Easter's Pagan Roots
April 18, 2011
By Lane Lambert
The Patriot Ledger
Easter is everywhere now. Christian believers are preparing for midnight vigils, sunrise services and other observances of Jesus' death and resurrection.
The faithful are ordering traditional white Easter lilies, too. Along with many who do not attend church, they are putting up bunny decorations and planning egg hunts for their children - and as they follow those rituals, they will be evoking age-old, pre-Christian practices so familiar that few people give them a second thought.
No one knows this better than Kendra Vaughan Hovey of Duxbury, a former Wiccan priestess who is now Christian. She sees reminders of her former religion at every turn this time of year, and she still embraces much of it.
"It's a holiday of new life," she says of Easter. "There's a beauty in that."
Hovey notes that even the name Easter has a pagan source - most likely from Ostara, the ancient Norse goddess of spring. Ostara's festival was always around the spring equinox, which is still used to calculate Easter Sunday dates.
Hovey and Stonehill College religious studies professor Mary Joan Leith said brightly colored eggs and bunnies are among the most ancient and widely found spring symbols, though they were part of much more serious fertility observances thousands of years ago.
Leith, who teaches a "Pagans and Christians" course, said the closest contemporary comparison to the seriousness of ancient practices is the ritual use of boiled eggs as part of the Jewish Passover seder.
Hovey noted that the white lilies are also borrowed from the "earth faiths" of the ancient European and Mediterranean world as symbols of motherhood and purity. Lilies are also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is unclear whether those would have been white lilies.
While those rituals live on as folklore, Leith said one other Christian practice disappeared more than 1,500 years ago: "House church" groups often observed the eve of Easter at family burial tombs.
She said Christians of the 2nd century A.D. adopted the practice from Roman religion, which included "meals with the dead" several times a year.
Leith said the Saturday night gatherings could be rowdy, until the mood settled down for a Eucharist service at sunrise on Sunday. Church leaders criticized the cemetery parties, but did not succeed in replacing them with reverent church worship until the late 5th century, 150 years after the emperor Constantine issued an edict protecting Christianity in A.D. 313.
Leith said Christians of that era were in constant contact and competition with Greek and Roman mystery cults, including the worship of Mithra and Attis, two Middle Eastern deities whose myths featured similar stories of rising from the dead.
Christians did not borrow from those religions, but Leith said the similarities would have given Christians an opportunity to try to convert pagans.
As a convert herself, Kendra Hovey understands how persuasive those appeals could have been.
"Even Paul called to the pagan community," she said of Christianity's first great missionary. "He had to find a way to speak to them in their own (religious) language."
Hovey is not interested in combining her previous Wiccan practice with her current faith. But she is not a bit troubled by the popularity of pagan relics like eggs and bunnies.
"There's no reason to fear it," she said. "Let's make it part of our tradition."
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