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Easter /'eestuh/. noun

  1. an annual Christian festival in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, observed on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or next after 21 March (the vernal equinox)

[Middle English ester, Old English eastre, originally, name of goddess; distantly related to Latin aurora dawn, Greek eos; related to east]

Macquarie Dictionary

 


I'm not very good with anniversaries so Easter might take me by surprise, were it not for the Moon - gibbous waxing all last week.  Easter conveniently moves about with the Moon, unlike Christmas.  And like Christmas, retailers give us plenty of advanced warning. For many weeks the chocolate bilbies have been back in the supermarket - along with the more traditional eggs and rabbits. 

It was about this time, almost a decade ago now,  that my friend Daniel, the Jehovah ’s Witness, first came to the door  ‘to warmly invite me to meet with them to examine the significance of Jesus’ death’ on a day that did not correspond with the celebrated holiday.  He returned the following year but since he's failed to arrive.  Surely he hasn't given up on me.  Daniel where are you?  

In the past Daniel and I have had some long philosophical discussions; during which I was unable to persuade him that he was living under a delusion and he was unable to persuade me that he possessed truths unknown to me. 

But Daniel, The Macquarie Dictionary and I all agree on one thing: the festival of Easter, like Christmas, has its origins in pre-Christian pagan beliefs.

Back then Daniel got me thinking about how mankind creates and elaborates its religions and how one evolves from the other.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian sect.  And like a number of other extreme protestant sects, they have rejected some 1500 years of Church tradition and returned to Gospels; eliminating anything that has been added in the meantime.

All those colourful accommodations and compromises Christianity has made with the religions it supplanted and merged with have been systematically stripped away.  Gone are Christmas and Easter; gone are the saints with their feet in pre-Christianity as well as those appointed by the Church since; gone are the sacraments that have no Biblical authority.

Of course if one was to do this really thoroughly, Christianity would go back to being Judaism;  Judaism to Egyptian monotheism; Egyptian monotheism to pre-civilisation early Stone Age animism; and so on.

Just a few months ago we were contemplating stone circles and passage tombs in Ireland that predate the Biblical Adam (one calculated by Biblical scholars and the other by more certain means) and bespeak of a complex and well organised ancient religion. Read more in Ireland on this website - click here

It’s a pretty conceit.  If we could wind back time to that 'primitive' religion; gone would be those pretty churches and synagogues, not to mention the mosques; gone those sculptures and paintings; gone that music and liturgy; all gone.

 

 

 

easter bilby DL 1Chocolate Bilbie -  Rabbits are vermin in Australia

 

But like Christmas, that is no where near the time of their Saviours' birth, it doesn't really matter for most Christians when they choose to remember His death. 

Jesus was a Jew and was executed by the Romans after fomenting social unrest leading up to the Passover.  The Passover celebrates the Jewish escape from Egypt following a plague, sent by God, that killed the first-born of Egypt, sparing (passing over) only those who'd anointed their door with the blood of a spring lamb.  Herod's Temple the recently rebuilt Second Temple, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was a magnificent structure just 53 years old at the time: built 20–19 BCE.  At the Passover Jewish pilgrims paid a tax for the privilege of sacrificing a lamb (or a substitute animal) at the Temple. Foreign money needed to be exchanged for shekels. 

According to the Christian Gospels, Jesus caused unrest when he accused the money changers of dishonesty and overturned their tables. In doing so he was continuing a messianic prophesy, that began with his arrival on a donkey, and he attracted a huge following.  This is said to have aligned the conservative forces of the Temple against him.  Yet it was the Romans, destroying Herod's Temple in 70 CE, that led to the later Gospels that proclaimed him not simply the Jewish Messiah but the Son of God.

The Passover takes place on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, according to the ancient Jewish Luna calendar.  This corresponds to the full moon of the Pagan Luna Festival, so the two have become one.  

Thus since the Middle Ages, Christians have used the occasion of the first full moon after the equinox to remember that Christ died on the cross as their proxy; accepting the sins of the world through his sacrifice††.

Of course these are human ideas and imaginings, resulting from our very recently emergent intelligence, as we evolved into questioning beings, less than a million years ago. The progress of human ideas, including religious beliefs, is an inevitable consequence of this questioning and is evidenced by the grave-goods left by early hominids.

Less than six thousand years ago writing evolved, allowing people to more accurately preserve these speculations and knowledge for posterity.  Initially writing was used for practical things like the recipe for making bronze or to facilitate trade or establish alliances.  But soon the first philosophical and imaginative texts appeared.  These are an ever growing human legacy.  Thus each of us may make our own contribution to this accumulation of human ideas or else simply 'lie back' and enjoy or suffer the fruits of other's speculations. 

Pagan religious beliefs, that once spread from Ireland all the way to Russia, were one such contribution that has left their shadow, or watermark, on the present; in this case through our language and our festivals.

Eastre (or Ēostre) was goddess of the east and the Moon and appeared full during the spring festival.

 

 

300px-william-adolphe bouguereau 1825-1905 - dawn 18811This artistic representation by Adolphe-William Bouguereau is rather more attractive than a hare
But her avatar on Earth was indeed a hare (the Easter Bunny). [From Wikimedia Commons]

 

It appears that the Romans (after Christianisation) suppressed or embraced her cult by incorporating the festival into the Christian calendar; as was done with the mid-winter festival that became Christmas.

If you have not been brought up a Christian you may find a belief in salvation to an afterlife through Christ's death somewhat bizarre.  For a longer discussion or the Christian aspects of Easter: the Suffering; the Ascension; the forgiveness of sins; and the Trinity; follow this link...

Given its occurrence at the first new moon in the European Spring and the profusion of rabbits, eggs, and buns, you will not be surprised to learn that the celebration of Easter has little to do with the historical Jesus and certainly preceded Christianity by several hundred, and probably several thousand, years; just as the name 'Easter' has nothing to do with Christianity.

 

 According to Wikipedia:

Old English Ēostre (also Ēastre) and Old High German Ôstarâ are the names of a putative Germanic goddess whose Anglo-Saxon month, Ēostur-monath, has given its name to the festival of Easter. Eostre is attested only by Bede, in his 8th century work De temporum ratione, where he states that Ēostur-monath was the equivalent to the month of April, and that feasts held in her honour during Ēostur-monath had died out by the time of his writing…

In 725, Bede succinctly wrote, "The Sunday following the full Moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter."  

But among country folk the cult was not suppressed entirely.

In Northern Europe, Easter imagery often involves hares and rabbits. Citing folk Easter customs in Leicestershire, England where "the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the 'Hare-pie Bank'", late 19th century scholar Charles Isaac Elton theorizes a connection between these customs and the worship of Ēostre.  In his late 19th century study of the hare in folk custom and mythology, Charles J. Billson cites numerous incidents of folk custom involving the hare around the period of Easter in Northern Europe. Billson says that "whether there was a goddess named Ēostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island."

 

As the moon goddess Ēostre has a direct relationship to fertility; and to eggs and oestrous.  In prehistoric agrarian communities the correspondence between the waxing and waning of the Moon and human menstruation was given mystic significance, particularly in its relationship to fertility.  The Dictionary tells us: 'the word 'menstruation' is etymologically related to 'moon'. The terms 'menstruation' and 'menses' are derived from the Latin mensis (month), which in turn relates to the Greek mene (moon) and to the roots of the English words month and moon.'   This relationship continues to have significance in a wide range of cults and witchcraft.  

So thanks to the Goddess Ēostre we have our Easter Bunny and our Easter eggs; and because rabbits are feral in Australia, and memes (cultural ideas) evolve, we now have the Easter Bilby;  not to mention a holiday that everyone can enjoy.

 

Happy Easter

   

And next time you eat a ‘hot cross bun’ note that the cross has nothing to do with the Saviour; you are eating a ‘moon bun’, in celebration of Ēostre.

 

moon buns

 

Again to quote from Wikipedia:

They are believed to pre-date Christianity, although the first recorded use of the term "hot cross bun" was not until 1733; it is believed that buns marked with a cross were eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess Ēostre (the cross is thought to have symbolised the four quarters of the moon); "Eostre" is probably the origin of the name "Easter".

 

So although it is one of my favourite albums, I doubt that a Patti Smith’s Easter would be embraced by my friend Daniel – on any account

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Perhaps the contemporary orgy of chocolate eating is more in keeping with the Pagan origins of Easter, as a festival of fertility, than with the Christian one, with its preoccupations with death, redemption and resurrection?

I, for one, intend to enjoy the company of family and friends and maybe a bun or two. I hope you do too, no matter what your belief about Eternity.

 

Have a happy Easter!

 


Footnote

 

††  I was once taught that if I accept Christ as my redeemer He can wash away the taint of original sin, in addition to those more recent and deliberate transgressions, nocturnal and otherwise, for which I may need to repent.  His selfless action in dying on the cross may, or could, ensure the continuation of my immortal soul, in heaven, for eternity; avoiding eternal damnation.

But eternity is something I've never fully understood.  I've read that some theologians assert that for God there is no time, just a single instant in the present that encompasses all human time. 

Plato seemed to hint at eternity in his Theory of Ideals that I leant about as a student.  In the Ideal world nothing changes, so time has no relevance.  Einstein's space-time-continuum, that explains gravity and that the perception of time changes according to the relative velocities of the observers, suggests that the whole time dimension already exists in some way, although the words 'already' and 'exist' relate to our everyday perception and are confusing in that context.

Eternity neatly gets around the problem of a 'first cause', because it's meaningless to ask where this hypothetical Eternal God came from or is going.  For Eternal God everything just is - simultaneously - like all the pixels on the screen you are looking at this instant.  But that apparent instant is an illusion. Each 'single frame' on your screen seems static just because your eyesight and brain is not fast enough to see that every pixel is being continuously updated, each one in sequence, in far less than a millionth of a second.  This update happens relentlessly, completing a full update of a million or so pixels every twenty-fifth of a second, even when the image on the screen seems to be unchanging.

Nice as timeless eternity may be as a philosophical or theological theory, human life is very different.  We have a past, present and future and it's impossible to imagine action, and therefore biological life (or sin or good works or love), in any other context.  Life and timeless eternity don't mix.

Finite eternity is just as problematic. As contemporary humans we now want to say that the universe started 13.8 billion years ago and may end hundreds or thousands of billions years from now.

Yet this is less than the scale of the finite Eternity theoretically perceived by an encompassing and therefore longer lasting, cosmic God.  Suppose the universe will last a cosmic year.  Then the entire human existence, from our arrival as a species to our inevitable disappearance, very optimistically in maybe a million Earth years, will last a small fraction of a cosmic second.  Eternal God won't have had time to blink.

Obviously, individual humans are many orders of magnitude less significant than our entire species. A theoretical Eternal God doesn't feel very caring or sharing.

One thing is certain, I have no interest in going to such an eternity, lasting thousands of billions of years or without dimension at all, even if I thought such a thing was an option.

 

 


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