In these days Easter is celebrated in all Christendom and in many countries celebrating Easter includes colouring eggs.
We are told that the word Easter has it origin in the old English ēastre which is related to the German Ostern. The name is in fact not a name of a holiday but of a goddess, who by some is believed to be a goddess of fertility. In his book Deutche Mytologie (1882) on page 781, 782 Jacob Grimm explains:
But if we admit, goddesses, then, in addition to Nerthus, Ostara has the strongest claim to consideration. To what we said on p. 290 I can add some significant facts. The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate : I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people's amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.[i]
In this connection it should be said that coloured eggs is not a Germanic phenomenon only. In Antakya (modern Antioch) colouring eggs is part of the celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church. Starting on Palm Sunday and lasting the whole week Ester is celebrated in the church yard by dancing and merrymaking and here the young and unmarried meet each other. In preparation for Sunday eggs are coloured.
Interestingly the Nusayri Alewites have a similar festival, not the Easter festival, but the Festival of Eggs. It is celebrated on March 30. We are told that this festival is also nicknamed the Festival of Girls. Hüseyin Türk explains:
During the festival the engaged men give a basket filled with flowers and many-coloured eggs to the engaged girl. This custom still is celebrated. It is generally observed by all that the number of weddings increase after this festival. For this reason some call it the “Festival of Girls.[ii]
Now the question is whether the Nusayris got their tradition with eggs from the Church, or the Church got it from the Nusayris, or the both got it from the same source.
If we are to believe Alexander Hislop they both got it from the same source: the cult of the Syrian Goddess, Astarte. He writes:
Now the Romish Church adopted this mystic egg of Astarte, and consecrated it as a symbol of Christ's resurrection. A form of prayer was even appointed to be used in connection with it, Pope Paul V. teaching his superstitious votaries thus to pray at Easter: - "Bless, Lord, we beseech thee, this thy creature of eggs, that it may become a wholesome sustenance unto thy servants, eating it in remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ, &c."[iii]
It has to be admitted that the explanations of Alexander Hislop at times are farfetched; but he has a point: no festival of eggs is mentioned in the Bible or in the Quran. The early Christians did not use the egg as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and the early Muslims did not celebrate any festival of eggs.
Consequently, the phenomenon must have its root outside these two religions, very likely in pre-Christian fertility rites.
[i] Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%92ostre#cite_note-GRIMM780-781-11
[ii] Hüseyin Türk, “Nusayrîlerde Hızır İnancı,” Türk Kültürü ve Haci Bektaş Veli Araştırma Dergisi, 54 (2010), 235.
[iii] Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (London: S. W. Partridge & Co., 1903), 110. The quotation from Paul V is taken from Scottish Guardian, April, 1844.