As many people around the world prepare to celebrate Easter this weekend, let’s take a moment to look at the ancient origins of some of our spring rituals.
The word "Easter" is thought by many to derive from the name of an ancient Northern goddess of spring and fertility, Eostre. She was revered in the ancient world for ushering in the coming of the new season, and as we know from watching the world transform at this time of year, life itself. The world is being reborn.
The story is not alone in its ideology. As we've moved through the Wheel of the Year, we've seen how many cultures around the world have based their holidays on not only the seasons themselves, but also on the earth and its bounty. Nearly all ancient holidays are agriculturally based, and the celebration of Eostre was no exception. As the sun (i.e. son) was reborn to the world, essentially, so was all life.
In all but English-speaking counties, Easter is referred to as a variation on Pascha, a word derived from Passover. And so, this weekend also marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday. The eight-day holiday commemorates the Angel of Death "passing over" the homes marked in lamb's blood. As the omnipotent dark shadow ignored the doorways of Jewish children, but took the life of the Pharaoh's son, this was thought to be the ultimate display of power in hopes of convincing Thutmose II to release the Jewish people from slavery.
But even some Jewish historians believe there is an older connection to Passover – a story that closely ties the holiday to the ancient Canaanite religion that honors the rain God, Baal. According to the mythology, each spring, Baal battles and is killed by Mot (the god of death) and is banished to the underworld until he is resurrected in autumn. Upon his victory, Mot compares consuming Baal to feasting on lamb (a symbol and character with a starring role in the Passover story). But this was yet another agriculturally based rite, essentially. A heavy rain in the spring was not a good omen for the summer harvest, and rituals were created to ward off such outcomes.
We also welcome the Storm Moon this weekend. There are many names for each full moon, both ancient and modern, but the name Storm Moon is a direct reflection of the agricultural concerns that root most pagan holidays. The Jewish calendar has always been based on a lunar cycle, and Passover commemorates the first full moon following the vernal equinox. It is believed that Jesus died around Passover; so, the two holidays always fall together on the spring calendar (though the Eastern Orthodox religion celebrates Easter after Passover). But if we remember the ancient origins of both holidays, we are able to recognize the importance of this full moon. March is a tumultuous month of rain and storms – too much can yield a devastating effect on crops, while just enough rain nourishes the earth and will lead to a hearty summer and fall harvest.
You need not find yourself tied to one religion or another to take a moment for ritual this weekend. Whether you celebrate around a Seder table, in church or under the full moon, remember the connections of the ancient world to the modern one in which we navigate daily. Honor the ritual consumption of a symbolic meal, thank the Sun for returning to richly nourish our Earth, or simply dance under the moonlight, giving thanks that the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.