Historians have traced the origin of the word Easter to the Scandinavian word ‘Ostra’ and the Germanic ‘Ostern’ or ‘Eastre’. Both derive from the names of mythological goddesses of spring and fertility, for whom festivals were held at the time of the Spring Equinox. Similar goddesses were known by other names in other cultures around the Mediterranean, such as Aphrodite from Cyprus, Astarte from Phoenicia, Demeter from Mycenae in Greece, Hathor from Egypt, and Ishtar from Assyria. ( Northern Mesopotamia) All of these goddesses were celebrated in the spring.
Modern symbols of Easter, such as the egg and the bunny, have their origins in paganism. Rabbits were the most potent symbol of fertility and the egg, the start of all life, was often thought to have magical powers.
A few legacies that have been left to us are:
Hot cross buns
At the feast of Eostre, the Saxon fertility goddess, an ox, was sacrificed, and its crossed horns became a symbol of the season carved into the bread. The word ‘bun’ derives from the Saxon word ‘boun’ meaning ‘sacred ox’.
It’s believed that the lily, because of its shape, was associated with the reproductive organs, and therefore with fertility.
The symbols of the Norse goddess Ostara were the hare and the egg, both representing fertility. The earthly symbol for the goddess Eastre, goddess of the dawn, was also the rabbit, a symbol of new life. Historians believe the legend of the Easter Bunny originated in Germany before surfacing in the New World in the seventeenth century. Children believed the Easter Bunny would leave them coloured eggs if they were good.
The egg has been a symbol of rebirth and fertility for many centuries. Long ago eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate the sunlight of spring. Decorating and colouring Easter eggs was a popular custom in the middle ages, and throughout Europe different cultures have evolved their own styles and colours. In Greece, crimson-coloured Easter eggs are exchanged, whereas in Eastern Europe and Russia silver and gold decorations are common, and Austrian Easter eggs often have plant and fern designs.
The first of the highly wrought Fabergé eggs was made as an Easter gift for the Empress Marie of Russia from her husband, Tsar Alexander, in 1883. It featured a small gold egg in an outside shell of platinum and enamel.
Easter eggs have been coloured and decorated from earliest times. In Edward I’s household accounts for 1307 there is an entry of: “18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household”. Later, craftsmen made artificial eggs of silver and gold, ivory or porcelain, often inlaid with jewels. The ultimate Easter egg-shaped gifts must have been the fabulous jeweled creations by Carl Fabergé made during the 19th Century for the Russian Czar and Czarina. Today, these superb creations are precious museum pieces.
In the 18th century, people could buy pasteboard or papier-maché eggs, in which they hid small gifts. By the 19th century cardboard eggs covered with silk, lace or velvet and fastened with ribbon were fashionable.
In Europe Easter eggs are taken seriously. The old art of decorating the real egg is still very much alive. Many of them are dyed red to symbolise Christ’s blood.