History of Easter Eggs
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Easter Eggs

red eggshell piece with lines scratched into it
Ostrich eggshell from Diepkloof
Rock Shelter, South Africa (60,000 BC)

July 2016 - Easter eggs go back long before Easter, and even long before the beginning of farming. As long ago as the Paleolithic, about 60,000 BC, people in Africa were scratching patterns and lines on ostrich eggs, though nobody knows what they had in mind. By the later Stone Age, around 4400 BC, people in Sudan and Egypt thought of ostrich eggs as symbolizing rebirth and life after death.

ostrich egg with red line drawing of giraffe
Ostrich egg from Sudan, ca. 4400 BC

By the Bronze Age, people were using ostrich eggs in Crete and in Greece, and putting painted ostrich eggs in tombs in Susa (Iran). People thought of ostrich eggs as apotropaic - pushing away evil - and as being appropriate for graves, because they signified rebirth. The Zoroastrian spring holiday of Nowruz has always involved painted eggs. With the rise of the Silk Road, ostrich eggs from Iran reached China, where they were a sort of fad item for rich people under the Han Dynasty. Chinese people started to dye eggs for the spring Qingming festival.

egg with octopus painted on it, with a metal top
Minoan ostrich egg (Crete, ca. 1500 BC)

Buddhist monasteries in India and Tibet (at Tashilumpo) also collected African ostrich eggs, probably also because they symbolized rebirth. When people started to build Christian churches in the 200s and 300s AD, they hung ostrich eggs in them to remind people of Jesus, who died and was reborn.

stone carving of man carrying egg
Man carrying an egg
(Persepolis, 500s BC)

About 600 AD, Pope Gregory tells us that Christians wouldn't eat eggs during Lent, probably so they'd seem more special at Easter. A few years later, in the time of Mohammed (and maybe for centuries before that), people in Mecca hung ostrich eggs in a special tree. By the 700s AD, Islamic shrines also had ostrich eggs hanging in them. When Islam reached India about 1000 AD, people in India added ostrich eggs in their mosques, often as souvenirs of the hajj to Mecca.

egg with arabic writing on it
Arabic funeral speech written on
an ostrich egg (Egypt, ca. 1500 AD)

By the early 1300s AD, both Islamic and Christian people in Mamluk Egypt were painting ostrich eggs for Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter Sunday, when the Last Supper was held). Egypt was very rich at this time, selling paper and sugar to Italy. Egyptians raised a lot of chickens, and maybe that's when people started to paint chicken eggs as well as ostrich eggs. Conveniently, Easter was also the time of year when hens began to lay eggs again after not laying much during the winter, so eggs were exciting and new in the spring.

ostrich egg hanging from roof of church with pointed arches
Church of Sant'
Antonio di Castello,
Venice (ca. 1500 AD)
two ostrich eggs on top of a mud-brick pinnacle with a gold crescent and star on top
Ostrich eggs on top of the
Great mosque of Niono, Mali

From Egypt, traders and travelers brought the tradition of painting eggs - some real eggs and some made of clay - to Europe. In 1307, King Edward I of England spent "18 pence for 450 eggs to be boiled and dyed or covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household." But priests and imams also hung up ostrich eggs in both churches and mosques, as a symbol of rebirth.

drawing of bunny carrying basket of easter eggs
Drawing of Easter Bunny
(Pennsylvania, ca. 1800 AD)

Spanish and Portuguese invaders brought Easter egg coloring to North and South America in the 1500s AD. Puritans, in England and America, didn't dye eggs, but by the 1700s German and English settlers who weren't Puritans had brought the idea to the Atlantic coast. The Easter bunny, a German tradition, probably also came to America with the first German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1700s.

Learn by doing: dyeing Easter Eggs
More about Easter

Bibliography and further reading about Easter:

But check out mainly Nile Green's 2006 article on ostrich eggs and peacock feathers.

Mardi Gras
History of Christianity
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 26 April, 2017