Saturday, 23 April 2011
Easter - The Remix
Hallelujah! He is risen! But who has?
Gods who die and come back again are standard issue in the ancient world. The symbolize the way the earth 'dies' in the winter and is 'reborn' in the spring, or the way 'dead' seeds go into the earth to be regenerated as next year's crops. There was also an element of sacrificial magic with the sacred king's blood fertilizing the earth, prefiguring the Christian's obsession with sacrificial blood. For early agrarian societies, this cycle was the focus of their lives.
The Christian myth is a cut and paste of far more ancient myths, or a 're-imagining' as Hollywood likes to say.
To look at just a couple, Herakles/Hercules died and rose again, then ascended to Heaven to be with his father. There was darkness when he died (an eclipse) and his followers used the phrase 'he is risen', which reappears in the Bible at Mark 16:6 without so much as a credit. Herakles died at the spring equinox too. I looked at the very many similarities between Herakles and Jesus here.
Osiris was another jack-in-the-box god who died and regenerated. He was also known as The Resurrection and the Life and The Good Shepherd. His followers took communion, eating his flesh in the form of wheat cakes.
Even a woman got in on the act: Persephone went into the underworld and returned each spring.
Nothing unique about the resurrection, then. Other Easter symbols are stolen too (or perhaps they're an 'homage').
The cross was a pre-Christian symbol representing the Tree of Life or the World Tree. It also appears in ancient Egyptian symbolism, among others. The Celtic cross combines the cross and a circle, an ancient yoni (female) symbol.
In Norse mythology, Odin hung on Yggdrassil, the World Tree, as a sacrifice. Hanging 'between heaven and earth' was all part of the day job for a god in the ancient world. Scarecrows are a relic of this hanging man. From divine symbol to bird-scarer and horror-movie staple is a bit of a come-down.
Early Christians had no cross and some even considered it a relic of pagan times. Its adoption came in handy for the Mediaeval Church who, never slow to miss a business opportunity, made a fortune selling splinters from it. It must have been a damn big cross given the number of splinters (and nails) it produced.
The Easter festival was named for the Saxon fertility goddess Eostre, a form of Astarte who dates back to Neolithic times in the Middle East. Her sacred month was Eastre-monath (the moon of Eostre). Incidentally, her name became the root of the word oestrogen. This is now disputed by some but the jury is still out.
The Easter bunny was originally the moon-hare, sacred to the goddess in both eastern and western traditions. Hares were long associated with pagan beliefs, witchcraft and shape-shifting so the hare was softened into the much fluffier bunny.
Zoroastrians celebrated their solar new year at the spring equinox and gave each other coloured eggs, usually red. Christian co-opted the redness as the blood of Christ. In some traditions, the hare laid the eggs.
In recent times, the job of dying and being resurrected has been taken over by Doctor Who. Even though Easter is the foundation stone of the Christian Church and England is still allegedly a Christian country, when David Tennant died and was resurrected as Matt Smith in 2010, eight million people watched. According to the latest figures from the Church of England, fewer than 1.5 million went to church at Easter.
But without Easter there would be no carb-based joy. Hot cross buns, Easter eggs and my personal favourite, Easter biscuits - although they've become hard to find. In 1210, under the interdict of Pope Innocent III, King John's candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury, John De Gray, decreed that during Lent hot cross buns were classified as fish, and could therefore be eaten during fasting and abstinence. And we get two Bank Holidays which the more secular French do not. So, if nothing else, thank you gentle Jesus for giving us (another) reason for feeling superior to the French.