How did worship of an ancient god and goddess come to be associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Although the details are lost in time, a closer look at the ancient mythology surrounding the worship of these gods and goddesses will help us understand how pagan practices have survived in popular Easter customs practiced to this day.
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).
As worship of Tammuz and Ishtar spread to the Mediterranean region, including the territory of biblical Israel, the pair came to be worshipped 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 (Judges 2:11-15; 3:7-8; 10:6-7; 1Kings 11:4-66; 31,33; 16:30-33; 22:51-53).
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, p58).
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.
In this respect Easter followed the pattern of Christmas in being officially sanctioned and welcomed into the church: "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. . . The Church may have consciously adapted the new festival to its heathen predecessor for the sake of winning souls to Christ" (Frazier, p. 359).