History of Easter eggs

Easter eggs bear an outstanding and strange history throughout the centuries.

According to the tradition, on Holy Thursday housewives all over Greece prepare brioche and dye red eggs by tradition every year, since the egg symbolizes the fertility and creativity, while others believe that it symbolizes the rebirth of the world and the revitalization of nature. Eggs are traditionally dyed on Holy Thursday, the day on which the Last Supper took place, when Christ offered bread and wine as symbolisms of His body and blood, as He was ready to be sacrificed and free the world from the bondage of sin.

The ancient Greeks, Persians and Chinese used to bestow eggs during their spring feasts long before the first pre-Christian spring feasts. They appear at the same time in paganist mythology, where we read that the Bird of Sun has been hatched by the Egg of the Earth. Some paganist traditions show the comparison of the egg with the creation of life on earth. The Heaven and the Earth were considered as the two halves of a whole egg, from which life sprang on Earth.

Egg is undoubtedly the symbol of the Resurrection of Christ to the early Christians, and it is considered to be the most appropriate and sacred place to celebrate Easter. In the early Middle Ages, eggs were dyed to be offered as presents on Easter.

In the 17th century it was Pope Paul the 5th who blessed the humble egg with a prayer: ” Almighty, bless this creation of yours, the egg, which can be a beneficial food of thy believers, eating and thanking You, awaiting the Resurrection of our Lord.”

While most of us take the relationship between the eggs and Easter as granted, however, before the eggs obtained this direct relationship with Christianity, it was a symbol of life – and this was at least 2,500 years ago.

The first written testimonies of the egg’s symbolism in religion date back to 5oo B.C. In the Achaimenides era, the Persian calendar was influenced by Zoroastrianism, and the spring equinox – the first day of their calendar year – was established as a holiday. Under the name Nowruz, this specific ancient feast continues to be celebrated until today with the dyeing, treating and consumption of eggs, and probably this is how it was celebrated in the past, as we can see in an engraving from Persepolis (500 B.C.), where noble men are depicted holding eggs in their hands.

The egg as a symbol of Roman magic.

However, it is not clear whether and what kind of influence the Persians had on the feasts and symbols of the early Christian times. The first attested use of the egg as a Christian symbol is dated back in the Roman era. During the paganist era of the Empire, eggs were part of the Bacchic or Dionysian mysteries, probably as a sinister symbol (Macrobius, Saturnalia). Perhaps, they were used in curses and, vice versa, they had an apotropaic character (Clarke 1979). In the 15th century a fortified castle was built in the Gulf of Naples, and, according to legend, the Latin poet Vergilius (1st century B.C.) had  buried an egg at that point, to protect it from evil, hence the modern name of the castle is Castel dell’Ovo ( The Castle of the Egg).

The symbolic uses of the egg varied in the roman world. However the connection between eggs and birth is clear. The Romans had many bird species, and most people would probably watch their hens, pigeons etc hatching eggs, from which a new life sprang. Roman medicine was greatly influenced by Hippocrates’ treatises (400 B.C.), where egg hatching was often mentioned in comparison to the birth of humans. In his book “About a Child’s Nature” (29.1-3), the birth of an infant is described in direct proportion with a baby chicken that breaks the egg’s shell. (Hanson, 2008)

The egg in burial

Burial with three ostrich eggs (Liverani et al 2010, pic. 74).

However, during the early Emperor era (1st century A.D.) we encounter the connection of the egg with the burials – despite that we have very few relevant findings till now. In Colchester, York and Winchester of Roman England, eggs have been found in or near the urn boxes and human burials. Eggs are also depicted on Roman sarcophagi (Nilsson 1907), implying that it might have been a symbol for all social classes. The shell of the egg is quite thin, therefore the archaeological excavation methods, before 1980, possibly overlooked other egg findings in Roman burials. Despite all this, there are two cases of burials with eggs, which came to light recently in Rome.

At the location of Castellacio Europarco, grave 31 contained the burial of a 3-4 year-old child, which is dated back in 50-175 A.D. According to, «under the buried person’s left hand there is a hen’s egg, which in burial context is probably not only a food offer, but maybe also a reference to the eschatological rebirth (…)». Besides, within the Vatican Necropolis, under via Triumphalis, a child under one year old, was found buried with plenty of offerings (including eggs). Excavators believe that the egg was probably a «symbol of rebirth, a new life which would offset the injustice of an early death». (Liverani et al. 2010).

Life, death and resurrection

It is possible that these two burials represent the early Christian burial traditions, as the egg was closely connected to the idea of rebirth, and this was already established since the time of Jesus Christ (life, death, resurrection). The egg «is an eminently live and inert substance which contains the possible beginning of a life, and the one having [such] a life-giving force is necessary to wake up or feed the life-giving forces of those to whom is offered» (Nilsson 1907). The connection, thus, is perhaps explained: the inert egg, like the grave of Jesus, contains a new life. The egg itself is the rock that seals the grave of Christ.

A Byzantine icon, where Mary Magdalene is depicted holding a red egg.

Despite all this, there is not much historical evidence to link the egg with Jesus. In the Bible, we encounter only a few references.We have passages where the egg is referred to as food (Job 6.6.), and some others where it is used as a metaphor (Luke 11.12, Isaiah 10.14). According to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene was bringing boiled eggs to the grave of Jesus. Eggs, always according to tradition, took a bright red color – the color of blood – when she saw that Jesus was resurrected. In a similar vein, another story says that when Mary Magdalene went to Tiberius, Emperor of Rome, to tell him that Jesus was resurrected, he replied that «As Jesus was resurrected, so this egg is red», and as soon as he finished his phrase the egg took a bright red color. However, these are just occult traditions, perhaps in order to justify the tradition of the dyeing and consumption of Easter eggs.

Over the millennia, it seems that the egg was associated with rebirth and renewal, initially the first days of spring, and then was adopted as a symbol of Christianity. The egg is offered for the imaginable depiction of the circle of life, which – for many plants and animals – begins in spring …

Eggs, forbidden during Lent, reappear on Easter Sunday both as a part of the feast and as gifts to family and friends.

In medieval England, dyeing and decorating eggs was a tradition for all families. According to the memoirs of Edward the First, in 1290 were spent 18 pence (a huge amount at the time) to be dyed and decorated 450 eggs that would serve, as Easter gifts.

In Germany, eggs were given to children along with other Easter gifts, while later was created the «lost egg hunt». This is a game, according to which the Easter Bunny hides well, in gardens and courtyards, the Easter eggs, which were later replaced by chocolate eggs, and little children should find them and gather them in their baskets. The winner is the one who has gathered the most of them.

The paperboard and chocolate Easter eggs have a fairly recent origin. Natural eggs, decorated with colors or designs and decals, have been «naturalized» as a symbol of the continuity of life and resurrection.