Churches have adopted the beloved tradition of Easter eggs as a symbol of new life, but the practice could have started from paganism.
It’s no secret that where Easter is celebrated throughout the world elements of older traditions have blended into the commemorations of Christ’s resurrection. The questions remains, however, whether the tradition of Easter eggs, traced back to the medieval ages, can attributed to Pagan fertility rites or to a particular of observance of Lenten fast that is no longer practiced.
Pagan Origins Of ‘Easter’ And The Egg
Some scholars argue that the origins of both Easter eggs and the word “Easter” come from Germanic Pagan springtime celebrations of the goddess Eastre, sometimes also spelled as Eostre, Astara, Ostara, or Austra. Those who worshiped her did so during the Spring equinox and often depicted her with a hare, which they considered to be a symbol of fertility.
The Christian monk Bede, who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries, wrote of this celebration, saying that Ēosturmōnaþ, which Christians translated at the time as “Paschal month,” was a month held by the native English pagans that corresponded to April. Bede wrote, according to Ancient Origins, that the month “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”
As for where the eggs come in, Ostara, as she was called in Germanic folklore, was believed to have healed a wounded bird by transforming it into a hare. The hare, which according to the story was still partially a bird, laid eggs in thanks to the goddess. Celebrations of the goddess featured eggs as symbols of fertility.
“Many scholars believe that Easter had its origins as an early Anglo-Saxon festival that celebrated the goddess Eastre, and the coming of spring, in a sense a resurrection of nature after winter,” Carole Levin, Professor of History and Director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, told Time.
“Some Christian missionaries hoped that celebrating Christian holy days at the same times as pagan festivals would encourage conversion, especially if some of the symbols carried over. Eggs were part of the celebration of Eastre. Apparently eggs were eaten at the festival and also possibly buried in the ground to encourage fertility,” she added
Christian Origins Of The Easter Egg
The choosing of the date for Easter celebrations was not quite as reactionary as Levin argued. The First Council of Nicea in 325 a.d. established the current date for Easter independent of the computations of the Jewish calendar since those varied from year to year. As for the tradition of Easter Eggs, the church practice can be traced back to the early Christians of Mesopotamia, sometime between the first and third centuries A.D. according to Dr. Victoria Williams’ “Celebrating Life Customs Around The World: From Baby Showers To Funerals.”
The history of the Easter egg can be traced back to the time of the advent of Christianity in Mesopotamia (around the first to the third century), when people use to stain eggs red as a reminder of the blood spilled by Christ during the Crucifixion. In time, the Christian church in general adopted this custom with the eggs considered to be a symbol of both Christ’s death and Resurrection. Moreover, in the earliest days of Christianity Easter eggs were considered symbolic of the tomb in which Jesus’s corpse was laid after the Crucifixion for eggs, as a near universal symbol of fertility and life, were like Jesus’s tomb, something from which new life came forth.
The tradition of celebrating Easter with eggs also has later roots in medieval England, according to Henry Kelly, professor of medieval studies at the University of California. Kelly asserts that the rules of Lenten fasting during that time period were much more strict than they are now, according to Time. Christian faithful were not allowed to eat any animal product, to include milk, cheese, and eggs, and would therefore take the eggs their chickens laid, hard boil them, and then store them until the Lenten fast ended.
When Lent ended, in the lead up to Easter, those of means would often distribute their eggs to the poor as they could not afford meat.
As for the multicolored and floral patterned eggs seen today in Easter celebrations, such methods of decoration are thought to be the influence of Pagan celebrations like that of Eastre, carried over when they converted to Christianity.
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