Spring Equinox

After several years of excellent research by Adrian Bott, we now know the following things. Spring Equinox was not actually celebrated by ancient pagans in the British Isles; nor was it a fertility festival. There was probably a festival at the fourth full moon of the year, at which cattle were sacrificed. Eostre was most probably a goddess local to Kent, although her name is cognate with various other goddesses of dawn and light, such as Austriahenea and Ausrine.

Various animals are associated with the festival of Easter in folklore (none of them are associated with the goddess Eostre): the Easter Hare, the Easter Fox, the Easter Stork, and the Easter Cuckoo, all of which bring eggs. None of them are particularly cute and fluffy, so didn’t work too well on Easter greetings cards, unlike chicks and bunnies. And none of them are fertility symbols.

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Now the green blade rises: a Pagan perspective on Easter

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field (1889)      Source: Wikipedia

From a Pagan perspective, the Easter story is one of many stories of dying and resurrecting deities. In these stories, the hero dies, descends to the underworld, and returns to the mortal world bringing some blessing or new knowledge.

Persephone is taken to the Underworld by force (though in earlier versions, it seems to have been voluntary), but returns every six months; Gilgamesh goes to the Faraway to try to find a herb of immportality to revive his friend (possibly lover) Enkidu; Orpheus goes to rescue Eurydice; Inanna descends to the underworld, though her reasons for doing so are unclear. Jesus goes there to rescue the souls of those trapped in Gehenna (this is referenced in the only letter of the Apostle Peter). In Christus Victor theology, which is prevalent among the Eastern Orthodox churches, Jesus “tramples down death by death” and because he is God, cannot be contained by death, and so transcends it. He then returns transformed into a being who can manifest as he chooses — by the Sea of Galilee, or on the road to Emmaus.

The mythical journey undergone by all these heroes and heroines is a descent into death and the underworld, returning transformed into something greater, and bringing back a gift for humanity. The hymn Now the green blade rises references this mythological and transformational aspect of the Easter story.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

The spiritual journey involves the same transformation — the death of the ego, the descent into the dark night of the soul, and the resurrection as the True Self. In Orthodox Christian theology, this transformation is called theosis, literally deification, making us divine. It’s not too hard to see an analogy with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. As James Martineau, the 19th century Unitarian theologian, said, “The Incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. Humanity is the susceptible organ of the Divine, and he bends into it to dwell there.”

In Orthodox churches, Easter is celebrated as a unified event, and is regarded as being in the present, the eternal Now. So on Easter Sunday, people greet each other with “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) – because he is risen in their hearts and in the church which is his mystical body.

In the Eleusinian Mysteries, people witnessed the unfolding drama of the story of Persephone’s descent into the Underworld, and underwent a profound transformation or initiation as a result.

You can enjoy Easter on a mythical and mystical level. There’s no need to take it literally to enjoy the unfolding drama of the Mystery. We can witness the many stories of death and resurrection, and experience transformation ourselves, like participants in a mystery tradition.