Unveiling Easter’s pagan roots

Easter: Its pagan roots

An Easter bunny. Credit: Ventura/Shutterstock.com

Easter, widely regarded as Christianity’s principal celebration, intriguingly merges religious fervour with an array of secular traditions.

Why do symbols such as hot cross buns and Easter eggs share the stage with the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Ancient customs and modern celebrations

Easter’s timing, aligning with spring’s renewal, invites a blend of Christian and pagan traditions. As ‘An Encyclopedia of Religion’ by Ferm reveals, ‘Pagan practices were introduced into the Christian observance of Easter at an early age…the New Year and the creation of the world were celebrated in ancient times by an exchange of gifts (Easter eggs) and by generous hospitality to friends, to the poor, and so forth.’

The name’s pagan heritage

The very name ‘Easter’ itself traces back to pagan origins. An eighteenth-century Catholic scholar, a Benedictine monk, noted, ‘Easter is a word of Saxon origin; and imports a goddess of the Saxons, or rather, of the East, Estera, in honour of whom sacrifices being annually offered about the Passover time of the year (spring), the name became attached by association of ideas to the Christian festival of the resurrection which happened at the time of Passover.’

The Encyclopædia Britannica says: ‘The English name Easter is of uncertain origin; the Anglo-Saxon priest Venerable Bede in the 8th century derived it from the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre.’ Others link the name to Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess who had the Babylonian counterpart Ishtar.

Symbolism in Easter traditions

  • Hot cross buns. The tradition of hot cross buns, linked to ancient rites, illustrates the fusion of pagan customs into Easter. The Encyclopædia Britannica: ‘Like the Greeks, the Romans ate bread marked with a cross…the cross-bread was eaten by pagan Saxons in honour of Easter, their goddess of light. The custom, in fact, was practically universal, and the early Church adroitly adopted the practice, grafting it on to the Eucharist and so giving us the hot cross bun.’
  • Easter eggs. These too, carry ancient significance, stemming from pagan theories where the egg symbolised the universe’s origin. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend suggests that the Easter egg hunt ‘is not mere child’s play, but the vestige of a fertility rite.’ Some cultures believed that the decorated Easter egg could magically bring happiness, prosperity, health, and protection.
  • The Easter bunny. A symbol of fertility that links directly to pagan traditions. The American Book of Days: ‘The Easter Rabbit lays the eggs, for which reason they are hidden in a nest or in the garden. The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.’ The rabbit serves as a symbol of fertility, a tradition passed down from the ancient rites and symbols of spring festivals in Europe and the Middle East, rooted in pagan beliefs.

Easter’s rich tapestry weaves together threads of ancient fertility rites, theories about the cosmos, and Christian beliefs, revealing a fascinating interplay between pagan traditions and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

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Written by

John Ensor

Originally from Doncaster, Yorkshire, John now lives in Galicia, Northern Spain with his wife Nina. He is passionate about news, music, cycling and animals.