By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Today from Sandy Bay, Maine to San Diego, California, Americans will don their Sunday Best, attend a religious service, and enjoy the Spring air while their kids search for candy and eggs. A joyous celebration on both the Christian and secular calendar, it wasn’t always that way — or maybe it was.
Easter was looked on with some skepticism by the ultra-religious Puritan sect when they showed up at Plymouth Bay. According to author Steve Englehart, these earlier settlers had bona fide religious reasons to eschew the holiday. “They knew that pagans had celebrated the return of spring long before Christians celebrated Easter…for the first two hundred years of European life in North America, only a few states, mostly in the South, paid much attention to Easter.”
It took the Civil War to bring Easter celebrations to the American parade of holidays. Starting about 1870, Christian families began to commemorate the holiday with brightly colored eggs and small treats for the kids. Churches in the South saw Easter as a source of hope for an American spirit beaten down by four years of civil war and its aftermath of grief. Easter was called “The Sunday of Joy,” and war widows traded the dark colors of mourning for the happier colors of spring.
The Bible’s story of Christ’s resurrection was the basis for the celebration which coincides with the Jewish Passover. In the fact, the Biblical origins of Easter were decidedly Jewish.
Acts 12:1 tells us that King Herod began to persecute the Church, culminating in the brutal death of the apostle James by sword. This pleased the Jews so much that the apostle Peter was also taken prisoner by Herod. The plan was to later deliver him to the Jews. Verse 3 says, “Then were the days of unleavened bread.” The New Testament Church was observing these feast days described in Leviticus 23. Verse 4 of Acts 12 explains: “And when he [Herod] had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions [sixteen] of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
The word “Easter” in Acts was clearly referring to the days of Passover. The word translated “Easter” is the Greek word “pascha”(derived from the Hebrew word pesach; there is no original Greek word for Passover). It always means Passover.
But the festival likely has origins before the Hebrew feast of Passover. Two thousand years before the accepted birth of Christ, ancient Babylonians were marking the beginning of Spring with a gala celebration honoring the resurrection of the god, Tammuz, who was killed by a wild boar. Tammuz was returned to life by his mother/wife, Ishtar (after whom the festival was named) with her tears. Ishtar was actually pronounced “Easter.”
Ishtar was quite the racy goddess, as historians Will and Ariel Durant explained in their monumental work, The Story of Civilization:
“Ishtar … interests us not only as analogue of the Egyptian Isis and prototype of the Grecian Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, but as the formal beneficiary of one of the strangest of Babylonian customs…known to us chiefly from a famous page in Herodotus: Every native woman is obliged, once in her life, to sit in the temple of Venus [Easter], and have intercourse with some stranger.”
Need anyone wonder why the ancient Hebrews would want to amend this legend and the Puritans to forget about it all together? They didn’t consider Babylon “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” for nothing.
Another theory, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, is that Easter celebrations have their linguistic origins in the Anglo-Saxon fertility rites of the goddess, Eastre. “Since Bede the Venerable (De ratione temporum 1:5) the origin of the term for the feast of Christ’s Resurrection has been popularly considered to be from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre, a goddess of spring…the Old High German plural for dawn, eostarun; whence has come the German Ostern, and our English Easter” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. 5, p. 6).
But what about Easter eggs? How did they enter the mix? Christians have always used the egg to symbolize the rock tomb from which Jesus emerged into new life. But the symbolism predates the Christian era. Pagan theology considered the egg as a symbol of Spring’s rebirth from Winter. (Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 233). The Egyptians had a slightly different spin considering the egg the symbol of the passage of life from one generation to the next.
“Eggs were hung up in the Egyptian temples. Bunsen calls attention to the mundane egg, the emblem of generative life, proceeding from the mouth of the great god of Egypt. The mystic egg of Babylon, hatching the Venus Ishtar, fell from heaven to the Euphrates. Dyed eggs were sacred Easter offerings in Egypt, as they are still in China and Europe. Easter, or spring, was the season of birth, terrestrial and celestial.” (Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, James Bonwick, pp. 211-212)
The pagan tales of gods and goddesses was quite an ecumenical affair with many civilizations sharing the same deity but branding each with a different name that suited their populations. Thus Ishtar became Astarte to the Greeks and Ashtoreth to the Jews. Nimrod, the Biblical figure who built the city of Babylon (and was mentioned in Genesis) is another example. He was worshiped as Saturn, Vulcan, Kronos, Baal, and Tammuz by succeeding civilizations but the story remained more or less intact for centuries.
Easter thus is an international affair going back centuries and spanning civilizations from the Babylonians to ourselves. Who says things really change?
So Happy Ishtar, Eastre, or Easter Day to us all!
UPDATE: In her comment, Elaine M mentions the ubiquitous Easter Bunny. I neglected him/her and I’m sorry. The Easter Bunny seems to have it origins in ancient Babylon, too. Seems the god, Tammuz was noted to be especially fond of rabbits, and they became sacred in the ancient religion. Because Tammuz was believed to be the son of the sun-god, Baal. Tammuz, like his father, became a hunter and his favorite prey was–you guessed it– the Ishtar Bunny. And the legend kept going … and going … and going. A lot like a bunny we know today!
Source: The Real Truth
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger