Sunday, April 16, 2006

Keeping the pagan in the Easter season

Easter offers two dominant sets of memes. One set is Christian. The other is pagan. The Easter Bunny and Easter eggs come to us from the latter.

In the centuries after the Christian memeplex swept over the Roman Empire under Constantine I, the pragmatists among the Christians found it easier to adapt pagan practices than to obliterate them.
The dominant spring festival in Europe in the Second century honored Eastre, the Saxon goddess of fertility. The animal most associated with her was the hare, a symbol of fertility.

As for the colored eggs, they come to us as icons of fertility via the Roman and Greek civilizations. This evolved into a German tradition where children awaited the arrival of the Oschter Haws, a rabbit who would lay colored eggs in nests for them to find on Easter morning. In America, Oschter Haws became the Easter Bunny and the nests became the Easter basket.

Think the tradition has ceased evolving? Not so. Consider a neopagan tradition that appeared in the United States around 1990. It says that the goddess Eastre found an injured bird dying in the winter cold. To help it survive, she turned it into a rabbit, but allowed the rabbit to continue to lay eggs. To shows it appreciation, the bird/rabbit decorates its eggs in the spring and leaves them as gifts for the goddesss.

In Australia, the fertile rabbit is considered a major pest and an invasive species. Some Australians have tried to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby, a marsupial that is native to the continent. But memes die hard. The Bunny remains far more popular than the Bilby.

The point is: None of us are born with the memes of Easter in our heads. We are taught about the Easter Bunny. We are shown how to color eggs and how to hunt them when hidden. Demonstration, observation, imitation. This is how a meme moves up the memetic ladder to reach the mainstream of human thought. Once taught, we rarely question the souces of these memes. And once a meme like "believe in the Easter Bunny" sinks its roots into our collective memory, replacing it with another -- even one as rational as the Easter Bilby -- is almost impossible.


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