Archive for category Easter

The ghosts of Easter past

Today Easter is mainly celebrated by Easter bunnies delivering chocolate eggs to the delight of little children and to the owners of Cadbury and Lindt and all corporations that hide behind the persona of Willy Wonka. Easter is a holiday. But by holiday do I really mean holi day? “holi” being the Hindu celebration of the start of spring in which they welcome the Lord of Pleasure, Madana, son of Vishnu and Lakshmi? Or do I mean a Christian Holy Day, a day when we put aside our daily toil behind the plough, over the blacksmith’s fire or on top of a thatched roof, and attend worship services on a day set aside by the Christian Church for devout chanting and singing in the commemoration of a significant religious event?

In New Zealand, this Easter holiday is, of course, to commemorate the death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and we are commemorating this because, based on belief in this resurrection, the collection of Christian Bishops, gathered together by Roman Emperor Constantine in Nicaea in 325 A.D., voted that Jesus was actually a God equal to God the Father as well as a human. With this declaration 1645 years ago, the Christian religion was established as a bona fide stand-alone religion rather than just a sect of Judaism. In the Roman world there was no limit on the numbers of Gods and any ‘faith’ had to be headed up by a specific God. And so Christianity was established to become one of the three great religions of the modern era. It  also slightly adjusted the original Christian Church’s Judaic base belief system from being purely monotheistic to now being a trinity of three Gods in one: a human form, a spirit form, and a paternal form.

For a Church that believed that Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated the triumph of a human-form of God over the pagan forces of nature, it is peculiar, then, that the date of Easter changes annually, based on the timing of the first weekend after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. This uses an undeniably pagan calendar and coincides with a long-established Spring Equinox pagan festival. This came about because in 595 AD, Pope Gregory sent a mission of 40 monks led by a Benedictine called Augustine, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, with instructions to convert Pagans to Christianity by superimposing Christian events over established Pagan festivals. 

The Spring equinox celebration in paganism (witchcraft) today is called the feast of the Germanic goddess of fertility and new birth “Ostara” or “Eostre”, which is clearly the root name for our Easter. This is one of the eight neopagan holidays that make up the pagan wheel of the year. And if we dig a little deeper in history to paganism in Rome at the time of Emperor Constantine, we also find the older Spring Equinox festival where they believed in a goddess Cybele, the great mother of Gods, who had a consort named Atys. Atys had been a shepherd who was born of a virgin birth from his mother, Nana. Atys died from wounds inflicted by a boar but by the power of Zeus his body did not decompose.

Atys was then celebrated each year during the Spring Equinox. It is said that during this festival a pine tree was cut in the woods and brought to the sanctuary of Cybele. The duty of carrying the tree was entrusted to a guild of Tree bearers. The trunk was swathed like a corpse with woollen bands and decked with wreaths of violets (violets were reputed to have sprung from the blood of Atys). The parallels to our Christian mourning of the crucifixion are uncanny. On the third day of the festival the high priest (Archigallus) drew blood from his arm and offered it as a sacrifice. The inferior clergy also danced their way into a frenzy of self-mutilation to splatter their blood on the tree. The splattering of blood was supposed to be an aid to resurrection. Again the sacrament of the blood of Christ offered up at the last supper is an uncanny parallel. The subsequent rebirth of nature as spring progressed is then seen as proof of the restoration of life. The worship of Cybele and Atys was brought to Rome from Phygria (Asia Minor) in 204B.C. Atys was made a solar deity in the 2nd century ad so was an established god at the time of Nicaea. The black stone (meteorite?) in which the spirit of the goddess was embodied was entrusted to the Romans who installed it in the temple of Victory on the Palatine Hill. The subsequent harvest was exceptionally good and her position in their belief system was established.

And so it came about that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene over-wrote the existing Pagan narratives as the official Roman celebration of the rebirth of Spring.

All the way through my Roman Catholic upbringing, the core of our faith was based on the dogma, ‘that Jesus, son of God, died on the cross for man’s sins;  so that man could now become righteous in God’s eyes’ 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” This dogma referenced back to the last supper when Jesus metaphorically said that the wine represented his blood and the bread represented his body, and that he would sacrifice his body and his blood as the new covenant between God and man. This then came to pass the next day with his crucifixion.

So, what was that all about? If I had to think about this, I would have to puzzle over why an all-loving God would require his Son to suffer and die a cruel death as a means of atoning for the evils of man. There seemed no co-relation. How would having his Son rejected, tortured and killed by humans actually thereby make humans more acceptable to God as a righteous species?

While I had been studying the Babylonian texts published  in 1965 by W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, texts that had been written around 1650 BCE, (approximately 250 years before Moses is believed to have received the teachings of Genesis from Yahweh), I noticed that the translated epic actually contains an account of the sacrifice of a God. The Atrahasis epic is written on three tablets in Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon.

Let her create, then, a human, a man,

Let him bear the yoke!

Let him bear the yoke!”

Let man assume the drudgery of the god.

They slaughtered Aw-ilu, who had the inspiration, in their assembly.

Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood.

That same god and man were thoroughly mixed in the clay.

For the rest of the time they would hear the drum.

From the flesh of the god the spirit remained.

It would make the living know its sign.

Lest he be allowed to be forgotten, the spirit remained.

After she had mixed the clay,

she summoned the Anunna, the great gods.

The Igigi, the great gods, spat upon the clay.

Mami made ready to speak,

and said to the great gods:

“You ordered me the task and I have completed it!

You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.

I have done away with your heavy forced labor”

For this purpose of creating a man to make him useful to the Gods, one of the lesser gods was sacrificed, and his flesh and blood was mixed with clay from which process man was made. This reference to mixing with clay to create man in both the Greek and Biblical texts: “Prometheus shaped man out of clay, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure. Genesis 2:7,” Yahweh God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life”.

But these Akkadian texts describe the sacrifice of a God so that his flesh and blood could be mixed with man to make the man useful to the Gods developing from primitive beasts to intelligent farmers and workers.

The similarity to the account of the sacrifice of body and blood of Jesus as the new covenant between God and man in the New Testament is quite astounding. It requires some further research on how this more  modern Christian dogma actually came to us.

If any of Jesus’ followers believed that God was promising to finally deliver them from the yoke of Rome and give them peaceful sovereignty over the Holy land, then they were disappointed. After two more failed Jewish rebellions in 70 AD and 135 AD, the Romans brutally crushed the Jewish state with hundreds of thousands of Jews killed, deported or sold into slavery. The Romans renamed Judea as Palaestina, derived from “Philistine”.

The development of Christianity in the first 100 years AD therefore evolved as one of saving the eternal souls of believers rather than saving the Jews from the military rule of Rome. Unlike other recorded messianic claimants at the same time, who generally met the same fate of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian movement was not ended with the death of Jesus; indeed it flourished after his death.  That the disciples of Jesus continued openly to preach the beliefs of Christianity, knowing this would lead to their own execution, is the strongest proof that they now believed in the afterlife based on the belief that Jesus, the man born as a result of a visit by angels to the virgin Mary, had risen from the dead.

So the question that I raise is, did the Council of Nicaea actually achieve an official takeover of Paganism by Christianity, or was the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in effect a reverse takeover of the original Christianity by the pagan emperor Constantine? After 300 years of Rome trying unsuccessfully to suppress this Judaeo-Christian cult, did he in fact simply don a Christian façade and bring the dissident Christians under his control in this way? Was the new, improved Christianity post-Nicaea simply a hybrid Pagan/Christian religion designed to bring a bit of religious harmony into the Roman Empire? Did he bring the feasts of paganism and the dates of paganism, complete with funny hats and symbolic staves? (plural of staff, didn’t you know?), meld them with carefully edited texts about the life of Jesus (many original texts were said to have been declared heretical by this new church, and burned) and say: “Behold the new Christianity!”  Certainly once Rome became the holy seat of the Church, the blame for Jesus’ death was attributed to a divine decision to sacrifice his son for the forgiveness of the sins of all men rather than being a military execution by the Roman Governor.

How much do we really now know, then, about the early Christians? And what did they really believe? It was Peter who first started preaching to pagans sometime after the crucifixion and later Paul, who only joined the mission years after the crucifixion, also extended the mission to the pagans and gentiles. But the original mission as stated by Mathew’s account of Jesus’ instruction (Mathew 10:5) was “Do not turn your steps into pagan territory and do not enter any Samaritans town; go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” And later in Mathew 15:12 when a Canaanite woman asked for help, Jesus’ reply was “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel… is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs.”  Very clear Judaic messages. We do know in the early days post-crucifixion there was much dispute among the Christian disciples about Peter and Paul selling out this Jewish mission to the Pagans. So was the Council of Nicaea like “Bethlehem’s family, baking bagels since 33AD” selling out to “Romano’s Pizza Temple – global franchise enquiries welcome”.

Of all our holidays, Easter must be the most confused. Whatever your religious beliefs, it would appear that the Roman-Christian festival of Easter is in fact an appropriation of the Pagan festivals of Eostre and of Attys, including the moving-feast practice to align annually with the full moon following the Spring Equinox. Constantine obviously, but understandably, didn’t think it through to the spread of his Empire to the southern hemisphere.


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