Pique the Geek 20100404: The History of Easter

(10 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The Geek usually does not write about history, but he will make an exception.  First, Easter this year coincides with my father’s birthday.  He was born on this date in 1919.  If he were still alive, he would have just turned 91 years old.  My granddad on his side lived to that age.

Second, Easter is by proclamation the highest of the Holy Days in the Christian tradition.  Christmas is also joyful, but everyone is borne and only One has, as tradition and religion insists, been resurrected.

Third, the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences insisted on a well rounded education before anyone could be graduated.  Whilst I am a scientist, I appreciate literature, art, architecture, and especially history.

On a historical note, today is the date on which Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.  On a more personal historical note, my father would have been 91 today, but he died in 2005.

First I must explain my situation.  I am a-religious, (maybe I just made up a new word, since the online dictionary does not recognize it), but I am  not an atheist.  I used to think that I was atheist, but it finally dawned on me that an absolute denial of a deity is a religious leap of faith.  Thus, I do not deny a deity, but am not convinced that there is one as either.

Second, I realize that most people have some sort of religion.  Whilst I choose not to do so, I have no quarrel with those who do.  I know that religion is not only a source of comfort for believers in times of trouble, but also a source of strength of character in trying times.  I am not one to invoke the insulting “Flying Spaghetti Monster” idea about religion that many, in my opinion, foolishly do here.  I respect the faith of folks, and I hope that they would respect my lack of it equally.  The only caveat is that others should return that thought not just to me, but to everyone.

Third, this will get sort of intense, because the traditions are ancient and some of them brutal.  Now that we are on a level playing field (and you are welcome to make your argument to “correct” me), shall we begin?

It turns out that almost all ancient western civilizations were interested in the seasons, particularly springtime.  Since antiquity festivals and celebrations were held for the two solstices and equinoxes, and many of those were appropriated by the early Christian church.  Christmas is certainly celebrated at the time near the winter solstice, and Easter because of the vernal equinox.  It turns out that to the ancients, these were the two most important season changes, the winter solstice because the sun was returning, and the vernal equinox because things began to grow again.

In  the northern hemisphere, whence most of us are derived, the study of the seasons became extremely important.  In the southern one, most civilizations also were interested in that as well, and I mean no disparagement to them, but they were not Easter celebrants, unless a commenter has better knowledge that I, and if so, copious comments are encouraged.

In Egypt, the gift of the Nile flooded their fertile delta every spring, and it was then time to plant.  The gift roughly had to do with the seasons, because, unknown to them, the snows were melting well to their south, flooding the Nile and bringing more silt and nutrients from the mountains above them.  They were able to use crude mathematics to determine when that would happen, and agriculture was borne.

A similar thing happened in what is now Iraq.  The snows melted from the mountains and swelled the rivers in that region, and the clever Semites tracked it.  After a while, they even developed written language, much of which was used to keep books on the grain that they raised.  In my opinion, and many linguistic scholars agree, our development of written language is directly connected with the transition from a hunter and gatherer social construction to an agricultural one.  No one wrote down how many rabbits the head of the household brought back, they either lived or did not.  But when we (our ancestors) were able to grow more grain than they needed, trade became essential, and with that, records.  To record transactions, both words to describe the commodity and numbers to describe the quantity became required, as did a medium of exchange, hence money.

But this is supposed to be about Easter.

Reckoning when Easter occurs is not an easy thing to do, because the calculation of it involves both a modern solar calendar and an ancient lunar one.  The actual details are quite technical, but roughly, in the Western tradition, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  This is not completely accurate, but pretty close.  They use different rules in the Eastern tradition, but this year the two dates coincide, so essentially all of Christendom celebrates Easter today.

Now think a bit.  It is tied to the Vernal Equinox.  The moon comes into play, but the Equinox is the base point.  Now, I defy anyone to find anything in the Gospels that even refers to it.  The reason is that the tradition is much older than the Gospels.  It goes back to Hebrew tradition, and even further.

Easter is actually a pagan celebration, when the things are reborn.  Sol had been sleeping from the Autumnal Equinox until the winter solstice, and thus was awakening.  That was encouraging to the ancients, and when the Vernal Equinox arrived it was a cause for celebration because things were beginning to awaken.  Now the days were getting longer than the nights, and things were warming, and the seeds were asprouting.  Good times were one the way.  Food was growing, and good times were coming.  Spring and summer were days of work, but the thought of food to take us through the winter was energizing.

If I were to stop here, I would have not imparted any new thoughts to anyone, and I and not wont to do that.  Please dissociate your rational, 21st century self from our relatively superstitious ancestors, 5000 years ago.  Except for a lunatic fringe, most folks here do not believe in majick.  They did.

To assuage their gods, they sacrificed their children.  By the way, you followers of the Jewish and Christian faiths, there was a young son the father of whom was commanded by God to sacrifice him, and the dad was ready to do so.  As they say, “only by the Grace of God” was a ruminant found in the bushes and was sacrificed, the son saved.  After that, try to convince me that the Judeo/Christian doctrine is sacrosanct.  Sorry, human sacrifice scares me.  No, thanks.

The most interesting things are the colored eggs.  That is throwback from ancient religion (pagan) when they sacrificed their children to a god for the spring.  The color of the eggs was provided by the blood of infants!  They did not quite have enough food, so they sacrificed their babies to their gods, and used their blood to paint eggs, the symbol of fertility.

Then they cast off the dead babies, and cooked and ate the eggs for future fertility.  They used that custom to keep the population to sustainable numbers.  We have taken that custom to become a harmless egg roll.

Or so goes the conventional story.  This is being debated now by archeologists and historians, as it is beginning to be thought that ritual child sacrifice was not as common as once thought.  Whilst there have been a number of necropoli found in western Asia, some fairly convincing arguments are now being made that this is actually ancient revisionist history.

Well, as a scientist, those eggs are OK to eat if kept cold, for a couple of days.  If put into a warm space for over an hour or two, they are likely to get to be a good source of intestinal infection, and should be discarded after that.

Some html error forced me to delete the two paragraphs here, concerning the origin of the term “Easter”.  Please visit the Kos site to get these two.  For some reason Scoop did not give an error whilst SoapBlox did.  It is usually the reverse situation.

Assuming that Jesus was actually an historic figure (and I think that the evidence supports that he was), He (in my respect for those of you who are religious, use the capital letter when referring to Him), was a of Jewish extraction and almost certainly spoke Aramaic.  That was the language of the time and place, and has Indo-European roots, but is more Semitic than our modern English.  That is of no matter.

Looking back many centuries, the people of what is now called the Holy Land spoke a variety of Semitic languages, with some harsh pressure on them from the south for Egyptian, and from the north for Phoenician.  The result was sort of a blend, and Hebrew became a complex gemish (also interesting, since Hebrew and the German became Yiddish, and this work is Yiddish) of several languages.  Pure Hebrew is one of the oldest languages still spoken and written today, but modern Hebrew is quite different.

Now the real story is the heathen rituals that preceded both the Hebrews and the ancient Christians.  Obviously, the Hebrews (and the modern Jewish people) celebrated Passover since the time of the Exodus as history is reckoned.  But what is not often realized is that this ceremony is far more ancient than the Hebrews, and that they sort of took it into their religious tradition.

Come with me to the very ancient parts of the Fertile Crescent, and it will become more obvious.

Those folks were very superstitious, and often used human sacrifice to have a better life.  Children were easy, so often they were killed in rituals.  There are records that are at least 2500 years old that the Zoroastrians decorated eggs as their celebration of the beginning of spring, and this custom became widespread in western Asia.  The Hebrews also used eggs at Passover, dipping them in brine as a sacrifice.  Passover is most likely the surviving part of a more ancient spring ritual that became assigned to the Hebrew migration from Egypt (if indeed that actually occurred, since the Bible is the sole source of information about the Exodus).  In several other cultures eggs were used as symbols of the rebirth of spring.

It is no wonder that eggs began to be associated with the resurrection of Christ, since in many ways the resurrection is a new incarnation of rebirth, and since it roughly coincides with Passover, there is precedence for use of eggs.  In addition, in the early Church eggs were one of the foods not permitted during Lent, and so were a welcome return to the diet at the time.

There are several other symbols of Easter that have roots in the old pagan religions.  Look at a modern Easter basket.  What is in the bottom?  Grass (well, a plastic representation of it).  What happens around Easter time?  The grass starts to grow.  The Easter Bunny is a throwback to an old British belief that hares hatched from eggs (apparently they had trouble distinguishing some ground nesting birds’ nests from where hares bed down, so often would find what they thought was a hare’s bedding place full of eggs.  In addition, hares (and rabbits, they are allied but distinct families) are very fertile and prolific, so the fertility angle comes in as well.  By the way, there are hares in the United States, and we call them Jack Rabbits.  There is another species of hare in the south called a Swamp Rabbit or Canecutter.  Physically, hares tend to be a bit larger than rabbits and have longer hindlegs and ears.

Easter is almost certainly the most complicated, historically, of the Christian calendar.  We have only scratched the surface of this modern descendant of many pagan, Hebrew, and Christian customs.  Others with insight to more nuances are encouraged to comment.

Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted another perfectly good set of photons reading this disjointed and rambling post.  Even though Michelle Malkin stops making hateful statements when she reads me say it, I always learn much more than I ever could hope to teach writing this series, so keep those comments, questions, corrections, expansions, and other thought coming.  Remember, nothing scientific, technical, and for tonight, historical, is off topic here.

Warmest regards,

Doc

Crossposted at Daily Kos

15 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. for Easter goodies?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

  2. ever getting sick from an egg. And I swear they sat in the basket for days.

  3. Thanks, ek!  I very much appreciate it.  I shall return around 8:00 PM tomorrow for Review Time.  One of the Kossack commenters asked an excellent question question about the early Christian influence in Britain, and  I am going to see if I can find an answer.  As you know, I never look up things during active comment periods.

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

    • TMC on April 5, 2010 at 4:49 am

    As a practicing Wiccan, well done. Those crazy xians and jooz they corrupted all my sacred holidays. 😉  

  4. I have rejected much of conventional history thinking of it as a control mechanisms of long past humans with sociopathic tendencies.  It just makes more logial sense than saying Thou shalt not kill then launching the Holy Wars, the witch burnings and the inquisitions of heretics.

    I find sometimes greater hate in the persuit of scientifically engineered Pavlovian KumBaya political correctness than in promoting real understanding of the differences which may seperate us.  I ponder if the intellectual left is using diversity as a means to advance global tyrany as areas of the world ripe for “development” are places of the world which are formerly oppressed.  Coming out of war, pestulance these people are eager for a “normal” life and are happy to make sneakers for two bucks which can be sold for 120.

    I don’t actually know for sure mind you.  My accessing supposedly of the universal consciousness on a psychic basis had me both blathering like an idiot and prevented me from “taking out” the enemy.  We have a  short lifespan without that capacity to recall what really transpired before we were born and had to start all over again, if you are inclined to believe in such things.  We do have however the science of digging up artifacts.

Comments have been disabled.