Easter: A Season of Renewal

The concept of Easter, a spring festival of renewal, a celebration of resurrection, lies anciently and deeply embedded in the human spirit.

Hunters and gatherers, who foraged across a primal landscape, danced at springtime campfires to celebrate the return of migratory game, the reemergence of wild food plants, the warmth of lengthening days, the retreat of long nights. The ageless spring festivals continued in the United States, among the plains tribes, for example, well into historic times.

Early agriculturists watched the heavens and built monuments to mark the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, a time of planting, a time of rejuvenated hope. The puebloans of the American Southwest marked the beginning of spring, and the other three seasons, by tracking the path of the sun. They calibrated their planting of corn and other crops with the arrival of spring. In rituals lost in time, their shamans painted and chiseled images on stone, petitioning their spirits for fertility and abundance.

The first civilizations, many so old they had already risen and fallen by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, rejoiced at the arrival of spring and wove the concept of resurrection into their traditions and mythology.

The Sumerians, for instance, who lived seven thousand years ago in the valley of the legendary river Euphrates, believed that Tammuz, their god of “deep waters,” and his wife, their goddess Ishtar, or “Mother Earth,” returned from death to life to assure the miracle of spring each year.

The Greeks believed that their god Adonis, slain by Ares, the god of war, returned from death to life to bring abundance in the spring of each year. The people of the Phrygian Hills, in Asia Minor, believed that their god Attis, who committed suicide when frustrated in love, returned to life in the spring.  The Egyptians, too, believed that their god Osiris, slain by Set, the Evil One, returned to life in the spring.

Perhaps those civilizations, which could have had some contact through the ages, took their belief in resurrection from a single source, but other, geographically separated civilizations held similar beliefs.

On our own hemisphere, the Mayans believed that their Hero Twins arose from the dead and that they held the power to resurrect others from death. This story of resurrection had such appeal and staying power that it spread from southern Mexico and Central America into the southwestern United States, where the Indians wove the story into their own mythology and painted Twins images on ceramic bowls.

The theme of renewal and resurrection in spring runs like a deep river through history.

Easter symbols, many of them a part of our children’s celebration of the season, have equally ancient origins.

The egg, a universal part of Easter, served as a metaphor for the birth of the universe in the mythology of India and Egypt and, centuries ago, it became a symbol of hope, a wellspring for new life, in the spring celebrations of the Christian religion.

The colored Easter egg enriches the metaphor, although the origin is uncertain. One legend holds that it began with Mary, who offered eggs to the Roman soldiers at the cross as she pleaded with them to restrain their cruelty to Jesus. Her tears splashed on the eggs, dashing them with brilliant colors.

The rabbit, an equally pervasive part of Easter, has long represented fertility, a critical concern for the survival of early foragers, agriculturists and civilizations, and it, too, became a symbol of hope for abundance in the spring.

The lamb carried over as a symbol from the 4,000-year-old Jewish Passover, celebrated in the spring, to Christian Easter festivals. The lamb’s role as the hope for the future of the flocks of early Middle Eastern shepherds reinforced its role as an Easter symbol.

Like the emotion of love, the ideas of life from death, symbols of fertility and hope, the welcoming of a re-awakened earth have spanned culture and time and geography. They often arose spontaneously, without outside influences, from somewhere deep in the human soul.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, therefore, struck a universal chord, with profound historical parallels. From its defining moment, Jesus’ triumph over death, Christianity emerged as a religion of hope, a fundamental belief among the faithful that whatever happened during life on earth, a paradise awaited during an eternal life with God.

Easter is perhaps the most ancient and widespread of mankind’s annual festivals. The common themes of resurrection and hope, the universal symbols of renewal and abundance, remind us every spring of the shared values of the human species.

Jay Sharp, an independent scholar and photographer based in Las Cruces, N.M., specializing in southwestern history and archaeology, is a writer for the History News Service.