Eggs – Religious & Spiritual Significance – Part III

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

The Egg as a religious symbol figures in the iconography of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and represents many of the same concepts as found in the earlier Creation Myths discussed in Part 2. Whether due to lack of interest by the population or in response to coercion by church authorities (especially in regard to Christian liturgy), these “pre-religious” pagan customs and observances were often converted, perverted, or simply appliqued-over by the new religion. Thus, without intending it to become so, many of the pagan spiritual observances became entrenched in the traditions of the new Christianity, regardless of how many civil laws or papal bulls and decrees were issued. While an untold number of folk actually practicing the “old religion” perished before the tidal wave of the Roman Church and its zealous soldier priests became powerful, enclaves of people connected to the Great Mother by their very heartstrings survived and quietly remained, integral to our collective consciousness and still beating deep within our own hearts. Those who hear Her call know they have been chosen by something ancient yet relative to here and now, timeless and enduring.

Eostre: Goddess and Festival

Superficially similar to Easter, Eostre or Ostara is a neo-pagan festival wherein eggs and other iconic objects and animals are celebrated as symbols of life reborn after the long winter, and they also serve as symbols of the Great Mother Goddess. The earliest written reference of Eostre as Spring Goddess appears in the 8th century by an influential British monk called the Venerable Bede; he referred to the month known as Eosturmonath, when Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. The word-names Eostre and Ostara are considered to be Anglo-Saxon in origin – meaning “dawn” or “the east” – and Eosturmonath generally referred to the seventh month (monath) of the year and also the first month of summer, which was April according to the Julian calendar.

Is that a basket of eggs on the table?

In Cornwall and Wales, Lady Day on March 25th developed as earlier pagan traditions went underground, so to speak, and gave way to Christian proxies. The Feast of Annunciation is currently observed on this same day, commemorating the visit of the Archangel Gabriel upon Mary the Virgin, to inform her of her immaculate conception. Lady Day incorporates imagery of the Virgin Mary (as Mother Goddess) along with thinly veiled customs that appear to be mild-mannered mating rituals, including the ceremonial blowing on a ram’s horn; women and men circle-dancing together; and the ritual burying of eggs to encourage the fertility of the land.  Other symbols of this northern European spring festival include seeds and bulbs; early spring flowering plants such as violet and crocus and daffodil; as well as ducklings, chicks and, of course, the hare… that’s right, Peter Cottontail himself.  

Here comes Peter Cottontail

Easter and Lent

Easter is the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection from death three days after being crucified and entombed, according to the New Testament. Easter is preceded by Holy Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday in England, or the day of the Last Supper; and Good Friday, the day of His crucifixion. These high holy days are called the Easter Triduum, and belief in the resurrection is a basic tenet of Christian faith. In the Gospel of John 13:34 after Jesus washes the feet of his apostles, he taught that – Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos (“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”); the word Maundy is derived from mandatum or “mandate”. Of course, Jesus wasn’t speaking to the Apostles in Latin, but that is the nature of language and word origins.

Over hundreds of years and many observational mutations, it came to be that bunnies and eggs and chicks feature prominently as endearing and charming symbols of the Christian Easter, but times change and what is trendy in the 21st century might not have applied in the 12th. The “tradition” of gifting decorated eggs to friends and relatives for Easter appears to have started in medieval Germany and the Slavic lands. Considering that the forty days before Easter, called Lent, required adherents of the religion to abstain from eating certain foods (including eggs), these kitchen staples no doubt began to pile up; perhaps cooking or preserving them and decorating them was a good way to keep them from going to waste, especially during this time in Europe when food could be scarce for any number of reasons, including disease, famine and even localized overpopulation. Some Christian traditions still prohibit the consumption of meat and dairy during Lent (dairy being defined as any food product obtained without injury to the animal, which includes the egg). In Christianity, the egg has come to represent rebirth through Christ just as His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection affected the eggs in Mary Magdalene’s basket to turn red with vital spirit. 

The Magdalene

While in some places we know it by the French name mardi gras or “fat Tuesday”, the day before Lent has long been called Shrove Tuesday, when the Christian faithful head to the confessional to be “shriven” of sins before the Lenten fast. In the UK this day is also called Pancake Day, because adherents of the faith were compelled to use up as many perishable foods as possible before Lent, and, as any frugal homemaker knows, pancakes are a good way to use up milk and eggs. This led to the ringing of the “Pancake Bell” before heading to confession. There is even an event now called the Pancake Race, where “housewives” of all persuasions, wearing headscarves and aprons, race down the street carrying a skillet flipping flapjacks while spectators cheer them on, flinging pancakes about like so many Frisbees, a fun free-for-all before the forty days of fasting and spiritual contemplation. The ingredients in pancakes are represented thusly: Eggs to symbolize Creation; Milk for Purity; Flour as the Staff of Life; and Salt for Wholesomeness. Considering the almond tree is a known emblem of the resurrection, those of us eating a gluten-free diet can replace the wheat flour with almond meal and still have a food with relevant symbolism.

Pancake Day fun

While not specifically an Easter pastoral, the Greek painter Antonio Vassilacchi (1556-1629) created a work called “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (also and sometimes called “Virgin and Child with the shepherds”), which clearly features a large basket of eggs next to the Christ child. In Sacred Food – Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment, author Elizabeth Luard notes that the juxtaposition of this full basket next to the baby heralds “new life and provides an antidote to the symbolism of the cross in the background.” Indeed, although the cross is a symbol of the Christian faith, and represents selfless sacrifice, it also represents suffering and death, quite the opposite meaning when compared to a basket of eggs. However, just as a tiny bird breaks through an eggshell in order to hatch, so did Christ rise and depart from a sealed tomb to his resurrection (remember the womb-tomb?), thus the symbolism of immortality and rebirth assigned to Easter eggs. In Sweden and Russia, Easter eggs were sometimes left in tombs as amulets for the afterlife, while the traditional Jewish Passover meals also include eggs to symbolize sacrifice and rebirth.

Virgin and Child with the shepherds

Passover Seder

The eight-day observance of Passover is a Jewish tradition commemorating the enslaved Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, generally considered to have taken place sometime in the 1st millennium BCE. The modern observance now features family gatherings with special songs and customs, with particular emphasis on the Seder, or symbolic feast. The Passover Seder takes place in either March or April on the 15th day of the lunar month of Nisan, or the full moon after the Spring Equinox. One of the foods eaten at the feast is a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt or salted water, which represents new life as well as sacrifice in the face of adversity. The traditional Seder foods and their symbolism – such as parsley, horseradish, beef shank and the apple-y goodness known as Charoset – are further discussed in Part 6 – From the Coop to the Kitchen.  

Islamic egg symbolism

In the earliest mosques, decorated ostrich eggs were suspended from the ceiling to represent life and light; these eggs had originally appeared as ornately decorated vessels in Bronze Age North Africa and were known in the Greek world as rhytons. Indeed, ostrich eggs have been found in Africa from as long ago as sixty-thousand years, while people in other regions of the Mediterranean and even ancient Sumer have produced silver and gold “ostrich eggs”. Not long after the appearance of these symbolic eggs in Islamic places of worship, Christian churches too, began to feature the decorated ostrich egg, especially during Easter.

Ostrich egg artifact from the Gayer Anderson Museum in Cairo

Theosophy and the Akashic Egg

The Theosophical Society was formed in the late 19th century and is still active today; it is an occult spiritual organization which focuses on the esoteric teachings of divine wisdom. Its name comes from the Greek theos (“god”) and sophia (“wisdom”). It was co-founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in order to promote these teachings, with the motto, “There is no religion higher than truth”. Although pan-spiritual in nature, many Eastern philosophies were incorporated into their teachings. This includes the concept of the Akashic Egg: that is, an ever-eternal, ever-existing sacred symbol of inner mysteries. Akasha is the Sanskrit word for “aether” or “atmosphere”. It represents undifferentiated matter in a “zero” form, with neither description nor manner of being. Mme. Blavatsky described different levels or stages of this Akashic Egg theme, including the Eternal Egg, the Virgin Egg, the Mundane Egg, and the “Germ” which animates the mother or Mundane Egg.

Says Mme. Blavatsky, “…the Egg was incorporated as a sacred sign in the cosmogony of every people on the Earth, and was revered both on account of its form and its inner mystery.” Metaphysically speaking, the Egg represents the four classic elements, with the “Akashic Egg” delivering Spirit or Potential.

  • Earth – the shell
  • Air – the membrane
  • Fire – the yolk
  • Water – the albumen or white

Many volumes have been written outlining these concepts, none of which are easy summer reading, however there are many book clubs that study the Theosophists and their wisdom teachings, which is a very good way to learn this system of spiritual understanding.

Gnosis and the Orphic Egg

While the Theosophical teachings are broadly spiritual with emphasis on many Buddhist principles including three Universal Truths – Nothing is lost in the universe, Everything Changes, and the Law of Cause and Effect (karma) – Gnosticism is a variety of Christian mystery school presenting Jesus as emissary of God; Sophia as creatrix of, and feminine personification of, Wisdom; and ascetic practices with the goal of becoming closer to God. Like Theosophy, Gnosticism also features the egg as a mystery symbol. The “Orphic Egg” teachings features the image of a snake coiled around an egg. It is a similar representation of the universe as is the Akashic Egg, but differs in that the Orphic Egg originates from the Greek Orpheus, and can be said to represent the Cosmos entwined by Creative Spirit. When humankind/the-embryo-within-the-egg breaks through the shell of initiation, we are then prepared to meet the serpent/the universal mysteries as we continue to develop and continually regenerate.

The Orphic Egg

The discovery of thirteen papyrus books called the Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 provided many clues about the origins of this school of thought, and Christianity in general.

© Doreen Shababy

This article is excerpted from a work-in-progress.