From Birth to Burial: the Curious Case of Easter Eggs
Hanácké kraslice, Easter eggs from the Haná region, the Czech Republic by Jan Kamenícek (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
by Kristina Killgrove
Have you ever wonder why the humble egg is the focus of the most important Christian holiday? Today, the egg is ubiquitous and cheap, but this incredible, edible source of protein was, millennia ago, a potent religious symbol.
An equinox occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the centre of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator.
It starts with the spring or vernal equinox (which was 20th March 2012), when the sun is directly over the equator, and daylight is distributed evenly between the north and south hemispheres.
Numerous cultures around the world have celebrations for the beginning of spring. For example, Japan has a national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day, where families visit graves of their ancestors and hold reunions. Prior to 1948, the day was celebrated as a Shinto holiday, Koreisai, a time to pray for a successful growing season and a time to venerate the ancestors. And modern Egyptians today celebrate the national holiday of Sham el-Nessim by setting out on picnics and eating lettuce and onions, foods that were customarily offered to the ancient Egyptian gods for Shemu, or the start of the third Egyptian season, a holiday that dates back to around 2700 BCE.
The rebirth of the year
With spring marking the beginning of a new growing season, a rebirth of the plants that have been dormant through the winter and a time of plentiful food on the horizon, this was crucially important moment for those who lived perpetually on the edge of famine.
The relationship between the start of spring and the return of crops can also be seen in ancient Roman culture in one of many examples. The month of March was named for the Roman god Mars, who – in addition to his role as the god of war – also had a duality in being a god of fertility; sacrifices for the health of one’s cattle were often made to Mars Silvanus (Cato, de Agricultura LXXXIII). Julius Caesar established the date of the spring equinox in his calender reform of 45 BCE, fixing it as March 25 (a date that was later changed to March 20/21 through the vagaries of leap days in the first few centuries CE).
A reckoning of time
The spring equinox has long been important in reckoning time in the political sense – from the ancient Iranian calendar, which began on the vernal equinox, to the Julian calendar. But it’s also quite important in reckoning time in the religious sense. In Jewish tradition, Passover was originally intended to track the vernal equinox, although reforms in the Hebrew calendar in the fourth century AD mean the celestial event doesn’t determine the date of Passover any more. And in Christian tradition, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. In fact, the word Easter comes from the Old English word referring to the month of April, (Ēosturmōnaþ ) named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn Ēostre.
(In other modern languages, Easter is called a variant of Paschal, a word that can refer to either Easter or to Passover, demonstrating the strong link between these two Judeo-Christian celebrations). Spring is a time to celebrate – whether it’s the start of the year, the season for sowing, the release of slaves from Egypt, or the resurrection of a saviour, spring means starting anew.
Back to eggs
Most of us take for granted the association of eggs with Easter, particularly when that association involves the world’s major chocolate manufacturers, but before the egg became firmly linked to Christianity, it was a symbol of life dating back at least 2,500 years.
Drawing of a Silvanus relief from Rome. 4th edition of Meyers Konversationslexikon via Wikimedia Commons
Our first historical records of egg symbolism in religion date to about 500 BC. In the Achaemenid period, the Iranian calendar was influenced by Zoroastrianism, and the spring equinox – the first day of their calendar year – became a holiday. Called Nowruz, this holiday is often celebrated today by decorating, sharing, and eating eggs, and may have been celebrated similarly in the past, as a carved relief from
Persepolis (dating to around 500 BC) seems to depict noblemen carrying coloured eggs.
The egg as a Roman symbol of magic
But it’s not clear what influence – if any - the Persians had on the celebrations and symbols of early Christianity. The first confirmed use of the egg as a Christian symbol, begins in the Roman world. During the empire’s pagan times, eggs were part of the Bacchic or Dionysian mysteries, possibly a chthonic symbol (Macrobius, Saturnalia 7.16); they could be used to cast spells and, conversely, to offer protection (Clarke 1979). A fortified castle was built in the 15th century in the Bay of Naples, but legend has it that the poet Virgil (1st c BC) buried an egg on the site for protection, hence the modern name of the structure: Castel dell’Ovo.
The symbolic uses of the egg varied in the Roman world, but the link between eggs and birth is fairly straightforward. The Romans had plenty of species of birds, and most people probably would have observed chickens, pigeons, or other fowl laying eggs out of which new life hatched. Roman medicine was greatly influenced by the Hippocratic treatises (c. 400 BC), which sometimes used egg-hatching as comparanda for human birth. In de Natura Pueri (29.1-3), a human baby breaking out of the confines of the womb is described in direct analogy to a chick breaking out of its shell (Hanson, 2008).
The egg in burials
Hatching Bird. Image: Clay Junell (Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0)
But by the early Imperial period (1st c AD), we get the association of eggs with burials. There aren’t that many examples of these burials in the bioarchaeological record, though. At Colchester, York, and Winchester in Roman Britain, eggs have been found in or near cremation urns and inhumation burials (Pollexfen 1867, Wenham 1968, Clarke 1979), and eggs are sometimes depicted on Roman sarcophagi (Nilsson 1907), suggesting they were a symbol for all social classes. Eggshells are fairly thin, so archaeological excavation techniques prior to about 1980 might very well have missed additional examples of eggs in Roman burials. Two cases of burial with an egg have been found recently in Rome, though.
At the site of Castellaccio Europarco, the skeletal museum was studied for my dissertation, Tomb 31 was the burial of a 3- to 4-year-old child, dating to roughly 50-175 AD. The archaeologists note that: “under the left hand of the deceased is a chicken egg, which in a funeral context is probably not only a material offering of food, but perhaps also an allusion to eschatological renaissance (rebirth). Besides the presence of the egg, the method of disposition of the child is interesting: s/he presents on his/her stomach. This position is very rare in the context of Roman cemeteries” (Buccellato et al., 2008:18-19 [translation mine]). Within the Vatican necropolis under the via Triumphalis, a child a little less than a year old was also found buried with an egg. This burial dates to around the same time as the Castellaccio child, about 50-150 AD, although this child was buried facing up and had additional grave goods. Excavators write that the egg is most likely “a symbol of rebirth, a new life balancing the injustice of a premature end” (Liverani et al., 2010; 229 [translation mine]).
Burial with three ostrich eggs. Figure 74 from Liverani et al. (2010)
Life, Death and Resurrection
It is possible that these two children represent early Christian burials, as the egg has been strongly wedded to the idea of rebirth since the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The egg “is an apparently animate and inert substance which carries within itself a potent principle of life, and that which has a special vital power must perforce awake or enhance the vital powers of those to whom it is offered” (Nilsson 1907, quoted in Alcock 1980: 56). This could explain the association: the dormant egg, like the tomb of Jesus, contains new life within it. The complete egg becomes the rock that seals the tomb of Christ.
Historical evidence of eggs being linked to Jesus, though, is kind of uncertain. There is surprisingly little in the Bible about eggs – we get passages about eggs as food (Job 6:6) and a few passages using an egg in an analogy (Luke 11:12, Isaiah 10:14). Eastern Orthodox tradition has it that Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to Jesus’ tomb; the eggs turned bright red – the colour of blood – when she saw that Christ had risen. In a similar vein, another story holds that when Mary Magdalene went to Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, to tell him that Christ had risen, he insisted that “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red,” after which the egg turned bright red. But these are just traditions handed down, possibly apocryphal or used to retroactively justify the tradition of dyeing and eating Easter eggs.
Orthodox Icon bearing image of Mary Magdalene holding a red egg.
Yet two millennia later, we are still buying up Paas dye kits and hiding delicious treats in plastic eggs to the delight of our kids (and those of us who are still kids at heart). One of my fondest memories of Easter, though, was the year that I was allowed to stay up really late. I was maybe 8 or 9, and my father explained that some people believed the spring equinox meant that there were special gravitational forces on this day, which would let us do something amazing: balance an uncooked egg on its end. After many attempts (and a broken egg or two), we finally got one to stand, and I went to bed happy. The next morning, the egg was still standing, and it continued to stand for a couple days until we had to toss it out. Turns out, this business about special gravitational forces is an urban legend, but it shows that even in the 21st century, we’re still linking eggs with the vernal equinox.
So, why do we gobble up anything ovoid at this time of year, from Pancake Day before Lent to chocolate eggs on Easter? The answer is actually very simple: the egg has been associated with rebirth and renewal for millennia, first applied to the first days of spring and then adopted as a symbol of Christianity among other religions. The egg is a handy way of visualizing the circle of life that starts – for many plants and animals – in spring.
So happy Easter/Koreisai/Sham el-Nessim/Paschal/Ēostre/Nowruz or however you celebrate this time… and happy eating!
Kristina Killgrove is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina. She blogs on archaeology, biological anthropology, and the classical world at Powered by Osteons