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
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
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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
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.
Biblical references: The Book of Exodus; Matthew and Luke
Brown, Raymond E. 1993 (1977). The Birth of the Messiah: A
Updated and revised; The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.
Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke.
Frye, Northrop. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.
Princeton: Princeton UP.
Walker, Barbara G. 1983. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and
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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