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The date of Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, varies from year to year according to a complex formula, and this year, Easter Sunday falls on April 24, 2011. Easter is the central focus of Christianity, but there is more to Easter than meets the eye! Many ancient religions also celebrated the death and resurrection of their god. Much of the symbolism associated with these earlier stories has been incorporated into the Christian Festivity.
The Easter Season marks the most important ritual celebration in the Christian Church. It celebrates the passion, crucifixion, death and entombment of the Lord Jesus Christ, followed by his resurrection and return to a new life. Jesus Christ, who flourished in Palestine some two thousand years ago and whose birth (defined as year "1") marks the beginning of the current Western Gregorian Calendar, was the fountainhead of the Christian faith and is revered by Christians as the true saviour and Son of God. The Easter season begins on Easter Day (Easter Sunday) and the preliminary festivities are known as Holy Week, which is itself the last week of the 40 day purificatory period called Lent (Sundays are not counted in the 40, as these commemorate the resurrection). Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, but that is another story!
Holy Week is the main introduction to Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday), celebrating the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on an ass. This is part of the prophesied fulfilment of his mission, since the ass has symbolic significance and is seen as a sign of his being the messiah, or redeemer. This process is followed by Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) when Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, or the Lord's Supper. It also marks his betrayal by his renegade disciple, Judas.
The following day is called Good Friday ("God's Friday"), when Jesus was condemned to death, crucified, died and was buried in the tomb. This is the holiest day of the year for Christians, because it marks the symbolic sacrifice of the pure and perfect Son of God, who is believed to have died on a cross so that the rest of us could be freed from our burden of sin and be forgiven by God so that we might find everlasting life and bliss.
The next day, Holy Saturday, is when Jesus lay in the grave, but the following day, Easter Sunday, is when Christians believe Jesus miraculously rose from the dead and vacated the tomb. In other words, his old life had ended and his new and glorious life had begun. This is emblematic of the Christian ideal of redemption through repentance (the death of the old life), baptism (washing out the past) and being born again (as a freshly redeemed soul). Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
Easter, a Moveable Feast
There is no accepted fixed date for the death of Jesus, but the Gospels (the part of the New Testament that deals with the life and ministry of Jesus) state that this all happened at the time of the Passover, a major Jewish festival that was (and still is) celebrated by the Jewish people in honour of their release from captivity in ancient Egypt. In keeping with this, the resurrection of Jesus is believed to have taken place after the Full Moon following the spring equinox.
In olden times, the Jewish people used a lunar calendar, so the dates of events vary when compared to the solar calendar. According to scripture, Jesus rose from the dead on the first Sunday following Passover. See Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:56-24:3, and John 20:1. For this reason, ancient Christians celebrated Easter (which they called Passover) on the first Sunday after the Jewish Passover, which is 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar. The only exceptions were in Syria and Mesopotamia, where ancient Christians celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, no matter which day of the week it happened to be. According to scripture, the month of Nisan—and therefore the date of Passover—is linked to the spring harvest in Palestine. (See Exodus 12:1-6, Leviticus 23:9-14, and Numbers 28:16.) However, the Romans banished all Jews from Judea (which they renamed Palestine) after the rebellion of Simon Bar Kochba in AD 135, making it difficult for the rabbis to determine the proper date for Passover, even though they have revised their calendar more than once.
There is now a complex system of calculating the correct date for Easter, which goes beyond the scope of this article. In any case, we are more concerned here with the symbolic and astrological correspondences that make this festival so meaningful, even in the 21st Century, some two thousand years after Jesus suffered on the Cross.
Ancient Rome and the Equinox
At the time of Jesus, the Mediterranean world was ruled by Rome. The Romans were pagans, who had their own gods: Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and so on. The names of these gods have survived to this day in the names of the planets, the days of the week, names of months and general linguistic usage. The other cultures in the area also had their own gods and goddesses, who corresponded more or less to the Roman pantheon. Greek was the language of culture in the Middle East; the main centre was Alexandria in Egypt and the Roman world was one in which trade and religion passed rapidly between the cities and towns along the marvellous Roman roads.
At around the time of the spring equinox in March, marking the rebirth of the year, the death and resurrection of a number of divine or quasi-divine figures was celebrated. The beautiful god Adonis (cognate with Adonai, which means "Lord" in the Hebrew scriptures) was worshipped throughout the Middle East with his partner Aphrodite (Venus). Adonis was slain and resurrected and this was celebrated at this time, as was the death and resurrection of Tammuz, the lover of Ishtar, at the beginning of the new year as marked by the equinox. J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, is of the view that the church has skilfully grafted the festival of the dead god Adonis onto the Easter festival of Christianity. The dead and risen Adonis thus became the dead and risen Christ.
Greek depictions of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover Adonis in her arms resemble and seem to have been the model for the Pieta of the Virgin with the dead body of her son in her lap. The most celebrated example is Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica in Rome. These and other dying and resurrected god figures are symbols of new life after the sleeping death of winter. The metaphysical aspect of awakening to a new life in the Spirit is a key element of initiation into the Mysteries.
Other Cults of Dying Gods
Other cults of dying gods flourished at the time, notably Baal (Palestine), Dionysus (Thrace, Greece), Iesus or Iasius (Greece) and Osiris (Egypt). In particular, the death and resurrection of the god Attis was officially celebrated at Rome on 24 and 25 March, officially marking the spring equinox, now celebrated by Christians as Lady Day. The ancients considered this to be the most appropriate day for the revival of a god of vegetation who had been dead or sleeping throughout the winter. According to an ancient and widespread tradition, 25 March was celebrated as the death of Christ without regard to the state of the Moon. Tertullian in Adversus Iudaeus states that this tradition was followed in Phrygia, Cappadocia, Gaul and in Rome itself—throughout the "known world" really.
The earliest Christian traditions evidently had some connection with the cult of Attis. Attis was believed to be the son of Cybele, the Divine Mother, and was conceived, like Jesus, of a virgin by divine intervention rather than regular sexual intercourse. Similarly the pine was sacred to Attis and it is no accident that all relics of the cross are composed of pine. According to several respected authorities, the date of the death and resurrection of Christ was deliberately linked to the 25th of March to harmonise with the festival of the spring equinox. This date is celebrated to this day by Christians as the Annunciation of the Virgin, or Lady Day. It is connected with an older belief that this was on the very day that the world was created.
The phenomenon of substitution, where a pagan festival is replaced by one with a Christian identity, is seen in a number of pre-Christian festivals. In line with the Mother Goddess and Heavenly Virgin theology, the Festival of Diana was ousted by the Festival of the of the Virgin in August. The pagan Parilia in April was replaced by the Feast of St George. The midsummer Water Festival in June was replaced by the Festival of St John the Baptist. Each has a deep connection with the symbolic imagery it replaces. The Feast of All Souls in November is the ancient heathen Feast of the Dead. The Nativity of Christ replaced the birth of the Sun at the winter solstice.
The Festival of Easter replaces the feast of the Phrygian god Attis at the vernal equinox. The Phrygians were the source of the Mithraic system and the Mystery cults generally. Mithras was introduced to Rome circa 63 BCE. It should be remembered that the Romans traced their ancestry to Aeneas, the hero of Troy, a Phrygian city in Asia Minor.
The very places which celebrated the death of Christ at the equinox were the actual places that the worship of the god Attis originated or had taken deepest root, namely Phrygia, Gaul and apparently Rome itself. Frazer says it is difficult to regard the coincidence as accidental. In fact the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of saviour gods was widespread throughout the ancient world, and not just in Europe, as may be seen in this excellent article, Sun Gods as Atoning Saviours, by Dr M. D. Magee.
Origins of the name "Easter"
The name Easter is from the ancient Anglo-Saxon form ťastre. Eastre was the goddess of fertility, whose rites were celebrated at the vernal (spring) equinox. The vernal equinox is the time that the days begin to lengthen beyond the duration of the night (hence, equinox) and the growth is beginning to quicken. This springtime emphasis accounts for the orientation of the rituals towards the boosting of fertility, hence the rabbits, eggs and so on that are always associated with Easter [click here for more on this: Eoster: Mysteries of the Resurrected Child, by John Opsopaus].
Ishtar or Astarte
The word Easter is also a form of Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian goddess of fertility. Her great love was for Tammuz, who was in Greek, Adonis.
As Ashtoreth, which is the Hebrew plural form denoting various local manifestations of Astarte, she was the Canaanite fertility goddess Athtarath, or Ashtoreth. From this, the Greeks derived Astarte. Athtarath or Ishtar became Easter in Anglo-Saxon, prior to their arrival in Britain.
The goddess Astarte was depicted as the horned goddess and represented in the same way as Hathor, the cow goddess of Egypt. This is the representation of Ishtar with the Moon god Sin, whose upturned horns are identified in the crescent moon on the horizon with Venus, the love goddess, as the evening star. This ancient symbolism was central to the religious systems of Egypt and Asia Minor generally, but centred on the Assyro-Babylonian system. The cult of Ashtoreth was also patronised by King Solomon (1 Kings 11:5), prior to the reorganisation of the Hebrew religion by King Josiah, which featured the present insistence on monotheism.
Astarte, or Easter in her various forms, is the Mother goddess and was associated with her son-lover as Lord which is the meaning of Baal, Adonis etc. As the Heavenly Virgin or Mother Goddess figure, she featured in the symbolism of the golden calf that led Israel astray at Sinai under Moses. In this Trinity of the Star, the Sun and the Moon, we see her as goddess of sensual love as evening star (hence, also Venus) and goddess of war as morning star. This war role was attributed to Aphrodite. She is related to the Moon god Sin and is linked in association with the Sun as the third member of the Trinity. The festivals are tied to this symbolism.
The Egyptians under the Ptolemies at Edfu depicted Ashtoreth as a lion-headed goddess. This is an association with the lion-headed Aeon and the Mysteries. As Quodshu or holiness, holding a papyrus plant and a serpent, she stands on a lion between the Egyptian fertility god Min and Resheph the Semitic god of destruction and death. Her hair is worn in the stylised fashion of the horns of the cow goddess Hathor.
Bronze figurines from Gezer depict a nude figure with horns which are considered to be that of Ashtoreth. Her cultic systems flourished at Beth-shan from the fifteenth to the thirteenth centuries BCE and, in the second century BCE, there was a cult centre at Delos to Astarte of Palestine. The fertility symbols found show the goddess with the horned headdress and the breasts pronounced, often holding a lotus flower and a serpent. Where the Mother Goddess is depicted, it is as Ashera, with a dove clutched to her breast. She is also associated with the Phoenician god of healing Eshmun from an undated inscription from Carthage. This role is endemic to the cult throughout and is found among the Celts and Druids who were exposed to the Sea Lords very anciently. A name associated with her in the Assyrian form Ishtar is Ishtar-miti-uballit or Ishtar make the dead to live. Thus, the resurrection theme is associated with her at Easter as Ishtar.
Scholars have now pretty clearly established that the ancient religion of the Hebrews was polytheistic (as is easily seen even in Genesis) and actually featured two main divinities, Baal and Ashtoreth.
The Queen of Heaven
The prophet Ezekiel condemns the women in Israel for weeping for Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14). This Syrian deity was mourned as the dying god in ancient Israel. Tammuz was associated with the Queen of Heaven, who was also the Heavenly Virgin as we have seen. Cakes were baked to her and the prophet Jeremiah condemns this practice outright (Jer. 7:18; 44:15-19). The Queen of Heaven was an ancient Oriental goddess. She was associated with the harvest also; the last sheaf of corn of the harvest was often dedicated to her and was called the Queen.
The Queen at Athens was married to the god Dionysus. It appears that the consummation of the divine union, as well as the espousals, were enacted at the ceremony. She was assisted by fourteen sacred women, one for each of the altars of Dionysus. The fourteen were sworn to purity and chastity by the Queen at the ancient shrine of Dionysus on the Marshes, which was opened on that day of the year only. The Queen became consort of the gods, but remained the fertility goddess and Mother goddess.
The Queen of Egypt was also the wife of Amon and personified the goddess. The divine consort was a young and beautiful girl of good family. She had complete sexual freedom and endowed her favours on whoever she pleased until she reached puberty, when a rite of mourning was celebrated for her (perhaps marking the loss of her divine role as Queen) and then given in marriage. The Greeks called these Pallades after their virgin goddess Pallas (Strabo, xvii, I, 46).
Temple prostitution was also associated with the worship of Ishtar and indeed most of the devotees of Easter or Ishtar spent some time at least enrolled as a temple prostitute as a young girl in the cult centres of Asia Minor. At Corinth, this prostitution was general and virtually everyone in the city was at one time or another involved with it. The prophetess of Apollo also had this role of consort. So long as the god tarried at Patara, his winter oracle and home, his prophetess was shut up with him every night.
As Artemis, the many-breasted goddess of fertility at Ephesus, the goddess had consorts who were termed Essenes, or "King Bees", and seemed to have been entirely celibate for a fixed period of time, being dedicated to the goddess. She had a grove of fruit trees around her temple (Frazer, i, p. 7). She was thus associated with Demeter, who was termed the fruit-bearer (vii, p. 63). In this way she was also identified with Diana, who was patroness of fruit trees, as was she herself. This Mother goddess is identified by Frazer with the King of the Wood and his woodland goddess Diana at Nemi. This appears to make perfect sense and would explain why the crowd at Ephesus, in Acts, referred to the goddess as Diana of Ephesus. This aspect has been transferred to the cult of the Virgin, and fruit trees are blessed on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15), when, according to New Testament apocrypha, she was physically raised ("assumed") to heaven after her death. This has been widely depicted in art over the centuries and is now an official dogma of the Church. It is clear that the cult of the Virgin in Christianity is a reformulation of the ancient pagan cult of Ishtar, Astarte, Diana or Artemis in new guise—and sometimes in the same clothes.
The relationship with the mysteries in Egypt carries on to the cult of Osiris, whose worshippers were forbidden to injure fruit trees. Dionysus was also a god of fruit trees. We see an intertwined relationship here, which shows that these are not really different gods, but different aspects of the same system of worship with variations on a theme.
As Queen of May, the goddess was representative of the spirit of vegetation both in France and in England. The Mother was also goddess of the Corn and the last of the harvest is often dedicated to her in symbolism, a special cake being made of this last of the harvest and dedicated to her. This cake is the precursor of our modern Hot Cross Bun. The symbolism runs throughout Europe in varying forms—symbolism identified with the Queen of the harvest.
Hot Cross Buns
Hot Cross Buns are sweet, spicy buns marked with a cross, either in icing or simply indented into the top of the bun. They are traditionally served during Lent, especially on Good Friday, because they do not contain dairy products that interfere with the fast, but despite the modern Christian interpretation of the symbolism of the cross, they have been a significant part of pagan cultures across the world in one form or another for a very long time. Their harvest significance is indicated by the timing of the "Bun Season".
According to Eras of Elegance (which has a good recipe for the buns!), the cross represented the four quarters of the moon to certain ancient cultures, while others believed it was a sign that held supernatural power to prevent sickness. Esoterically, the cross symbolises the material world. To the Romans, the cross represented the horns of a sacred ox. The word "bun" is derived from the ancient word "boun", used to describe this revered animal.
Hot Cross Buns at one time were the only food allowed to be eaten by the faithful on Good Friday. Made from dough kneaded for consecrated bread used at Mass or Holy Communion, and thus representative of Christ's body, Hot Cross Buns were also credited for miraculous healing and for protection. Throughout the years, Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday were used in powdered form to treat all sorts of illnesses. In addition, many families hung the buns from their kitchen ceilings to protect their households from evil for the year to come.
Barley, perhaps the first domesticated grain, has always been associated with the worship of the Goddess and the barley harvest is at Easter, or Passover. Among the Hindus, sacrifice is made at the beginning of the harvest either at the new or full moon. The barley is reaped in spring and the rice in autumn. A sacrificial cake is still baked from the new barley or rice, set forth on twelve potsherds sacred to the gods Indra and Agni. A pap of gruel or boiled grain is offered to the pantheon of deities, the Visve Devah, and a cake on one potsherd is presented to heaven and earth.
This is similar to the record of presenting the cakes to the Queen of Heaven condemned by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, and appears to have been common to all the ancient Indo-Europeans. In earlier times, the sacrifices in the Hindu system were of the firstfruits and the fee of the priests was the firstborn of the cattle; thus, we are seeing the ancient firstfruits system among the Aryans entering Hinduism. The harvest goddess is Gauri, wife of Siva. Rice cakes or pancakes are offered to a plant-formed effigy of Gauri. On the third day, it is thrown into a river, or a tank. A handful of dirt or pebbles is brought home from the spot and thrown about the house, gardens and trees to ensure fertility. This is designed to have the same effect as the custom of sweeping churches in Italy on the third day of the Easter festival, revealing an ancient common tradition much older than Christianity. The cakes have, of course, become Hot Cross Buns in Christianity.
This Mother goddess figure entered Buddhism and the East as the goddess Kuan-yin, who became the Avalokitesvara of the Mahayana system. In the West, she entered Christianity as the Heavenly Virgin, called Mary. She was made the mother of Jesus Christ and termed Mother of God.
The Black Madonna
We can see now that the Mother Goddess entered Christianity as the Virgin Mary. She is termed the Madonna. Her aspect as goddess of the spirit of vegetation was emphasised in the application of a black face to the goddess in her role as Demeter, or the spring goddess of fertility in her aspects of Artemis or Diana. In Christianity, this aspect has become known as the Black Madonna.
Many images and statues of the Black Madonna still exist today. Ean Begg in The Cult of the Black Virgin reports the existence at one time or another of 450, mainly in Europe; others have differing counts, but they are mostly found in France. Many can be seen in the literature, but some were destroyed during the French Revolution and religious wars; some have disappeared or are in private collections; a few have been lightened or repainted and are no longer black; and still others are copies of the more famous Black Madonnas, such as those of Le Puy or Guadalupe. For a list of known, original Black Madonnas, see this Marian site.
Cakes were made to the Queen of Heaven at her festival, the festival of Ishtar or Easter or Astarte, since long before the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (700 BCE). We still see these cakes today, mainly in the form of Hot Cross Buns! The Virgin Mary was clearly none other than Artemis, or Diana of Ephesus whom Saint Paul so boldly opposed (Acts 19:24-35).
The Mother goddess was given a black face as Demeter, goddess of fertility, in the December rites; as the Black Madonna she was thus related to the fertility and Mystery cults. Her worship was originally pagan, but has been brought into Christianity due to a need for the support of the Mother. This arose in a celebration of femininity that to some extent counterbalances the ascetic, even misogynistic tendencies in the early Christian religion.
The Cardinal Cross
The Festival of Easter has universal application, arising in the death and resurrection of the divine being, marked by the seasonal celebration of the Equinox. The symbols associated with Easter are also found in other religions and the hope for a fertile new life in the spirit is linked with the new life of Spring and the season of growth.
The world constantly moves through the seasonal cycles, marked by the cardinal points of the tropical zodiac, the solstices and equinoxes. Easter, through this cardinal cross, signals the dimensional transition provided by the Vernal Equinox, as the Sun enters the sign of the Ram. The question as to whether Jesus was really the Sacrificial Lamb, the Christ and Son of God, who actually died, was buried and then rose again in a literal sense is one of faith and forms the basis of the Christian religion.
Here endeth the Lesson...
E. Begg: The Cult of the Black Virgin, Chiron Publications, NY, 2006
J. G. Frazer: The Golden Bough, MacMillan & Co. Ltd, London, 1923
R. Graves: The White Goddess, Faber & Faber, London 1961
A. Hislop: The Two Babylons, Loizeaux Brothers; 2nd edition (July 1990). Now out of print, see The Two Babylons on line
M. D. Magee Sun Gods as Atoning Saviours an online resource investigating the origins of Christian and Jewish teachings
J. Opsopaus Eoster: Mysteries of the Resurrected Child an online resource exploring the symbolism and mythology of Easter
Strabo: The Geography of Strabo, Loeb Classical Library, 1932
Tertullian: Adversus Judaeos, trans. Rev. S. Thelwall, 1870 (from Tertullian.org: online resource)
Tertullian: The Works of Tertullian, an online resource from various translators and publishers.
B. G. Walker: The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row, NY 1983