The Easter egg and Christian hope

Christians adopted early on the symbolism of the phoenix, which burst into flame and arose from its own ashes—or in one version, its own egg. Over time their focus shifted from bird to egg. Image: Catmando, Algo
Published March 1, 2024

In a 2013 article for Scientific American (“Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter”), writer Krystal D’Costa helpfully demolishes the hoax, circulating on the internet at the time, that the ultimate origin of Easter was the celebration of Ishtar, ancient Babylonian goddess of love and war (an interesting combination of spheres over which to preside, I’ve always thought).

She also writes of the remarkable frequency with which the egg has cropped up as a symbol in the world’s religions. Clearly there’s something universally fascinating about the egg—as though it has reminded humans, across time and space, of some great truth.

The tradition of the Easter egg, D’Costa writes, originates in the ancient Greek legend of the phoenix, the beautiful bird which periodically bursts into flame, only to be reborn from its own ashes. In one version of the story, it arises from its own egg. Christians started to adopt the symbolism of the phoenix as early as the first century AD, and over time, their focus shifted from the bird to its egg, until the bird was forgotten. This is not the only theory of the Easter egg’s origin, but it shares with most of the others the idea that the tradition passed into Christianity from older polytheistic religions.

It’s fascinating stuff. D’Costa misses something important, however, when she ascribes the motive for Christianity’s adoption of the egg and other pagan symbols and rituals (the use of mistletoe at Christmas comes to mind) to nothing more than a scheme to lull polytheistic peoples into conversion by giving them a false sense they would be preserving something of their old beliefs. “It worked pretty well as a strategy,” she writes. “It allowed the conquered peoples to continue a semblance of their observances as they remembered, and with time the population would be replaced with those who only knew the new traditions.”

Of course, the church is an earthly institution, made up of sinners like you and me, and it has not always been above the use of deception—or violence, for that matter—to gain new converts. But I like to think there’s more to this story than stratagem. To me Christianity’s adoption of the symbols of other religions hints at the deep hope it brings to the world.

It’s not hard to imagine why Christians have embraced the egg as a symbol for the Resurrection. As D’Costa puts it, when the egg hatches “life bursts forth from this otherwise plain, inanimate object that gives no hint as to what it contains.” Life seems to miraculously arise from something inert.

Though the origins of Easter certainly aren’t Babylonian, English-speaking Christians do borrow from an older tradition the name of the holiday. The word Easter comes from Eostre, name of a Germanic goddess whose festival was in the springtime and who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons before they converted to Christianity. (Almost all languages other than English and German use for Easter some form of the Latin word Pascha, which comes from the Aramaic word for Passover.)

In the spring, green shoots spring up from seemingly dead ground—another wondrous victory of life over death.

Sure, the church’s adoption of such symbols could have been partly an attempt to con the pagans. But I believe it is also based on two of Christianity most important messages.

The first is that humanity is made in the image of God. Being made in his image, it seems natural we would tend to seek him.

The second is that God loves us. And so he does not hide himself from us; the world that he made is good, and full of his signs—signs that humans have always glimpsed, across space and time. “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,” St. Paul writes (Romans 1:20). So our searching is not in vain.

St. John tells us that the divine Light was also Life; and that Life itself cannot die. I believe the recurrence of the egg and myriads of other symbols of rebirth in the world’s religions shows that people throughout history, though the gospels were entirely unknown to them, must have had some intuition of this deep mystery.

It’s clear that Paul also believed that he and the other apostles were teaching to the gentiles something that they already—to some extent and on some level at least—knew. Having seen in Athens an altar bearing the inscription, “to an unknown god,” Paul tells the Athenians that he is proclaiming to them a god they already worship without knowing it. God, he adds, made the different nations of the earth “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” before quoting some words from an ancient Greek poem for Zeus: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:23-28)

As I write this in late January, conflict founded in differences of religion and culture seems on the rise. War between Israel, Hamas and their related alliances threatens to spread from Gaza outward, and the possibility of more strife between Islam’s two main sects looms; a westward-facing Ukraine seems locked in a frozen conflict with an inward-looking Russia; and we’re all praying (or should be) that China won’t invade Taiwan. When I first entered journalism, in the late 1990s, the Soviet empire had fallen and some hoped—with striking naivete—that this would usher in a peaceful end of history. The years since then, more and more, seem to be showing us the truth of another 1990s vision of the future—that of a clash of civilizations.

But the story of the Easter egg carries a different message. It tells of what all the peoples of the earth have in common, reaching out, each in our own way, toward the mystery of a deathless Life.

Perhaps there’s a kernel of hope here, in this openness to the searches and symbols of the other, that the tragic and horrifying clashes we are seeing could one day—inconceivable though it may now seem—become happy marriages.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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