A circular history of a singular egg: an Easter tale
“Having decided to write on Easter, I took out a volume of _The Encyclopædia Britannica_ in order to make up the subject of eggs, and the first entry under “Egg” that met my eye was: “EGG, AUGUSTUS LEOPOLD (1816-1863), English painter, was born on the 2nd of May, 1816, in London, where his father carried on business as a gun-maker.” […] Even so, Augustus was not the only Egg. He was certainly not the egg in search of which I opened the _Encyclopædia_. The egg I was looking for was the Easter egg, and it seemed to be the only egg that was not mentioned. ”
Robert Lynd, 1921
Nearly a century later, I find myself in much the same position as the Irish essayist Robert Lynd. The modern Encyclopaedia doesn’t have much more to say than it did for Lynd in 1921. Britannia seems to think that Easter eggs first appeared in the 13th century as a pragmatic reconciliation of the prohibition on eating eggs during Holy Week and the hens’ continued laying of them.
It appears, though, that not only do decorated eggs go back a lot earlier than the 13th century, they predate most major religions. Excavation of the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa, revealed hundreds of fragments of ostrich shell marked with regular motifs. Ostrich egg bowls from around 2400-1400 BC have similarly been found in southern Spain.
Eggs appear commonly in creation myths in the form of a world egg, from which the world (or the creator of the world) first emerged. In the cosmogony of the Egyptian city of Hermopolis, for example, the cosmic egg was either laid by a cackling goose, an ibis, or simply left by the receding waters. Within this egg was the sun-god, Re, who then created the rest of the world.
Egga were also associated with death and resurrection in early Christian and Islamic usage. Ostrich eggs like those described above were widely distributed across the Mediterranean as religious objects.
In the philosophical works of both Islamic and Christian thinkers, the world egg of early creation myths evolved into the “philosophical egg” of alchemy. The egg-shaped receptacle in which the philospher’s stone would be created was also known as the “philosophical egg” in which the great masterpiece is produced. This vessel was sealed with the magic seal of Hermes; therefore hermetically sealed.
Alchemical writings are full of complex association – planets with metals; the colours of red and white, gold and black; lions, lilies, pelicans, swans and ravens. You can see a strong alchemical thread present in Elizabethan thought. In the Monas hieroglyphica, his 1564 treatise on alchemy, John Dee illustrates a heliocentric cosmology based on a celestial egg. In this cosmology, the white of the egg is the “aqueous moisture of the Moon”, and the golden yolk is the “fiery liquid of the Sun”. John Dee, was of course a famous occult practitioner, and an advisor and tutor to Queen Elizabeth I.
And on the subject of her majesty, here we find a painting where “Queen Elizabeth discovers she is no longer young”.
Which brings us back to to where we started – the painter of the aforesaid picture – Augustus Leopold Egg. His friend Charles Dickens described Egg as a “dear gentle little fellow,” “always sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved.”
And with those kind thoughts, my best wishes for the Easter season.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Golden Bough, by Sir James George Frazer, 1922. Release Date: January, 2003 [EBook #3623]
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History XXIX, 52-4
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Pleasures of Ignorance, by Robert Lynd, 1921.Release Date: September 12, 2004 [EBook #13448]
- Pierre-Jean Texier, Guillaume Porraz, John Parkington, Jean-Philippe Rigaud, Cedric Poggenpoel, Christopher Miller, Chantal Tribolo, Caroline Cartwright, Aude Coudenneau, Richard Klein, Teresa Steele, and Christine Verna; A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa; PNAS 2010 107 (14) 6180-6185; published ahead of print March 1, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0913047107
- James H. Barnett, The Easter Festival–A Study in Cultural Change, American Sociological Review, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Feb., 1949), pp. 62-70
- Venetia Newall, Easter Eggs, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 315 (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 3-32
- Nile Green, Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam, Al-Masaq, Vol. 18, Iss. 1, 2006
- Andrew Fiala, Creation Myths of the Ancient World, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 432
- J. Peter Zetterberg, Hermetic Geocentricity: John Dee’s Celestial Egg, Isis, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Sep., 1979), pp. 385-393
- Sheppard, H.J. “A survey of alchemical and hermetic symbolism.” Ambix, 8.
- Herbert Silberer, Hidden Symbolism of Alchemy and the Occult Arts, Moffat, Yard and Company, 1917.
- Scientific American Blogs – Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter By Krystal D’Costa, March 31, 2013