“Easter is late this year,” you will hear people say. Ask them why, however, and most will not be able to tell you. Even the majority of pious churchgoers, to say nothing of certain members of the clergy, can be pretty hazy about the reasons for Easter being a moveable feast. Yet we don’t have to look very far to find out what it’s all about.
There is a mathematical formula, using a lunisolar calendar, for working out when Easter will fall on any given year in the future, but this seems to be unnecessarily cumbersome, unless you are a compulsive number-cruncher or a publisher of ecclesiastical almanacs. The simple premise is that Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (northern hemisphere). For the purposes of the exercise, the equinox is deemed to be 21st March.
Call me inquisitive, or call me distrustful of received wisdom, but I am curious about the obvious homage to an older time than Christianity. As I am sure most of us are aware, our pre-Christian brethren had a big thing about equinoxes, as they did about solstices, lunar cycles and the movements of the sun and other celestial bodies. And why not? In a time before the fallout from civilisation blanketed formerly free human beings with rules, regulations and religion, the celestial bodies and their effect on life on earth were of fundamental importance. It still is of course, if only we knew it, but we have long since given up that notion in favour of the far more satisfying and pompous idea that Man rules the Earth.
Anthropomorphic mythology has created the image of a man-like God and persuaded us that Man is made in God’s image. Thus, at a stroke, we dismiss the other myriad forms of life as being irrefutably subordinate. Granted we have a bigger brain than any other creature on Earth, but we have yet to work out how to use it properly. Our hubris and self-aggrandisement is indicative of such a misplaced sense of self-importance that we are no better than big spoiled brats, taking what we want when we want it and dumping it as soon as something else takes our fancy. We have been inculcated with the idea that everything we do is justifiable. Religion has given us ten commandments by which we should live but, if we transgress, that’s okay too, because we are of course all sinners and can seek divine forgiveness, redemption or absolution. Religious authority has the gall to lay down the law regarding how we should live, and threatens us with the possibility of retribution for wrongdoing from a wrathful, vengeful, jealous deity, yet regularly breaks one or more of the ten commandments with impunity.
This does not sound to me like the kind of authority to which we should show any allegiance. This sounds to me like one more manifestation of imperial rule, the curse which has blighted humanity for the last 10,000 years. Far more acceptable is the notion that we humans are one with all other life forms and that we exist as part of a greater whole. In this context, we owe our existence not to some belligerent deity, but to something much bigger, much more complex, as ineffable as any divine being and altogether much more wondrous. That pre-Christian Man should see our sun as a life-giver and therefore worthy of veneration is perfectly rational. That Christians should subsequently condemn this practice as pagan, heathen, heretical and unacceptable to God is profoundly tiresome, yet it is heartening to know that Christianity did have to compromise quite heavily in order to get the populace to tolerate it as the new doctrine on the block. And thus we come back to this reference to Easter in the context of the spring equinox.
Easter is merely the modern spelling of Eostre, the ancient goddess of fertility, to whom homage was paid around the time of the spring equinox (don’t take my word for it – the etymology is in the Oxford English Dictionary). The two equinoxes of the year are significant celestial moments, as they mark the two occasions in the annual cycle when the length of a day is exactly the same as the length of the corresponding night. In spring this defines the moment when the light of the sun finally gains the upper hand in its tussle with the darkness of night; from this moment on the sun’s light increases to the point of the summer solstice, when once again darkness begins to gain, gradually stealing the light as the year passes into autumn and then winter.
Quite obviously, an increase in daylight hours, accompanied by a gradual rise from the depths of winter to the promise of spring and new life would be elemental to our ancestors, relying as they did on warmth and sunshine to nurture the plants and animals that in turn gave them the means to thrive. Of all the festive occasions that took place during the year, the celebration of new life at the spring equinox by acknowledging the goddess of fertility would have been the most important, and the reasons for celebration the most understandable. When, at the time of the Roman Empire, it was deemed to be politically expedient to corral society into monotheistic thinking, the idea would have been dead in the water without incorporating the most crucial of the old beliefs. Thus a process of insidious hijacking took place as the newly politicised Christian church commandeered the ancient human festivals and turned them into something less participatory and subtly more mandatory. Eostre became Easter and the celebration of fertility became a celebration of Christ’s rising from the dead. Even though the resurrection story has been borrowed from that of the winter solstice (see my post for 21st December 2010), there were enough high days and holy days in the new Christian calendar to satisfy those who preferred older traditions. Yet I, ever curious, am compelled to continue looking into this whole subject, and the more I look the more I realise how fundamentally ‘pagan’ it all is, and how much older it is than the two millennia of Christianity.