Many people celebrate the return of the growing season at this time of year without understanding the historical origins of the rituals they observe. This post revamps a column Lefthandofeminism wrote last year at this time to explain how men pushed women out of these holidays.
Christians have a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered god and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father. This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris restored by Isis, who was called “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old.”
Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.
Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover. Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.
A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.
Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.
The oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon. The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.
The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.
Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,
Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,
With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,
We carried Death out of the village
We are carrying Summer into the village.
Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase" from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.
Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the Europeans worshipped.
Lefthandofeminism finds this plausible but unlikely, given the traces of goddess worship in many different cultures across the globe, and her well-trumpeted lack of faith in any deity at all.
Lefty argues with Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy that ancient peoples devised mythical explanations for patterns that they perceived in the universe. Patriarchy began to rear its hideous head approximately in 2,500 B.C.E, but it did not become institutionalized until much later. Human beings have been “human” or homo sapiens, with roughly the same brain capacity and instincts, for 200,000 years. For most of human history, different peoples invented and worshipped both masculine and feminine deities.
Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is much older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god brought forth everything that exists.
Nevertheless, Lefty also thinks we should bring back the old rituals. Instead of duly noting the passing of time in reverence to a male deity and his son, who are said not just to represent but also to be the origin and end of all life, we should spend time meditating on the role that women play in creation and birth?
If the whole Judeo-Christan myth about the beginning of the cosmos makes little sense, even if you remember that it was invented by a relatively primitive and credulous group of people, that’s because it is the transmutation of much older, Mesopotamian stories. Some of these earlier myths include many of the same elements–the tree of life, the serpent, the prohibition of eating from a certain plant as are found in Genesis. Only the religious tradition that these stories developed, and from which they grew, considered divine creativity to be fundamentally feminine.
Akkadian Cylinder Seal showing the tree of life 2330-2150 B.C.E.
Even in 700 B.C.E., when men had largely achieved the total manipulation and exploitation of women’s reproductive capacities–a feat that took millenia–even these arch-patriarchal people still respected women’s gestational and life-giving powers as sacred.
It was the ancient Hebrews who institutionalized patriarchy by divorcing divine creativity from feminine procreativity. This did not happen overnight. The scriptures that Christians call the “Old Testament” recount hundreds of men having hot flashes about idolatry, particularly the worship of the old Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, of whom Astarte/Ishtar and Asherah were the most important and therefore the most hated.
Easter demonstrates the catholicity of the Church, its ability to adapt ancient customs in divers locations to Christian myth and to suppress the beliefs upon from which those customs developed. However persuasive the Christians have been , early and late, dearly held practices and stories do not die easily. That is probably why the name of for the goddess, Oestre, who symbolized fertility is still with us, not only for the holiday, but also as the name for a fundamental fact of life.
“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the Greek οἶστρος). Wikipedia defines the estrous cycle as follows:
The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.
In the great s/f novel The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go. As Le Guin observes,
Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.
Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.
Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions, we celebrated this time of year differently?
Not for a second does Lefty mean to suggest that we all start worshipping the Moon. Indeed it would be nauseating were women to begin identifying themselves with the heavenly body that male theologians and misogynists have for too long associated with the son/sun’s mirror. We ought rather to spend the holiday reconsidering our myths, and recovering our history by talking about how the rituals and beliefs have oppressed one half of humanity for thousands of years.
Look, there are many ways to experience redemption–a term that recurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures and means, very simply, the recovery of a thing that had been alienated. Patriarchal theology alienates women from the sacred. It therefore alienates women from men, men from women. In my view, the hierarchical paradigm that patriarchal theology enforces also alienates human beings from animals and the earth by insisting that one should rule over the other. Can we please redeem each other, restore ourselves to sanity. starting now?
Being an atheist does not mean I do not value the rich symbolic and mythological traditions that human beings have developed over time. We made those traditions, but they also made us. We understand ourselves the way we do because of those traditions, and by virtue of how we come to terms with them.
So here’s an idea: what if we were to celebrate Eostre and the estrous in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life? What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?
We should especially celebrate the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.
Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.” O, so it turns out that feminine sexual desire and creativity are still associated with one another in language! Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.
My boyfriend’s father, Joe, an incredibly loving and patient man, very recently died. Joe was a devout Catholic. His son, by boyfriend, became an Episcopalian when the Catholics refused to grant him communion because he had been divorced.
My friend stands in need of redemption, of recovering his unity with the father from whom he began, now that that beloved father is gone. In other words, the son has a psychological need to recoup (redeem) as much as he can, at whatever price. And this all makes perfect sense.
Still, some prices are too high. A feminist has a hard time knowing where to draw the line between sympathy for the son and sympathy for the daughter, who has, after all, been rather left out of that psychological-spiritual communion for all these years.
We are feminists and we love and have friendly understandings for our sons (and for our partners, male and female, who have lost their fathers). Our sympathy does not enervate our just irritation.