This week comes the celebration of Easter. This Christian holy day is the archetypal summit of the year, where rebirth and resurrection are venerated in the mystery of Jesus Christ’s awakening from the tomb. In Christian orthodoxy, Easter is known as pascha, the Greek and Latin term referring to the Jewish Passover. The Apostle Paul uses this word as a title for Christ, “For Christ our Passover lamb [pascha], has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5.7). By the end of the first century CE early Christians had reinterpreted the Exodus story and the Passover ritual as a prototype for the sacrifice of Christ.
The word “Easter” itself, however, is Old English, from Ēastre or Ēostre, a title derived from an old English month now known as April. Christian Easter is celebrated on the first Sabbath after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This holy-specific day most often occurs in April and is representative of the most fertile time of the year, when Sun, Moon, and Earth are all in their phases of rebirth and awakening.
Easter is therefore the day of resurrection, in heaven and on earth. And this heaven-earth relationship is only an archetypal symbol for the heaven-earth awakening that occurs in the soul of God, or in the spirit and breath of each mortal man and woman. In Christian rite and belief, every soul will arise like the Sun, Moon, and Earth, to a new immortal dwelling.
Despite this traditional context, historically, Easter had feminine roots. Significantly, the old English month of Ēostre was itself named after a goddess whose rites of rebirth were celebrated at the same time among the early inhabitants of Britain and Northern Europe. Ēostre was a Germanic goddess whose name is cognate with the Proto-Germanic austrōn, meaning dawn or to shine. This deity belongs to a long line of female divinities who are goddesses of the dawn, and are found in various forms throughout Indo-European cultures as beings who bring light and life to the world.
For thousands of years before Christianity the divine being who brought forth resurrection was represented as a goddess. Inanna, Isis, Cybele, and Demeter are beings with the divine stewardship over rebirth. The Japanese Amaterasu is a goddess of the dawn who also brings light and life to the world. While these deities were seen as the powers behind the fertility of all things on earth, they also held stewardship over the mysterious cosmic principle of heavenly life. In the Greco-Roman mystery religions, the resurrection of the initiate was promised via the gifts and boons of the goddess.
This should make sense as in fact it is only woman who can bring forth life from her womb. In many respects, the rites of rebirth analogized the tomb with the womb, so that those going into the beyond could be reborn by a Heavenly Mother whose womb was the cosmic precinct of immortality.
This was certainly the case in ancient Egypt. It is often assumed that the process of resurrection in the Egyptian scheme was overseen by Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. The mysteries of Osiris place this god center stage, for his death and rebirth are the main theme of the mystery play. The truth is, however, the entire drama of rebirth is not overseen by the god but by the goddess, whose womb is the deus ex machina which saves the climactic action from complete oblivion. Repeatedly in the funerary texts and vignettes the major characters of the liturgical pageant show up performing all their prescribed duties: Osiris is killed and rises, Anubis guides, Thoth records, Horus aids and fights, Atum, Re, or some other version of the solar god breathes new life into the dead, etc. Never far away from all these scenes, however, is a representation of the Mother Goddess who oversees the entire operation from beginning to end and is the key to cosmic rebirth.
It is actually Isis and Nephthys who always appear by the lion couch where Osiris lies, and it is their power which helps raise him from the state of death. In Egyptian myth, Isis and Nephthys are really dual personifications of the Mother Goddess, one representing the heavenly mother and the other the earthly one (Nibley, Message 163). Meanwhile, in the twelve divisions contained in the book That Which is in the Underworld the solar god is always accompanied by a figure called “lady of the boat” who is the true guide through the darkness leading the envoy past each obstacle and gate which inhibits progress (Budge, The Gods 207). Each boat in the underworld is adorned with symbols of the various manifestations of the Mother Goddess, including symbols representing Hathor, Maat, and Isis, all who are absolutely essential for the journey’s success.
Isis remains central to the resurrection drama. When the Egyptian boat is at its darkest, deepest, and most treacherous juncture in the netherworld only Isis can tow it across the dry sand and to safety (Nibley, Message 416). It is Isis “whose mouth is the breath of life, whose sentence drives out evil, and whose very word revives him who no longer breathes” (de Lubicz, Temples 39). A papyrus dating from the time of Khufu speaks of Isis as the true ruler of the Pyramids (Adams 30). She is the “Mother of God” who raises the dead to the celestial heights: “The Divine Sothis, the Star, the Queen of Heaven” (Adams 30).
“To be reborn in resurrection, the king must enter again into his mother’s womb,” writes Hugh Nibley. “The sarcophagus in which he lay was called mw.t, which also means ‘mother,’ and was designed to represent the embracing arms and wings of the starry sky-mother [Nut]” (Message 119). As the deceased lies in his coffin he is swallowed by the mouth of Nut in the west and reborn from the womb of Nut in the East; the entire gestation cycle is celestial.
The essential role of the Mother Goddess in the process of Egyptian rebirth explains the essential difference between her imagery as Nut, the Sky Mother, and the imagery found in other mythologies where the mother goddess is terrestrial, such as Gaia, the Earth Mother. In the latter example the mother goddess is analogized with the fertile ground which receives the solar semen and whose womb swells with the pregnant produce of nature. As all material forms, however, are only reflections of celestial archetypes, the true womb of the universe must remain heavenward.
What is true of Egyptian myth and rite in this regard is also true for the later Greco-Roman mystery cults, as Jane Ellen Harrison makes clear: “The mysteries of Greece never center round Zeus the Father, but rather round the Mother and the subordinate son” (Mythology 49). While Olympian gods are approached with prayer, praise, and presents, the Mother Goddess “is approached by means that are magical and mysterious” because she possesses the mysteries (Mythology 49).
Further, Hera, Demeter, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis represent different aspects of the one Mother Goddess (Mythology 49). In the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, the Mother Goddess is identified by many names, including: Mother of the Gods, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, Hecate, and others (Vermaseren 10). Whatever her title, name, or station, she is always understood to be both queen of heaven and the underworld, of life and death and of the mystery of rebirth (Vermaseren 10). In Roman times “the performance of her rites remained in the charge of orientals, not Romans, a dispensation carefully maintained by the Roman Senate throughout the Republic; under the direct control of the State the cult of the Goddess was to be kept in the proper channels” (Vermaseren 11).
The oracle at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo only in later times; the oracle center first belonged to the goddess Themis (Vermaseren 14) who was the steward of the gate of heaven. At Delphi there was a sacred rock known as the omphalos, or navel of the world, as well as a mysterious cleft descending into the earth which represented the nexus between worlds. Here the seekers of knowledge from the other world descended into the cave of the Goddess, for she kept the ultimate secrets and possessed the navel and nexus of creation.
The Oracle at Delphi has an interesting parallel to the school of Parmenides. Parmenides is the father of Greek philosophy. He declared his authority to teach via a vision he had in which he ascended to heaven and was met by aids and stewards of the heavenly word, all of who were female. At the apex of the world, Parmenides himself is taught by the Goddess (Kingsley 49).
Meanwhile, all the mystery cults held the divine Mother as central to the mystery of rebirth. Cybele was the Heavenly Mother of the Attis cult. She was not only the Queen of Heaven but also the Queen of the Underworld and the wife of Hades (Vermaseren 129). Demeter and Persephone fulfill the same role at Eleusis, while Harmonia fills in at Samothrace. Mother-Goddess imagery is absent in Mithraism, an all-boys club, but the Attis Mysteries were utilized by priests of Mithraism for the initiation of women so they too might receive their afterlife rewards (Weston 159). Demonstrably, in the Greco-Roman mysteries, female priestesses were stewards of the matriarchal rites and always attended the mystai performing various roles as they aided the initiate on his quest. This fact also parallels the sister/daughters of Osiris who lift him out of the clutches of death and the sister/daughters of Oedipus who guide him to the mystery grove at Colonus.
Rebirth was also symbolized by the male principle. Human life requires both semen and an egg. Osiris, Dumuzi, Attis, Dionysus, and Orpheus are all male deities of rebirth. In the Christian mythos, the male principle dominated to the exclusion of the goddess who had filled the role of salvation and rebirth for centuries.
But this exclusion of the female presence for salvation took many centuries to fulfill. From the earliest days of Catholicism the form of the Mother Goddess was kept alive within the cult of the Virgin Mary. Jesus was God and was to be worshiped. But Mary was the Mother of God and was to be venerated. As Joseph Campbell makes clear: “The Virgin Mary has been called a co-savior in her anguish and suffering, which was as great as the suffering of her son. She also brought him into the world, and her submission to the Annunciation amounts to an act of salvation, because she acquiesced to this saviorhood” (Campbell, Goddesses 187).
The centrality of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity was not a Catholic invention. This was a hold over from many centuries of worshiping a goddess who was key to the cycle of rebirth. Speaking of the role of the ancient goddess, Joseph Campbell writes:
She gives birth to us physically, but She is the mother too of our second birth—our birth as spiritual entities. This is the basic meaning of the motif of the virgin birth, that our bodies are born naturally, but at a certain time there awakens in us our spiritual nature, which is the higher human nature, not that which simply duplicates the world of the animal urges, of erotic and power drives and sleep. Instead there awakens in us the notion of a spiritual aim, a spiritual life: an essentially human, mystical life to be lived above the level of food, of sex, of economics, politics, and sociology. In this sphere of the mystery dimension the woman represents the awakener, the giver of birth in that sense. (Goddesses 6)
It is easy to see how the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a natural byproduct of the religiosity from the public at large. For numerous generations, oral peoples recognized the essential presence of the feminine divine in the birth of both deity and dignity. Christians often forget the close affinity the early Church had with the feminine principle. There is a reason for this lack of memory, as again Joseph Campbell hints, “Orphic imagery is the foreground to Christian imagery, and the mythology of Christianity is far more firmly rooted in this classical [Greco-Roman] mystery religion that it is in the Old Testament” (Campbell, Goddesses 185).
If Christianity were solely a product of Judaism, than the veneration of Mary must be seen as idolatrous; as indeed it is by Protestants. Yet, while the earliest Christians were all Jews, the expansion of Christianity was due to the converts from the Greco-Roman world at large. In the Greco-Roman mysteries the initiate was given a ritual endowment learning the secrets for the next world. He was often accompanied by female priestesses who would guide him to a garden reprieve after his terrible initiatory ordeal. The whole process was indicative of death and rebirth as overseen by the goddess.
We do not find any of this imagery in the Old Testament. Indeed, while uncomfortable for many Christians to hear, the Old Testament is empty of any reference to resurrection or rebirth until perhaps the very late book of Daniel, where the dead turn into stars: “Those who are wise [the knowledgeable ones] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, [will be] like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12.3). Hardly orthodox Judaism. However, this is the exact teaching of the Greco-Roman mysteries.
Problematically, such a vision may have also come from Judaism. If there was a doctrine of rebirth in early Israelite religion, then perhaps the closest one may come to such a teaching would be within the cult precinct of the goddess or the grove. There is strong evidence that in first temple Judaism fertility was venerated, not under the auspices of Yahweh, but with his consort Asherah, the goddess of rebirth. By the time of the Babylonian exile she had been exiled from the religion and dropped from all the texts. Egyptian Jews, however, maintained a temple to the Queen of Heaven, and early Christian Jews, according to Margaret Barker, may have imported this tradition into the new faith, flowering in the cult of the Virgin Mary.
Whatever the complexities of the divine feminine among the Old Testament Jews, the imagery does show up among the New Testament Christians. Remarkably, at the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus is only attended by females. It is only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (Matthew 27.56) who, after his crucifixion, anoint him on the day of his resurrection (Mark 16.1) and are thus the first to see him rise from the sepulcher, which also happens to be in a garden (John 19.41).
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, moreover, there is a peculiar band of women who always stand witness of the crucifixion, while in the Gospel of John this band of female attendants is replaced by three Marys: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and her sister, also named Mary (John 19.25); a unique picture as the Mother Goddess is not only represented by two sisters but also by three women who represent youth, motherhood, and old age. At Eleusis, the Mother Goddess was represented by Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate (Freke and Gandy 58). Dionysus was also represented by three female attendants; when a new sanctuary of Dionysus was founded “three priestesses called maenads would go there to establish the cult. Each one of them would assemble one of the three women choirs that helped celebrate the Mysteries” (Freke and Gandy 58).
It is a supreme curiosity that at the crucifixion of the Savior none of the twelve apostles are present, and the whole affair is overseen by a retinue of female attendants. There is one obscure reference in John 19.26 where the mother of Jesus is at the cross, attended by a “disciple, standing by, whom [Jesus] loved.” Christian tradition believes this “beloved disciple” to be John the apostle, but this conclusion is circumstantial. This unidentified disciple remains unspecified, and belongs in the background with the soldiers and priests. It is only Mary and the women who attend to the crucified Jesus. Even so, at the resurrection none of the apostles are present, and the first to witness the true day of Easter was a woman or group of women to whom the knowledge of life after death was first given.
The Gospels are a far cry away from modern Protestantism, who would crowd these scenes with popes, priests, apostles, and kings. Protestantism lost something essential when it exiled Mary from all of its iconography and symbolism. This male dominated ethos was never part of the original revelation that is Christ, and in the Gospels we are poignantly reminded that it is the Mother who stands as the central image around the dying and resurrecting Jesus.
However these roles, images, and models have changed over the centuries, the essential principle of rebirth lies within the womb. The closest thing to deity on earth is motherhood. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the God that Christians worship. Perhaps on this day Christians should also remember the divine hand of womanhood, for in this mortal realm, this is the closest thing we have to the celebration of life.