by Barbara G. Walker
When I was a child, I was horrified by a gory crucifixion painting that hung in my Sunday-school classroom. When I was told that this poor tortured fellow in the painting had died for my sins, I was revolted. I rejected the responsibility. I was sure I had never done anything so bad as to make anyone suffer like that. I wondered who was really responsible. My Catholic friend Patsy said it was the Jews; were they not known as “Christ-killers”? The painting said it was the Romans; were they not shown gloating in the background? The bible said it was God, who planned Jesus’ death and showed him no mercy, even though he begged for it, according to Luke 22:42.
We were told that God was always merciful to those he loved, but this callous treatment of his “dearly beloved” son was extremely suspicious. I began to distrust God’s motives. We were taught to pray that God not “lead us into temptation.” Would he really do that, I wondered? If so, he must be rather more malignant than merciful. I thought also that if God planned to lead me into temptation, a few rote words from me probably wouldn’t effectively change his mind.
Early Christian fathers of the church seemed to distrust God’s motives also. In the fourth century, Lactantius wrote that God, knowing in advance that Adam and Eve would disobey his order, deliberately forbade them the fruit of knowledge “that they might entertain no hope of pardon.”1 St. Augustine opined that God, far from loving his earthly children, had damned them all from the beginning, until Jesus’ gory death appeased him enough to let some of them be saved. Each of many different churches now claimed exclusive rights to that pie-in-the-sky salvation privilege, and sneered at their fellow churches as fakes, with no real salvation power against God’s unending wrath. Yet God seemed to have made all the arrangements for himself to be wrathful in the first place. He knew in advance what everybody would do, and then when they did it, he blamed them. I found it all very confusing.
Years later, I began to study the origins of Easter mythology and to understand how the salvation theme became entwined with ancient celebrations of the vernal equinox.
The word Easter came from the Saxon Mother Goddess Eostre, in her fertile springtime aspect. Her name had many other forms throughout the ancient world: Ostara, Astraea, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Ishtar, Esther. At the pagan festivals of Eostre, people gave gifts of eggs, symbolizing new life, and worshiped the Moon Hare, a symbol of animal fertility. Despite the church’s later condemnations of these pagan devilments, they remained to be passed down to us as the Easter egg and the Easter bunny. Without admitting it, the church took over not only the holiday’s pagan name, but also the pagan way of determining its date, according to the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Associated with the springtime Goddess was the Green Man, a dying-and-resurrected figure representing the rebirth of vegetation. People honored him by “the wearing of the green,” putting on green garments and wreaths of leaves, to encourage springtime burgeonings by sympathetic magic. The Green Man is still seen in many old church carvings, usually as a face surrounded by leaves. Also known as Green George, he was later adopted by the church and falsely canonized as Saint George, whose feast day became Easter Monday.2 He was also the Green Knight of Arthurian romance, who was annually killed (or reaped) by Sir Gawain, the Celtic sun hero. George’s leafy headdress may be compared to Jesus’ crown of thorns, usually interpreted as the thorny twigs of the myrrh tree, a common middle-eastern symbol of rebirth, and another name for the virgin mother of the Greco-Syrian sacrificial savior god under the name of Adonis (Hebrew Adonai, “Lord”).3
At least 20 dying-and-resurrected saviors are known, each one god-begotten and virgin-born (usually at the winter solstice), and given the Greek title of Christ (Christos), which means “Anointed One.” There may have been yet other manifestations of this savior figure, but the notorious Christian book-burnings of the fourth and fifth centuries destroyed so much literature that only sporadic references remain to tell of what was clearly a universal belief system of the pagan world. For example, the savior Attis was born of the virgin Nana on December 25, and died on a tree at the Spring Equinox, on Black Friday, or the Day of Blood. His death was celebrated with ritual wailings and lamentations. On the third day he rose again from the dead, to great rejoicing on the Festival of Joy (Hilaria).4 He was hailed as the Most High God, “who holds the universe together.” The people were told, “The god is saved; and for you also will come salvation.” His worshipers ate his sacred body in the form of bread. The temple dedicated to him and the Mother Goddess Cybele stood on Vatican Hill in Rome for six centuries, up to the fourth century C.E.5
Followers of the savior Orpheus taught a doctrine of original sin, and preached redemption by sacraments and ascetic practices. Killed, like Jesus, by order of his heavenly father, Orpheus descended into the underworld and returned to reveal holy Mysteries to humanity. Church art of the fourth century showed Jesus in the guise of Orpheus, wearing a Phrygian cap, playing the lyre, and showing his own totemic form as the sacrificial Lamb of God.6
One of Rome’s most popular saviors was Mithra, whose Persian titles “Son of Man,” “Sun of Righteousness,” “Light of the World,” and “Messiah” were all assimilated to Jesus. Mithraic dualism taught of the war in heaven between heavenly angels and the rebellious underworld angels, or daevas (a word meaning both “devils” and “divine spirits”). The final battle between these forces, Armageddon, would bring on the end of the world and the Last Judgment, according to Persian eschatology. Mithra was born on December 25, of the usual mortal virgin. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, made the blind see and the lame walk. Before he ascended into heaven around the time of the spring equinox (celebrating the sun’s annual ascension), Mithra had a Last Supper with his 12 disciples, who represented the 12 houses of the zodiac. His worshipers practiced baptism, and ate his holy body in the form of bread marked with a cross. This was one of his seven sacraments, called mizd, Latin missa, English mass. In 307 C.E. the emperor officially declared Mithra “Protector of the Roman Empire.” But in 376, his temple on Vatican Hill was seized by Christians. The title of the Mithraic high priest, Pater Patrum, “Father of Fathers,” was taken over by Christian bishops and shortened to Pa-Pa, or “pope.”7 Similar elements of the salvation cult are found in many other tales of the dying and resurrected god-men, such as Dionysus, Marsyas, Heracles, Aleyin, and the Babylonian savior Tammuz, whose sacrificial death was enacted in the temple of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14). Jesus’ title of Adonai, “Lord,” was plagiarized from the cult of Adonis, another savior popular in the middle east. Adonis was born of the virgin Myrrha and died in the spring, to be resurrected as the deity of new vegetation. Early Christians claimed that Adonis was laid to rest in the same grotto in Bethlehem where Mary nursed Jesus.8 Adonis was also called the Good Shepherd, and adored by shepherds at his birth. As a sacred king, he was welcomed in procession with waving palm fronds. He, too, received the titles of Lamb of God and Christos.
The mother of Adonis was said to be an incarnation of the Goddess Aphrodite, who was also his consort. Similarly, the annually sacrificed Tammuz had a mother/bride in the form of Ishtar-Mari, a cognate of Eostre-Mary, just as the Christian Virgin was both Bride of God and Mother of God. Tammuz was symbolically inserted into Christian lore as the disciple Doubting Thomas, with the object of making the elder god seem to acknowledge Jesus’ greater divinity.
Perhaps most popular throughout the later Roman empire was the Egyptian savior Osiris, who also absorbed the myths and titles of many others. Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge writes:
“Osiris was the god-man who suffered, and died, and rose again, and reigned eternally in heaven. [His worshipers] believed that they would inherit eternal life, just as he had done.”9 To this end, they ate his flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine, in order to make his sacred body a part of their own bodies, thus sharing his immortality.
Osiris’ coming was announced by Three Wise Men, which is what the Egyptians called the three stars Mintaka, Anilam, and Alnitak in the belt of Orion, because they point to the Osirian star, Sirius, the brightest star in our sky. Angelic voices were supposed to announce the rising of this star in the east, signaling the annual Nile flood, on which all of Egypt’s food supply depended. In Syrian, Arabian, and Persian astrology, this star was called Messaeil: the Messiah.
Egyptian scriptures called Osiris the Good Shepherd, who leads his flocks into “green pastures” beside the “still waters” of his nefer-nefer land, which in Egyptian means “doubly beautiful.” Four thousand years ago, a succession of sacred kings embodied the god Osiris in sacrifice in his great temple at Abydos. Relics of their bodies were sent throughout the land, to be buried in the fields as fertility charms. When human sacrifices were replaced by animals, Osiris obligingly incarnated himself in a variety of beasts, who likewise carried away the sins of all Egypt in their dying, and ascended to glory after death. Many such beasts were carefully mummified and entombed as deities.
Budge writes that the followers of Osiris believed in “the resurrection of the body in a changed and glorified form, which would live to all eternity in the company of the spirits and souls of the righteous, in a kingdom ruled by a being who was of divine origin, but who had lived upon the earth, and had suffered a cruel death at the hands of his enemies, and had risen from the dead, and had become God and king of the world which is beyond the grave. Although they believed in all these things and proclaimed their belief with almost passionate earnestness, they seemed never to have freed themselves from a hankering after amulets and talismans, and magical names, and words of power, and seem to have trusted in these to save their souls and bodies, both living and dead, with something of the same confidence which they placed in the death and resurrection of Osiris. A matter for surprise is that they seem to see nothing incongruous in such a mixture of magic and religion.”10
It is also a matter of surprise that Budge failed to see exactly the same mixture of magic and religion in Christianity; he could have been talking about Christians just as well as Egyptians. Even today we see the same hankering after amulets and talismans such as crucifixes, medals, holy water, idols, saints’ relics–even fake ones–and the rosaries that were adopted from Egyptian and Indian religions. Christian formulae of exorcism, baptism, absolution, extreme unction, paternosters and avemarias are simply words of power under different names; and the notion of bodily resurrection through eating the symbolic flesh of a dead god is the crudest of magical ideas. Yet this was the basis of Christian faith, no less than the faith of Osiris.
Modern scholarship has shown that Easter is not a Christian institution. Every detail is of pagan origin. The divinely fathered savior, born of a virgin at the winter solstice, followed by 12 zodiacal disciples, sacrificed at the spring equinox, buried in a new tomb, resurrected amid general rejoicing, bringing salvation and eternal life to those who worship him and/or sacramentally consume his flesh and blood: all these are purely pagan concepts. When early Christian fathers were told that their Jesus was just one more copy of many sacrificial saviors going the rounds in the Roman Empire, they could hardly deny it. They could think of no better rebuttal than to say that the devil knew in advance about the coming of Jesus, and so invented all these other religions many centuries earlier, in imitation of the true religion, in order to confuse people.11 This improbability was much used, before the church succeeded in wiping out the memory of such earlier faiths, in opposition to the obvious probability of the imitation having gone in the other direction.
Underlying the idea of original sin, and atonement by a savior or a scapegoat, is the irrational promise of guilt transference. God, being man writ large, can imitate man’s propensity to take out his anger on someone other than its cause, and to be appeased by blaming the victim. Easter is founded, even today, on the notion that all human sins can be transferred to one victim, who lived 2000 years ago.
Strangely, however, the atonement was not universal after all, because that would have made churches unnecessary. The idea had to be modified to imply that not all could be saved from God’s wrath by Jesus’ death, but only a select few, who followed the instructions of the right church. The inevitable result was, and is, a swarm of different, mutually contradictory churches, each claiming to be the “right” one while all the others are called false.
Even though many scholars now doubt that such a person as Jesus actually lived, the legend of the atoning scapegoat persists. Some say that Jesus may have been one of the Essenes, a sect of Jewish ascetics whose chief priests bore the title of Christos. They called themselves Therapeutae, or Healers. Like Buddhist ascetics, they claimed that their practices gave them the power to exorcise demons, raise the dead, walk on water, and perform other miracles. One in each Essenic community was known as the Teacher of Righteousness, or Messiah of Israel. His function was to endure scourgings and other cruel punishments, to atone for the sins of the whole group. Such a person could have been fanatical enough to accept death in exchange for deification, as we know many of the ancient “sacred kings” did in their roles of divine martyrs.
In 31 B.C.E., an earthquake destroyed the Essenic community at Qumran, site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The survivors thought this the sign of their expected Doomsday. They scattered in all directions, preaching the apocalypse, and insisting that the world would end in their own generation, as Jesus stated in Luke 9:27. Before 70 C.E., Josephus wrote that there were “countless” Messiahs and Christs announcing the end of the world. Later, Epiphanius wrote that all believers in Jesus were called Essenes before they were called Christians.12
Through the centuries, scholars have searched in vain for the so-called historical Jesus. There is no credible information about him except the gospels, which are notoriously untrustworthy, since they were not written in Jesus’ time nor by any of the apostles whose names the writers used. Every incident of Jesus’ life and every phrase attributed to him have been found–often word for word–in earlier writings elsewhere, or they have been shown to be interpolations introduced as much as four to six centuries later, to uphold some political doctrine of the church. An example of this is the so-called Petrine Passage in which Jesus purports to “found his church” on the apostle Peter, still widely touted as the first “pope.” The story is clearly shown to be a deliberate insertion long after the church had attained power. Why would Jesus have founded a church when he believed the end of the world was at hand?
The idea of salvation has been re-interpreted and re-re-interpreted over the centuries, so each Christian sect now seems to have a different slant on what it is supposed to save us from, or why, or whether there is a hell to be saved from at all. Some insist that God must be too loving to have created a hell of eternal torture for his children. At the other extreme are those who echo St. Thomas Aquinas, who sadistically claimed that one of the greatest pleasures of the blessed souls in heaven would be their perfect view of the torments of the damned.13
If the vengeance of a punitive God remains without proof, and the sacrifice of a savior perhaps unnecessary, yet we may find reassurance in the dependably recurring cycles of nature, and the advent of spring, which has always brought joy and hope. Rather than the old syncretisms, we might better return Easter to a simple celebration of spring’s annual return, the greening of the earth, and the promise of new life, the renewal symbolized by the Easter egg. This is a happier symbol than a bleeding, dying god. The Moon Hare–or any animal–seems a more vital emblem than a cross, the instrument of agony and death so unpleasantly presented in my long-ago Sunday-school classroom.
We may celebrate the return of spring, the equinoctial waxing of warmth and light; let ancient superstitious versions of the festival fade away as they deserve to do. The Christian Easter–which was never really Christian–may be better left to history’s midden of odd beliefs and delusions, now that scholars have shown a better way to enlightenment.
1. Wheless, Joseph. Forgery in Christianity. MT: Kessinger Publishing Co., p. 152
2. Frazer, Sir J.G. The Golden Bough. New York: Macmillan, 1922, p. 146
3. Ibid., p. 391
4. Ibid., p. 407
5. Clodd, Edward. Magic in Names and Other Things. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1920, p. 79; Frazer, op. cit., p. 408
6. d’Alviella, Count Goblet. The Migration of Symbols. New York: University Books, p. 89
7. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, pp. 663-665
8. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers (3 vols.) New York: Macmillan, 1927, v. 3, p. 97
9. Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis. Gods of the Egyptians (2 vols.) New York: Dover, 1969, pp. 126, 141
10. Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. New York: Dover, 1971, pp. xii-xiv
11. Smith, Homer. Man and His Gods. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952, p. 83
12. Doane, T.W. Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions. New York: University Books, 1971, p. 426; Brandon, S.G.F. Religion in Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969, p. 248
13. Smith, op. cit., p. 20
Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.