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Mythic Passages, 
		the newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute, a non-profit arts and education 
		corporation.  Copyright 2005

William Doty

Happy Eostre to Ya’ll! Springing Forward

by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.

Since April includes both Pesach/Passover and Easter, I thought it might be of interest to sketch just a few associations with the origins of these festivals. Few human/social phenomena seem to be as universal as do the four seasons. Whether correlated with moon-quarters or not, the sequence of New Year/Spring through Summer, Autumn, and Winter is nearly universally inscribed. Northrop Frye cites them as the origins of the genres of literature, from comedy to tragedy. Various astrologies consider them normative for human:astral relationships.

The vernal (< vernalis < vernus < ver) or spring equinox (around 21 March in the northern, 23 September in the southern hemisphere) remains an archetype of birth and rebirth/renewal. Hence it has been considered a new year’s sacrifice of a lamb in what came to be the Israelite Pesach—although in historical times its significance was shifted from the up rise of fertility in the spring to memorializing the Exodus (Latinized in Greek-Latin as ex -, out of + < EM> hodos < /EM > , way/road; see especially Exodus 12.1-13.16). It flowed into Christian memorializing not so much of a miraculous rebirth of Israel after undergoing a sea-death and subsequently being reborn in the wilderness, but because Jesus’ life crisis—crucifixion—and rebirth/resurrection was considered to have happened during the Passover season, soon it was re-appropriated as the Paschal/Passion season.

Many historical/sequential questions remain, but clearly the old Exodus became the new Resurrection, and associated symbols—sacred meals, the Agnus Dei/Paschal Lamb—trailed along. Later appropriations are not merely one-to-one, allegorical, but gather symbol complexes. Freud uses the term overdetermined in such a situation: core symbols or root metaphors never merely state one allegorical equivalent, but spray meanings in every direction.

An affective/effective symbol sets in motion a vibrating web of significations, as anyone can see from seeking to chart all the references to something like “water” or “tree of life” or “meal” in any of the world’s religions. Lacking the resources of my lamented colleague, Raymond E. Brown SJ, in his massive tome on the infancy narratives in the Christian gospels, I want here merely to sketch some of the “overdeterminations” of Spring/Easter/Pesach customs and traditions. We scan from the Paschal Candle in Anglican churches to the seemingly-pregnant Easter Bunny.

Initiation : appropriately enough, as Easter separated its memorials from those of the Exodus on the one hand, and Christian redemption on the other, Easter Sunday was from early days associated with Baptism. Accounts of the general Lenten darkening of the churches mention the extermination of all light at midnight, when new light was forged and, from beneath the saint’s crypt beneath the main altar, newly-baptized catechumens flowed out with freshly lit candles, then passed the illuminating light to those in the congregation. In similar symbolic inheritance, sunrise Easter pageants mark southern American ceremonies, just as dawn hilltop rituals took place in Teutonic areas of Europe.

The Paschal Candle : in Roman Catholic and Anglican-derived churches, one free-standing huge candle (to thirty-six feet, in Salisbury cathedral) is brought from its usual place beside the baptismal font to the front of the sanctuary. It is the first candle relighted during the Easter Vigil on the Saturday evening before Easter. It is lighted during services until Pentecost Sunday and thereafter only for funerals and baptisms. It is usually decorated with the Greek letters alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, along with five grains of incense in red representing the wounds of Jesus.

Easter Lily : this was the floral emblem of the goddess of Juno and of her northern counterpart, Eostre (or Ostara, Eastre). Worshippers of the Great Goddess insisted that the world’s first lily sprang from the milk of her breast. The Christian chalice is derived from this female “cup” (calyx) (W-D 428). In traditional religious statuary, the Blessed Virgin Mary usually holds the pure white Lilium candidum or Madonna Lily, although Lilium longiforum, white with green central stripes, is also called Easter Lily.

The sacred spring month of the Saxon goddess Eostre (a northern form of the Near Eastern Astarte), Eosturmonat , was set by the lunar calendar at the time that the pregnant goddess was passing into the fertile season. The current dating of Easter still follows a calendrical determination (variously according to different liturgical calendars), although the name of Easter wasn’t assigned until the late Middle Ages (W-E 266). Wiccans and Neopagans celebrate the ancient custom on the eve or day of the Vernal Equinox, March 20, 21, or 22.

Easter Eggs: originally colored eggs were handed out as gifts when the Persians celebrated the New Year; as symbols of regeneration, they were assimilated to the Christian teachings, usually died red, the life color. Germans applied to Easter the title formerly given to the season of the sacred king’s love-death, Hoch-Zeit, the “High Time”; English had the corresponding term “Hye-Tide” (W-E 268). In contemporary German usage, Hochzeit refers to nuptials, Ostern to the Easter period.

The American Easter Monday egg-roll on the White House lawn is evidently rooted in contests to see who could roll eggs the furthest distance without their disintegration—ultimately symbolizing rolling away the stone from Jesus’ tomb.

Hot Cross Buns : traditional Easter cakes across the Middle Ages, the cross having originally been Wotan’s Cross. The bun was one of the feminine symbols of Eostre, served in the month of April. Associated with wild woodlands, Eostre’s priestesses became Wood Maidens or Little Wood Women—to whom buns or dumplings are still offered in some parts of Bavaria during Easter season (W-D 482). It is also thought that the bun represented the moon, the cross marking the four lunar quarters. Also legendary was the concept that breads baked on Good Friday never went moldy, and possessed healing properties.

Easter Bunny : comes from association of the hare with the springtime goddess Eostre—it was said that the animal would lay eggs for good children to eat. Eostre’s hare was the shape imagined by the Celts as appearing on the surface of the full moon. This goes back to ancient Indo-European antiquity (W-D 377). In medieval England hare-hunts led by the mayor and aldermen were staged on Easter day.

Agnus Dei/Paschal Lamb : the term refers initially to the animal sacrificed for the Passover feast; transferred to Jesus, who is said in the gospel of John to have been killed the day the paschal lamb was slaughtered (cf. 1 Cor 5.7). There is probably some influence of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who is likened to “a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” The scapegoat reference is doubtless less in mind today, where the Easter dinner is likely to feature garlicky leg of lamb or roast duck.

Works Cited

Biblical references: The Book of Exodus; Matthew and Luke .

Brown, Raymond E. 1993 (1977). The Birth of the Messiah: A

Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke.
Updated and revised; The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.

Frye, Northrop. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.

Princeton: Princeton UP.

Walker, Barbara G. 1983. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and

Secrets San Francisco: Harper and Row. (Abbrev. W-E.)

——. 1998. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects.

San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco-HarperCollins. (Abbrev. W-D.)

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