This is a speech I delivered to the Freethinkers of Ventura County in April of 2003
Easter and the Vernal Equinox
Before getting into the origins of Easter, per se, we need to spend a little time on the
It just so happens that the axis of our planet is tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the plane
of its orbit around the sun. Because the earth is spinning like a top, this gyroscopic
action causes the northern polar axis to always point more or less toward the star we
call Polaris, or the North Star. Actually, the polar axis, or “true north,” does wobble a
bit over the centuries, causing the polar axis to create an ellipse around Polaris. This
wobble is called “precession,” which means that the constellations of the zodiac are
no longer in the same position (or houses) in the sky as they were thousands of years
ago – when astrologers began claiming that such positions on the day of a person’s
birth determined their fate.
One complete orbit takes approximately 365 and one-quarter days – or one solar
year. This means that for half the year the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun
– causing the sun to appear high overhead, thus creating the summer season. For the
other half of the year the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, causing the
winter season. This changing tilt creates four seasons to the year. When the sun
appears to reach the highest point in our sky, this is the longest day and shortest night
of the year -- which is called the summer solstice. The word sol-stice means that the
sun god Sol appears to stand still in its northerly migration, then turns around and
starts to head south for the winter. On the winter solstice, the sun reaches its lowest
point on our horizon, creating the shortest day and longest night. In the southern
hemisphere, of course, the seasons are opposite.
Halfway between the solstices is a point where the days and nights are equal in length,
and these are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (meaning equal nights).
Since weather systems always lag behind the position of the sun by about six weeks,
the solstices and equinoxes are used to mark the beginning of the season rather than
the middle of it.
In the days of the Roman Republic, the calendar was numbered from the founding of
the city of Rome - which according to the present calendar would be 753 BCE. And
March 15th was designated as New Year’s Day. However, this was a luni-solar
calendar of only ten moons, or “months” - which totaled 355 days. So unless
otherwise corrected, the months would have a tendency to rotate throughout the year
and get completely out of sync with the seasons. Consequently, an extra month was
inserted from time to time, so the calendar would bear some relation to the position of
the sun. Unfortunately, the insertion of these intercalary days was left up to a
committee of politicians, so it was rare for any two years to be exactly the same
length; and specific days of the year bore only a tenuous relationship to solar time.
Greece, and all of northern Europe, operated on a solar calendar, with the new year
starting on the winter solstice. When the Romans invaded Greece in the fifth century
BCE, they realized the advantages of a solar calendar. In 153 BCE, New Year’s Day
was moved to January first, since Janus was an important god in the Roman
pantheon, and the god of doorways and new beginnings.
Finally, in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar switched from a lunar to a solar calendar. He
divided the year into 365 days, with twelve months, which alternately had 30 or 31
days, except February, which was considered an unlucky month, so it had only 29
days. But every four years it was lengthened to a full 30 days. This gave an average
year 365 and 1/4 days. New Year’s Day was still left on January first. One of the new
months was named July, in honor of Julius Caesar. But when Julius died, he was
succeeded by the superstitious and egocentric Augustus Caesar, who named the
other extra month after himself, and then ruined the logical arrangement by declaring
that his month should have just as many days as Julius’ month. And the unlucky month
of February had more days than necessary. So he shortened February to 28 days
and extended August to 31 days. Then to avoid having three months in a row with 31
days, one day was taken from September and November and given to October and
The major festival of the year in ancient Rome was called the “Saturnalia,” and it
centered on the winter solstice. According to the Roman Republican calendar, it
began on December 17th and lasted eight days (one Roman week). But since the
Republican Calendar varied in length, it seems probable that the actual solstice
usually fell sometime between the middle of December and the first of January. When
Julius instituted his new calendar in 46 BCE, the year had crept as much as 80 days
out of step with the sun. So he added a total of 90 days -- which set December 25th
as the winter solstice, March 25th as the vernal equinox, June 24th as the summer
solstice, and September 24th as the autumnal equinox.
Unfortunately, the Julian calendar had an error of eleven minutes and a few seconds.
The tropical year is actually shorter than the 365 and one-quarter days he had
established - which would cause the four celestial corners of the year to slip
backwards by one day every 130 years.
In the third century CE, the Emperor Aurelian established another official holiday
called “Sol Invicti” - meaning unconquered sun, in honor of the Syrian sun god “Sol,”
and also in honor of himself, since the emperors were regarded as the divine
incarnation of Apollo. This holiday was held on December 24th and 25th. And it more
or less established December 25th as the official solstice - although by then it had
actually slipped back about two-and-a-half days, to approximately the 22nd. All other
religions that worshiped sun gods also accepted December 25th as a fixed date for
their celebrations. And the major festivals of the Egyptian earth-mother, Isis, were
held on December 25th, January 6th, and March 5th. The earliest Christians assumed
that Christ was born and, many years later, was resurrected on the same day - March
25th - which was assumed to be the vernal equinox. Later Christians celebrated the
birth of Christ on January 6th, along with the festival of Isis. By the fourth century, many
Christians were referring to December 25th as the day of the “unconquered son,” *
(as in “son of God”) in defiance of the emperor, and January 6th was then called
“Epiphany,” when either the magi were supposed to have visited, or Christ was
baptized, or maybe both.
In 325 CE, when the Catholic Church was officially organized, it decreed that the
resurrection of Christ should be celebrated at the beginning of spring, when all life is
renewed. And the beginning of spring was determined by the vernal equinox. But they
noticed that, by then, the equinox had crept backwards from March 25th to either
March 20th or 21st – which gradually shifts back and forth from one leap year to the
next because of the 11 minute loss each year. So they re-established March 20th as
the new, official equinox. That, in turn, would set the date for their resurrection festival.
This means that the other four corners of the year would also have crept backwards by
four days. And the winter solstice would then have shifted from December 25th to the
21st or 22nd. However, it was another 25 years before Christmas was officially
established by the Church. In 350 CE, Pope Julius 1st decreed that the nativity should
be celebrated on the same day as all other sun gods, namely December 25th.
Certainly he would have realized that the solstice no longer fell on the 25th. But by
then the celebration of the nativity on the 25th had already become a well-established
tradition in Rome.
Many other churches, however, did not want to be associated with the pagan religions;
and to this day the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of Christ on January
7th - the day after Epiphany.
New Year’s has been celebrated at every time of the year by various cultures. Months
have varied in number and length. And weeks have varied from four days to ten days
in different cultures.
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine established our seven-day week -- based
on Jewish tradition – which in turn came from the Babylonians – who selected the
astrologically significant number seven as representing the five visible planets, plus
the sun and moon.
In the sixth century, Pope John counted backward to the presumed date of Christ’s
birth, calculated from the reign of Pontius Pilate, and renumbered all the years in
history as B.C. and A.D. (“Before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” meaning “In the Year of
Our Lord”). The year 753 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, meaning after the founding of
Rome) was then called 1 A.D. B.C. and A.D. are now being replaced, at least by non-
Christians and culturally sensitive scholars with B.C.E. (“before the common era”) and
C.E. (“of the common era”).
Throughout the early Middle Ages, most of Europe disregarded Roman practices and
continued to start the year with the presumed equinox - March 25th. England,
however, retained the practice of starting the year on the presumed solstice -
By 1582, the eleven-minute error in the Julian calendar had thrown it ten days out of
sync with the sun, which was very upsetting to the Catholic Church, since the calendar
determined all their feast days – which were supposed to be coordinated with the
The equinox had crept backwards from March 21st to March 11th. And the winter
solstice had crept backwards from December 21st to December 11th. At that time,
the pope was the most powerful person in the world. So Pope Gregory 13th had the
authority to establish his “Gregorian” calendar. He deleted ten days from that year,
which pulled the equinox back to March 21st and the winter solstice back to
December 21st, where it still resides. But Christmas remained on the 25th. The
summer solstice then fell on June 21st, and the autumnal equinox fell on September
23rd. Then Gregory modified the rule about how often leap-year must occur so the
calendar wouldn't drift out of sync again. The Gregorian calendar also retained the
Italian tradition of January first as New Year’s Day. England and America finally
accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752; and to facilitate international trade, most
countries of the world now use the Gregorian calendar.
This Christian calendar, however, is not the only one. There have been scores of
others. But at present, some of the most important include the Chinese calendar,
dated from the founding of the Chin dynasty. There is the Jewish calendar, dated from
the creation of the earth according to biblical accounts. There is the Muslim calendar,
dated from the time Muhammad left the city of Mecca. The Zoroastrian calendar,
which is followed by Iran and a number of other Middle Eastern Countries, starts its
new year on the Vernal Equinox, and the present year, starting on March 20th, is
3739. This calendar was modeled after the ancient Babylonian one, and nobody
seems to know exactly what they are counting from – presumably from the reign of
some important Babylonian king. Who knows?... future calendars may well be dated
from the time man first set foot on the moon.
The beginnings of all four seasons have always been celebrated by people around the
world. But today I’ll be concentrating on the spring festival.
During the vernal equinox, the emphasis has always been on sacrifice, fertility, and the
re-birth of life. Most of the cultures around the Mediterranean in ancient times
worshipped an Earth Mother:
In Phrygia she was called Cybil.
In Greece they had four: Aphrodite, Rhea, Persephone, and Astarte.
In Rome they had Rhea, also called “Maia,” “Tellus,” or “Ceres.” And Aphrodite was
re-christened as “Venus.”
Egypt had both Isis and Hathor.
In Babylonia and Assyria, the fertility goddess was Ishtar – but before her, throughout
Mesopotamia, she was Inanna.
Far up in Scandinavia, the goddess of love and fertility was named Frigga, or Friia –
from which we get the name “Friday.”
Against this background, it’s hardly surprising that the ancient Hebrews also
worshipped a fertility goddess – which they called Asherah or Ashtoreth. She was
known as the consort of Yahweh, and both had their own temples. But gradually the
male dominated and puritanical Yahvist cult gained control of the government, and the
worship of Asherah was outlawed. The temples of Asherah are mentioned several
times in the Old Testament as dens of depravity. Turning the worship of procreation
into a taboo was a unique feature of the Hebrews, and in no other culture was there an
intolerant insistence on sexless monotheism.
Of course, there cannot be a mother without a father, so the Earth Mother was usually
the consort of the Sun God, and together they resurrected all life on earth. They
frequently had a son who was a friend of humankind, and who sacrificed his own life in
order to save the people of earth.
In Mesopotamia, Inanna’s lover was named Tammuz. He was a pastoral god, usually
represented as a shepherd. There were two major festivals to honor Tammuz and
Inanna: The first celebrated their marriage in the autumn or winter. The king played
the role of Tammuz, and thus by copulating with a priestess who played the part of
Inanna, they magically fertilized all of nature for the coming year.
The Vernal Equinox was celebrated by a death and resurrection ceremony, in which
the body of Tammuz was made of an assemblage of fruits, grains, and vegetables. A
couch was set up in a temple, where the effigy lay in state, and the people could see
that Tammuz was indeed alive – in the form of their abundant crops. In some areas,
the effigy was torn apart by the populace and consumed – thereby partaking of his
holiness and fecundity.
During this time there were elaborate Passion Plays in which the mythology of
Tammuz and Inanna was acted out. One story tells about how Tammuz tried to hide
from demons, but was killed by them after being betrayed by his best friend. Another
tells of how Tammuz volunteered to go to the underworld as a substitute for Inanna.
The god of the underworld struck a bargain with them and allowed one of them to
return to the earth for six months while other remains underground.
This myth was later adapted by the Greeks in the story of Demeter and Persephone.
In Egypt, the sex goddess Isis was married to the earth god Osiris, and together they
created the sun god Horus.
The evil spirit was named Set, or Seth, who murdered Osiris and dismembered his
body. But Isis found all the parts of his body and buried them together, thus
resurrecting him to rule as king of the underworld. Horus was born after the interment
of Osiris. Seth learned of his birth and tried to kill him, but Isis hid him until he was
Isis was known as the perfect “Mother of God,” and she was frequently represented
holding the infant Horus in her lap.
When Horus grew up he defeated Seth and thus re-established the Kingdom of God.
It was very important to the Egyptians that the lineage of pharaohs was legitimate,
because this is what maintained order in the cosmos.
Osiris festivals were held annually. A mold of Osiris was made out of dirt and
sprinkled with seeds and water. When grain began to sprout from the body of Osiris,
this proved his victory over death.
Cybele was the consort of Attis, and they were usually worshiped together. Cybele
was known as the “Great Mother of the Gods,” and hers was a major religion of the
Roman Empire, where, as I said, she was also known as Maia. She was always
represented as wearing a flowing robe, wearing a crown, and often holding a baby.
Worshipers would carve a niche in the mountainside and place her statue in it. This
custom is still practiced in Catholic countries, but the name has been changed from
Maia to Mary.
According to one myth, Attis was born from an almond tree, and when he grew up he
became so beautiful that Cybele fell in love with him. Zeus became jealous of Attis
and cast a spell on him. Attis then went into a frenzy and castrated himself beneath a
pine tree, where he bled to death. His blood fertilized the earth and caused the rebirth
of life in the spring.
Another version of the story says that Attis was the son of the Virgin Mother
Aphrodite. Aphrodite conceived Attis after eating a magical pomegranate that was
given to her by Zeus. She then gave birth to Attis through her side, so as to retain her
virginity. Being the son of the love goddess was what caused Cybele to fall in love
with him. Zeus then sacrificed his own son by having him crucified on the pine tree.
But every spring he was resurrected.
In any case, the worship of Attis and Cybele was an annual spring celebration in
Rome. The high priest of the Cybelene temple was called Attis, and he presided over
a group of worshipers, called galli, who went through an initiation ritual in which they
engaged in a frenzied sex-orgy and ended up by castrating themselves. A pine tree
was cut in the forest and carried through the city with great ceremony. And when it
arrived at the temple it was decorated with flowers and then sprinkled with the blood of
the galli, thus reenacting the passion and resurrection of Attis. March 24th was called
“The Day of Blood.” This is the day in which the devout castrated themselves; and in
later years, they obtained more blood by sacrificing an animal, such as a bull, or lamb.
Being “washed in the blood of the lamb” became a purification ritual. On March 27th,
the statue of Cybele was then taken to a river to be baptized.
There is one final religion which should be mentioned, which was called Mithraism.
Mithra was king of the polytheistic pantheon in the area that later became Persia, and
finally Iran. The word “Mithra” meant both “friend” and “contract.” He was called the
“Lord of the Covenant” and “King of Kings.” He was also the god of war and justice,
and therefore the foe of evil.
The sun god sent a message to Mithra to slay the cosmic white bull. When he did so,
the bull became the moon, and Mithra’s cloak became the night sky and stars. The
blood of the bull gave birth to all life on earth. Eventually Mithraism merged with
Zoroastrianism, which is described in their holy book, called The Avesta. It explains
how everything was created by Ahura Mazda, who is in a constant battle with the evil
god Ahriman. If a person chooses to follow Ahura Mazda, and the path of truth, light
and goodness, then he will be rewarded with eternal paradise. But if he follows
Ahriman, and the path of lies, darkness and evil, he will be tortured in a fiery pit.
Zoroaster said there were multiple layers of heaven and hell, and an intermediate
purgatory – so that the eternal reward was exactly appropriate to the life that had been
led. Zoroaster was expected to return to earth as a savior every thousand years.
In this later development of Mithraism, stories were told about how a star fell from the
sky when Mithra was born, how shepherds witnessed the birth, and how Zoroastrian
priests, called Magi, followed the star to worship him. They had prophesied the
coming of a savior for many years, so they bring golden crowns to the newborn King of
Kings. The shepherds tell them that a blinding beam of light came down from the sky
and cut into the side of a rocky cliff. This beam of light carved out the figure of Mithra,
who emerged fully grown, armed with a knife and a torch – the god of war and light.
Mithra was the chief aide to Mazda in the battle against Ahriman.
Since Mithra was a sun god, his birthday was celebrated on the winter solstice, and
the principal ceremonies involved baptism, a communal meal, and a simulated death
There are dozens of other religions which all contributed ideas to the later
development of Christianism, but that will do for now.
After all this background, we fast-forward now to the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. The
Church decided that they would call their resurrection ceremony Easter, named after
the Germanic lunar goddess, Oestre. She was also the goddess of fertility, and our
scientific words estrus and estrogen are also named after her. Her feast-day
throughout Western Europe was held on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.
One legend associated with Oestre was that she found an injured bird on the ground
one winter, and to save its life, she transformed it into a hare. But the transformation
was not complete. The bird took the appearance of a hare but retained the ability to
lay eggs. The hare would then decorate these eggs and leave them as gifts to
Oestre. The Christian Church adopted many aspects of this pagan festival, including
the rabbit, the egg, and the date. But the date was modified to the first Sunday, after
the first full moon, after the Vernal Equinox – which they set at a constant March 20th.
Eastern Orthodox Churches, however, take the Jewish Passover into account. So
they celebrate Easter on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after March 20th,
after the Jewish Passover. Sometimes that means the Orthodox Churches hold their
festival more than a month after Western churches.
I could go on for some time comparing the different ways people celebrate the vernal
equinox around the world, but I’ve used up my time for now, so I thank you for your
* Although in modern English the words "sun" and "son" are exact homonyms, they were not always so.
However, throughout Indo-European languages, all the way back to ancient Sanskrit, the word "sun" ("to
illuminate") and the word "son" ("an offspring") have been somewhat similar.