“Ancient Spring Equinox Customs Underlying the Jewish Holidays of Purim and Pesach (Passover), and the Christian Holiday of Easter”

by Lisa Lindberg

begun March 20, 1997, modified April 2006

A part of the series, "
Ancient Seasonal Festivals and their Overlaying, Present-Day Religious Holidays”

-- A greeting card, plus the draft of an essay --


 text of Spring Equinox card -- written and sent out March 1997       


The Seasonal Festival of the Spring Equinox   

  At the Spring Equinox , darkness and light hang in the balance.  From the deepest dark of the longest, Silent Night of Winter Solstice, we have traveled a quarter of the way around the Great Wheel of the  Seasons.    Now, Day equals Night. In pre-Christian Europe, the Anglo-Saxon peoples had a mythologic  fertility goddess of Spring, whom they called "Easter."   The derivation of her name is the same as for the direction "East," and for "estrus" and "estrogen"  -- all having meanings of awakening and new life.   

In Anglo-Saxon mythology, the goddess Easter brought rebirth at the  Spring Equinox, the dawn of the year when Nature was once again renewed.  The goddess Easter was associated with the fertility symbols of red eggs, rabbits, and the very welcome flowers of Spring.

In  pre-Judaic Middle Eastern cultures -- centuries before Moses – the pastoral people of this region held a 3-day New Year festival.  It began on the eve of the first full moon after the Spring Equinox,  in the middle of the month of Nisanu -- the first month of their year.  At sundown on the eve of this full moon, they sacrificed their first-born lamb or goat, dipped a bunch of hyssop and bitter herbs in the blood,  then daubed the doorposts of their homes.  They also ate bitter herbs  for Springtime purification.  The sacrificed meat had to be consumed  in the night  " in haste" - - with anything left over to be burned completely (holocaust -- "whole burning").   These  pastoral people believed performing this Spring rite would ward off illness and plague, assuring the health of their herds and families  in the year ahead. 

The people of pre-Christian Eastern Europe had the custom of  planting grain kernels in window baskets in late winter to sprout at the Equinox into beautiful green thatches.  They called these "Gardens of Adonis,"  in honor of their mythologic god of harvest fertility -- also called Tammuz in some areas.  Into these baskets of green lush grass, they placed the fertility symbols of red eggs. 

Then, at the Spring Equinox, each village held a 3-day festival in which they enacted the drama of the death and renewal  of Life.  They created an effigy of their harvest fertility god Adonis-Tammuz as a symbol of Life, and celebrated the death and resurrection of this god-king.  On the first day they buried his effigy.  On the second day they mourned his death with wailing lamentation – as in the Bible  "wailing for Tammuz."    At the stroke of midnight at the beginning of the 3rd day, they cracked  red eggs together, and proclaimed "He is risen!"  rejoicing  that from out of death, Life was once again reborn anew.                

 *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *     

At Springtime, Winter's silent rest has nourished the Earth, renewing her creative strength.  From within itself, Life has found renewal.  Nature is now poised on the brink, ready to Spring into abundant New Life.   

Stiff, frozen Winter melting into Spring's flowing warmth  offers a metaphoric model for liberation of the spirit:  
- -  deliverance from the bondage of ignorance, 
- -
rising from the deadness of limitations.

Spring's fluid freedom beckons us out of our cages, inviting us to soar to the heights and to delight in awakening to life's unity and wholeness. In this joyful spirit of awakening freedom, we wish you a Happy Spring Equinox -- this year Thursday March 20, 1997.  

Ó1997  The Great Dance


Ideas for a more extensive essay

he central common message in ancient mythologic rites of Spring 
-- abstracting from the literal content of each tradition and cast of characters 

-  Vernal rituals of Dying and Reviving reprise the drama 3 months earlier at the longest night of the year, the deepest dark of the Mid-Winter Solstice - - the "Sun's stillness."  At that time, the Light goes into the Dark -- Life goes into Death -- and lies for a moment in the gap of stillness.  There is the attending anxiety of: "This time, will the Light/Life be reborn?" then, to everyone's relief, there is the return of Light -- and the possibility of New Life.   

-  The Immanent and the Transcendent are essential parts of each other, found within the other.

-  Life and Death are essential parts of each other, with Life continually re-born from Death

-  From within the depths of Life is Death.  From within the depths of Death is Life's power of renewal -- the awakening to New Life: 
     -  the deliverance up out of the bondage of ignorance
     -  the rising from the deadness of limitations

-  Life is whole and trustable.  Life ever returns from Death.  We have no cause for fear.


Sources cited -- and to be further plumbed

Sir James George Frazer and Theodore H. Gaster -- pre-eminent scholars in the field of comparative religion, mythology, cultural anthropology, and folklore.

Sir James George Frazer (1890), The Golden Bough  

Sir James George Frazer (1918), Folklore in the Old Testament  

Theodore H. Gaster (1959), The New Golden Bough: A New Abridgment of the Classic 1890 Work by Sir James George Frazer  

Theodore H.Gaster (1969), Myth, Legend, and Folklore in the Old Testament: A Comparative Study (update of Sir James G. Frazer (1918), Folklore in the Old Testament)  

Theodore H.Gaster (1953), Festivals of the Jewish Year

Theodore H.Gaster (1950), Purim and Hanukkah  

Theodore H.Gaster (19__), Passover  

Chaim Raphael (1990), Festival Days:  A History of Jewish Celebrations
Extensively cites Theodore Gaster's on the origins of Jewish holidays.  

Michael Walsh (1986), The Triumph of the Meek:  Why Early Christianity Succeeded


The Jewish Holiday of Purim  

get deas from Theodore Gaster (1950), Purim and Hanukkah


Ancient Middle Eastern Spring Festivals

Theodore Gaster (1969),  Myth, Legend, and Folklore in the Old Testament: A Comparative Study, 
p.632-33,  commentary of the Old Testament prophet, Hosea:

"Hosea 5:6
`Israel will go seeking Yahweh,
but will not find him,
since he will have "slipped away" from them.'

“The reference here is to the ritual search for the vanished god of fertility.  In the Egyptian "mysteries" of Osiris, 'seek' was a technical term.  In the Canaanite Poem of Baal, which is basically a seasonal myth, the goddess Anat says expressly that she will "go in search" (b-q-s) of the ousted lord of the rains.  In the Hittite myth of Telipinu, that god is said to have 'taken himself off ...flown into a rage, and carried away everything good'; while the search of Demeter for Persephone is familiar to every reader of Classical literature.   The prophet chooses his words exquisitely. In the original Hebrew, the god is said not merely to depart or withdraw, but to slip away (Heb.: halas), suggesting graphically the gradual  disappearance of the green summer."   

“Hosea 6:1-2
`Come, let us return to the Lord;
though he has torn, he will heal us;
though he has stricken, he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,*
and we shall be revived in his presence.' 

"(*the Hebrew word does not refer to resurrection, but simply to bringing a sick man to his feet.)


The Jewish Holiday of Pesach (Passover)

Chaim Raphael (1990),  Festival Days:  A History of Jewish Celebrations, p. 69: 
"Details of the original Pesach in the Bible parallel the spring sacrifice of all pastoral people as described by cultural anthropologists.  In this picture, every family slaughtered a first-born lamb or he-goat on the eve of the full moon in the first spring month, an ancient tradition by which one warded off illness and plague in the year ahead.  A bunch of hyssop was dipped in the blood, which was then daubed on the doorposts of the home, a ceremony which marked the participation of the god in the sacrifice.  The food had to be consumed in the night 'in haste' (as in the Bible story), with anything left over burned to avoid putrescence (holocaust-- "whole burning").  In a book on this subject by T.H. Gaster, [Festivals of the Jewish Year, 1953, p. 33] `bitter herbs' are said to have been added as a cathartic against impurity.  The ban on all 'leaven' during the festival was an expression of the same warding-off of impurity."    

In the Hebrew Bible's book of Exodus, Moses asked Pharaoh to let his people go into the desert for their annual 3-day full-moon Spring Festival – permission for which was eventually granted.  One of the reasons for Moses' request for a full-moon time was so they could see at night to escape their captors.  The Jews transformed the commonly celebrated pastoral Spring rite of Pesach into a religious holiday held on the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.  (The exception is in years when there is the " intercalated" (added) month of Adar II -- see note 2 paragraphs below.)   Their new story was that in the time the Jewish people were in Egypt, the sacrificial blood on the doorposts assured that the punishing Angel of Death  would "pass over" their houses and spare the lives of their first-born sons.

(Note: explanation for the intercalated month of Adar II:

Even though the Jewish year follows the lunar year, this "intercalated" month makes it a luni-solar calendar, modeled after the older calendar developed by the astronomers of Babylon (in present-day Iraq).  Correspondences between the older Babylonian calendar and the later-developed Jewish calendar include the names of the months, the fact that boths follows the lunar lunar cycle while including periodic intercalated (added) months to bring the religious calendar into line with the solar year.   Periodically adding a Spring month ensures that Passover always falls AFTER -- rather than before -- the Spring Equinox.   This luni-solar calendar contrasts to the completely lunar Islamic calendar, whose high holy day of Ramadan strictly  follows the lunar progression, and therefore over the years, moves in time to fall within all of the seasons.


Oester: Ancient Western Europe's Celebration of new life at the Spring Equinox

"Oester," the Old European Anglo-Saxon goddess of the Spring Equinox whose symbols are colored eggs, fertile rabbits, and the very welcome flowers of spring.  The words "Oester" and “Easter” come from the same root as the direction “east” and the words “estrogen” and “estrus” --  all pertaining to the awakening of new life.


Ancient Eastern Europe's Celebration of new life at the Spring Equinox

Ancient (many centuries BC) annual three-day Spring rite held by the peoples of Babylonia, Syria and Greece:

Theodore Gaster  (1959) , The New Golden Bough. pp. 632-633)
"A not uncommon feature of seasonal festivals is the staging of a mock funeral and subsequent resurrection of the spirit of fertility.  In Egypt, it was Osiris who was thus buried and revived; in Syria, it was Adonis, and in Asia Minor it was Attis.  In Russia, the interment and resurrection of Kostrubonko, deity of the spring, was solemnly celebrated in popular custom at Eastertide.  In Roumania, on the Monday before Assumption (in August), a clay image of the analogous Kalojan is deposited in the earth, to be dug up after a few days.  The prophet's words may well have been inspired by such a spectacle."

On the first  day of Eastern European peoples' three-day festival, they made an effigy of the god who they called "the true son," and "lord of Life's renewal at Springtime."  They held a mock burial for his effigy, then mourned his death.  On the third day they dug into the Earth where they had buried the effigy.  They raised it up, proclaimed that he had come back to life, and rejoiced that in his rebirth he also brought about the rebirth of life to Earth.  To this day, some of the peoples in parts of the Mediterranean countries (and their diaspora) continue this ancient rite of effigy-creation, mock burial, and resurrecting, the difference being that long ago their culture evolved to embrace Christianity, and now to the effigy they give the name "Jesus."

In the Hebrew Bible ( what book?  Hosea, Isaiah??):  The women of Jerusalem were exhorted not to wail for Tammuz, the Babylonian god of fertility.

The ancient custom in Eastern Europe and the Near East  at the time of the Spring Equinox of planting rye grass seeds in indoor baskets, pots, or baskets , called “Gardens of Adonis”  -- the precursor of “Easter Grass”


Easter / Pascha:  The Christian Festival of Jesus' Death and Resurrection  

In the mythologies discussed by Frazer and Gaster  in The Golden Bough and The New Golden Bough,  there are two relevant sections:  

"Part III:  Death and Resurrection:  The Rhythm of Nature"
"Part IV:   Dying and Reviving Gods"

Etymology of the word "Easter" : "Oester," the Old European Anglo-Saxon goddess of the Spring Equinox   Knowing this, the Eastern Orthodox Church uses instead the term "Pascha" -- the Latinized form of the Hebrew word "Pesach." 

The Middle Eastern Pastoral Peoples' 3-day Spring Festival of Rebirth

The ancient Middle Eastern pastoral peoples considered that performing their Spring rite of sacrificing the first-born lamb or kid (the Paschal Lamb) assured the well-being of the rest of their herds and families in the year ahead.  The Jews transformed this commonly celebrated pastoral Spring Rite into a religious holiday.  Their new story was that in the time the Jewish people were in Egypt, the sacrificial blood on the doorposts assured that the punishing Angel of Death  would "pass over" their houses and spare the lives of their first-born sons.  In turn, the early followers of Jesus transformed the Jewish Pesach sacrifice of first-born lambs/kids into the sacrifice of Jesus, the first-born son of God, whose death assured the well-being of the whole world -- "Jesus as Paschal Lamb."   

The canonized passages of the Bible give few events of the day after Jesus' death, and only sparse descriptions of the women going to the tomb.  The passages state that "on the first day of the week," the women discovered Jesus's body to no longer be in the tomb. However, there are no statements about a 3rd day resurrection -- just sightings of "the risen Lord."   According to the Grolier's Encyclopedia and Michael Walsh (1986) The Triumph of the Meek, (p.138), in the first century CE, the early Christians celebrated Jesus' sacrifice on one day only : on the day of the Jewish Pesach.  Included among these early Christians were Jesus' disciples --  John et al. 

Regarding the passages quoting Jesus as saying that after 3 days he will rise again  -- are these actual authentic historic quotes, or rather "after-the-fact" assimilation into an earlier pastoral spring rite?  Considering the fact that Jesus' earliest followers had no custom of his 3-day death-and-resurrection commemoration, did this 3-day holiday come about only 300 years later, as an overlay onto (and integration into) pre-existing folk custom?

Theodore Gaster  (1959), The New Golden Bough.
p. 356  "When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which - - as we have see reason to believe -- was celebrated in Syria at the same season.  The "type" created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles -- and may have been the model of -- the Pieta of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peter's."

From Michael Walsh (1986), Triumph of the Meek
In the early decades after Jesus' death, there was no clear distinction between the Jewish people in general and the Jewish followers of Jesus -- who considered Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Bible.  In the decades immediately after his death, Jesus' followers continued to hold their holy day of the week on the Jewish Sabbath day, Saturday  (Sabado = Spanish for Saturday).    Later, to distinguish their new branch of Judaism  from the old branch of Judaism, the followers of Jesus moved their weekly holy day to the day after the Jewish Sabbath day -- to Sunday.  Later -- to further distinguished themselves from older branches of Judaism -- they changed their day of another of their religious celebrations.  Beginning in the 110's under Rome's Bishop Xystus, these early  followers of Jesus unofficially moved the commemoration of their highest holy day of their year -- Easter, Pascha the commemoration of Jesus as the sacrificial Paschal Lamb --  to the Sunday after the Jewish Pascha.  For the first time there was a Christian Pascha differentiated from the Jewish Pascha.  The 314 A.D. synod of Arles made this change mandatory.

However, the commemoration of the Christian Pascha continued to be held on one day only -- on the Jewish Pesach.  It took 2 more centuries for the Christian Pascha to evolve into a three-day celebration.  In the new, 3-day celebration, Jesus' death was commemorated on the first day -- the Friday of the year he was said to have died -- with his 3rd day resurrection on the following Sunday.  The 325 A.D. Council of Nicea -- presided over by the manipulative, politically ambitious Emperor Constantine (a sun-worshipping pagan whose weekly holy day was Sunday), and made mandatory the new, three-day commemoration, with the penalty of excommunication for non-adherence.