The Easter story–the Christian Easter story–gets its day in the sun this week. The story of life and rebirth is welcome after every hard, cold winter. As a kid, swinging my Buster Brown’s up against the oaken pew, doodling on the backs of tithing envelopes at the old Methodist church, I wondered a bit about where the word Easter originated. After all, it is a word that has no reference in Scripture, nor is derived from a Greek or Latin word. The answers to my childhood inquiry would not be found in that part of the ancient world. The word Easter, like Yule, originates from the Germanic tradition, the holiday of renewal.
The story of religion building and borrowing from other religions is nothing new. Like the Catholic usurpation of December 25th from the Roman Saturnalia to observe Christ’s birth, Easter was borrowed to convert the pagan Germanic and Norse tribes to the faith. Of course, Christians have the benefit of knowing approximately when Jesus died, during the Passover. While the exact date may be lost to history, the movable feast follows the Jewish calendar year.
As a young student, I had an exceptional reading teacher who found a way to teach Greek and Roman mythology as part of our curriculum—long before the “Common Core” and “No Child Left Behind” obliterated the education profession. Later, a high school lit teacher introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell. Campbell strove to find a kind of “unified field theory” for the themes and symbols of all mythology, and in his canon of writing, did so. From an ethnocentric view, Greek and Roman myth has very little to do with my northern European ancestry. When it comes to “living mythology” in our day an age, the Norse can lay a greater claim to the survival of their symbols in the modern age. Sure, we have democracy from the Greeks. But we have Christmas Trees, Groundhog Day, and several Easter symbols from the Germanic tribes and their Norse and pagan mythology.
As Campbell would agree, Norse and Germanic myth differs little from Greek mythology at its core–being polytheism. With its own pantheon of Gods representing certain emotions and symbols, the Norse match point-for-point the Greek and Roman gods. Zeus? Try Odin. Apollo? Try Thor. Aphrodite? Try Freya. Hercules? Siegfried. Muses? Rhein Maidens. Hades? Valhalla. Animal reverence was more common in the Norse, but present in Greek and Roman as well. What differs among the three is what was physically left behind. Greeks and Romans built magnificent marble temples that are still imposing in ruin today. We have their written word, through Plato among others. Germanic tribes however were mobile, or built their structures from wood that would not last the millennium. They put their effort into fine jewelry work, most of which was melted by the conquering Roman legions. Regarding their subjugated tribes as “barbarian,” the Romans did little to appropriate the Norse gods into the Pantheon. And, with the conversion of the empire to Christianity, what little symbolism remaining in Northern Europe was expropriated and reassigned within the Christian tradition. For the most important observance in Christianity, the Goddess Eostre–or Easter–was given a “page-one rewrite.”
The Goddess Eoster
The Internet is awash in neo-pagan imagery of the Goddess Eostre, however the Norse myths around the name Eostre are fairly thin. The Anglo-Saxon historian and Catholic monk, the Venerable Bede, described Eostre as a pagan German goddess for whom the Eastermonth, now April, was named. He said:
“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
By his time, the festival in her honor was supplanted by the Passover and Passion play. As is often the case with the Christianization of the tribes of Europe, the names of the deities changed by the holiday feasting and symbolism carried on, like techies replacing the operating system but keeping their computer hardware. Aside from that attestation in the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Bede’s De temporum ratione, there is little to go on. The name also survives in oblique ways—the Ostrogoth tribes to the east of Ancient Rome as described in Caesar’s writings on the Gallic Wars, the modern country of the Österreich (Austria), and even the surname Oster (as in the appliances among other uses) owe their root to the Germanic word for “East”—Ost. In fact, the alternative spelling of Eostre is Ostara. And, given the emphasis on the rebirth and renewal of the season, aligned with the vernal equinox, Easter is the rising sun, the rebirth of Spring and the renewal of life. Sounds like a familiar meme.
The Story of the Egg-Laying Hare
Myths around the Eostre goddess seem to be a modern construction, by neo-pagans and Wicca. Two in particular explain away the symbolism of another Easter symbol, the egg-laying hare. As a cultural touch point, Americans know well the Cadbury Egg commercial, of the clucking rabbit laying a chocolate, sugar filled egg. As far as my eight-year-old self was concerned, the Easter Bunny was the Cadbury Bunny, laying chocolate, fondant-filled eggs on television. I always preferred the mini-eggs, and still do to this day. Perhaps in a culture so steeped in animal absurdity–from the talking mouse to Brian in the Family Guy–no on thinks to ask where the idea of an egg-laying rabbit originates. And for that, we have to go to the Norse myth of Eostre and the Hare.
The Goddess Eostre, a lover of all of the creatures of the forest, was on her journey in the wood. She came upon a bird, its wing injured beyond hope. Eostre, so connected to the spirits of nature, shared in the anguish of the wounded bird and took pity. As the body of the bird would never be the same, she saved the spirit of the bird, turning the bird into a beautiful, bounding hare. Yet the metamorphosis was incomplete. In thanks to Eostre, the hare laid an exquisite egg for her, as a gift. (As retold by your author, playing Aesop)
Or something like that. The Wicca variation paints Eostre as more of a trickster, showing off for passersby, turning a bird into a rabbit. Eostre in this retelling broke a cardinal virtue–to do no harm. Eostre lost her powers, and was unable to return the hare back to being a bird, leaving the rabbit on earth to lay eggs.
But why a hare? And why eggs? Hares are prominent in Germanic lore. The Goddess Freya kept silver bunnies as companion animals. And eggs are a visual stand-in for the fertility of the Spring season. Our cultures most recent exposure to the magical hare was by Peter Jackson in his shameless embellishment of Tolkien’s Hobbit. Jackson employed rabbits as companion sled dogs of a kind, an obvious expropriation from Northern European folklore.
The translation of animal worship from Norse mythology to Christian tradition is again at the hands of the Germans. Those same Germans who gave us Groundhog Day (the reverence of the bear, or ground marmot as weather keeper) gave us the rabbit who lays eggs. The Easter bunny is prominent in America, in part because of the German settlers who brought the bunny with them. They turned it into a confectioner’s marketing machine, and sold off Easter eggs of chocolate. Thus, the ridiculous egg-laying rabbit became Christian. The very name Easter became the western name of the Resurrection celebration. The goddess was wiped from the historical record, the feminine replaced with the masculine (in terms of symbolism).
A Brief Note on Fuzzy Palm Fronds
Some Christian traditions did not translate well in the cooler Northern European climate. For example, it was difficult, if not impossible for the laity to acquire actual palm fronds to celebrate Palm Sunday. A local, abundant substitute would have to suffice. The foothills of the Alps bloom with Pussy Willow in the spring, about the time of the Easter celebration, becoming a substitute for Palm Sunday. Pussy Willow branches usually begin appearing in stores around Lent, and were a prominent fixture in my childhood home, no doubt a tradition passed down from German settlers who knew no differently before the age of globalization could bring palm fronds to every chapel around the globe.
Cognitive Dissonance or Good Clean Fun?
Stripped of the universal and borrowed themes, the Christian Easter focuses on the leap of faith that every Christian is asked to make, of the passion, resurrection and salvation through belief. It is a leap of faith that cannot be made once, but as Soren Kierkegaard observed, must be made over and over again. That allusion—the leap of faith and renewal—of the recurring spring, the recurring observation that after the cold, barren winter life goes on should be lost on no one, in no culture. Humans welcome the return of hope in all things.
It is easy to appreciate why more fundamentalist strains of Christianity have tried to move away from those Germanic traditions, as they are not canonical or even related to Christianity. However, for those early proselytizers, trying to convert Vikings and Goths and Celts to a religion rooted in Bronze Age Judea, it is easy to see how appropriating local symbols and customs aided in conversion. The Middle Ages gave rise to Europe as Christendom, and the new, hybridized faith that emerged was exported to the United States and the world. However, as many Americans either observe the holiday or only the secular trappings of candy baskets today, it is clear that the feasting day of Easter looks very different than its roots as a resurrection story from the Fertile Crescent thanks to the admixture of Norse mythology into its symbols.