Although the details are lost in time, a closer look at the ancient mythology surrounding their worship will help us understand how pagan practices have survived in popular Easter customs.
Two of the earliest recorded deities were the Babylonian fertility god Tammuz and the goddess Ishtar. Every year Tammuz "was believed to die, passing away from the cheerful earth to the gloomy subterranean world" (Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 326).
The seasonal cycle came to be connected with Tammuz's supposed annual death and resurrection. "Under the names of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, the peoples of Egypt and Western Asia represented the yearly decay and revival of life ... which they personified as a god who annually died and rose again from the dead. In name and detail the rites varied from place to place: in substance they were the same" (p. 325).
Many of these rites revolved around inducing the return of Tammuz from the dead. One of these ceremonies is recorded in Ezekiel 8:14, where Ezekiel saw in vision an abominable sight: women "weeping for Tammuz" at the very temple of God.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary says regarding this verse: "Tammuz, later linked to Adonis and Aphrodite by name, was a god of fertility and rain ... In the seasonal mythological cycle, he died early in the fall when vegetation withered. His revival, by the wailing of Ishtar, was marked by the buds of spring and the fertility of the land. Such renewal was encouraged and celebrated by licentious fertility festivals ... The women would have been lamenting Tammuz's death. They perhaps were also following the ritual of Ishtar, wailing for the revival of Tammuz" (Ralph Alexander, Vol. 6, 1986, pp. 783-784).
As worship of Tammuz and Ishtar spread to the Mediterranean region, including the territory of biblical Israel, the pair came to be worshiped under other names: Baal and Astarte (Ashtoreth), Attis and Cybele, and Adonis and Aphrodite. God heatedly condemned the sensual, perverted worship of Baal and Astarte, the "Queen of Heaven" (Judges 2:11-15; Judges 3:7-8; Judges 10:6-7; 1 Kings 11:4-33; 1 Kings 16:30-33; 1 Kings 22:51-53; 2 Kings 23:13; Jeremiah 7:18).
Pre-Christian customs linked to Christ
In ancient worship we find the mythology that would ultimately link these ancient customs to Christ's death and resurrection. Says Alan Watts: "It would be tedious to describe in detail all that has been handed down to us about the various rites of Tammuz, Adonis,... and many others... But their universal theme—the drama of death and resurrection—makes them the forerunners of the Christian Easter, and thus the first ‘Easter services.' As we go on to describe the Christian observance of Easter we shall see how many of its customs and ceremonies resemble these former rites" (Easter: Its Story and Meaning, 1950, p. 58).
Watts describes some of the similarities and parallels: "Shortly before the vernal [spring] equinox ... the members of this cult [of Tammuz-Ishtar, Attis-Cybele and Adonis-Aphrodite] began a fast—as Christians also have the fast of Lent, beginning forty days before Easter."
He tells how some worshippers would cut down a tree, then carry it "with reverence and ceremony to Cybele's temple and set it up in the central sanctuary" There, "upon its central stem [trunk], was hung the figure of the young god" (p. 59).
"Here, for the remaining days of the fast, the worshipers gathered to sing hymns of mourning for the dead Attis ... And to this day, on Good Friday at the Veneration of the Cross, Christians sing their hymn of mourning for another and greater one who died on a Tree ..." (p. 59).
As the fast drew to an end, a remarkable rite took place: "The figure of the dead Attis was taken down from the tree and buried under the twilight sky. Far into the night his devotees stood around the grave and sang hymns of mourning. But as dawn approached, a great light was kindled, as today Christians light the Paschal Candle on Easter Eve as a symbol of the risen Christ" (pp. 61-62).
Frazer describes the idolatrous worship this way: "The sorrow of the worshippers was turned to joy ... The tomb was opened: the god had risen from the dead; and as the priest touched the lips of the weeping mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation. The resurrection of the god was hailed by his disciples as a promise that they too would issue triumphant from the corruption of the grave. On the morrow ... the divine resurrection was celebrated with a wild outburst of glee. At Rome, and probably elsewhere, the celebration took the form of a carnival" (p. 350).
An ancient celebration adopted
In its various forms, worship of Tammuz-Adonis-Attis spread around the Roman Empire including to Rome itself. As Christianity spread through the empire, religious leaders apparently merged customs and practices associated with this earlier "resurrected" god and applied them to the resurrected Son of God.
Says Frazer: "When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis" (p. 345).
In this respect Easter followed the pattern of Christmas in being officially sanctioned and welcomed into the church. As Frazer goes on to say: "Motives of the same sort may have led the ecclesiastical authorities to assimilate the Easter festival of the death and resurrection of their Lord to the festival of the death and resurrection of another Asiatic god which fell at the same season. Now the Easter rites still observed in Greece, Sicily and southern Italy bear in some respects a striking resemblance to the rites of Adonis, and I have suggested that the Church may have consciously adapted the new festival to its heathen predecessor for the sake of winning souls to Christ" (p. 359).
To discover what God thinks of merging customs associated with worship of other gods with worship of Him, be sure to read "Does It Matter to God?".