THE WOMEN OF EASTER
Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday are all part of Holy Week and the most sacred time of the Christian calendar. Where does the Easter Bunny, chocolate eggs and fluffy yellow chickens come into this holy week? I will get to that.
Before 325 AD, Easter was celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. Beginning in 325 A.D. with the Council of Nicaea, the Western Church decided to establish a more standardized system for determining the date of Easter. As astronomers were able to approximate the dates of all the full moons in future years, the Western Christian Church used these calculations to establish a table of Ecclesiastical Full Moon dates. These dates would determine the Holy Days on the Ecclesiastical calendar. The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia (present-day İznik in Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 325. The Council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.
Though modified slightly from its original form, by 1583 A.D. the table for determining the Ecclesiastical Full Moon dates was permanently established and has been used ever since to determine the date of Easter. Thus, according to the Ecclesiastical tables, the Paschal Full Moon is the first Ecclesiastical Full Moon date after March 20 (which happened to be the vernal equinox date in 325 A.D.). So, in Western Christianity, Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon. The Paschal Full Moon can vary as much as two days from the date of the actual full moon, with dates ranging from March 21 to April 18. As a result, Easter dates can range from March 22 through April 25 in Western Christianity. There is also an Eastern Christian Church whose members celebrate Easter using a different calendar resulting in different dates for their Holy Week.
All that aside, Easter is supposed to recognize/commemorate the crucifying of (Jesus of Nazareth) Christ and his resurrection 3 days later. According to the Christian Holy book, the Bible, Jesus was crucified by the Roman state, the government of the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion was reserved for those convicted of treasonous acts against the state. The crucifixion reportedly took place in Jerusalem on April 7, 30 CE or April 3, 33 CE. It is recorded in all four gospels of the New Testament: Mark 15:22-32; Matthew 27:33-44; Luke 23:33-43; and John 19:17-30. The execution was ordered by the Roman government of Judea represented by Pontius Pilate (possibly the Governor) on the charge of sedition (treason) against the Roman Empire during the rule of the Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar Augustus.
This information comes from the New Testament of the Bible from the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even though Mary Magdalene was one of the earliest and most devoted followers of Jesus, was among the few who saw him die on the cross and was the first person to see him alive after his resurrection there are no books with her name. Not even one, the books are all male. The women really get short shrift here even though according to the New Testament books five women arrived at Jesus’ tomb before any of his male followers. These women did all the work of spreading the news and Jesus appeared to them before he did so to any of his male followers.
The reported sequence of events three days after the crucifixion: 1. Five women arrive at the tomb 2. They see the stone is moved 3. They go inside and see that Jesus' body is not there 4. The angels talk to them 5. They split into two groups to tell the disciples 6. Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John 7. Peter and John run to the tomb 8. Mary Magdalene follows them to the tomb 9. They go into the tomb 10. They see and believe the tomb is empty (but not that Jesus rose) 11. Peter and John go to Bethany 12. Mary Magdalene weeps at the tomb 13. The angels talk to her again 14. Jesus appears to her 15. She sets out to Bethany to tell the disciples she saw Jesus 16. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to the other four women 17. They arrive in Bethany and tell the disciples they saw Jesus 18. The disciples do not believe the women 19 Mary Magdalene arrives in Bethany and tells them she saw Jesus 20. They do not believe her either. Somewhere along the line they were convinced because Easter is a time that is honoured by nearly all of contemporary Christianity and is used to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
With all that; how did it come to now when Easter is a holiday that often involves a church service at sunrise, a feast which includes an "Easter Ham", decorated eggs and stories about rabbits? From celebrating the day when Jesus arose from the dead to decorated eggs, chocolate eggs, rabbits, cross buns and ham we have to go back a bit to the goddesses Ishtar, Eastre, Eoestre, Oestre and Ostara. Or are they the same goddess with many names?
Ishtar was the goddess of romance, procreation and war in ancient Babylon while a similar Saxon goddess was known Oestre or Eastre and in Germany there was Ostara. Since these were fertility goddesses naturally there would be some eggs involved there. Eoestre is also considered the origin of the word estrogen the female hormone. Her symbol is a rabbit, which has a connection to the modern-day Easter bunny. The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross at their annual spring festival.
The history of Easter as we know it today seems to be a mix of the Christian faith and some related practices of the early pagan religions. Easter history and traditions that we practice today evolved from pagan symbols, from the ancient goddesses to Easter eggs, the Easter bunny and hot cross buns.
Easter, the most important of the Christian holidays, celebrates Christ's resurrection from the dead following his death on Good Friday and a rebirth that is commemorated around the vernal equinox, historically a time of pagan celebration that coincides with the arrival of spring and symbolizes the arrival of light and the awakening of life around us.
The Easter of bunny rabbits and eggs is named for the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and/or the Saxon goddess also known by the names of Oestre or Eastre and in Germany by the name of Ostara. She was also a goddess of the dawn and the spring and words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east are also derivatives of her name.
Ostara was, of course, a fertility goddess. Bringing in the end of winter, with the days brighter and growing longer after the vernal equinox, Ostara had a passion for new life. Her presence was felt in the flowering of plants and the birth of babies, both animal and human. The rabbit was supposedly her sacred animal. Given their ability to produce up to 42 offspring each spring, it is not surprising that rabbits are a symbol of fertility.
Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny featured in the spring festivals of Ostara, which were also held during the feasts of the goddess Ishtar. Eggs are an obvious symbol of fertility, and the newborn chicks an adorable representation of new growth. Brightly colored eggs, chicks and bunnies were all used at festival time to express appreciation for Ostara's gift of abundance. The history of Easter Eggs as a symbol of new life should come as no surprise.
In ancient times in Northern Europe, eggs were a potent symbol of fertility and often used in rituals to guarantee a woman's ability to bear children. Rural "grannywomen" (lay midwives/healers in the Appalachian mountains) still use eggs to predict, with uncanny accuracy, the gender of an unborn child by watching the rotation of an egg as it is suspended by a string over the abdomen of a pregnant woman. Dyed eggs are given as gifts in many cultures. Decorated eggs bring with them a wish for prosperity and abundance during the coming year.
In anticipation that the arrival of spring with its emerging plants and wildlife would provide them with fresh food in abundance, it was customary for many pagans to begin fasting at the time of the vernal equinox, clearing the "poisons" (and excess weight) produced by the heavier winter meals that had been stored in their bodies over the winter. This practice of fasting might very well have been a forerunner of "giving up" foods during the Lenten season.
Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, the dawn that arrives with resurrection of life, and the celebration of spring all serve to remind us of the cycle of rebirth and the need for renewal in our lives. In the history of Easter, Christian and pagan traditions are gracefully interwoven. The role and symbolism of the female during Easter is not widely advertised but it is very much a part of the history. Have a happy Easter!