Ever wonder why the humble egg is the focus of the most important Christian holiday? The egg is ubiquitous and cheap today, often the product of backyard coops managed by hipsters keen on urban farming. But this incredible, edible source of protein was, millennia ago, a potent religious symbol.
|Earth and Sun at the Equinoxes (credit)|
|Chocolate Eggs (credit)|
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 colored eggs:
|Relief from Persepolis (credit: Encyclopaedia Iranica)|
|Figure 74 from Liverani et al. (2010)|
|Mary Magdalene with|
Red Egg (credit)
|Dyed and Decorated Easter Eggs (credit)|
|Egg on End (credit)|
So, why do we gobble up anything ovoid at this time of year, from Pancake Day before Lent to chocolate eggs on Easter? Pretty simply: the egg has long been associated with rebirth and renewal, first applied to the beginning of spring and then adopted as a symbol of Christianity. The egg is a handy way of visualizing the circle of life that starts - for many plants and animals - in spring.
Happy equinox... happy Easter... and happy eating!
- BBC news article on the excavations at the necropolis under the Vatican (20 Oct 2006)
- Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion (Powered by Osteons, 4 Nov 2011)
- Scavi del Vaticano (Powered by Osteons, 15 Sept 2007)
A. Buccellato, P. Catalano, & W. Pantano (2008). Le site et la nécropole de Castellaccio. Les Dossiers d'Archéologie, 330 (Nov-Dec), 14-19.
G. Clarke (1979). The Roman Cemetery at Lankhills. New York: Clarendon Press.
A.E. Hanson (2008). The gradualist view of fetal development. Histoire des Doctrines de l'Antiquité Classique, XXXVIII, 95-108. [PDF]
P. Liverani, G. Spinola, & P. Zander, eds. (2010). Le Necropoli Vaticane: La Città dei Morti di Roma. Musei Vaticani: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
M. Nilsson (1907). Das Ei im Totenkult der Alten. Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 49, 530-546.
J.H. Pollexfen (1867-70). Excavations at Colchester. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 4, 271-3.
L.P. Wenham (1962). The Roman British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York. London: HMSO.
Note: Thanks to Jeff Becker for helping me gain access to the Alcock 1980 article.