The Origins of Easter and some thoughts about fertility and gadflies

220px-Ostara_by_Johannes_GehrtsChristians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.  Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.  When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of the same goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain, where the goddesses often have Celtic names.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase” from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

As historian Richard Sermon observes, the name Ostare or Easter may derive from this goddess’s name:

It is theoretically possible to project forward the name Astarte to an intermediate *Astare or *Astre, which could then have appeared in Old English orthography as Eostre/Eostre. Furthermore, there is an earlier precedent for this intermediate name on the bilingual gold tablets from Pyrgi in Italy (c.500 Bc), that contain dedications to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret… and her Etruscan counterpart Astre …

 Sermon also rightly points out that
 It is spurious to suggest that the early Church (centered around the eastern Mediterranean) would have timed its most important festival to coincide with that of a north European pagan goddess.

Nevertheless, the timing of the festival and the symbols with which it is associated, eggs and rabbits, also suggest that the Christian feast adapted local customs that far precede Christian practices.  Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia‘s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!

8 thoughts on “The Origins of Easter and some thoughts about fertility and gadflies

  1. Hello from Ukraine !

    This the VERY interesting topic, and article written very good, thank you for it !

    Now, as for me, the Ukrainian woman, I say you that I am unclear exactly as to a feminists mind and motive.

    For the woman that seeks the equal wages, the equal behaviour towards her, the absence of sexual gesture such as rear slap etc, this the normal struggle all women should strive for I believe.

    But, I have friends who have left Ukraine and live with their men, 1 in USA, 1 in Uk, also 1 in Poland and 1 in Austria. These girls have said me much about what occurs in these nations, including about feminist movements, and, it seems to us that such movements do not seek to further equality for women but, to bash the man, denounce him as a lesser being. To chastise his every compliment towards woman, to force him into a submissive role in this life. This is not for me, nor my girls, we are Ukrainian women, with the traditional view of relations between man and woman, proud to be, we enjoy wear the female clothing, we like when man looks, compliments, admires from distance and, when we choose, admires close up. We simply wish not to be handled when against our will, and earn the equal wages when engaging in employment of equal tasks.

    So, now I wait the attack from these women from their computers, they surely would not try enter Ukraine to denounce me, their overt feminism would betray them at our border, and our guards would say them “GET OUT” 🙂

    Rivne – Ukraine.

    1. Hi Marina:

      Thanks a lot for writing! It seems to me that you have conflicting motivations in doing so. On the one hand, you very kindly wish to say hello, I’m here, I’m a Ukrainian woman and I have rights. On the other hand, you seem to be looking for some kind of “attack from these women from their computers,” whom you imagine will denounce you for what you have to say here.

      I’m certainly not going to denounce you. And as for your desire for equal pay and to be treated with dignity and respect by all men, we are with you. BY “we,” I mean the international feminist community. I actually have to say that I’ve never met a feminist who wants to “force” men to be “submissive.” Feminism is against making anyone feel or be submissive. Feminism is for equality between women and men.

      I think you’d have a hard time finding an American feminist willing to denounce another woman for wishing “not to be handled against [her] will.” We want the same thing. The only people who I can imagine attacking you for suggesting that you should have the right to your dignity and bodily autonomy are right-wing zealots, male and female, who hate feminism and who sincerely believe that women should be “submissive” to men. Fortunately, you didn’t write to them. You wrote to me, and I welcome you here.

      In feminist solidarity,

  2. Well researched. Discussed deep, though how do you think
    we human being is a mammal who is the self-domesticated one,
    with onset of the agriculture.
    Then we or our ancestor started multiple ovulation and lost the
    fixed season like all other animals.
    ( That’s why all over the world, terra-cotta figure of Godess
    appeared in this period / only in this period)

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response. I’m interested in your theory about multiple ovulation. I’m not a biologist, of any sort, but I could imagine the scenario in which human beings were so disadvantaged that only the one who were continuously “in heat” could keep the species going. I don’t think that such an adaptation or mutation would occur simultaneously with the development of religion. The goddess figures are a much, much later development in human culture. Honestly, that is just my guess. I’d be interested to know what Elise Boulding would have to say about it.

      1. Goddess figure may not necessary of the religion. In fact
        many of the so-called ” venous figure ” of stone age are
        about 20.000 years old. ( Before the start of agriculture )
        But my speculation is, when a woman bore the child twice a
        year first time (due to multiple ovulation) people saw her as
        “She is the Goddess of fertility” and made a figure to warship.
        Though, when multiple ovulation become normal such
        Goddess lost a significance thus no longer made.

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