Last week we took a look at the bizarre history of modern Easter celebrations. Today we’re going to focus on those cute little eggs you hand out to kids. And the occasional sugar crazed adult. Today you’ll find out how hiding Easter eggs is a great way to avoid zealous monks and how the whole egg thing gradually replaced human sacrifice as a way to say “YO GOD! THANKS!” Although not nearly as quickly as many might have hoped. Especially those who happened to be viewing their final sunny day while laying on an alter. It really doesn’t matter if the alter was comfy or not at that point. Hundreds of early religions, including Judaism and some Christian sects, viewed human sacrifice as a necessary accoutrement to prayer. The nice people at Death Reference have some interesting facts for you to consider. I’ll tie them into Easter in a moment but, for now, just enjoy them.
How many people were sacrificed by the Incas and Aztecs? This question can now be answered with confidence. Yes, the Incas of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico put a great many people to ritualistic death. This proposition was doubted for some years, in part because this kind of mass slaughter was difficult to imagine. Evidence has become increasingly clear, however, that human sacrifice was a core feature of the Inca and Aztec cultures.
Remains of Inca sacrifices have been dated from as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., sometimes on the towering peaks of the Andes, sometimes in the coastal desert. Archaeological investigations have found evidence of human sacrifice into the sixteenth century, and this practice is thought to have continued for some time afterward. Tenochtitlan (predecessor to Mexico City) is known to have been the active site of human sacrifices long before Spanish forces arrived to witness these events firsthand: There were already huge collections of skulls on display.
Twenty-first-century historians tend to agree that human sacrifice was both a unifying event and an intense demonstration of religious beliefs for these powerful empires. The Aztecs believed that the “vital energies” of one person could be transferred to another person through drinking the blood and eating the flesh. The gods also craved flesh and blood, so human sacrifice benefited both Aztecs and their ever-hungry deities. Sacrifice was an integral part of their worldview in which the threat of death was ever present, a threat that had to be countered by extreme and relentless measures that would magically transform death into life. Discoveries since the mid-twentieth century confirm that many women were sacrificed in special rituals intended to renew the fertility cycle.
Peruvian sacrifices were also concerned with encouraging the gods to bless their fertility. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the priests appear to have sacrificed an extraordinary number of children. Also somewhat obscure are the reasons for their practice of decapitating their victims. Having left no written records, the Incas and other Peruvian cultures have also taken with them their secrets and mysteries.
They tied human sacrifice to fertility directly. Other cultures, especially those in the the Middle East, tended to take a broader view on human sacrifice and made it a part of their everyday life for anything from solving armed conflict to bricklaying.
Foundation and passage sacrifices. There is abundant archaeological evidence that many societies practiced both animal and human sacrifice to persuade the gods to protect their buildings and ensure safe passage through dangerous areas where their own gods might lack jurisdiction. Burials suggestive of sacrifice have been found in the sites of ancient bridges and buildings throughout Asia, Europe, and North Africa. It was widely believed that territories were under the control of local gods who might be angered by intrusions. Blood sacrifice at border crossings (often marked by rivers) and within buildings were thought to be prudent offerings. Sacrificial victims were also interred beneath city gates.
Children were often selected as the sacrificial offerings. Excavation of the Bridge Gate in Bremen, Germany, and several ancient fortresses in Wales are among the many examples of this practice. According to the Book of Kings, when Joshua destroyed Jericho he prophesized that the man who rebuilds Jericho “shall lay the foundation stones thereof upon the body of his first born and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates thereof.” In rebuilding the city, Hiel later sacrificed his oldest and youngest sons in precisely this manner. The historian Nigel Davies observes that biblical accounts of foundation sacrifices have been supported by archaeological investigations:
In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies 1981, p. 61)
Foundation sacrifices dedicated to fertility (as, for example, in storage buildings) often involved infant and child victims. Captives, slaves, and criminals have also been selected as sacrificial victims on many occasions. That foundation sacrifices belong only to the remote past could be an erroneous assumption. In early twentieth-century Borneo an eyewitness testified that a criminal was buried alive in every posthole for a new building so that he might become a guardian spirit.
“Hey Bob, have we got a great job for you ….”
Yeah, I’d pass too. But, back then, it was a high, if short lived, honor.
By the time Jesus was crucified polite society was starting to frown on the whole concept of human sacrifice, unless it was for “the good of the state.” Nevertheless, rituals had to be observed, fertility sanctioned and so on. Many cultures, not just the European pagans, had a long history of citing eggs as the beginning of the world and of all life. For them there was no question, the egg came first.
So, when all else failed, various religions just let the locals substitute symbols for the various sacrifices and holocausts called for in their religious texts. And it doesn’t take a deep reading of the Old Testament to find tons of examples of those. Exodus and Kings are festooned with them.
And, because no plan ever really works, and because pagans thought the whole Jesus story was the ultimate blood sacrifice, things got tied together that were never meant to even be in the same room. Which led to this;
History of Easter Eggs and Easter Candy
The history of Easter Eggs as a symbol of new life should come as no surprise. The notion that the Earth itself was hatched from an egg was once widespread and appears in creation stories ranging from Asian to Ireland.
Eggs, in ancient times in Northern Europe, were a potent symbol of fertility and often used in rituals to guarantee a woman’s ability to bear children. To this day rural “grannywomen” (lay midwives/healers in the Appalachian mountains) still use eggs to predict, with uncanny accuracy, the sex of an unborn child by watching the rotation of an egg as it is suspended by a string over the abdomen of a pregnant woman.
Dyed eggs are given as gifts in many cultures. Decorated eggs bring with them a wish for the prosperity of the abundance during the coming year.
Folklore suggests that Easter egg hunts arose in Europe during “the Burning Times”, when the rise of Christianity led to the shunning (and persecution) of the followers of the “Old Religion”. Instead of giving the eggs as gifts the adults made a game of hiding them, gathering the children together and encouraging them to find the eggs. Some believe that the authorities seeking to find the “heathens” would follow or bribe the children to reveal where they found the eggs so that the property owner could be brought to justice.
The meat that is traditionally associated with Easter is ham. Though some might argue that ham is served at Easter since it is a “Christian” meat, (prohibited for others by the religious laws of Judaism and Islam) the origin probably lies in the early practices of the pagans of Northern Europe.
Having slaughtered and preserved the meat of their agricultural animals during the Blood Moon celebrations the previous autumn so they would have food throughout the winter months, they would celebrate the occasion by using up the last of the remaining cured meats.
In anticipation that the arrival of spring with its emerging plants and wildlife would provide them with fresh food in abundance, it was customary for many pagans to begin fasting at the time of the vernal equinox, clearing the “poisons” (and excess weight) produced by the heavier winter meals that had been stored in their bodies over the winter. Some have suggested that the purpose of this fasting may have been to create a sought-after state of “altered consciousness” in time for the spring festivals. One cannot but wonder if this practice of fasting might have been a forerunner of “giving up” foods during the Lenten season.
Chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs, marshmallow chicks in pastel colors, and candy of all sorts . . . these have pagan origins as well! To understand their association with religion we need to examine the meaning of food as a symbol.
The ancient belief that, by eating something we take on its characteristics formed the basis for the earliest “blessings” before meals (a way to honor the life that had been sacrificed so that we as humans could enjoy life) and, presumably, for the more recent Christian sacrament of communion as well.
Shaping candy Easter eggs and bunnies out of candy to celebrate the spring festival was, simply put, a way to celebrate the symbols of the goddess and the season, while laying claim to their strengths (vitality, growth, and fertility) for ourselves.
If you want to wander through a complete list of pagan gods who are involved in resurrection myths just click here and plan on reading for a while. You’ll also find out about hot cross buns and why they have nothing to do with Christianity.
Yeah, we could keep this up for years.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.