Easter History : Christian and Pagan Traditions
The history of Easter reveals rich associations
between the Christian faith and the seemingly unrelated practices of
the early pagan religions. Easter history and traditions that we
practice today evolved from pagan symbols, from the ancient goddess
Ishtar to Easter eggs and the Easter bunny.
Easter, perhaps the most important of the Christian holidays,
celebrates the Christ's resurrection from the dead following his death
on Good Friday. . . 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.
Ostara, Goddess of Spring
and the Dawn (Oestre / Eastre)
Easter is named for a Saxon goddess who was
known by the names of Oestre or Eastre, and in Germany by the name of
Ostara. She is a goddess of the dawn and the spring, and her name
derives from words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east.
Our words for the "female hormone" estrogen derives from 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 (well known for its propensity for rapid
reproduction) was her sacred animal.
Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny both featured in the spring festivals
of Ostara, which were initially held during the feasts of the goddess
Ishtar | Inanna. 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. The notion that the Earth itself was hatched from an egg was
once widespread and appears in creation stories ranging from Asian to
Eggs, in ancient times in Northern Europe, were a potent symbol of
fertility and often used in rituals to guarantee a woman's ability to
bear children. To this day rural "grannywomen" (lay midwives/healers
in the Appalachian mountains) still use eggs to predict, with uncanny
accuracy, the sex of an unborn child by watching the rotation of an
egg as it is suspended by a string over the abdomen of a pregnant
Dyed eggs are given as gifts in many cultures. Decorated eggs bring
with them a wish for the prosperity of the abundance during the coming
Folklore suggests that Easter egg hunts arose in Europe during "the
Burning Times", when the rise of Christianity led to the shunning (and
persecution) of the followers of the "Old Religion".
Instead of giving the eggs as gifts the adults made a game of hiding them, gathering the
children together and encouraging them to find the eggs.
Feeling guilty about arriving late one spring, the Goddess Ostara
saved the life of a poor bird whose wings had been frozen by the snow.
She made him her pet or, as some versions have it, her lover. Filled
with compassion for him since he could no longer fly (in some
versions, it was because she wished to amuse a group of young
children), Ostara turned him into a snow hare and gave him the gift of
being able to run with incredible speed so he could protect himself
In remembrance of his earlier form as a
bird, she also gave him the ability to lay eggs (in all the colors of
the rainbow, no less), but only on one day out of each year.
Eventually the hare managed to anger the goddess Ostara, and she cast
him into the skies where he would remain as the constellation Lepus
(The Hare) forever positioned under the feet of the constellation
Orion (the Hunter). He was allowed to return to earth once each year,
but only to give away his eggs to the children attending the Ostara
festivals that were held each spring. The tradition of the
Easter Bunny had begun.
The Hare was sacred in many ancient traditions and was associated with
the moon goddesses and the various deities of the hunt. In ancient
times eating the Hare was prohibited except at Beltane (Celts) and the
festival of Ostara (Anglo-Saxons), when a ritual hare-hunt would take
In many cultures rabbits, like eggs, were considered to be potent
remedies for fertility problems. The ancient philosopher-physician
Pliny the Elder prescribed rabbit meat as a cure for female sterility,
and in some cultures the genitals of a hare were carried to avert
Medieval Christians considered the hare to bring bad fortune, saying
witches changed into rabbits in order to suck the cows dry. It was
claimed that a witch could only be killed by a silver crucifix or a
bullet when she appeared as a hare.
Given their "mad" leaping and boxing displays during mating season as
well as their ability to produce up to 42 offspring each spring, it is
understandable that they came to represent lust, sexuality, and excess
in general. Medieval Christians considered the hare to be an evil
omen, believing that witches changed into rabbits in order to suck the
cows dry. It was claimed that a witch could only be killed by a silver
crucifix or a bullet when she appeared as a hare.
In later Christian tradition the white Hare, when depicted at the
Virgin Mary's feet, represents triumph over lust or the flesh. The
rabbit's vigilance and speed came to represent the need to flee from
sin and temptation and a reminder of the swift passage of life.
And, finally, there is a sweet Christian legend about a young rabbit
who, for three days, waited anxiously for his friend, Jesus, to return
to the Garden of Gethsemane, not knowing what had become of him. Early
on Easter morning, Jesus returned to His favorite garden and was
welcomed the little rabbit. That evening when the disciples came into
the garden to pray, still unaware of the resurrection, they found a
clump of beautiful larkspurs, each blossom bearing the image of a
rabbit in its center as a remembrance of the little creature's hope
Ishtar, goddess of romance, procreation, and war in ancient Babylon,
was also worshipped as the Sumerian
goddess Inanna. One of the great goddesses, or "mother goddesses",
the stories of her descent to the Underworld and the resurrection that
follows are contained in the oldest writings that have ever been
discovered. . . the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish and the story
of Gilgamesh. Scholars believed that they were based on the oral
mythology of the region and were recorded about 2,100 B.C.E.
The most famous of the myths of Ishtar tell of her descent into the
realm of the dead to rescue her young lover, Tammuz, a Vegetation god
forced to live half the year in the Underworld. Ishtar approached the
gates of the Underworld, which was ruled by her twin sister
Eresh-kigel, the goddess of death and infertility. She was refused
Similar to the Greek myths of Demeter and Persephone that came later,
during Ishtar's absence the earth grew barren since all acts of
procreation ceased while she was away. Ishtar screamed and ranted that
she would break down the gates and release all of the dead to
overwhelm the world and compete with the living for the remaining food
unless she was allowed to enter and plead her case with her twin.
Needless to say, she won admission. But the guard, following standard
protocol, refused to let her pass through the first gate unless she
removed her crown. At the next gate, she had to remove her earrings,
then her necklace at the next, removing her garments and proud finery
until she stood humbled and naked after passing through the seventh
(and last) gate.
In one version, she was held captive and died but was brought back to
life when her servant sprinkled her with the "water of life". In the
more widely known version of the myth, Ishtar's request was granted
and she regained all of her attire and possessions as she slowly
re-emerged through the gates of darkness.
Upon her return, Tammuz and the earth returned to life. Annual
celebrations of this "Day of Joy", were held each year around the time
of the vernal equinox. These celebrations became the forerunners of
the Ostara festivals that welcomed Oestre and the arrival of spring.
A section on the Goddess Inanna (the Sumerian version of the Goddess
Ishtar), her myths and symbols, is included with the myths of the
goddesses at this website.
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.