Here we are at that time of year again where the pagan (and other) communities enter into online spats and debates on social media about the origins of Easter, with modern pagans insisting that Easter has been appropriated by Christians, and vegans criticising the eating of babies (lambs) by psychopathic uncaring carnivores with a lust for blood.
So, my offering into the mix is that both are right, and both are missing the point of what lies behind Easter – an iron age, possibly bronze age ritual, for community healing and cleansing, the elements of which have survived right to the modern day, hidden but in plain view.
To ‘reclaim’ the pagan origins is a bit of a misnomer as it has had continual practice in one way or another for thousands of years, what we are actually reclaiming is our knowledge of it. Seeing the wood through the trees. The answer is neither to throw away the entire concept in an anti-christian or atheistic manner, nor is it to invent a modern day goddess that seems basically to re-enforce the notion of the feminine role as a fertile womb-on-legs, surely this has had its day by now, a cutesy re-hashing of the patriarchal view of a woman’s place being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.
The Bronze/Iron Age Background:
“The king would perform sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, taking on the burden of sin, sprinkling blood upon the altar and making burned offerings. This was an annual communal rite. Two identical goats were selected, and their fate decided by lot, as described in Leviticus 16:
“And he shall take the 2 goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the 2 goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon the Lords lot fell and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness”
One goat is sacrificed in the Temple, the other is given to the wilderness…. The priest places both hands on the scapegoat and a woolen scarlet thread is fastened about its head. As is said in Isiah 1:18: ‘Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord:though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ …
…Once it reached the mountain top, the red thread was divided. One half tied about a stone and the goat ceremoniously thrown to its death. The passage sited in Isiah alludes to the miraculous changing of the colour of the wool from red to white… there is evidence that the king was once identified with the sin offering of blood, but that a substitution was made…
… To close, the ritual of atonement is designed to carry the sins of the people into the desert. It is propitiatory and cleansing. It is a sacrifice that replaces a human offering, which was once the King and/or a priestess or a woman.”
Quoted from Peter Grey : Lucifer:Princeps
The ritual elements I am seeing in this are sacrifice (substitutions can be made), offerings, sending ‘sins’ away and a colour change from red to white to indicate its completion.
The Biblical Background:
This is probably common sense but there are similarities that seem to indicate the same ritual being carried out in an adapted form… Jesus being the lamb of God, the last supper with his disciples/community/family after which he is sent away along with the sins of mankind. Flogging and crucifixion staining him red with blood and a colour change to shining white three days after his sacrifice at the resurrection.
Obviously Jesus was crucified around the Jewish Passover and the story is that the last supper was part of the passover ritual and celebration for Jesus and his disciples. The Passover is talked about because it influences the event in all of the 4 first books of the New Testament at the point of Jesus’s crucifixion. Its relevance is contextual to the story.
These rituals of the Passover are from the Jewish Torah. The ritual quoted above may go back to iron /bronze age middle Eastern regions and was Cannite in origin, prior to the exodus story according to some theologians and historians. The old testament is a skimmed down version of the Torah (without some the commentary).
It has had relevance to our British culture over the past 1500 years.
The Traditional Folk and Modern Background:
It is long accepted that during a conversion process of a population, it is easier if similar festivals/rituals are overlaid upon each other. Generally speaking the population continues much as before , but aligning with the ideology that provides the more powerful magic. For this ritual to have survived in some form from bronze age to iron age through conversion to modern Christianity in this country, I believe there must have been something very similar already taking place here that just needed overlaying and adapting
So here, we look at what has survived and what that can tell us.
Here we get a date of the first full moon after the equinox. Here we also find the notion of ‘spring cleaning’. Here we also get the power of a whole community (or population) synchronizing in a shared ritual meal of the same food ( sacrificed lamb) at the same time (lunchtime)
Here we have the elements of traditional Easter, without the going to church bit, and without the consumerism of chocolate eggs. I am now wondering if the eggs (white) were originally painted with blood of the sacrificed lamb and taken away and hidden outside, there could then be an egg-hunt to find them again as divination/omens depending on whether the egg is still red, or has been taken (by the faeries?) or has been turned to white again by the elemental forces rain etc (this is pure guesswork on my part)
The Reclaimed Modern Context:
We can reclaim the pagan origins of Easter by taking the the bronze age and surviving folk traditions and combining the shared elements in a way that makes sense in a modern framework. Even the Bronze age version shows signs of adaption and substitution, so it need not be taken as a fixed unalterable text. The vast majority of us cannot make animal sacrifice in the modern world, but we work around this.
The first element is the community/family/tribe coming together and unifying. This means quitting the ‘pagan vs christian’ or ‘vegan vs omnivore’ arguments about the details. Whether you are Christian, pagan or atheist makes no difference, it is the whole community – your family sitting down and eating a shared meal together on the same day, at roughly the same time as everyone else in neighbouring communities and being at peace with each other. If you don’t eat lamb, substitute it. The lamb is a substitution in the first place. Forget blaming Christians for stealing a pagan festival – they have helped preserve it for you for the past 2,000 years. Put your differences aside, and just be together.
The second element is the ‘spring cleaning’ – sending away your disagreements/sicknesses. Your negativity. Call them sins if you like, but you get the drift. ‘Sin’ can also be taken in the context of some misdemeanour or something you have done wrong (offending the gods if you like) that has brought bad luck/bad health upon you or your family . This is the part that we have lost in conversion as priestly duties were confined to the church.
But we have the elements from old testament…
Take some white wool or acyrilic yarn and soak it in water based red paint – it is the colour change that is important.
You don’t need to sacrifice a goat or sheep, as in the original ritual this was a carrier for the red thread that held/entangled the ‘sins’. A work-around can be found by taking a prepared forked stick so you have a horned Y shape. If you can, get a stick with 3 prongs, like the Algiz rune (protection, spirit guide, cleansing) and wind the thread around the horns, putting into it your negativity, your quarrels, your differences within your family/tribe/community. Do this how you want, whatever makes sense to you such as using intent, speaking the ‘sins’ into the thread and tying a knot, writing them on pieces of paper and tying them in, or speaking into the wound thread within the horns at the end.
You could use the words from Isiah 1:18 quoted above.
Take these horns away from your local area (to the wilderness) and divide the thread into 2, discard half (throw it away) and tie the other half around a stone. Walk away and leave it. If you have used water based paint or dye, then it should wash out in the rain and the wool turn to white again. You may want to return at a later date to observe this.
Above all, remember this about cleansing your family/tribe/community. It is about unification and putting your differences aside. Removing sickness. Some things may be difficult to clean away, this may be reflected in lack of colour change within the thread. Repetition is the key.
Looking at this from a humanistic point of view, this is the first month after the spring equinox. People in the past will have had to spend the dark winter months cooped up a lot indoors and in each others faces. This still happens today, that people get ratty and fed up with each other. We get a lot of sicknesses through the winter, our vitamin D levels drop and make us more vulnerable to illness. Winter is still the time when most deaths of the old and the young occour. It was a time of dwindling food reserves and eking things out to make sure you didn’t starve.
Around us, at this time of year the plants are just starting to grow now, there is still little new growth to eat, but there is a glut of food in the way of lambs, livestock and wild animals having their young. This, is what I see the pagan origins of Easter are, stripped right back to the roots, it is a time for the family/tribe to come together, to count our losses, to be glad we have got through the hard time of hunger and sickness. We have made it through and this is a ritual to send away our sicknesses, to banish them from our homes and families. Re-enforce our bonds with each other. As the sun grows stronger and the days warmer and longer, the simple act of surviving will become easier. This is a ritual act for the community. It is deep rooted enough to have continuous use in one for or another, for thousands of years.
- The timing of this ritual follows a lunar calendar rather than the solar festivals – this is the ritual for the 4th full moon of the solar year.
- This assumes the druid/witch/shaman in a functionary position within the family or community, contrasting with the modern assumption of us being observers of nature and using paganism to enrich our personal lives
- In rural times people would be cramped together in a more communal setting to get through the winter. Arguments, coughs, colds etc are more common and more quickly spread. In modern times winter can be a lonely time in our isolated lives as we tend to travel less, stay indoors – this can lead to older generations today feeling isolated. This time marks the coming of better weather, we can disperse again – or conversely, we are more likely to go visiting our relatives with the better weather and longer days.
- Even today this is marked by spring cleaning, and everyone seeming to disperse, to visit family, or have a break or days out over the bank holiday weekend.
- The basics of the ritual are a family get-together, putting differences aside so we can all disperse for the summer on good terms. The druid uses a spirit trap to take away the dis-eases and quarrels from the tribe to help keep them united and heal rifts.