Mysteries of the Resurrected Child

(c) 1996, John Opsopaus

I. Etymology of "Easter"

Easter gets its name from Eoster, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn. Her name comes from an Indo-European root "aus-," meaning "to shine," from which also come Eos and Aurora, the Greek and Roman names of the dawn goddess; also in Greek, Aurios was Aurora as the Goddess of the Morrow (Her name may derive from an earlier "Ausrion," meaning morning). Her holiday is celebrated near the Spring Equinox (Gk. he Ismemeria Earine), as Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon that follows or falls on the Spring Equinox; naturally She is especially honored by Dawn Rites (as is still part of the Easter tradition). The same root "aus-" gives us "East," the direction of the dawn, and on the Spring Equinox the Sun rises due East. (See
De Aurora Liber for more on Eos.)

Since the Spring (Gk. Ear) is the dawn of the new vegetation year (and was often the start of the calendar year in ancient times), Eoster is also a goddess of spring. She is essentially identical to Freya, for She is the goddess of the fertile spring, the resurrection of life after winter. Friday, of course, is named for Freya and sacred to Her; so it is especially appropriate to honor Her on "Good Freya's Day."

II. Myths of the Resurrection of the Sun

Eoster Rites celebrate the vigor of the solar vegetation Gods and Goddesses. They are reborn at the Winter Solstice, when the Night begins Her retreat, but the Light does not conquer the Dark until the Spring Equinox, when the Sun triumphs. Love brings about the resurrection of the Sun, but also its death, since it is an act of love to clear the way for new life.

A. Resurrection of Korê

The story of the Mother and her Child, who dies and is resurrected, is told in many ways. First are the stories of the Mother and of the death and resurrection of the Maiden, Her Divine Child. In the earliest stories Zeus mated with Rhea, the Great Mother of the Gods and His mother, who bore Persephone, the Maiden (Korê). In later stories, Rhea gave birth to Demeter, to whom Zeus came in the form of a serpent, and it was She who bore Persephone. Thus the Great Triad - Persephone, Demeter and Rhea - Maiden, Mother and Crone - came into being. Thereafter, some say, Demeter told Zeus that He should come as a serpent to Persephone, and after He did so She bore Dionysos (on whom,
see below).

Hades saw Persephone and fell in love with Her, so He took Her down to the Underworld to be His Queen. No one knew what happened to Her except Helios, the Sun, who sees all things. Demeter, the Mother, wandered the earth searching for Her daughter, the Maiden, and while She did so the world was barren. We need not recount the well-known story of how She grieved. And of how Bawdy Baubo displayed Her shaved pubes in a raunchy dance, and so caused Demeter to laugh and break Her grief. And of how Demeter tried to confer immortality on the infant Demophoon by searing away his mortal parts, but was thwarted in this by his short-sighted mother. But we may observe that it was love that brought Persephone to the Underworld, and love that brought Her back from it.

The Lesser Mysteries (the Mysteries at Agrai) belong to the Great Triad and especially to Rhea; they were celebrated in the month of Anthesterion (the "Month of Flowers"), that is, the month preceding the Spring Equinox. The initiates said: "Whoever knows the secrets of Demeter will have joy forever in the world to come."

B. Resurrection of Kouros

Next are the stories about the Mother and the death and resurrection of the Youth, Her Divine Child or Lover.

1. Dionysos

Some say that Dionysos had one mother existing under two aspects ; others that He was born two, three or more times. Perhaps both are correct, for the myth of Dionysos is a Mystery, and so we must expect paradox.

The first story of the birth of Dionysos begins the birth of Zeus from Rhea and Kronos, whose names have long been identified with Flux (Rhoe) and Time (Khronos). Then Zeus came in the form of a serpent and coupled with Rhea, who is also Demeter (and whose name perhaps means Earth-mother), and She gave birth to Persephone. When She was grown, Demeter gave Her as bride to Zeus and caused Him to come as a serpent to the daughter, and to mate with Her, so that She begot Dionysos. (He is said to be horned because He is the son of Persephone.) And the mystery is that Demeter and Persephone are both said to be the mother of Dionysos, for Zeus has joined Himself with Rhea, Demeter and Persephone, who are the Crone, Mother and Maiden.

Hera sent the Kouretes (who may be Titans, derived from a word for Day ) to destroy Dionysos, as She earlier sent them to destroy another illegitimate son of Zeus, Epaphos, the son of Io, the Cow. They cut the child Dionysos into seven pieces and boiled them in a cauldron, which symbolizes the sacrifice of the calf or the kid. So also, the Greeks cut a kid goat into seven parts and seethe it in its mother's milk; in this way they symbolize the disassembly of the soul into its parts, and its return to its original state of bliss. So also, after being told, "You will be a God instead of mortal," the Initiate affirms, "A kid, I have fallen into milk."

Zeus blasted the Titans with His bolt, and They were reduced to ashes. (The Orphics say that humanity was formed from this ash, and so our nature is both Titanic and Olympian, for the Titans had eaten the flesh of Dionysos.) Some say that Demeter gathered the separated limbs of Her son (or grandson); others say that Zeus sent Athena, and She recovered the only part that had not been eaten by the Titans, His phallus or heart. She brought it back to Zeus in a winnowing fan, and He gave it to Hipta (another name for Rhea), which is why in the sacred processions a phallus of fig-wood is carried in a winnowing fan on the head.

The sacrifice of the horned kid-god to Titanic forces and His resurrection as the God of Wine heralds the time when humanity abandoned the dark ages of hunting and sacrifice, of animal cruelty and savagery, and entered the age when bread and wine became our food. At first He was Zagreus, the Great Hunter (assimilated to Orion, see below), who pursues wild beasts through the forest; afterwards He was Bakkhos, the Shoot, who is cut back and reborn each year.

Dionysos was called Twice-born or even Thrice-born because He was reborn. Some say that Zeus took the recovered limb of Dionysos and prepared a potion, which He gave to Semele, which is the Phrygian name for Khthonia, the Underworld Goddess. She became pregnant from this drink, so Hera caused Her to seek to see Zeus in His divine glory. This was more than She could endure, and She was burned to ashes. Zeus snatched the child from Her womb and nurtured Him in His groin. Zeus went to the East toward the dawn, where Dionysos was reborn on Mt. Nysa, which is why He is called Dio-Nysos. His Nurses were called the Nysai.

Dionysos loved His mother so much that after Her death He went down to the Underworld and brought Her back, and raised Her to Heaven, where She dwells among the Gods. First He had to search for Her, as Demeter searched for Persephone, but was able to find Her only by agreeing to take the woman's part to the guide Polyhymnos (or Prosymnos), for which purpose He made the phallus of fig-wood. (Thus, Dionysos is said to be bisexual like a tree; cf. Attis below.) After Semele ascended to Heaven She was called Thyone (the Ecstatic). Thereafter the ecstatic priestesses of Dionysos on Mt. Parnassus, who were charged with awakening the God in the Winnowing Fan, were likewise called Thyiades.

Semele's sisters echo the sacrifice of the Divine Child: Agave's son Pentheus was torn to pieces by three Bacchantes; Autonoe's son Aktaion, in the form of a stag, was torn apart by his hounds, but his bones were reassembled by His mother; Ino's son Milikertes was drowned or seethed in a cauldron, and Her other son was hunted like a stag by Her husband. (Ino became Leukothea, the White Goddess, who lent Her purple girdle to Odysseus; see "Circle" below.) The three sisters were the original nurses of Dionysos and the first Bacchantic Choir; They correspond to the Nereides, who first taught mortals the Mysteries of Persephone and Dionysos.

Ariadne was the daughter of Pasiphae, daughter of the Sun who mated with the Bull from the Sea. Her name comes from Ariagne, which means "Most Holy" or "Purest" (from Hagne = Holy, Pure, a name of the Queen of the Underworld). Dionysos became her husband and gave her the jewel-encrusted golden Wreath of Aphrodite (see "Circle" below), who had given it to Him; hence she was called Aphrodite Ariadne. She loaned the Wreath to Theseus to illuminate his way through the Labyrinth (the Underworld), for which infidelity she was punished: she died in childbirth, an event thereafter reenacted in ritual by a man (cf. Zeus as mother). Thereafter, Dionysos was reunited with her (on Dia, the Divine Isle), and He raised her into the Heavens as His bride. Dionysos set Her Wreath in the Heavens, where it is now known as the Crown of Ariadne (Corona).

Ariadne was the Mistress of the Labyrinthine Underworld. She was said to have a sister or rival called Phaidra (Bright) or Aigle (Shining), but this is just the bright side of dark Ariadne, for which she was called Aridela (Visible from Afar). So also Semele is dark complement to bright Thyone, as Persephone is to shining Aphrodite. Ariadne, Semele and Persephone all ascended to Heaven with Dionysos (for Aphrodite is also listed among His wives).

Dionysos is honored at several Spring Equinox festivals. The City Dionysia lasts for five days and ends on the full moon (13 Elaphebolion) following the Spring Equinox (that is, the full moon preceding Easter). The Anthesteria (Festival of Flowers), also called the Older Dionysia, are held on the preceding full moon (11-13 Anthesterion); they celebrate the second pruning of the vines and completion of the second fermentation of the wine, which is now ready to drink. The King surrenders the Queen to Dionysos in Sacred Marriage, as Theseus surrendered Ariadne to Dionysos. Similarly, on March 17 the Romans celebrate the Liberalia for Father Liber, who is often identified with Dionysos.

2. Demeter & Iakkhos

At the Eleusinian Mysteries, the birth of the Divine Child was celebrated with cries of "Iakkhe!" Iakkhos, who was identified with Bakkhos, was said to be the laughing child in Baubo's womb, who lifted Demeter from Her dark depression; He was also said to be the lover of Demeter and yet the son of Persephone, so we can see that He is indeed Dionysos. That is all we may say about the Mysteries.

3. Aphrodite & Adonis

It was said that Ashtaroth (Ishtar), whom the Greeks call Aphrodite, was born from an Egg (
see "Egg" below) floating in the Water; She was said to be a daughter of Okeanos. Others say She is the daughter of Zeus and the Dione (a feminine form of "Zeus"), a water goddess whose name refers to the bright sky and is related to Diana. She fell in love with Adonis (Thammuz), who was conceived when Myrrha (or Smyrna) became filled with desire for her own father (because she had angered Aphrodite or the Sun) and tricked him into sleeping with her twelve times.

When Adonis was born, He was so beautiful that Aphrodite immediately fell in love with Him, so She placed Him in a casket and gave him to Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, for safekeeping. However, the Queen opened the casket and also fell in love, so She refused to return Adonis to the world of the living. Aphrodite mourned so dreadfully for Him, that the world was barren. Finally Zeus intervened and declared that Adonis would spend one third of the year (the winter) in the Underworld with Persephone, one third (the spring) in the Heavens with Aphrodite, and one third (the summer) on His own. This tripartite division of the year reflects the three seasons recognized in ancient Greece (ear = spring, theros = summer, kheimon = winter), before the fourth (opora = fall) was introduced. Love brought Adonis to the Underworld and also brought Him back.

4. Eos

So also, Eoster corresponds to Eos, which is the Maiden aspect of the three Goddesses Eos (Dawn), Hemera (Day) and Nyx (Night). Eos is the sister of Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon), so we again have the triad of Dawn, Day and Night. (See
De Aurora Liber for more on Eos.)

Eos is similar to Aphrodite, and at night She sleeps with Tithonos, who is similar to Adonis and was granted immortality by Zeus; He lives with Her as son and lover at the Eastern rim of the world, from which She rises each morning. They are called Tito and Tithonos, both forms of "Titan," which means Day in a non-Greek language.

Tithonos was not the only youth loved by Eos, for She carried off Kephalos, and as the Dawn She is the rival of His lunar wife Prokris (associated with Artemis and Her she-bear).

Another immolated Divine Child was Phaethon, the son of Eos and Kephalos, though others say of Helios and Klumene (both couples representing the Sun and the Underworld). One morning before Dawn He usurped the chariot of the Sun and drove it out early, but He could not control it, so Zeus was forced to blast Him from the sky with His thunderbolt. Thus we see Phaethon's star, the Morning Star, rise early (before the Sun) and set quickly. Because He heralds and brings the light of the Sun, He is also called Phospheros or Lucifer (both mean Light-bearer). After His destruction, Aphrodite, who loved Him, raised Him to the heavens, where He shines as the Evening Star. Therefore the Morning and Evening Star (Venus) are dear to Her.

Another young husband of Eos was Orion, the Great Hunter, also known as Zagreus. His name is connected with Insemination (ourein), and according to one story he was born of the semen of Zeus, Poseidon and Hermes, incubated in an oxhide. He coupled with his mother Merope (an Underworld Goddess), for which he was blinded (the usual punishment for this crime, cf. Oedipus). A soothsayer told him that he could be cured only by exposing his eye sockets to the Sun, so he walked across the sea to where Helios rises at dawn, and so he was cured. With these strong solar connections, it is hardly surprising that he was loved by lunar Artemis. She killed him, either intentionally by sending a scorpion to sting him because he had tried to rape Her, or accidentally, because She was tricked into shooting him by Her brother Apollo (a rival solar God). This took place on Ortygia, the Isle of the Rising Sun. In grief She resurrected him, and They ascended to the Heavens together.

5. Cybele & Attis

Finally, we mention that the festival of Cybele and Attis (Mother and Resurrected Lover) was celebrated at the time of the Spring Equinox, and His resurrection represented the revival of the crops.

III. Symbols

A. The Fast

People abstain from food before the Spring Equinox so that more energy will be available for the seeds (a kind of sympathetic magic). It is comparable to the fast that precedes initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which mimics Demeter's fast during Her search for Persephone when She was hidden in the Underworld, and the starvation that afflicted the people while the world was barren. In the Greek tradition, eggs are especially avoided (
see below).

B. The Egg

At the spring Equinox, the balance of the day shifts from dark to light; the hen senses this and begin to lay her eggs. In the forest, wild birds lay their colorful eggs, and in ancient times our ancestors went out to hunt for them, and perhaps brought them back in their nests, or in baskets imitating them. Therefore nestlike baskets of decorated eggs and the Eoster Egg Hunt remind us of the revitalization of nature. Colored eggs were also offered to Eoster.

Raw colored eggs are used as amulets, kept raw to promote fertility, and hard-boiled colored eggs are eaten at sunrise on Eoster's Day. They are often dyed red all over to represent the Sun, and their red shells are thrown in the river so that they might float down to the "Kindly Ones" (the daughters of Hades and Persephone ). Thus they go to the Underworld as symbols of renewal.

The Egg is a means of banishing the past and starting afresh. In ancient Paganism it was used both for purification - which removes past pollution - and for propitiating and quieting the dead - which makes way for the living. Though the yolk may be used for cleansing, it is generally the intact egg, touched to the person, that is used for purification, healing and protection. Eggs, which are common Pagan symbols of rebirth, are brought in baskets to the dead and left at their tombs. (That they are not food offerings is shown by the use of empty and artificial eggs for this purpose.)

The Egg figures prominently in the Mysteries. When Plutarch asks whether the chicken or egg came first, Alexander answers that the Orphic Mysteries teach that the Egg is the origin of all things, and so it is given as an offering to Dionysos; Macrobius says it is the central object of reverence in the rites of Pater Liber.

The Egg is a concrete symbol of rebirth. The yolk and the white of a hard-boiled egg symbolize the Sun hidden in the womb of the White Goddess. We crack the shell to symbolize the cracking of the winter's ice; we peel the white to show the melting of the snow, and free the golden Sun. We share the pieces of the Egg, and so share in the God's rebirth. This ritual also symbolizes the destruction of Semele and the rescue of golden Dionysos from Her womb, and the Titans' partaking of divinity by consuming the God.

C. The Circle

The circle represents Ishtar's belt of birthstones, representing the wheel of the year and thus the cycle of birth (summer/day), death (winter/night) and rebirth (spring/dawn). It is also Aphrodite's magic Zone (belt) or golden Wreath (later the Crown of Ariadne). Ishtar/Ashtoreth/Aphrodite had to abandon this instrument of power to descend to Her dark sister, who is Queen of the Underworld, but She regained it when She left the Land of the Dead. (We must recall that Aphrodite had Underworld connections as A. Epitumbidia (On the Graves) and A. Tumborukhos (Gravedigger); She is even invoked as the Queen of the Underworld under the name Passiphaessa (Far-shining, a lunar epithet). So also in the Mysteries, the Stephanos (Crown) means also the Wheel of Purgation; the initiate must, perhaps, both enter and leave it.

Also like Theseus' use of the Wreath of Aphrodite, Freya gave Her magical necklace, the Brisingamen, to Thor so that, by impersonating Her, He might defeat the Giants.

Finally, recall that Semele's sister Ino became Leukothea, the White Goddess, and that She gave Her Girdle (Zone) to Odysseus when he was lost on his mystical journey. By its means he made his way to the Cave of the Nymphs, which has been understood since Porphyry's time (third cent. CE) to be the Gateway between the Worlds, through which spirits descend to Earth and ascend again to the Heavens. (See, e.g., Thomas Taylor's On the Cave of the Nymphs and Kathleen Raine's Blake and Tradition, vol. I, ch. 3.)

D. The Cake

Cakes, or "Eoster bread," are offered to Her on Her day; these are "hot cross buns," for the equal-armed cross is a solar cross. Their surrounding circular shape represents the eternal cycle of Birth, Death and Rebirth. At this time of year, cakes were also offered to Liber (= Bacchus, March 17) and Ceres (= Demeter, April 19).

E. The Bonfire

Bonfires are also a common part of Eoster celebrations; they represent the rekindling of the Sun and Nature.

F. The New Clothes

It is common for initiates into the Mysteries to wear new clothes, which reflected the fresh, new beginning of their life; it is the origin of the tradition of wearing new clothes for the Eoster festivities.

G. The Flowers

Young folk decorate the "Easter Stones" (altars to Eoster) with flowers. In the final stage of the Mysteries, the Initiate dons Stemmata (Garlands).

H. The Rabbit

The rabbit is, of course, a fertility symbol. They are sacred to Eoster, and it is said that She takes on the form of a rabbit.

I. The Lamb

The lamb is a symbol of rebirth and initiation, because it is so stupid and follows blindly; more charitably, it represents the surrender of individual will required of the neophyte. The sacrificed lamb is reborn as the Kid Goat.

IV. Sources & Notes

American Heritage Dictionary.
Burkert, Greek Religion.
Campanelli, Ancient Ways.
Campanelli, Wheel of the Year.
Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks.
Liddell, Scott & Jones, Greek Lexicon.
Mercatante, World Myth. & Legend.
Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.
Parke, Festivals of the Athenians.
Simon, Festivals of Attica.
Scullard, Festivals & Ceremonies of the Roman Republic.


(The notes are not currently linked into the text; they will be at a future date.)
1 AHD s.v. Easter, App. s.v. aus-; LSJ s.v. eos; Donnegan, Grk. & Eng. Lex. s.v. aurion; OED s.v. Easter.
2 Guerber, Myths of Northern Lands 57-8.
3 MWM sect. 3208.
4 KGG 250-3.
5 KGG 236-7.
6 PFA 122; SFA 26-7.
7 CAW 32.
8 KGG 272.
9 KGG 250-3.
10 KGG 199.
11 KGG 254-5.
12 Johnson, Ecstasy 43.
13 Harrison 594-6.
14 KGG 255-6.
15 KGG 250, 262-3.
16 KGG 256-8.
17 KGG 273.
18 KGG 256, 259.
19 KGG 261-2.
20 KGG 269-72.
21 KGG 269, 271.
22 PFA 125-34; SFA 101-4.
23 BGR 237-41; NFR 33; PFA 107-19; SFA 92-9.
24 SFR 91-2.
25 KGG 274.
26 KGG 67-8.
27 KGG 75.
28 KGG 75-6.
29 LSJ s.v. hora.
30 CAW 36.
31 KGG 198-9.
32 KGG 198-9.
33 KGG 200.
34 KGG 194-6.
35 KGG 201-4.
36 Hyde, Grk. Rel. & its Survivals 98-100.
37 Hyde 98-100; Lawson, Mod. Grk. Folklore, 574.
38 CWY 54.
39 CAW 37.
40 KGG 47.
41 CAW 38-40.
42 CAW 37-40; Harrison, Proleg. 627-9.
43 Harrison, Proleg. 627-9; Plut., Quaest. Symp. II.3.1; Macr., Saturnalia VII.16.691.
44 CWY 54; Serith, Pag. Family 125-6.
45 CAW 46-7.
46 CAW 46-7.
47 KGG 81.
48 Harrison 592-3.
49 CAW 36; MWM sect. 1207.
50 CAW 45-6; CWY 54.
51 SFR 91-2, 103.
52 MWM sect. 1045.
53 MWM sect. 1045.
54 Guerber 57-8.
55 Harrison 593.
56 MWM sect. 1045.
57 CAW 35.
58 Cooper, Ill. Enc. Trad. Sym. s.v. lamb.

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Last updated: Sat Apr 11 11:30:55 EDT 1998