• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Easter Eggs
In some Germanic languages, Easter Eggs are connected to the holiday by the name, Easter in English and Osterei for ‘Easter egg’ at Ostern ‘Easter’ in German. In many Indo-European languages, including the Scandinavian languages, the name of the festival for the Goddess Eostra has been replaced by a christianized name of a holiday for one of the Christian Gods, of the type Paschalia, etc. However coloring eggs and sharing them at the time of the Spring Equinox is ubiquitous among Europeans, with the possible exception of the Celts (who may have had similar customs set to May 1st). This section will address this wider topic, that is, it is not limited to Germanic language-speaking areas.
Throughout Europe, Easter Eggs are typically dyed yellow or red and people who could afford it covered them with gold leaf. They probably represent the Sun at the time of its increase and are a suitable offering to the Goddess of the spring at the Spring Equinox. As the brothers Grimm put it (Osterei, Deutsches Wörterbuch 7, 1373), they are probably an altheidnisches frühlingsopfer “old heathen spring offering.” Naturally, there were objections from the authorities.
This objection to the gilding of eggs is from the Weisthümer, 2,185 (from the year 1407). Here it is actually quoted from Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol 7, 1373, and translated by me. The Weisthümer are the custom laws for villagers and there are extensive books of these for the various areas among German-speaking people. Weisthümer are apparently much like “Penitentials” in other countries--long lists of idiotic things that the Christian authorities labeled “sins.” These sources are very useful for information about traditional folk customs.
More often dyed eggs were considered a food, and they are used as “offerings” in the traditional way of the Indo-Europeans (see Food Offering in Proto-Indo-European Rituals). This isn’t necessarily a continuation of a Pagan custom as such, rather it may simply express the universal human desire or need to share anything good with those we love, including the living and the honored dead as well as deities or especially revered persons. In many countries, especially in Slavic-speaking countries, where the Greek Orthodox church and later the Russian Orthodox churches were much less obsessive than the Roman Catholic church, eggs were taken to graves and offered to the dead like any other food. This was especially common on the Ancestor Days which in Christian times followed the moveable Christian holiday of Easter. Red-dyed eggs were also offered to the Domovoi (house spirits), Blajini (spirits of still-born children), and even birch trees in Slavic-speaking areas.
In both Orthodox and Catholic areas, eggs were brought into the churches and blessed, apparently as part of an attempt to “christianize” an older Pagan custom of offering them to the Goddesses, which everyone would have most certainly done. The Latin form for blessing eggs and other foods is given in the Durham Ritual and is probably a continuation of an older Roman Pagan blessing of food. In some churches, eggs were taken in and actually offered to the crucifix.
List of Countries
Most of this information is extracted from An Egg at Easter, A Folklore Study by Venetia Newall, which was published in 1971 and does not always clearly identify locations especially those that have changed since the breakup of Yugoslavia and some other changes in the Balkan countries.
The dye can then be poured off the dye material (or strained if you like) and two tablespoons of vinegar are added. This helps the dye fix to the eggs and brightens the color. Then the eggs are added and they can be left in the water for about half an hour to absorb the dye. Finally the eggs are taken out and left to dry (in the refrigerator) and then rubbed with a small amount of vegetable oil (olive oil or other oil) to make them shiny. These eggs can still be used for food. There are much more elaborate ways of decorating eggs especially if they are going to be used as flirtation gifts, but those eggs are not meant to be eaten.
Eggs which are to be dyed and eaten can be hard-boiled, typically for about 20 minutes. Eggs which are to be used in games like egg-rolling may be boiled for about 30 minutes (and they can still be eaten). They should be kept in the refrigerator before they are dyed or boiled and they should be put back in the refrigerator after dyeing as soon as they have cooled off to room temperature. They should be kept in the refrigerator until right before they are eaten. In the old days, people used to leave eggs in graveyards, churches and gardens overnight for “blessing” and then eat them or share them with other unsuspecting recipients days or weeks later. Eggs can develop bacteria in them and make people very sick. People died of “natural causes” all the time in the old days and nobody really knew why--don’t let this happen to you.
Eggs which are decorated with very complex designs and which are meant to be keepsakes such as the pysanki eggs should not be boiled. They are kept on a shelf in a dry house and the egg inside will eventually dessicate (dry out), hopefully without going bad, but there is no guarantee. In the old days, houses did not have central heating so they were much cooler, and in Slavic countries, the decorated eggs were kept on an icon shelf which was near the stove so it was fairly dry. Make sure nobody eats an egg that has been sitting out in a bowl on the table for a while!
And finally, if you are blowing out the contents of an egg to use the empty shell, please save them in the refrigerator for use as food. Have some nice egg recipes in mind like quiche, omelette, egg bread, and other recipes that can use scrambled eggs because they will be scrambled. Chickens go to a lot of trouble to lay eggs, and it makes me sad to see their effort wasted.
Warning: Gross Out Alert
By forbidding people to eat, buy or sell eggs and dairy products which many people would have had access to at least in small amounts, the Christian Church condemned untold numbers of people, especially small children, pregnant women, the very old and the sick to a slow death. It’s heartbreaking to think of parents watching their small children starve to death in front of them, when there was food available that could have saved their lives, but which was forbidden based on Christian purity laws. No doubt many parents broke the rules to save themselves or members of their families, but they didn’t always fare better. If they were caught, they were punished by church authorities. The Christian Church’s excuse for this ridiculous law was that one of their gods Jesus (a name you may have seen Aeusoswhere) fasted for 40 days, so everyone else had to, too. What could compel such extraordinary hostility it is impossible to say, but starving peasants into theological correctness seems preposterous even by the standards of “Christian morality.” Was keeping Lent really worth dying for? Apparently not, because in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church scrapped the whole thing, although the Reformation had effectively ended it in Western Europe anyway. The Orthodox Christian Church continues to encourage an endless round of complex and idiotic fasts but it seems not to enforce them, presumably because it lacks the authority. There isn’t much good anyone can say about communism, but at least it put an end to those old destructive patterns -- while creating new ones as the Ukrainians will no doubt attest. And now we will move on to a much more pleasant topic.
The oldest reference that I could find to Easter bunnies is in a letter by Martin Luther (1483-1546). The letter is referenced as br 5, 716 by the Bruder Grimm & Cryptic. Luther mentions Osterhase who leave colored eggs for children. The relevant text is quoted in Deutsches Wörterbuch, Vol 7, 1373-4 under Osterei:
A much later rhyme expresses a child’s enthusiasm:
O Osterhaas, O Osterhaas
O Easter Bunny, O Easter Bunny
This is also quoted from Deutsches Wörterbuch and dates to 1859.
Osterspiele or Easter Games
The luxury of coloring eggs may have been influenced by the prevalence of domestic fowl and especially chickens which were certainly not widespread in Europe before Roman times. Proto-Indo-European-speaking people probably had domesticated poultry such as water fowl, that is, geese and ducks, but most people did not have chickens until the early Middle-Ages. Reports come from Finland and other far northern countries that children went out and built nests of leaves and grass and put colored stones in them to try to encourage wild birds including ducks to lay eggs in them. This may be a relic of a very old practice which actually increased the food supply at this time of the year. Chickens do not do very well so far north, so the customs which held until recently (that is, two hundred years ago) in Finland or Estonia may accord with circumstances in more southern Indo-European-speaking areas before the introduction of chickens. It seems that the Easter Egg Hunt may long predate the Easter Bunny.
There is a vast literature of folklore about the powers of Easter eggs and readers may regale themselves with a million magical uses for eggs dyed bright colors at Easter, all nicely laid out in the books included in the reference section, however most of it is nonsense. One useful custom remains and that is to increase the fertility (e.g., to fertilize) the orchards, fields and gardens by spreading the broken eggshells around and this might actually have worked, at least a little.
This page was originally at pierce.yolasite.com/eastereggs but Yola was hacked on Nov. 22, 2011 so it has been migrated here.
© 2011, last updated 3/13/2013, piereligion.org/eastereggs.html