This morning my Facebook newsfeed included an image of a bloody thorn-crowned Christ on the cross. I’ve never understood why death is enshrined in our culture, especially at a time we’re seeing the natural world revive from winter. This is spring. Why worship death?
In reality, spring equinox and the celebration of Easter are simply new names for one of the oldest observances of mankind—the renewal of life. For millennia, sex has animated the celebration. Without sex, life would stop in its tracks.
So why has our celebration of spring has been stripped of its sexual origins and reframed in death?
Judeo-Christian religion has led the war against sex, somehow missing the point that perfect life in the Garden of Eden must have included sex. If not, then if Eve hadn’t tasted the apple, we wouldn’t be here. So it hardly follows that humans weren’t intended to have sex. Otherwise, what was the point of God’s fabulous creation if Adam and Eve were going to be the whole enchilada?
So right off the bat we can see that Eve and sex got a bad rap. Here we’ve been led to believe that sex and those troubling genitalia are intricately linked with sin and that’s why women are less than men and why men need to rule women with an iron hand.
No one can argue that religious rules came before sex. Sex existed from Day One, before primates, before cities. Unless of course you believe that God created Man and then crafted Woman from Adam’s rib and then boom, you had people without sex. (This story gets complicated if you ask how these two people produced the rest of us without incest.)
In the days before Christianity, civilizations worshipped sex as the best possible ceremony for welcoming spring. Now, not so much.
Unless spring break counts.
In case you haven’t already figured this out, I’ll warn you in advance that modern ceremonies tied to the spring equinox have little to do with celebrating the magical renewal of life and everything to do about controlling sex. Here’s my take on how that happened.
Among hunter-gatherers, women found it useful for men to bring food, skins, firewood, or other ‘gifts’ to exchange for sexual favors, sewn leggings, and a slab of fry bread. Women, stuck with staying home with the children, tended the fire and performed other more sedentary tasks while men ranged far afield in search of mammoth. Slowly, they began to connect the amazing dots between sex and reproduction. It was women who performed the magic.
Sex magic became ritualized as fortified settlements developed in fertile lands and material wealth could be accumulated. Pesky traveling salesmen entered the community. With wealth inheritance, keeping track of paternity became an issue. Rules governing and restricting females and their sex were necessary. Who wants his hard-earned herd of goats going to a son who looks at lot like that visiting salt dealer?
As the need for powerful enforcer gods developed to control unruly masses in crowded cities, traditions celebrating the springtime renewal of life became more complicated. They still needed sex magic to ensure fertility in their herds and crops. So they came up with ritualized sex.
In Sumeria, one of the earliest known civilizations, sex was celebrated at the spring equinox as part of fertility rites. A young woman would sit on the grounds of the goddess Ishtar’s temple and wait for a man to couple with her, a requirement to be fulfilled before she could get married.
Similarly, ancient Egyptians enshrined the sacred sex ritual in their god stories. Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother Set then revived by his beloved sister and wife Isis, who found all the discarded parts of him except his phallus. So she crafted one out of gold and mated with him, producing the god Horus. Osiris thus died and was reborn. For sex.
In ancient Greece, the god of the spring equinox was Dionysus. He was associated with flowering plants and fruitful vines and survived a painful winter to celebrate the revival of life. Not surprisingly, the spring festival of Dionysia involved obscene songs and erotic dances intended to stimulate plant growth. In a continuation of tradition from prehistoric Crete, peasants participated in sex orgies on freshly plowed fields.
Slowly, power shifted away from the female’s sex magic as men took over. The idea of a male hero’s death and rebirth gained traction. Temple prostitutes might perform spring rites with the king or priests, but let’s not have the wives and daughters randomly consorting with men in freshly plowed fields. Gradually priestesses originally reserved for sex rituals became virgins dedicated to the (male) gods.
Our old friend Dionysus ranks among the most famous stories of death and rebirth in ancient religions. His mother Semele, a mortal impregnated by none other than Zeus, became the target of jealousy from Zeus’ aging wife Hera who suggested that the Zeus Semele thought got her with child wasn’t really the god Zeus. Acting on the idea Hera planted, Semele demanded Zeus show proof that the father of her child was in fact the All-Powerful Zeus.
- Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Therefore, he came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning; mortals, however, could not look upon an undisguised god without dying, and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh.
Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer reached the obvious conclusion that old religions were at heart fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. In his work The Golden Bough, he argued that the king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.
So how did we get to a spring equinox religious ritual called Easter that includes not even a hint of sex? I mean, what is less erotic than the crucifixion? Last time I checked, Christ never enjoyed marriage, mystic or otherwise.
By now, everyone knows that Christianity superimposed itself onto old pagan traditions and holy days. So it’s no surprise that the Germanic custom to celebrate the lunar goddess Ostara on the first full moon after the spring equinox has become the Catholic Church’s method to set the date for Easter. And—you might have guessed—there’s also a direct connection between Ostara and Easter. The Germanic Saxon word for Ostara was Eostre: Easter.
Circa the time of Christ, folks needed to spruce up those old spring revival traditions from our pastoral past. What could be more logical than to replace the fecund female with the dying hero? The symbolism says the same thing—important stuff dies and then comes back to life. Only now, renewal of abundant crops gives way to life in an immortal hereafter gifted to humanity by a male Trinity bereft of any female sex.
You see how this works. Discredited by her pas de deux with a snake, Eve is the cause of God’s displeasure. She’s got no traction. It’s now up to the guys to keep the gods happy.
Meanwhile, with fairly little recognition for what lies beneath our modern customs and under the benign tolerance of the Church, we continue with a few of the old pagan accouterments of the Easter season—bunnies (an ancient symbol of fertility and new life) and eggs.
- “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of coloring and eating eggs during their spring festival.”
Robbed of her sexuality by divine insemination, the most revered female of the modern Christian church—Mary—becomes little more than a uterus by which the Divine Male is born to become the savior of humanity.
There’s something wrong with this picture.
A local (Northwest Arkansas) event celebrates women and the rites of spring through March 27. To learn more, visit The Goddess Festival.
A good source for an overview of the topic is Ancient Origins.