All our Easter Days
JAMES M ALEXANDER’s reflections on a ‘tarted up’ Christian Easter was first published in the March, 1975, edition of the Freethinker.
… to misquote Shakespeare, for all humanity celebrates this annual rebirth of nature. Down the avenues of time, from the childhood of the race, has come similar rites of fertility and fecundity, worship of the Universal Mother and of sacrificial Divine Kings. Jesus of Nazareth, who never lived on earth either as a man or god, and who did not die on a cross or a tree, is but one more in a long line of dying and resurrecting gods who have littered the path of humanity’s long march to enlightenment.
The Easter festival, which is the focal point of all belief and more important even than Christmas, is neither peculiar to, nor has much in common with, the foundations or Christianity. Of course, all this is well known and it is popularly supposed (even among atheists) that Easter is one of many pagan customs taken over by the early Church and adapted to its own purposes.
Due in part to recent discoveries and objective scholarship, it has become increasingly evident that this basic worship of a dying-resurrecting deity is far more fundamental and universal. It has long been my view that the origins of Christianity are more to be found in the Hellenic-Judaic-Egyptian culture centred around Alexandria, with its vast library and colleges, than in the inward-looking temple teachings of Jerusalem.
One of the problems in considering Christianity as originally an heretical Jewish sect is its rapid advance throughout the Ancient World and particularly to the seat of political power at Rome. It appears as a highly organised institution complete with rules, legends, myths and a considerable literature almost overnight. This phenomenon could explained by assuming that it was a deliberately “invented” theological exercise incorporating all the age-old ideas of the annual rebirth of plant and animal life each Spring.
These concepts include sacrifice to that most ancient of deities, the ever-virgin yet ever-fecund Earth goddess in her various maternal forms. If the Jesus story was a contrived re-telling of the natural cycle, it might have been either seriously intended or even a satirical work introducing yet another “hero” god in the tradition-of Attis, Osiris, Orpheus, Dionysus, Mithra, et al.
This fiction could easily have been seized upon by a credulous populace, ever seeking a saviour or expecting a messiah, and rapidly turned into yet another religion. After all, there is a parallel almost in our own times; the rapid rise of Mormonism based on the mistaken belief of the semi-literate Joseph Smith that a work of fiction was a record of true events.
In this context the Easter story appears as a re-enactment of the ritual common to all these gods. Through the myths surrounding them runs a similar theme, part of the oldest and most universal beliefs of all—the awe and veneration given to the reproductive powers of humans and nature, and the physical acts connected with these forces. Space is too limited to develop this theme adequately here, but let me outline a few salient features.
Ritual of the Gods
Orpheus perennially returns to the underworld where he has to spend several months each year (the germination period). Dionysus is born in a cave, and it is to a cave his worshippers go each year, to await his miraculous rebirth. In one of the earliest though “non-official” Christian traditions, sometimes called the verbal or esoteric, Jesus is depicted as being born in a cave (a well-known euphemism for the womb) at Bethlehem – the House of Bread of the Earth Mother. According to this version he dies, not on the cross but on a tree, and can be identified with the Green Man, a figure common to the May Day (Spring) fertility rites.
In the mythology of Egypt, Osiris (who, alone of Egyptian gods, is always depicted as a man, with none of the animal attributes usually given them), is ritually killed by his brother Set. The body is then hidden in a tree, floats down the Nile, is wrecked and broken into 13 pieces, symbolising the months of the lunar year. These parts of the body are hidden by Set throughout Egypt, and Osiris can only be restored to life when his sister-wife Isis has found the thirteenth part, the phallus. When this essential organ is added to the rest, the god is resurrected in the form of his son Horus, who reigns on earth, while Osiris “descends” into heaven (the underworld), and becomes king of the dead; all this after three days.
In passing it is worth noting that Osiris is always portrayed in temple and tomb paintings dressed in green leaves, or growing out of a tree. Is this the origin of the Green Man, or Jack-in-the-Green? The evil Set originally had a pig totem and was the local god of a tribe of pig farmers who apparently at some time had revolted against the central government; hence his identification with evil. This may explain the Semitic proscription of pork as an item of food, long before rabbinical doctrines invented health reasons for the observance.
Judaism, like Christianity, derived much of its religion from ancient Egypt. The golden calf, against whose worship by apostate Jews Moses thundered, was the Egyptian fertility cow-goddess, Hathor. Passover, like Easter, was originally the spring festival of the mother goddess, long before Jehovah took over. The sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, the first-born of the lambing season, indicates this, and would be natural among wandering Bedouin herdsmen, as the Jews undoubtedly were before they annexed the promised land, after escaping from their fellow Semites (not Egyptians) who ruled in the eastern Nile delta.
They were the “Shepherd Kings” of historian Manetho — the Hykksos (“filthy ones”) of the Egyptians. These invaders were finally expelled by pharaohs of the resurgent eighteenth dynasty around 1570 BC. The story of Exodus probably relates to this expulsion, and it is interesting that the pharaoh most concerned with reuniting his country was named Ahmose (Moses?).
Easter then, is not a Christian festival. It is merely a tarted-up version of the ancient Spring ritual dedicated to the mother goddess in various forms which were dictated by local circumstances and conditions. The word Easter derives from the name of a Nordic goddess of Spring. Despite theorising on the origins of religion it is quite clear that primitive people did not sit contemplating the universe or their navels. Neither were they much concerned with inventing solar myths or cosmic principles, but they were aware of the process of reproduction and the role of the female.
The oldest known votive figurine is the so-called “Venus of Willendorf”, a grotesque representation of a very pregnant form with exaggerated breasts, belonging to the Neanderthal period of some 300,000 years ago. This was something that could be understood and the idea gradually grew that in order to promote fertility a sacrifice to the Great Mother was necessary to ensure her continued co-operation on behalf of the tribe. The part of the male in procreation was only partly understood, and the relationship of the sex act with birth nine months later was not always connected. Nevertheless, the male had his part to play – to be slain, often after ritual copulation with the priestess guardian of the sacred tree or stream of the goddess.
Thus arose the idea of the Divine King, the consort of the Earth Mother, to be killed and reborn in his successor. Frazer gives an example of this in The Golden Bough – the priest-king in the sacred grove who is a killer and must himself be killed in turn. Unfortunately, Frazer did not emphasise that the grove is the temple of the Mother, and the slaying by his usurper a sacrifice to her.
All this was clearly known to the originators of the Christian mythos with its elaborate formula for fixing the date of Easter. (Surely, there should be no doubt about the date of an historical event.) The confusion arises solely because of its antiquity and the fact that it is a lunar festival. Long before a solar calendar the moon was the arbiter of events, because the monthly cycle was seemingly connected with the ovulation and menstrual period. Until a patriarchial system evolved the moon ruled as Queen of Heaven.
Easter belongs to all humanity as the celebration of the rebirth of life each Spring. I conclude with this observation: the Coptic Church, which certainly existed in Alexandria long before Christianity reached Rome, treats every Friday as Good Friday and every Sunday as a combined Easter and Christmas Day. Could this be because from the beginning it was visualised only as something symbolic and not historical?
Note: We should point out this piece has been edited to change “mankind” to “humanity” and “man” to “human” or “people” , and gender neutralised “he” and “his” as appropriate – the original language was cringeworthy.