illustration fo the germanic goddess eostre

Anthropology: An Overview of the Pagan Origins of Easter

Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. It is observed by the majority of Christians around the world. During this time, Christians typically celebrate the holiday by attending a church where special services are offered. Families reunite, spend time and share a meal together. Children participate in egg hunts, searching for eggs that they believe the Easter bunny hides. Purchasing and sharing chocolate eggs is also common and, in many cultures, egg painting is also a popular activity. Another common tradition is to consume hot cross buns on this day.

The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have become synonymous with Easter. Interestingly, however, there is no mention of them being symbols of Easter in the bible. So, why do millions of people around the world associate them with the holiday? That is because these traditions stem from ancient pagan traditions dating back to before the time of Christ. We unknowingly participate and follow pre-Christian traditions that were followed for thousands of years before the existence of Christ.

In today’s post, we will be exploring the ancient pagan origins of Easter. For this exploration, we will first delve into the history of Easter and the history of the word Easter. Then, we shall move on to finding the origins of typical Easter traditions.

Meaning of the word Pagan

pagan symbols fire, moon, ishtar, diefied pharaohs
Image Credit: UCG

Before moving forward with this exploration, it is imperative to clear any misconceptions regarding the word pagan. In the past, the words pagan and paganism have been falsely associated with the worship of Satan. Satan is a Christian concept which did not or does not exist in most pagan cultures.

Here, the word pagan simply refers to the indigenous and folk religions followed by the masses around the world before the emergence of Christianity. Most pagan religions are polytheistic and emphasize the importance of nature and natural occurrences. Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Norse, and Celtic religions were among some of the polytheistic pagan religions of antiquity. In addition to pagan religions, this post also mentions some pre-Christian religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.

About Easter

Easter bunny inside a basket surrounded by Easter eggs
Easter eggs and Easter bunny. Image Credit: Margaret River

Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. On the Vernal Equinox, better known as the Spring Equinox, the length of the days and nights are equal. This Sunday usually falls between 22nd March and 25th April. It was, after all, on a Sunday that Jesus Christ was resurrected three days after being crucified.

Easter celebrates the victory of life over death, of light over darkness. It also celebrates the hope of salvation for those who believe in God.

Preparations for Easter, however, begin from a 40 period known as Lent. Lent begins 46 days before Easter Sunday, on a day known as Ash Wednesday. The last week of Lent is known as the Holy Week and it ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. It was Holy Week that the events leading up to the Resurrection of Christ occurred. This week comprises Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and finally, Easter Sunday.

History of Easter

Easter has its origins in the Jewish Passover, the Jewish celebration of the liberation of Israelites from Egypt by Moses. Passover is celebrated on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Jesus was said to have been crucified on Passover day and resurrected just three days after.

The earliest record of Easter celebrations dates back to the 2nd century AD. Initially, there was much debate on when to celebrate Easter. It made sense to celebrate it on the day of Passover. However, it coincided with the celebration of another religion – Judaism. To solve this conflict, the Roman Emperor Constantine assembled the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Emperor Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to have converted to Christianity. There, it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on a Sunday after the first full moon of the Vernal Equinox. This is because the days get longer and warmer during the time of year. Providing the perfect metaphor for Christ’s resurrection since He is considered the the light of the world. and Sunday because Jesus was crucified on a Friday and was resurrected three days later on a Sunday.

Deciding the Date of Celebrating Easter

painting of the council of nicaea
Painting from 1590 of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But there was still another issue remaining – which Sunday would Easter fall on? It wasn’t before the late 7th century AD that it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Vernal Equinox.

There was another issue with the date, which was resolved when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. There was an error in the previously used Julian calendar. According to the Julian calendar, the year lasted 365.25 days when there are only 365.2422 days. This caused a consistent shift in the date Easter was being celebrated. This was identified as an issue to the Roman Catholic Church and thus the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the 16th century.

Pagan Roots of Easter

Easter finds its roots in pagan traditions and pre-Christian polytheistic religions. Not only the symbols of Easter but the concept of resurrection, rebirth and renewal. But how do we know this?

Well, for one, pagan religions of antiquity and even in the modern era celebrate the renewal of life in spring. After the barren and cold winter months, spring gives a ray of hope and warmth. Hope for longer, warmer and more productive days ahead. During this time, the Earth shows signs of new life. Seeds sprout to life, symbolizing the growth of crops and thus, a promise of plenty of food during the summer months. Moreover, various ancient cultures have believed equinoxes and solstices to be auspicious days, therefore, celebrating those days. During these auspicious days, pagans would honour different gods and goddesses associated with the season.

Stories Compared to the Resurrection of Christ

Image of Jesus and Osiris side by side
Images of Jesus Christ (left) and the Egyptian God of the underworld, Osiris (right). Image Credit: Atheomedy

Furthermore, many parallels can be drawn from myths and stories about the death and resurrection of key figures in ancient cultures around the world. From cultures that existed thousands of years prior to Christ. To non-Christians, stories of suffering, death and resurrection were already familiar. They were popular themes in mystery cults that honoured certain gods and goddesses around spring and the warmer months of the year.

In Babylon and Assyria, there was, for instance, the story of Tammuz, also known as Adonis. The Ancient Egyptians had the story of Osiris. In Greek and Phrygian mythology, there is Dionysus and Attis. These characters were all born of virgin mothers and have been associated with suffering, death and resurrection, as well as the victory of life over death. In other cultures, such as in ancient Sumer, there is the story of Inanna, which isn’t related to a virgin birth but is associated with death, resurrection and suffering.

Easter also celebrates the return of light and renewal of life. That too, around the time of the Spring Equinox. Just like the pagans, the same themes are honoured around the same time of the year. Similar to many ancient pagan religions, a story of a divine figure suffering, defeating darkness and death and resurrecting is narrated.

Let us now look at some of the myths from antiquity that are often compared to the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.

Story of Inanna and Dumuzi

A clay tablet dating back to roughly 2000 years before Christ was found at the site of ancient Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Engraved on this clay tablet is a poem narrating the story of Inanna’s descent to the underworld. Inanna, later known as Ishtar, was the goddess of love, beauty, sexuality, fertility, wisdom and war. According to this story, Inanna journeyed to the underworld to meet her sister, the queen of the underworld, Ereshkigal. And in some other versions, she visits to observe the funerary rites of Gugulanna, the Bull of Heaven.

Ereshkigal, displeased with her arrival, tells the primary gatekeeper of the underworld, Neti, to shut the seven gates of hell behind Inanna. She also tells Neti to instruct Inanna to remove a piece of divine clothing as she enters each gate. By the time Inanna enters the underworld, she is stripped naked. As she reaches her throne, the seven judges of the underworld surround her and pass their judgement, deeming her guilty. Subsequently, Ereshkigal fixated her eyes upon her, striking her dead. Then, she was hung from a hook on a stake.

Fortunately, before descending to the underworld, Inanna asked her attendant Ninshubur to convince the gods to bring her back from the underworld. Ninshubur waited three days and three nights before going to the gods. Finally, Enki, who in some versions is Inanna’s father, sends two transgender demon entities to revive and retrieve her.

Cylindrical seal from ancient mesopotamia
Cylindrical seal depicting the descent of Inanna into the Kur, the Mesopotamian underworld. Image Credit: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Replacing Inanna

However, in Mesopotamian mythology, one who enters the underworld cannot simply leave. Here, someone would need to take Inanna’s place in the underworld. The demons of the underworld went to search for the appropriate person to replace her. The people that the demons initially chose all seemed to be mourning Inanna’s ‘death’. So she ordered against taking them. The demons then went to take her husband Dumuzi, (later known as Tammuz). He was seen wearing fine clothing and not mourning for her ‘death’. So, enraged, Inanna orders the demons to take him to replace her in the underworld. But, in the end, Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, comes forward to take his place in the underworld. At last, it was decided that Dumuzi would spend half the year in the underworld and Geshtinanna would stay in the other half of the year.

Another Version of the Myth

In other versions of the story, Inanna visits the underworld in the first place, to visit her deceased husband Damuzi. In this version, when she is killed and hung from a hook on the wall, her absence causes havoc on Earth. The Earth was no longer fertile, crops died, animals no longer reproduced and there was little to eat.

When Ninshubur goes to the gods to seek their help, Enki gives both Damuzi and Inanna the ability to return to earth. But, they would need to return one at a time and they would act as the ‘light of the sun’ for time up there. Since then, every six months, Damuzi stays in the underworld while Inanna stays on Earth. Six months later, Damuzi returns to Earth while Inanna goes to the underworld.

Tammuz and Ishtar in Babylon

In later Mesopotamian cultures such as the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, Tammuz was known to be the son of the virgin Queen Semiramis. Queen Semiramis, was deified and worshipped as the goddess Ishtar, the queen of heaven and goddess of love, beauty, sexuality and fertility. The followers of the religion of Babylon at the time would celebrate a spring festival Akitu. This seemingly marked the return of Queen Semiramis back into her form as the spring goddess, Ishtar.

Also, according to this story, Tammuz died untimely at the age of forty. The people of Babylon started a tradition of believing that he died and was resurrected in spring. Additionally, laments were held for forty days during spring. Each day represents the number of years Tammuz lived. The number 40 is consistent with the number of days Christians fast during Lent.

Also, in both versions of the stories, themes of death and resurrection of deities can be compared to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Myth of Osiris

Many would compare the falcon-headed god Horus to Jesus Christ, claiming that Horus, too, was born of a virgin mother. Many even go as to say that Horus was crucified and resurrected from the dead. However, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support these beliefs. The myth of Osiris, however, which can be found in the pyramid texts is more consistent with the theme of suffering, death and resurrection.

Being a myth, there are many versions of the story. However, a summary of the most accepted version is as follows.

The story involves the four children of the Geb, the world and Nut, the sky. They are Osiris, the god of the dead, the underworld, afterlife, fertility and vegetation. Isis, Osiris’ sister wife and the goddess of healing, marriage, life, nature, protection and magic. Seth, brother of Isis and Osiris and Nephthys, and the god of chaos, destruction, storms and deserts. Lastly, there is Nephthys, the sister-wife of Seth and the goddess of night, death, mourning and funerals.

The story starts with Osiris and Isis reigning in Egypt in a way that made it prosperous and peaceful. Seth, jealous of his siblings, more precisely his brother, wanted to take the throne and rule for himself.

Sometime later, Seth’s sister-wife, Nephthys, had seduced Osiris by deceit and now conceived their child. This enraged Seth and also gave him the perfect opportunity to execute his plan of overtaking the throne.

Seth’s Mischievous Plan

ancient egyptian art of osiris
Osiris as the king of the underworld with Isis and Nephthys standing behind him. Image Credit: CSUN

One evening, he arranged a banquet and invited as many guests as he could. For this soiree, he had also arranged a coffin for a game he wished his guests would play. In this game, Seth challenged his guests to get inside the coffin to see if they fit in it. Little did anyone know that Seth had designed it to only fit Osiris. When Osiris got in the coffin and saw he fit perfectly, Seth shut the coffin, poured hot lead to seal it, and then threw the coffin in the Nile. Osiris was dead.

Isis noticed his absence. She learned about the coffin and began searching for it. After an extensive search, she found the coffin, somewhere far away from Egypt. She opened it to see her deceased husband. Nevertheless, she carried his coffin back to Egypt where she intended to revive him. However, upon returning, Seth found the coffin and then tore Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces and scattered his remains all over Egypt.

Isis didn’t give up and looked for his remains. When Nephthys learned what Seth had done to Osiris, she was disgusted and decided to help her sister. Together they found all but one of the pieces. Then, with the help of the other gods, Thoth and Anubis, Isis reassembled the pieces, performed the first mummification process and resurrected Osiris.

Osiris, however, was too weak to survive on the mortal plane without the missing body part. So, he travelled to the underworld and lived there, as king. The god of fertility and vegetation was resurrected and became the new king of the underworld.

Only the part of the story relevant to suffering, death and resurrection, the themes related to Easter have been narrated here. Click here to read the entire summary of the myth of Osiris.

Myth of Attis and Cybele

Attis was the Phrygian Greek god of spring and vegetation. According to legend, Attis was born of a virgin. There are many versions of the story of Attis and Cybele. However, the one by Roman author Arnobius is better known. Arnobius cited a pagan priest by the name of Timotheus Eumolpides as his source, who claims to have found the myth in secret books from antiquity.

According to this version of the story, Zeus, the sky and thunder god, once found his mother Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess, sleeping in the mountains. The Greek Rhea (Zeus’ mother) is known as Cybele in Phrygian mythology. Zeus tried to seduce and inseminate Cybele but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, his semen flowed through a mountain which conceived the powerful androgynous beast Agdistis. The gods were terrified of Agdistis, so they sought the help of Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility. He managed to get Agdistis drunk, which made him fall asleep. While asleep, Bacchus castrated Agdistis, transforming him into a woman, the Earthly Cybele.

Meanwhile, the blood that dripped from Agdistis’ castration was absorbed by the soil and there, grew an almond tree. One day, Nana, the virgin daughter of the river Sangarias ate the fruit of the almond tree and conceived a child. In some versions, Nana places a branch of the tree under her clothes. This child was Attis.

Cybel’s Rage

Votive relief of Cybele and Attis
Votive relief of Cybele and Attis. Image Credit: Ancient Rome

The Earthly Cybele met Attis, fell in love with him and wished to marry him. But, Attis fell in love with king Pessinus’ daughter and wanted to marry her. Cybele, feeling jealous, entered their wedding party in full fury. Taking the fury of her form as Agdistis. Horrified, Attis ran to the nearby forest, castrated himself and died of blood loss. Cybele then calms down, realizes what has happened and is full of regret. She then approaches Zeus and convinces him to resurrect him into an immortal being. Then, both Attis and Cybele ascend to the heavens and live together. In some versions of the story, Attis comes back to life once a year during the Vernal Equinox. Marking the renewal of life and growth of vegetation. This makes Attis another divine figure of antiquity to have suffered, died and resurrected.

Interestingly, in ancient Rome, ceremonies were held to celebrate the resurrection of Attis and reminisce the myth of Cybele and Attis. During this time of the year, they would celebrate a festival called Hilaria. It started with a nine-day fast of sorts where people would abstain from consuming certain foods and drinks. It would even feature a day of mourning and a day of self-inflicting pain to remember the pain Attis had felt. Then came the day of joy or Hilaria proper, where people would rejoice in the resurrection of Attis. Finally, the festival period would end with another ceremony.

Where does Easter get its name?

In most European languages, the word for Easter is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach. In Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian, it is Pasqua, in Portuguese it is Pascoa, in French it is Paques, in Swedish it is Pask and in Dutch it is Pasen. This makes sense as it was on this day that Jesus Christ was crucified. However, the English and German words for Easter do not come from the word Pesach. In English, as we know, it is known as Eastern while in German, Eastern is known as Ostern.

According to the 8th century Northumbrian monk Bede, the name was derived from a pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre. This is mentioned in Bede’s literary work ‘De temporum ratione’. She was the goddess of the east, dawn, spring and fertility. Bede mentioned that the indigenous English name for the month of April was Eosturmonath. Also, named after the goddess. Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons would celebrate the change in season, offer sacrifices and hold feasts in her honour around the time of the spring equinox.

The origins of Bede’s suggestion were initially deemed to be speculation by other scholars in more recent years ( 19th-20th centuries). However, they were unable to derive any other origins for the English or German names for Easter.

The Link between Eostre and Ostara

illustration of pagan goddess Esotre/Ostara
Spring and fertility goddess Eostre. Image Credit: Pinterest

In the early 19th century, Jacob Grimm, a German linguist and philologist, suggested that the German word for Easter, Ostern, likely came from the name of the same goddess. Only Eostre, in pre-Christian Germany, was known as Ostara.

It is interesting to note that Ostara is also the name of one of the festivals in the pagan Wheel of the Year. A seasonal cycle of festivals is observed by neo-pagans and Wiccans. Ostara falls on the day of the Spring Equinox and celebrates the arrival of spring, warmth, light, renewal of life and fertility.

It may also be possible that the German name for Easter could have been introduced to the German vocabulary by Anglo Saxon clerics. They were largely responsible for the conversion of the German population into Christians. This was possibly when the Old English word for Easter, ‘Eostre’, entered the German vocabulary and evolved into the word ‘Ostern’.

A few years ago, a meme was circulating throughout the internet claiming that the word Easter was derived from the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar. It also claimed that her symbols included hares and eggs. Ishtar, as discussed earlier, is the goddess of love, sexuality, dawn, beauty, fertility and war. There were also spring festivals celebrated in Babylon in her honour. However, there is no historical evidence suggesting that the English word Easter came from Ishtar. For now, they are mere homophones.

meme spreading falso information on easter
Meme claiming Easter comes from the goddess Ishtar. Image Credit: Maria Cusumano

On the other hand, however, the author of the book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop, suggests another possibility. He suggests that the word Easter is of Chaldean origin. In his book, he explains that the name comes from the Canaanite-Phoenician goddess Astarte. The goddess was the queen of heaven and the goddess of sexual love and war. She is said to have evolved from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar/Inanna. Hislop argues that the goddess was pronounced as ‘Easter’ by the people of Nineveh. This claim, however, is often rejected by scholars and historians.

Pagan Roots of Easter Traditions

In addition to the origins of the name, common Easter symbols and traditions also have pagan origins. Let us discuss some of them below.

Pagan Origins of Easter Eggs

Easter eggs have become symbolic of Easter. Easter is incomplete without people purchasing and consuming both chocolate and normal eggs, without painting on eggs or without children hunting for eggs. The egg as a symbol of Easter dates back to ancient times. Eggs have been a symbol of fertility, new life and rebirth throughout ancient cultures around the world.

Spring indicated the world was beginning to become fertile again. Both the earth and the animals are more fertile. Nature literally comes back to life during this time of the year. Animals and birds lay eggs during the time of the year, thus, indicating the arrival of spring. For the same reason, flowers are another symbol of spring and fertility.

Eggs have also been associated with the creation myths in various cultures. For instance, in early Hindu mythology, there is mention of a golden cosmic egg. The egg floated around in a dark void before giving birth to the universe, including heaven, the earth, the sun, and the male and female forces. Thus, the egg is viewed as a symbol of fertility, birth and a source of life. This is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad, in the Rig Veda and even in the Puranas.

History of Dyeing Eggs

ukrainanian psyanky eggs
Ukrainian Pysanky Eggs decorated with folk motifs. Image Credit: Martha Stewart

In Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda, the supreme creator, shapes the world from chaos. He trapped all the chaotic and unstable forces into an egg. He then formed the sky from the top part of the shell, the earth from the lower half of the shell and the primordial water from the lower part of the shell. Then, he placed an earthen disk on top of it. After creation, Ahura Mazda placed his creations under the protection of the six Amesha Spenta. Eggs, therefore, held great significance to the ancient Persians. During the New Year celebrations of Nowruz, celebrated during the Vernal Equinox, there is a popular tradition to dye and decorate eggs.

It is in fact from here, the Mesopotamian region, that the earliest accounts of egg painting are found. The early Christians in Mesopotamia were known to dye eggs red to symbolize the blood of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, the practice of dyeing eggs during Nowruz assimilated into Christian traditions in the region. This tradition seemingly pleased the king of England King Edward I, because he popularized dyeing eggs in Europe in the 13th century.

Similarly, in pre-Christian Ukraine, there was a custom where, in spring, eggs were covered in wax and decorated in honour of the sun god Dazhboh. Dazhboh was associated with birds, preventing people from catching them. Instead, they would collect the eggs and view them as magical objects.

Eggs, a Symbol of Eostre

Eggs were also a symbol of the goddess Eostre and, in Germanic mythology, they indicated the beginning of spring. According to legend, the goddess Eostre healed a wounded bird by transforming it into a hare. The hare still retained some features of its past self and would, therefore, lay colourful eggs. It would present those eggs to the goddess as a token of gratitude.

Christians today associate the eggshell with the tomb of Jesus Christ. While the cracking of an egg represents the defeat of death and the victory of life. Painting eggs has been popular since the Middle Ages. As eggs aren’t consumed during the 40 day fast of Lent. So, during this time, people would decorate hard-boiled eggs and gift them to each other once they were blessed by priests. They would finally consume them on the day of Easter after attending mass. The colours used to paint the eggs all hold different meanings.

Pagan Origins of the Easter Bunny

White hare near colourfully dyed eggs
Easter Bunny. Image Credit: Phoenix Magazine

During spring, when the air is warmer, the days are longer and the land and the animals on it are more fertile. Some of the most fertile animals are rabbits and hares. They are known to reproduce prolifically, especially during spring. They have therefore been viewed as symbols of fertility and life since ancient times.

The concept of the Easter bunny, previously known as the Easter hare, likely arose from German and English folk traditions. Hares were associated with the goddess Eostre or Ostara. They served as a symbol of the goddess as well as, of course, a symbol of fertility and life. Julius Caesar in 51 BC noted that hares held great religious significance and were therefore not consumed. In Germany, according to folk traditions, Easter bunnies laid and hid painted eggs for good children. They were hidden around the house and the garden and children would need to search for them.

The record of the earliest egg hunts in Christianity, however, dates back to the 16th century. The German protestant reformer, Martin Luther, would organize egg hunts for his congregation. There, men would hide eggs for women and children to find. Just as the empty tomb of Jesus was found by women. The tradition of egg hunting is said to have been popularized by German immigrants in the United States during the 18th century.

Even before ancient times, hares were regarded as animals of great significance. Archaeologists have found that hares were ritually buried alongside humans in Neolithic Europe. They suggest it was part of a religious ritual where the animal would symbolize the concept of rebirth.

The bible does not correlate bunnies to Easter. It only mentions that hares are unclean animals. This suggests that rabbits and hares are indeed, of pagan origin.

Pagan Origins of Hot Cross Buns

beautifully bakes hot cross buns
Hot Cross Buns, a popular Easter treat. Image Credit: Mashed

Hot Cross buns are an Easter staple. The cross on the buns is believed to represent the cross on which Jesus was crucified. However, buns with crosses have been baked since before Christ.

Like the Easter bunny, hot cross buns were associated with honouring the goddess Ostara. One of the traditions to celebrate the goddess was to bake buns marked with crosses. In this context, the cross represents the four seasons, the four phases of the moon, the wheel of life and renewal. The crosses on the buns also represented the horns of an ox, an animal used for offering as a sacrifice to the goddess.

Even the Ancient Egyptians would mark crosses on small round pieces of bread and offer them to the gods. The Greco-Romans too offered similar loaves of bread to the goddess of the dawn, Eos.

In pre-Jewish and Christian Israel, bakers would make sweet buns as an offering to one of their gods. However, with the advent of Judaism and Christianity, religious leaders tried to prevent the pagans from baking these buns. Not willing to give up, they simply added crosses to the buns. This way they managed to save their livelihoods and beliefs while also making the bread relevant to Christians.

History of Hot Cross Buns in Christianity

The earliest record of hot cross buns being a part of Easter celebrations comes from 12th century England. An Anglican monk had baked buns with crosses on Good Friday. It has supposedly been a Christian tradition since then. Then, the buns became popular in the late 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I of England. This happened because she passed a law only permitting bakers to sell the buns on special occasions. This ban, however, could not be enforced.

In those days, there were plenty of superstitions surrounding hot cross buns. It was believed that hot cross buns made on Good Friday would ward off evil spirits. There was also a belief that buns baked on Good Friday would ensure all bread baked throughout the year would have no errors. Sailors would carry hot cross buns with them, believing it would protect them against shipwrecks.

Pagan Origins of Palm Sunday

palm branch, a sign of victory
Mosaic depicting an Olympian victor from ancient Greece holding a palm branch as a sign of victory. Image Credit: Ancient Olympics

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the Holy Week. It is observed on the Sunday before Easter Sunday. This was when Jesus Christ arrived in Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, his disciples greeted him with palm branches, hence the name Palm Sunday.

In the Middle East and the southern Mediterranean, the date palm tree is often nicknamed the ‘Tree of Life’. It was viewed as a symbol of food, wealth and fertility as it served as a source of food and livelihood in arid areas. In the ancient Assyrian religion, the tree was considered sacred due to its association with the goddess Ishtar. The tree represented immortality in all of ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, and in the Greco-Roman world, the date palm served as a symbol of victory and eternal life. In the ancient Olympics in ancient Greece, victors were awarded palm branches, for instance.

Palm trees were a symbol of victory, immortality and eternal life in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It was considered sacred in the ancient Mesopotamian religions and was regarded as a symbol of immortality. It was also associated with the sun deities in the Greco-Roman religions. In the ancient Olympics, palm branches were awarded to victors in ancient Greece.

During the time of Christ, the palm was a symbol of victory, more precisely the victory of a leader. This is why Jesus’ disciples likely welcomed him with palm branches.

Pagan Origin of Good Friday

painting christ on the cross
Painting from 1870 titled ‘Christ on the Cross’. Painted by Carl Heinrich Bloc. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a day of sorrow and mourning as it was on this day that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.

It is unclear when exactly Good Friday was first observed. The earliest document recording the observance of the Holy Week can be found in the Apostolic Constitutions. It is believed to have been written between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD possibly by the Twelve Apostles.

On this day, Christians mourn the supposed death of Christ. This coincides with the pre-Christian myths where divine figures suffered or died. Characters such as Ishtar, Osiris, Tammuz, Persephone and Attis are just some of many examples. According to their respective mythologies, these characters all suffered or died before being resurrected. So, while the day Friday does not hold any significance to the spring festivals and celebrations, the concept of suffering or the death of light before its re-emergence can be compared.

Pagan Origin of Easter Sunday

image depicting the season of spring
Spring, a season of the renewal or rebirth of life. Image Credit: Gardener’s Path

Easter Sunday marks the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. After His crucifixion, His corpse was placed in a tomb which was sealed with a large stone and guarded by officials. Despite this, just three days later, some of Jesus’ female disciples found the stone was removed and that his body was no longer laid in the tomb. They also claimed to have spotted him. All of this led to the belief that God had resurrected Jesus. This meant that Jesus was indeed the son of God. And that life will overcome death, and light will overcome darkness for those who believe in Him.

The Christian significance of Easter Sunday coincides with the pagan concept of resurrection, renewal, rebirth and the victory of light. During spring and more particularly during the period between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the days get warmer. Days are longer and there are clear signs of new life emerging in nature. There is a victory of life and light over winter and darkness. The specific day of Sunday, however, has no known significance to the time around the spring celebrations in pagan cultures. The choice of the day, Sunday, was purely decided by church leaders and the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea back in the 4th century AD.

Why are there so many similarities?

pagan celebration of the spring equinox
Eggs being painted for Ostara. Image Credit: Liminal11

After this detailed exploration, one may wonder why there are so many similarities between pagan and Christian traditions? Is it purely just a coincidence?

According to some sources, church leaders of the past wouldn’t have intentionally celebrated one of the most important Christian holidays around the same time as the festival of another religion. This meant they wished to celebrate Easter separate from the Jewish Passover and pagan celebrations.

On the contrary, however, early church leaders wished to convert the pagan masses into Christians. This led them to carefully adopt pagan traditions and customs and Christianize them. They would apply Christian doctrines to these ancient practices and adopt them as Christian traditions. This way, the masses could convert to Christianity without forgoing their age-old customs. As the churches in antiquity gained more political influence and financial power, it became easier for the leaders to inspire the masses. This is how, over time, the pagan traditions discussed earlier in this post, and many others assimilated into Christianity.

As Christianity spread across the world, the indigenous and folk traditions were absorbed and adopted into the faith. This is how the egg, hare, hot cross buns and palm trees became part of Easter traditions. Besides, it was convenient for early Church leaders to get the masses to celebrate Easter since they already celebrated spring festivals during the spring equinox. Only now, springtime would also be associated with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over time, people began forgetting the pagan roots of the Easter traditions they followed. They only associated them with the Resurrection.

What do Christians think about the Pagan Origins of Easter Symbols?

Christian priests conducting easter vigil
Easter Vigil. Image Credit: National Catholic Register

First of all, many Christians are unaware that many of the Easter traditions even have pagan origins. Most of those who are aware continue to celebrate Easter. To them, Easter is only a name that has been derived over the course of time. Besides, the term has evolved to directly refer to the Resurrection of Christ. Additionally, the term itself does not mean anything foul. Moreover, it is not possible to avoid all words with pagan origins. If so, then even the days of the week, months of the year and names of the planets have to be changed.

Some Christian denominations, however, prefer not to celebrate Easter because of its pagan origins. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, don’t celebrate Easter.

At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to decide whether or not they wish to celebrate the holiday.

To conclude, there are too many parallels to be drawn between springtime pagan practices and Easter traditions and themes. It is highly unlikely that the two are not related. Hence these unique traditions can only be said to have become assimilated into the Christian faith.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Works Cited

Jackson, J. G., 2018. Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth. 2nd ed. Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media LLC..

Tortchinov, E. A., 1998. Cybele, Attis, and the Mysteries of the “Suffering Gods” A Transpersonal Interpretation. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 17(2), pp. 149-159.

Turcan, R., 1997. The Cults of the Roman Empire. 1st ed. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

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