Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival. According to the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary: “The word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered about Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.” However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.
Resurrection as a Symbol of Rebirth
One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.
According to some scholars, such as Dr. Tony Nugent, teacher of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University, and Presbyterian minister, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. "Naked and bowed low" she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.
After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.
The Origins of Easter customs
The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg. As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal. In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.
The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.