During the Easter holidays Christians around the world − from Moria near Polokwane to the Vatican in Rome − will gather to commemorate the death of their god, Jesus Christ, on Good Friday, and celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This celebration of death and resurrection is viewed as a Christian holiday, but this moveable feast has roots that stretch back into antiquity and are far older than Christianity.
Across the ancient world, the end of winter and the beginning of spring was celebrated in a way that spoke not just to the shared joy of natural renewal and its promise of abundance, but also to a collective fear of death without rebirth.
These themes have found expression in harvest festivals, the rituals of sacred mysteries in Ancient Greece, paintings, religious worship, sacrifice and prose. Even Ernest Hemingway, that most manly of writers, felt the fear of a winter that wouldn’t be followed by the fresh green shoots of spring:
With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Hemingway’s account of his fear at the prospect of a failed spring may carry more weight in the cold North than in our more generous climes, but it speaks, with a universal power, to the fear we all share about the prospect of a failed metaphorical spring. What if, for instance, there are no new shoots of love after the pain of bereavement?
And when spring just means spring, and where winter is hard, the fear of a failed spring is about a lot more than just an absence of the pleasures of green shoots and blue skies. For thousands of years rulers feared the failed spring because it would bring hunger and even death for the ruled and the risk of political instability for the rulers.
In many parts of the contemporary world, people’s fates are not tied to the whims of the seasons in the same way they once were, but the seasons have often carried momentous political weight. Both the French and Russian revolutions were linked to bad harvests.
Cloistered away in the halls of Versailles, a palace of such opulence that it makes the Taj Mahal look like Quaker meeting hall and Nkandla like its outbuilding, Louis XVI and his entourage took no notice of the devastation wreaked by a failed harvest.
Much like the residents of gated communities today, the suffering down the road seemed a world away from the affairs of court.
The French king, his Austrian queen and a good number of the aristocrats at their court paid dearly for the failure to heed the seasons. They paid with their heads and, in a sense, were sacrificed for the greater good of the society, not unlike the sacrifices central to many ancient rites. We all live in the aftermath of this sacrifice, and the new world it brought into being, because the fall of the ancien régime in France, marked the birth of modern politics.
More than 120 years later, another monarchy came to an abrupt end with the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
The Russian Revolution was, like the French Revolution, a global historical event. Its consequences were of profound importance for the 1900s and continue, in various ways, to haunt the world today.
Tsar Nicholas II had received a warning of things to come after the 1905 Russian Revolution. He assumed that the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under the Duma was enough to appease ordinary Russians straining under war and failed harvests.
Like their predecessors, the Bourbons, the Romanovs, despite their fortune-telling mystic Rasputin, were blind to the revolution that was about to sweep them away along with the old world.
Nicholas was so oblivious to the rising red tide that in December 1916 he even commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé to create one of his famous ornamental Easter Eggs, the Karelian Birch Egg, for his mother Empress Maria Feodorovna.
This little Easter trinket cost 12 500 roubles, about 52 times more than the monthly wage an unskilled Russian labourer earned in 1916. These lavishly bejewelled eggs had been produced for the Tsars and their families since 1885 to celebrate the death and rebirth of their Christian god during Easter. The Tsars would present these eggs to family members before the Easter festival.
Nicholas never got the chance to present the commissioned egg to the dowager empress.
The February revolution triumphed in 1917, and by March 15 the Russian monarchy came to an end. More than a year later, on July 17 1918, the Tsar and his family were brutally executed. Their deaths signalled the birth of a new Russia − the Soviet Union.
It is fitting that these golden Easter eggs made by Fabergé are tied to the drama of the death of the old Russia and birth of modern Russia as the egg has, since ancient times, has been a symbol of fertility and regeneration.
The Christian rituals that mark Christ’s death and resurrection map on to pre-existing beliefs and rituals that celebrated the victory of life over death via the celebration of the triumph of spring over winter.
In ancient Egypt, Osiris, the first ‘green man’ and god of the harvest, was killed and later resurrected by his wife, Isis. The death and resurrection of Osiris was tied to the changing agricultural seasons and the celebration of rebirth during spring.
Similarly, several of the scared mysteries in Ancient Greece believed that the goddess Persephone’s return to the world of the living from Hades symbolised the start of spring. Persephone, represented carrying a sheaf of grain, was worshipped as a goddess of spring, harvest and fertility.
Whereas Persephone had her sheaf of grain, the proto Indo-European goddess Ēostre, also worshipped for fertility, was associated with the hare.
The animal’s prolific ability to breed led to the belief that the hare was hermaphroditic and able to reproduce without the loss of virginity. This belief turned the hare, ancestor of today’s Easter bunny, into a powerful symbol of fertility.
Later on, Christian priests would use the idea of the hermaphroditic hare to represent the Virgin Mary because, like the hare, Mary, the mother of Christ, was thought to have produced a son without losing her virginity.
The ancient totem of fertility survived into the modern world and is now, in abundance, in a supermarket near you.
It was not just Ēostre’s hare that was brought into the changing rituals that are still part of the contemporary world.
The pagan festival of Ēostre found a place in the new religion of Christianity. Belief in Ēostre was so widespread and deeply entrenched across northern Europe that she was worshipped in Germanic, Norse and Old English societies. She makes an appearance in Beowulf, the Old English poem set in Scandinavia: “Ganges waters, whose flood waves ride down into an unknown sea near Ēostre’s far home.”
The Ganges empties into the Bay of Bengal in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), the mythological home of the goddess Kali, who some people see as another appearance of Ēostre. The beliefs and rituals around Ēostre were so popular that the Catholic church didn’t see a way to suppress them and decided, instead, to rebrand the ancient spring festival of Ēostre as Easter, a celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Ēostre has been remade as Easter but the enduring symbols that come to us from the ancient spring rites − symbols of death and rebirth − are still with us in chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs and the roasting of spring lamb.
If the monarchs of today’s world want to take a lesson from the ancient rite they would, perhaps, do well to note that the true value of the egg lies in its capacity to produce new life, and not in the gold and jewels that encase it.
They need to heed the warning rolling down the ages − from Osiris and Persephone to Ēostre, Kali to Christ and, here at home, the Zulu fertility goddess Mbaba Mwana Waresa − that when the seasons are out of balance, societies are out of balance. A sacrifice will be needed to restore it.
Main Pic: Benson Kua