Easter – Peeps with Battleaxes

I admit to a slight obsession: queue the clucking bunny and bring on his Cadbury Cream Eggs. As a child I was neurotic, leaving these gooey beauties in my basket to savor last. Keep your jelly beans, your marshmallow peeps, even the chocolate bunny and gimme, gimme the cream eggs. Easter is upon us and already I’m trying to curb my Pavlovian response.

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In celebration of Easter, and since I have been neck deep in Viking era research, I thought I would share the Nordic interpretation. Spring has always been sacred, regardless if you were pagan or Christian. The cold darkness of winter ebbs, hinting at the warm sunshine of summer. It is all about the cycle of renewal, nature in full swing bringing back the greenery and animals emerging from hibernation. Most historians agree that the name Easter has pagan roots. The spring equinox is the one day of spring where the hours of darkness equal that of the day, and it was on this day that the Saxon’s celebrated Eastre, the goddess of fertility and light (often depicted with a bunny rabbit).

The Vikings had their own goddess of light and fertility, Freya. But unlike Eastre, who was mainly worried about ensuring good harvests and fertility of animals and man, Freya concerned herself with love, beauty, strategy, and even war. This chic was everywhere. And just because one Norse god was known for something didn’t exclude other gods from taking their own interest. Every one of them seemed to think battle was essential to life. Frigg (or Frigga), Odin’s main squeeze was also a fan of fertility, beauty and household management. And though roles are often shared amongst the gods, it would seem Freya is the only one to influence the sun, riding dawn across the sky on her chariot pulled by four giant cats, a gift from Thor (my mind’s eye conjures more the lynx and less the red tabby – but you be the judge).

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Symbolism is also shared amongst religions. The incredible, edible egg is a prime example. Almost all religions use the egg as a symbol of renewal that can be tracked back as far as the Egyptians and Persians. I even found my favorite bunny rabbit laying eggs in an old German myth when the goddess Eastre came upon a wounded bird while wandering through the forest. Feeling pity for the creature, she healed it by turning it into a rabbit. Though the bird had become a rabbit, in gratitude it promptly starting laying eggs. All those Cadbury commercials that had me salivating as a child had an origin after all. The egg continues to influence the religions of today. Christians use it as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. The Hindu’s compare the egg to the universe, the yolk being the earth at its center, surrounded by space. Cracking an egg open is an act of creation itself.

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I’ve talked before about why the Vikings were so successful, one of the reasons being their faith. When the missionaries came to convert the Norse pagans, they were very strategic. Much like St. Patrick in Ireland, Christianity absorbed the rituals that had become high points in the pagan calendar. Sweden had the first Christian king in 990 AD, but instead of attempting to abolish the Norse religion, they created a mutual agreement of toleration. Wouldn’t that be nice if we could do that today with some of our present day religious strife? Though I don’t want to give the indication the conversion was a bloodless coup, because, come on, that wasn’t the Nordic way. It wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and the conversion took hundreds of years. And even now they aren’t too sure. A 2009 study indicated that the Scandinavian countries are the ‘least religious’ in the world.

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With that said, they do celebrate Easter with ardor, a week long celebration that culminates on Easter Sunday. Norway even has a fun television ritual where the crime drama plays center stage with annual miniseries. After the long dark days of winter, the grain stores were poor, leaving the egg center stage. Easter brunch is a thing to behold, with eggs of all kinds decorated in bright colors of yellow and green. The chicken and the egg have been the primary symbols of Easter, and only recently has the Easter Bunny entered into the festivities. Gotta love commercials and the internet. Next it will be the cream egg…I know it.

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  • Nick
    March 24, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Christian appropriation of pagan rituals and traditions is always so interesting. I had no idea that modern Easter was so ingrained in Nordic history. Pretty cool read.

    • Del MacKay
      March 24, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      The marriage of religion has always intrigued me. My favorite part though was finding out the Cadbury Bunny actually existed in folklore. And here I thought the marketing team were just clever!