Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pagan Origins of Easter

If it's in your intentions to start celebrating Easter now, it's good to remember that this religious holiday, as are also Christmas and Midsummer celebration -- supposedly in honour of John the Baptist -- is of pagan origin, and only appropriated later on into Christianity.

Many, perhaps most, pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, had a fictional consort who was believed to have been born via a virgin birth. He was Attis, who was believed to have died and been resurrected each year during the period 22 March to 25 March. About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill. Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection.

Wherever Christian worship of Jesus and pagan worship of Attis were active in the same geographical area in ancient times, Christians used to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same date; and pagans and Christians used to quarrel bitterly about which of their gods was the true prototype and which the imitation.

Many religious historians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. They were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus' life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to pagans. Others suggest that many of the events in Jesus' life that were recorded in the Gospels were lifted from the life of Krishna, the second person of the Hindu Trinity. Ancient Christians had an alternate explanation; they claimed that Satan (who else?) had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity (well, that explains it all then, doesn't it?). Modern-day Christians generally regard the Attis legend as being a pagan myth of little value. They regard Jesus' death and resurrection account as being true, and unrelated to the earlier tradition. Those more free-thinking individuals among us, who consider the Jesus cult of Christianity just another world religion of certain historical perspective and certainly not any more important than, for example, Hinduism or Buddhism, can study this subject with a bit more open-minded attitude.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring Equinox were common -- it was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance. The Easter sunrise service is derived from the ancient pagan practice of welcoming the sun on the morning of the Spring Equinox, marking the beginning of spring. What we now call Easter lilies were revered by the ancients as symbols of fertility and representative of the male genitalia. The ancient Babylonian religions had rituals involving dyed eggs as did the ancient Egyptians.

Wiccans and other modern-day neopagans continue to celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their 8 yearly Sabbats (holy days of celebration). Near the Mediterranean, this is a time of sprouting of the summer's crop; farther north, it is the time for seeding. Their rituals at the Spring Equinox are related primarily to the fertility of the crops and to the balance of the day and night times. Where wiccans can safely celebrate the Sabbat out of doors without threat of religious persecution, they often incorporate a bonfire into their rituals, jumping over the dying embers is believed to assure fertility of people and crops.

It should also be remembered that here in Scandinavia Easter celebration is strongly associated with witchcraft. In Central Europe, witches are out and about especially on Walpurgis Night, but in the Nordic countries they fly between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the time when Jesus is still lying in the Garden Tomb behind a sealed stone door. According to popular belief, witches were old women who had sold themselves to the devil. They were much feared, because they had the power to hurt people and domestic animals. In some parts of Western Finland, the custom still remains of burning bonfires on Holy Saturday. This is said to be connected with the age-old habit of scaring witches.

Furthermore, in Palm Sunday, Finnish children dress up as Easter witches, and go from door to door with sprigs of willow in their hands. As a reward for reciting a special verse they are given sweets or money (as a counterpart to the "Trick or treat" tradition of Anglo-American Halloween). Known as virpominen, this ritual was originally a Greek Orthodox custom, familiar to people of that faith in eastern Finland. On Palm Sunday, people went about, lightly lashing their friends and relatives with willow twigs, while reciting a charm to ensure good health and success. The tradition of children dressing up as Easter witches, a figure in local superstitions, was documented in Swedish children's traditions at least a century ago. Thus Finland's modern willowbearing Easter witches combine the Scandinavian witch tradition and the eastern Orthodox virpominen.

Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, part 1
Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, part 2
Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, part 3
Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, part 4

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by Sir James George Frazer. A monumental study in comparative folklore, magic and religion, The Golden Bough shows parallels between the rites and beliefs, superstitions and taboos of early cultures and those of Christianity. It had a great impact on psychology and literature and remains an early classic anthropological resource.

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