“Easter: Why the Egg?”
By Erin E. Schmidt
Whyis the egg the symbol of Easter?
Henswill only lay eggs when they’ve received at least 12 hours of light a day.Before electric lights, this meant hens only laid eggs in the six months of theyear when the earth gets the most sunlight, from the spring equinox to the fallequinox. Fresh eggs were a natural sign of spring in the time when they wereonly available during the warm months of the year. Like seeds, the egg is alsoa symbol of the beginning of life.
Accordingto some historians, the egg was adopted as the symbol of Easter becauseChristians traditionally abstained from eating eggs during Lent. On Easter,they could break their egg-fast and eat them again. Eggs, according to St.Augustine, are also a symbol of hope, because the egg, like hope, is somethingthat has not yet come to fruition.
Anotherconnection Christians make with the egg is the phoenix. This mythical birdbuilds a funeral pyre for itself and dies. From its ashes, an egg emerges, andthe phoenix is reborn. Because of its death and resurrection, the phoenixbecame a symbol for Jesus.
Manycultures consider the egg a symbol of rebirth and reincarnation. In Asia, eggsdyed red and given at births and funerals. In some parts of Africa, and also inthe Appalachian Mountains in the United States, eggs are buried near cemeteriesto encourage the souls of the dead to be reborn.
TheEaster egg hunt became popular in the United States only during the Civil War,when Abraham Lincoln brought the practice to the White House lawn. The practiceof hunting hidden eggs in spring predates Lincoln by thousands of years,though. It originated in Asia, where the hunt for the icon of reincarnationsymbolized the individual’s personal responsibility for his or her own karma.It’s emblematic of the hunt for new life for the soul.
Inancient Europe, the custom was to place eggs under the barn to increase thefertility of the animals…or under human beds to increase our own fertility.Planting eggs in a field or garden was also thought to make the plants morefruitful.
Eggs,in many ancient mythologies, played an important role in the creation of theworld. In Hindu and Phoenician mythology, the world is formed from an egg whichemerges from the primordial waters and splits in two. One half becomes theearth, and the other half becomes the sky. The Finnish creation story tells ofthe world forming from eggs laid in the lap of the water-mother. Hawaiians alsohave a legend about the big island of Hawaii forming from an egg laid on thewater. It’s unknown if there is any historical connection between these earlycreation stories and the Easter egg, though.
Eggsplay a role in the Jewish Passover meal, the seder. They represent mourning forthe destruction of the Temple. The Jewish celebration of the ancestors’ escapefrom Egypt may have borrowed the symbol of the egg from Egyptian mythology.
SomeEuropean superstitions concern an egg laid by a hen on Good Friday (the Fridaybefore Easter, commemorating the day Jesus died). It is said that such an eggis a powerful amulet against sudden death, or that it protects orchards fromblight. The yolk of an egg laid on Good Friday, if kept for a hundred years, issaid to turn into a diamond.
Othertraditions say it’s the Easter rabbit that lays the eggs. This customsupposedly arrived in the United States with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers.German children prepared a nest for the “Oschter Haws” (Easter hare) on Eastereve and found it filled with colored eggs the next morning. The association ofJesus with the Easter bunny may have come about because the rabbit emerges fromits burrow in the ground like Jesus emerging from his tomb.
Somesay the rabbit is also a form of the ancient Germanic goddess of the spring(sometimes called Eostre or Ostara, but this name may not be historicallyaccurate), whose is a shape-shifter and can take on the form of any animals.Like the Greek goddess Artemis, the Roman Diana, or the Eastern European veela,she’s the Lady of Wild Things, the huntress-goddess who serves as anintermediary between human beings and their game.
Lord,Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia:Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1971.
McCoy,Edain. Ostara: Customs, Spells and Rituals for the Rites of Spring. St.Paul: Llewellyn, 2002.
Watts,Alan W. Easter: Its Story and Meaning. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950.
Author bio: Freelance writerErin E. Schmidt has written for magazines including True Love, The SaturdayEvening Post & The Almanac For Farmers and City Folk. She’s the authorof The Magical Girls’ Guide to Womanhood and can be found online at http://erineschmidtsmith.com.