displayed by our ancestors, celebrating the return of spring is not purely silly pagan nonsense or religious symbolism. Rather, it’s a return to the recognition of our species irrevocable enmeshment with the earth in its entirety, from the smallest insect to the movement of mountains to the changing of the seasons.

“To restore any place, we must also begin to re-story it, to make it the lesson of our legends, festivals, and seasonal rites. Story is the way we encode deep-seated values within our culture. Ritual is the way we enact them.” Gary Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat

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