Edain McCoy has been interested in the "unusual" all her life, especially when it relates to spiritual practices. She is the author of 15 books, including How to Do Automatic Writing, Astral Projection for Beginners, and the upcoming Ostara.
Eggs awash in festive color, nesting in a beribboned basket near a fluffy bunny rabbit. The enticing smell of hot cross buns and subtle scent of milk white lilies. There is almost no one in the western world who would not associate this list of objects with the Christian holy week known as Easter. Yet many remain unaware that these items are also ancient symbols linked to the mythology of spring.
Simple Symbols, Big Messages
The bare wooden cross that symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus to Christians the world over was once the ultimate icon of spring, known in Eurasia as the sun wheel. Its four arms represent the two solstices and two equinoxes that divide the year. The arm pointing to the east is the one associated with the spring equinox. The east is the direction of dawn. Since dawn always follows darkness, like the new life of spring follows the dormant season of winter and death, it became the direction associated with rebirth. In some places in western Europe and North America, burial customs dictate that bodies be buried with heads pointing to the east.
The popular Easter breads known as hot cross buns employ the sun wheel symbol. These pastries, rolls with a white sugar cross emblazoned across the tops, can be found in most any bakery during Easter week. Breads and other grain products-with or without the sugar cross-are as much a staple food today as they were in old Europe and, as such, are in themselves an emblem of continuing life.
The Easter lily is also a symbol of life everlasting. These milky white flowers were used by the Romans to adorn the bodies of the dead to represent eternal life and the hope of those left behind that the spirit would soon find a new body to inhabit and be reborn into the world again. Profusions of lilies now adorn the interior of churches during Easter week to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus and His promise to His followers of eternal life through Him.
The fine new clothes we choose to wear to church on Easter Sunday come from another old custom from our European ancestors. With the approach of spring, game animals were again plentiful. This not only meant fresh meat, but also hides that could be used to fashion clothing. We can only imagine how good it must have felt to toss off dirty winter pelts and don garments of fresh cloth after the long, cold season.
The Lamb of God
The lamb is an animal associated with spring because most ewes give birth in February. By the time of the spring equinox the youthful lambs are frolicking in fresh green pasture lands.
Lambs were sacrificed in the Middle East and in some parts of Europe as gifts given back to the God who gave eternal life, symbolized by the coming of spring.This sacrifice was personified for Christians in Jesus, whose blood was shed in exchange for eternal life. Today many Christians refer to Him as “The Lamb of God” for this reason.
In the book of Exodus we read of The Passover (Pasach in Hebrew) in which God sent a plague of death on the first born child of each household who did not have the blood of a sacrificial lamb smeared on their doorposts. Again, the humble lamb is a symbol of God’s promise of His gift of life.
Eostre and Her Easter Bunny
The word “Easter” is an Anglicization of the name of a Germanic goddess of spring and new life, Eostre. She personified the land and was the embodiment of the blessing of fertility for crops, animals, and people. Festivals held in her honor at the vernal equinox celebrated the life renewed through her resurrection. Variants of Eostre’s name are a testament to the pervasiveness of her worship. Among them are Ostara, another name for the spring equinox, and Austra, for whom the nation of Austria is named.
One of Eostre’s legends is responsible for bringing the Easter bunny into our lives. A little rabbit wanted to give his goddess a gift of his affection but had no idea what he could possibly give her that would be appreciated. While pondering his problem, he came upon an abandoned egg, a symbol of the new life Eostre brought to the earth each spring. He took the egg home and decorated it, making it an object fit for a queen. Eostre was so pleased with the rabbit’s gift that she asked him to distribute his eggs to everyone each year on her sacred day. From that time on they were known as Eostre’s Eggs or Easter Eggs.
Baskets and Eggs
The basket in which the Easter bunny leaves his eggs and other gifts is a symbol of unity and of the oneness of the divine creator. Icons symbolizing both the female and male aspects of the deity were placed into these baskets so that they could join together and result in new creation. Placing eggs in such a vessel was a natural impulse to our ancestors, so much so that this genetic memory has created an atavistic impulse to give Easter gifts in this manner.
Eggs are not only cocoons from which life emerges, but also a symbol of the spring equinox, during which new life is celebrated and from which point the date for Easter is calculated. To everyone’s eternal confusion, Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The vernal equinox ends a period of six months in which the sun’s light lasts for less than 12 hours, beginning the six-month laying season in which fresh eggs would be available. Laying hens must have the retina of their eyes stimulated by 12 hours of light each 24 hours in order to produce eggs. After the dearth of fresh foods in winter, we can only imagine how good a fresh egg tasted and understand how they slipped into their archetypical role as symbols of continuing life.
The Greek Orthodox Church has a custom of giving each worshiper a red egg as they leave midnight Easter Eve services. Red symbolizes the blood of life and the blood Jesus shed for His promise of eternal life. The eggs are taken home and placed in central locations of the home such as the kitchen, hearth, or home altar, where they impart blessings on the household.
In Mexico and the American southwest young people make cascarones from hollow eggshells to rain down spring blessings on one another. The shells are filled with confetti, seeds, herbs, and perfumes, then resealed with tape and decorated for the season. On Easter morning the eggs are cracked over the heads of unsuspecting “victims” in a form of blessing and baptism that hearkens again back to the spring customs of old Europe.
The origins of the Easter egg hunt, that favorite springtime game of the very young, has roots shrouded in both ancient spiritual mysteries and religious persecution.
The early Christian period was characterized by a concerted effort to banish any symbolism from popular culture having origins in Europe’s pagan past. Like most archetypes that speak to the deepest part of our psyches, the symbol of the egg was impossible to eradicate, so it became absorbed into the new religion’s iconography. During this period it was a capital offense to practice any act smacking of the old religion, which included the decorating and giving of eggs. As a result, eggs were hidden and soon curious children began to seek them out, and a whole new custom was born.
The Germans once buried eggs in fields or near stables to offer the blessing of fertility and new life to their animals and crops. Children made a game of seeking out these eggs, which is another path by which our Easter egg hunts may have come into being.
In Asia and India, where eggs were also symbolic of life renewed, eggs were hidden and sought in spring to symbolize their belief that each individual is fully responsible for seeking his or her own salvation and eternal life. This also reflected the region’s acceptance of the tenet of reincarnation in which the egg hunt-performed on the equinox when light and dark are in perfect balance-nudged seekers to contemplate the balance of rights and wrongs they had done to others so that one’s position could be improved upon in the next life.
Easter egg hunts were first popularized in the United States on Easter Sunday 1862, during the darkest days of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln gave an executive order that decorated eggs were to be hidden on the White House lawn and the children of the city invited to come and search for them. All American Presidents have kept this tradition and it has since become a cherished national custom.
Whatever spiritual path we follow, it is clear that Eostre and the symbols she spawned are deeply a part of our religious life. We all seek salvation and life everlasting, to cocoon ourselves in the arms of our divine creator to await new life in a better world.