Jesus rose from the dead. So did Dionysus. So did Osiris. So did Inanna. So did Persephone. It’s nothing new in the grand scheme of religious history. So at this time – when Christians across the world are celebrating the holiest day in their calendar – we in the pagan community often wonder: What are we supposed to do with Easter?
It’s easy with Christmas. The birth of Jesus is always the same day: December 25, which comes right after the celebration of Yule, the rebirth of the sun. We can celebrate the birth of the sun child at the same time they celebrate the birth of the son child. We both like parties, lights, trees, and fudge, so it all works out. There’s always that silly “War on Christmas” thing, but few reasonable people actually believe that garbage.
But Easter is different. First of all, it is different every year. Christians celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. This year, it’s an entire month after the Spring Equinox. Pagans celebrated the resurrection of the earth a while ago. We’re getting ready for our next sabbat. It’s almost here. That whole “rebirth thing” just seems so March.
Then, there’s the debate about the holiday’s origins. We talk about where its name came from. We talk about myths that influenced it. We wonder what on earth chocolate bunnies, marshmallow Peeps, and eggs dyed in vinegar solutions have to do with the death and resurrection of Christ.
Sometimes, people are mean about it. I’ve seen a lot of online discussion about how the Germanic goddess Eostre is the actual origin of the name, and that she rode on a bunny delivering eggs. There’s also the one about the goddess Ishtar rising from the dead. These memes are shared all over social media in a mean-spirited way, meant to shame Christians about their ignorance of their own holiday’s origins.
The thing is, the joke’s on us. None of these stories are true. No one really knows where the name Easter came from, but we do know it had nothing to do with Ishtar, and there is no record of any myth involving Eostre. Theories abound, and it’s still possible that Eostre gave Easter its name, but it seems doubtful to me that a Germanic goddess without a myth gave her name to the most sacred holiday of a religion started by Mediterranean Jews.
Others like to point out all the “pagan origins” of the Easter traditions. And they may be right. Bunnies certainly have no place in Christian theology, hard boiled eggs. Both have obvious resonance with the idea of renewal, rebirth, and fertility. Spring is known as the time when the “birds and the bees” (and the bunnies) get busy and fertilize the land, allowing it to be reborn. It all makes sense. But that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it.
Some even get into making fun of the god who rises from the dead:
But what point does any of this serve? Some people accuse the Christians of “stealing” Easter from earlier pagan myths. There are strains within the religion that take great efforts to rid themselves of all pagan trappings, and so these people get pretty worked up about the idea of their most important holiday being overrun with pagan symbols.
Candida Moss at CNN Belief Blog seems quite concerned about the accusation that Easter was “stolen” from earlier cultures. She gives examples of earlier dying and rising gods and takes pains to show how Jesus is different from these. For example, she points out that many gods were not fully gods until after they rose from the dead. Jesus, she says, was. It’s not a convincing argument. Osiris and Inanna, for example were legit gods before their deaths and resurrections. Plus Christian doctrine says that Christ was both fully divine and fully human before his death. So he was human. Osiris wasn’t.
She also asks if the simple fishermen who followed Jesus during his life would have known enough about Greek and Roman mythology to “steal” this idea. As she points out, coinage told these myths, so they certainly were familiar with the stories. Also, Jesus grew up in Egypt. Mary fled there to escape Herod. It’s fully reasonable to believe that the young man would have been exposed to Egyptian myth.
Greece conquered Egypt. Rome conquered both, and it folded aspects of both cultures’ beliefs into its own (especially Greek). So yes, these fishermen probably would have known the myths. Paul of Tarsus, who developed so much early Christian theology that his writings are responsible for much of the New Testament, started life as a pagan and later traveled the world spreading Christianity. His origins and his travels make it almost certain that this church founding father would have known his cultural mythologies.
But more importantly, the citizens of Rome were aware of these myths. Christianity couldn’t go fully public until 313 C.E., when the Edict of Milan legalized the religion. That was when Christian theology really started getting hammered out, and the people who were doing that hammering certainly knew their Roman mythology as well as a smattering of Egyptian and Greek.
Many pagans are wrong in their arguments. Easter probably was not named after a pre-Christian deity. Bunnies and eggs symbolize fertility, but no one can point to a specific culture that venerated these symbols enough to have been “stolen” by the early church. At the same time, Christians are wrong. The dying and resurrecting god is not new in the history of religion. While his resurrection is quite a common theme, his works of compassion, love, and healing make him special. He is a different deity from all those others, just as Dionysus and Osiris have two completely different stories.
No one “stole” anything from anyone else. Religions influence each other as they grow and change. Yes, Christianity was influenced by existing beliefs. It didn’t grow up in a vacuum. But, modern paganism was just as influenced by Christianity. Ceremonial magick has strongly Judeo-Christian roots, but that same ceremonial magick has a heavy influence on Wicca.
So what does a pagan do with Easter? Enjoy it.
This is a time of renewal and rebirth. You don’t have to be Christian to see that. Look around. Look at the budding trees, the flitting hummingbirds, the brightly colored flowers. We all celebrate rebirth in our way. Instead of making fun of the way others do it, or trying to prove how “right” we are, let’s all just enjoy this beautiful time. When you feel the need to open your mouth and espouse about the pagan origins of plastic eggs, relax and stuff a delicious Peep into your mouth instead.