Semiramis. Astarte. Ishtar. Eostre. Feast of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Queen of Heaven. Lady Day. Easter. This is just a sampling of some of the names the Spring Equinox is also known by. The Spring Equinox, as is the Winter Solstice, is a very important day among many religious and pagan followers around the world. One religious holiday in particular, Easter, and several pagan rituals are directly linked in some fashion to the Spring, or Vernal Equinox. But what exactly is the Spring Equinox and why have so many religious groups patterned their holidays and religious festivals after this particular time of the year? Why are there so many different names attached to the Spring Equinox? Does this have any particular meaning?
To understand pagan rituals attached to the Spring Equinox, we should have a quick discussion about what the Spring Equinox is. Basically, the Spring Equinox is the time of year when the sun, in its movement along the ecliptic, crosses the celestial equator, making night and day of equal lengths in all parts of the earth. one of only two times in the year when day is twelve hours and night is twelve hours. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox occurs about March 21, and this marks the beginning of spring.
The beginning of spring was, and still is, a very important time of the year for pagans. In ancient times, pagans believed that when the days grew shorter in early winter, it was because their sun-god was leaving them. Therefore, since the Spring Equinox chronicled the return of the sun, rituals and celebrations abounded during this time of the year. In one of the oldest civilizations in recorded history, the Babylonian or Chaldean culture, one can find the veneration of the fertility goddess, Ashtaroth. From this, the Phoenicians derived Astarte, the Assyrians called her Ishtar, the Greeks called her Aphrodite. The origins of sun worship also has its roots, as well, in the Babylonian empire. Nimrod, the first ruler of this civilized nation, king of Babylon, ruled his empire with an iron fist. He founded many mysterious and mystical religions during his reign as king. After his death, his wife Semiramis (legend says that Semiramis was also Nimrod's mother) deified him as the sun-god, and as the "father of creation". She claimed her son, Tammuz, who was born after Nimrod died, was the reincarnation of Nimrod. Legend also says that Tammuz, who was killed by a wild boar, was resurrected after his mother wept for forty days after his death. Interestingly enough, this forty days is where the practice of observing Lent originated. Thus, this trio formed the first "trinity"; Nimrod, the sun-god, the "father of creation"; Semiramis, the goddess of the moon and the goddess of fertility, also known as the "mother god"; Tammuz, the reborn son (sun).
This trinity was formed many times over in various cultures. In the Mediterranean region, for example, Cybele, the Phrygian goddess of fertility, was honored. It was believed that her mate, Attis, was born of a virgin, and that he'd died and was resurrected three days later. Attis derives his mythology from others gods, such as Osiris, Dionysus, and Orpheus, all whose existence pre-dates the birth of the Christian god Jesus Christ by as much as five hundred years. All were reportedly born of a virgin, all reportedly suffered death and were resurrected three days later. The death of Attis was purported to have occurred on a Friday, his resurrection on Sunday, also similar to that of the Christian god, Jesus Christ.
From these mysterious, cultic, pagan practices and beliefs are found various rituals that were performed to satisfy the gods and goddesses that the people venerated. Ashtaroth, also known as Ishtar, also known as Eostre (Easter), in which it was stated earlier was frequently worshipped as the "mother god", was also revered as the mother of nature; a fertility goddess as well as the goddess of spring, sexuality and birth. It was believed that an egg of wondrous proportions fell from heaven and miraculously hatched Astarte (Ashtaroth, Ishtar, Eostre), and thus the egg became symbolic of the goddess Easter. It even bears her name: the Easter egg. The concept of this mystical belief transcended many cultures: in Rome it represented the Roman goddess, the Druids used the egg as their sacred emblem, and in Northern Europe, China and Japan, eggs were colored for their consecrated festivals. The ancient Babylonians, as well as the Egyptians, also dyed eggs as a part of their sacred ceremonies. The egg was symbolic of fertility, as it represented the mother goddess, and it was a very important part of these pagan rituals. The rabbit also typifies another object that was a sexual representation of fertility, and both the egg and the rabbit played important roles in these fertility rites, highlighted by wild parties and orgies.
The Easter sunrise service is another ritual that has pagan foundations. It is derived from the ancient pagan practices of welcoming the return of the sun from its winter's sleep. Pagans would gather on the highest hillside or mountaintop on the morning of the Spring Equinox, at first light, to herald the arrival of their sun god. What we now call Easter lilies are derived from an ancient practice which evolved around sexuality and fertility, and was indicative of the male genitalia. Cakes, today called hot cross buns, were baked in honor of these pagan deities, though the markings, the cross, didn't appear until much later. And even the celebration of the resurrection of the Christian god, Jesus Christ is similar, if not exactly resembling, the birth, death and resurrection of various pagan deities that existed before him throughout the ages.