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Think Easter's symbols are all pagan? Many are more Christian than you think

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to a lot of Christian holidays, it doesn’t take much digging to uncover pretty obvious remnants of the pagan festivals they replaced still lingering in the ways we celebrate today.

The same might easily be assumed about Easter. After all, an egg-laying rabbit doesn’t scream “Passion of Christ.”

But disentangling the origins of modern Easter traditions isn’t quite so cut and dry, it turns out, partially because some of the go-to historical sources who wrote about them may very well have been making little more than educated guesses themselves.

Add to that issues involving ideological agendas, plus a heaping dose of modern misinformation, and the question of where exactly Easter traditions originated can quickly take you, well … down a rabbit hole.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the confusion:

The name

According to St. Bede (aka “the Venerable Bede”), a seventh- and eighth-century English monk and author of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” Easter is named after the Saxon goddess Eostre.

“Eosturmonath (the Saxon name for the month of April),” St. Bede wrote in his “Reckoning of Time,” “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.”

Braving the cold rain Alicia Fresques, 3, of Salt Lake City, gives the Easter Bunny a hug after the Easter Egg Hunt at the Northwest Multi-Purpose Center in Salt Lake City Saturday April 14, 2001.
Braving the cold rain Alicia Fresques, 3, of Salt Lake City, gives the Easter Bunny a hug after the Easter Egg Hunt at the Northwest Multi-Purpose Center in Salt Lake City Saturday April 14, 2001.

The problem is, other than that lone passage, there’s nary a shred of evidence that there ever was a goddess by that name, or that she was ever venerated by the Saxons with feasts as St. Bede describes. No shrines. No temples. No art — nothing to indicate either her or her feast.

Of course, this dearth of evidence doesn’t itself disprove St. Bede’s explanation, but it has definitely left things open to debate — despite the matter-of-fact way in which Eostre and her worship are often described in yearly Easter articles (often in perplexing detail for a goddess who’s only mentioned in passing a single time in historical record).

Another, competing explanation that seems to make the rounds every year as a popular Facebook meme claims the word “Easter” is derived from an Assyrian and Babylonian fertility and sex goddess named Ishtar, which, coincidentally enough, according to the meme, is actually pronounced “Easter.”

Now, in this case, there is at least evidence of such a deity, and yes, she was a goddess of fertility and sex — along with war, protection, childbirth and storms, according to Scientific American.

The correct pronunciation of her name, however, is probably close to how it looks: “ish-tar,” or possibly “eesh-tar.”

But the part of the meme that may at first sound like irrefutable evidence is that Ishtar’s symbols, it claims, were eggs and bunnies — things anciently associated with fertility. Boom. Mic drop. Good luck explaining that one, right? Except that they weren’t actually. Ishtar’s known symbols included lions, gates and six- and eight-pointed stars, but there is no evidence of any association whatsoever with either eggs or bunnies, as convenient as that would have been.

Moreover, outside of English and the German equivalent, Ostra, Easter is almost always called by some variation of the Greek word Pascha — Paques in French, Pascua in Spanish, Påske in Danish and Norwegian, Paskalyain Turkish, etc. — which is itself derived from the Hebrew Pesach, or “Passover.” (More on that later.) In other words, the etymological link between the Germanic/English Easter and the Babylonian sex goddess Ishtar just isn’t there.

So where does the word Easter come from? Well, the most plausible explanation, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily refute St. Bede’s version — nor, though, does it hinge on it. The word “Easter” is most likely derived from the Indo-European root “aus,” meaning “shine,” which is likewise related to Germanic words for “dawn,” “bright,” “clear” and the directional “east.” “Aus” also gives us modern words like “Australia” and “aurora,” as well as the chemical symbol for gold, Au (from aurum), according to etymology blogger John Kelly of Mashed Radish.

Whether that explanation also applies to St. Bede’s goddess is still up in the air, but the imagery a name like Easter brings to mind of a radiant sun rising in the east, marking the rebirth of life after winter, is certainly appropriate for the name of a holiday commemorating Christ’s resurrection.

The day

Easter is classified as a “moveable feast,” meaning that unlike other major holidays such as Christmas or Halloween, its date changes from year to year. What day it falls on specifically is determined by a somewhat complex set of rules based around a lunisolar calendar. (“Lunisolar?” you ask. What could be more pagan than that, right?)

Basically, it’s the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon (which is not quite the same thing as an astronomical full moon) after March 21.

A youngster plays at Gateway in Salt Lake City Saturday, March 26, 2016.
A youngster plays at Gateway in Salt Lake City Saturday, March 26, 2016.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But it’s common knowledge that Easter is pretty much just a pagan equinox festival with a thin veneer of Christianity, isn’t it? Why else would it be celebrated at this time of year?

Except the timing of Easter is one element that almost certainly does not reflect pagan roots so much as Jewish.

Christ’s Crucifixion in the New Testament coincided with Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, which is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day (a full moon) of the Jewish month of Nisan — roughly March or April.

Easter, which commemorates Christ’s subsequent resurrection three “days” later (what that means is itself the subject of some scholarly debate), was therefore usually celebrated on or after the beginning of Passover in the early Christian Church.

However, when exactly the holiday should be observed became a hot-button issue among Christians until it was finally addressed in a big way at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. (This is the same council, of course, that also attempted to nail down once and for all the nature of the Holy Trinity and smooth over the various doctrinal schisms that had arisen within Christendom.)

After a lot of discussion, the system currently in place was decided upon based on the Christian belief that Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday.

At its core, Easter and Passover are still deeply connected, though. As expressed by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “If Passover is largely about Egypt, Easter is largely about Passover.”

The bunny

Amarie Christensen hugs the Easter bunny at Gateway in Salt Lake City Saturday, March 26, 2016.
Amarie Christensen hugs the Easter bunny at Gateway in Salt Lake City Saturday, March 26, 2016.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

If there’s one thing that would seem to link Easter to ancient fertility rites and paganism, it's the Easter Bunny, or Oschter Haws in German, references to which date back at least to the 1600s. After all, rabbits (or hares, originally) are a notorious symbol of fecundity even today and don’t seem to have any explicit connections to Christianity — or do they?

As if that weren’t enough proof, it’s often mentioned that hares were associated with the Saxon goddess Eostre. (Yep. She’s back.)

Now, aside from the problem that a goddess by that name possibly never existed in the first place, the basis for such a claim is, if anything, even more tenuous than St. Bede’s original assertion about the naming of Easter. Every reference to Eostre and hares or rabbits can be traced back to one bit of speculation on the part of none other than Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm fame). In his 1835 “Deutsche Myhtologie,” he wrote, “The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara (the German form of Eostre).” Probably.

Even ignoring that likely bit of misinformation, it doesn’t answer why a bunny would figure so prominently in arguably the most important of all Christian holidays.

But rabbits or hares actually do have a somewhat bizarre connection to traditional Christian iconography. According a research project called The Three Hares Project, it was anciently and mistakenly believed that hares were hermaphroditic (due to the female’s ability to conceive a second litter before the first has even been born), leading to the further mistaken belief that they were capable of virgin birth. Because of this, the symbol of fertility elsewhere became, rather ironically, associated with the Virgin Mary in medieval and Renaissance Christian artwork such as Titian’s “The Madonna of the Rabbit.”

The egg

Last but not least, the Easter egg.

Erin Stewart's family wrote a letter and asked the Easter Bunny to come a day early on Saturday.
According to Eastern Orthodox traditions, Mary Magdalene is said to have brought cooked eggs to share with the other women waiting outside Christ’s tomb after the Crucifixion.

Another symbol of fertility and life (the Ishtar/Easter meme got that much right, at least), eggs feature in mythology from all over the world, often in creation stories — a motif known as the “cosmic egg” or “world egg.” This includes everything from Vedic to Egyptian to Greek to Norse to Chinese to Polynesian myths.

In other words, making an argument that the Easter egg is a remnant of pagan traditions is almost too easy.

However, eggs also have their own specifically Christian meanings.

According to Minna Shkul of the University of Sheffield, in Eastern Orthodox traditions, Mary Magdalene is said to have brought cooked eggs to share with the other women waiting outside Christ’s tomb after the Crucifixion. When Christ appeared to her, the eggs miraculously turned blood red.

In modern-day Easter celebrations across Eastern Europe, eggs are still dyed red using beetroots or red onionskins to commemorate this, and depictions of Mary Magdalene often include an egg.

Moreover, one of the traditional games played by Eastern Orthodox children involves whacking two hardboiled eggs together until one of them cracks. The unbroken egg is said to represent the Resurrection while the cracked egg represents the gates of Hell breaking. The winner then says, “He is risen,” to which the person holding the cracked egg replies, “He is risen indeed!”

Another possible, slightly more pragmatic explanation for Easter eggs is that eggs (along with dairy, meat, etc.) are among the foods forbidden during the six-week period of fasting known as Lent that many Christian denominations observe leading up to Easter. Because hens still lay eggs, however, families would cook them in order to prevent them from spoiling and then eat them come Easter.

Of course, it's perfectly likely that there is no single correct answer to a question about the symbolism of eggs at Eastertime because, of course, there is no single correct way to celebrate Easter, a holiday with a very rich and long (but often not-very-well-documented) history.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that the Italian artist Titian worked during the medieval era. He was actually active during the High Renaissance period.