No, Easter is Not Based on Ishtar

Leading up to Easter last weekend I saw a whole lot of people on my Facebook friends list sharing a meme saying that Easter “was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex.” It was posted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science on their Facebook page and then shared almost 200,000 times. There’s just one problem: It simply isn’t true.

Ishtar was the goddess of love, war and sex. These days, thanks to Herodotus, she is especially associated with sacred prostitution* (also known as temple prostitution), which, in the religions of the Ancient Near East, allegedly took on the form of every woman having to, at some point in her life, go to the temple of Ishtar and have sex with the first stranger who offered her money. Once a woman entered the temple of Ishtar for the purpose of sacred prostitution, she was not allowed to leave until she’d done the deed. I can’t imagine that sacred prostitution sex was ever very good sex, but hey, what do I know? Probably some people were pretty into it – I mean, if you can imagine it, someone’s made porn about it, right?

Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that, yes, Ishtar was associated with fertility and sex. However, her symbols were the lion, the gate and the eight-pointed star; I can’t find any evidence of eggs or rabbits symbolically belonging to her. And Easter has nothing to do with her.

Most scholars believe that Easter gets its name from Eostre or Ostara**, a Germanic pagan goddess. English and German are two of the very few languages that use some variation of the word Easter (or, in German, Ostern) as a name for this holiday. Most other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover. In French it’s Pâques, in Italian it’s Pasqua, in Dutch it’s Pasen, in Danish it’s Paaske, in Bulgarian it’s Paskha, and so on and so forth.

This is a lot like all the fake quotes that get circulated in memes because people don’t bother researching it, especially when A) it confirms the narrative they already have in their head (in this case, that Easter is largely based on earlier pagan rituals — which is true, but not this one) and/or B) it comes from a source they consider credible. Hey, I’ve done the same thing once or twice. But we can do better than this if we apply our critical thinking and skepticism not only to ideas we don’t like, but to ideas we do like as well.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • birgerjohansson

    The Aardvarchaeology blog jokes about the attempts to find origins based on superficial language similarities: “Galileo was Danish, from Gilleleje”.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Keep Eostre in Easter.

  • birgerjohansson

    Easter got its name from the spring equinox rites practised by actors in the never-ending TV series, “The Eastenders”.

  • regexp

    fake quotes that get circulated in memes

    I wish facebook had a feature called “filter out bad memes.” My liberal and conservative friends repeatably reshare shit that anyone can debunked with 30 seconds of time and google.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    Even the link to Ostara is a bit iffy. The association between dyed eggs and Pascha was first documented in Asia Minor in the 6th century. Orthodox legend traces it back to a conversation between Mary Magdalene and a provincial governor she was trying to convert. (Over dinner, the governor scoffed at the idea of the Resurrection. “A man coming back to life is about as likely as an egg turning red.” Mary picks up an egg from a bowl on the table, and it miraculously turns red.)

    “Easter” very likely derives from “Ostara,” yes. But the practices and symbols are distinctly Mediterranean, not Germanic.

  • lpetrich

    Eostre’s name is cognate with Old High German Ostara, and these are cognate with Roman Aurora, Greek Eos, and Vedic Ushas, whose names all mean “dawn”. So this goddess of the dawn was an ancestral Indo-European deity like Father Sky: English Tiu, Norse Tyr, Roman Jovis Pater > Jupiter, Greek Zeus Pater, Vedic Dyaus Pitar.

    It’s hard to reconstruct other Indo-European deity names, it must be said. They likely worshipped a god of war and thunder, but his name varies. Germanic Thor (< *Thunarr) and Celtic Tanaris (< *Taranis) mean "thunder", Slavic Perun and Baltic Perkunas likely mean "the striker" (with lightning), while Vedic Indra (cognate with Greek aner, andr-) means "man" (male). So he's Mr. Thunder, Mr. Lightning, and The Man in various places.

    Our only source on Eostre is the Bede noting in the 8th century that the Anglo-Saxon people had held a feast in her honor in the spring, and that this feast was taken over by the Christian Church as celebrating Jesus Christ's resurrection.

  • celcus

    “A) it confirms the narrative they already have in their head…and/or B) it comes from a source they consider credible.”

    Kind of sums up how most right wing “news” outlets operate.

  • Menyambal

    “Oh, look, a bunny!” Question, are we more likely to be in Germany or Babylon?

    Same for eggs and springtime in general. It’s a celebration of Spring, not of sex, of fresh grass, not of fertility. New clothes, even.

    Maybe we took a Babylonian celebration and Europeanized it, but as done around here, it is pretty regional appropriate. It doesn’t feature fornication, or penises, or even birds having sex—the eggs are brought by a rabbit, and we find them.

    Also, if I am going to chuck Christianity, I don’t want another middle-eastern religion. I want the old gods of my European ancestors.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    But the practices and symbols are distinctly Mediterranean, not Germanic.

    I thought drunken fertility piss-ups were more or less universal. The symbols aren’t.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Ishtar was the goddess of love, war and sex.

    Then how could the movie about her have flopped so terribly?

  • lofgren

    Same for eggs and springtime in general. It’s a celebration of Spring, not of sex, of fresh grass, not of fertility. New clothes, even.

    It’s very, very, very difficult for me to buy that somehow Easter managed to be one of the few celebrations of Spring in the world that isn’t tied to sex, especially considering its symbols are the egg and the rabbit. I suppose it’s possible that a ritual of renewal featuring eggs and rabbits is totally chaste, but given the way the human brain works and the strong link between spring and fertility in most cultures that celebrate the former, it just seems highly unlikely.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    lpetrich @ # 6: Eostre’s name is cognate with Old High German Ostara, and these are cognate with Roman Aurora, Greek Eos, and Vedic Ushas, whose names all mean “dawn”.

    And all of whose names went into the word we use to describe the direction from which the sun rises.

  • Melvosh

    Of course Easter isn’t based on Ishtar. I was thinking more along the lines of Harvey, or maybe Donnie Darko.

  • dingojack

    How do you know Ed? WERE YOU THERE?!?

    😀 Dingo

    ———–

    Reconstructing the beliefs or customs of long dead cultures is fraught with difficulties. Even experts take a long time to careful sift and study evidence, always mindful that a lot of the evidence is fragmentary and some is spurious. Even then they can get it completely wrong.

    Such things should always be taken (at best) cum dolio salis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/den.wilson d.c.wilson

    It should also be mentioned that many scholars think the idea of “sacred prostitution” was also a myth.

  • carlie

    Speaking of spring fertility rituals, don’t forget May Day. (link NSFW in lyrics, but fine in video)

  • moarscienceplz

    Just as Santa Claus/Father Christmas/Kris Kringle is a “tangled bank” of influences from many, many cultures, so too, I think, is the Easter Bunny. Anyone saying an Easter tradition IS from such and such but definitely NOT from so and so, is probably only half right.

  • gmacs

    The association between dyed eggs and Pascha was first documented in Asia Minor in the 6th century.

    I remember hearing at some point that the custom came from Russia, and I accepted it because it seemed to fit with Russian aesthetics to me. But I learned recently that dying eggs is a tradition in the Persian new year, which is the first day of spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where it originated, even indirectly.

    I mean, Easter happens in spring, because it roughly coincides with Passover (crucifixion story, yada yada). Many other cultures where Christianity moved in had pre-existing spring festivals, often honoring fertility and the figurative rebirth of the world. I just figured Easter fell conveniently at a time when it could borrow fun springtime rituals to make the transition easier, although many cultures still kept the other festivals in addition to Easter.

    But the bunny is a symbol of fucking. I’m pretty sure of it.

  • wildbill

    Wait, so it is not based on that Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty movie, I bet some people are relieved about that.

  • demonhauntedworld

    Ed’s link also taught me that Dawkins is a “eugenics enthusiast”. Who knew?

  • https://www.facebook.com/ralph.ellis.144 Ralph Ellis

    .

    Actually, Easter and the Easter-egg came from the Egyptian Isis.

    In Egyptian Isis was called Ast or Est, from which we derive Ester or Easter (referring to a star or the heavens). And remember that Isis-Est was a fertility goddess, as much as she was the Queen of Heaven.

    And the Easter-egg came from the spelling, because Est was spelt with the easter-egg glyph. So yes, there are associations with fertility in the symbology of Est (Isis). Oh, and Ishtar (Isht-ar) came from the Egyptian Est (Isis), and not the other way around.

    http://oi58.tinypic.com/29lmwrn.jpg

    Ralph

    (See: Cleopatra to Christ)

  • Chiroptera

    The word Easter derives one of the related Germanic word that can be translated as (1) the direction of the rising sun, (2) the sunrise, (3) the vernal equinox, and (4) the goddess that personified the dawn. These words all derive from the Proto-Indo-European root aus-*. This is pretty much uncontroversial.

    I don’t know about traditions like rabbits or eggs, though.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ralph.ellis.144 Ralph Ellis

    .

    Yes, Easter is from the Germanic ast-ron meaning ‘dawn’ and a goddess of that name – who was derived from Ast or Est (the Egyptian Isis).

    It was on the dawn of the spring equinox that the stellar observations for the Precession of the Equinox were made, which determined the Great Month we are in. In AD 10 the Great Month of Aries (lamb) ended and the Great Month of Pisces (fish) began. That is why Jesus was born as a Lamb of God (Aries) but became a Fisher on Men (Pisces). Judaism and Nazarene Christianity were all astrological, but the Church covered this up.

    Est (Isis) was the Queen of Heaven, and so it was at the spring equinox that the priesthood looked to the East at Easter, the festival of Est or Isis, and determined the Astrological Age (the Great Month). See Matthew 24:3 (below) – but this verse actually says ‘end of the age’ and not ‘end of the world’. (Gr: aion, meaning ‘age’)

    You might say astrology has nothing to do with Judaism, but you would be wrong. This is the Hamat Teverya zodiac from a synagogue on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, dating from the 1st or 3rd century AD.

    http://i45.tinypic.com/2zf6783.jpg

    Note that the head of the central Jesus-Helios figure points at the conjunction of Aries and Pisces (or AD 10). Note also that Jesus-Helios is holding a blue spherical Earth in his gravitational grip. The astronomical knowledge of this era was astounding.

    Originally, astrology was the most central element of Judaism and early Nazarene Christianity – which is why the disciples were asking Jesus about the precession of the equinox (the Great Ages or Great Months) in Math 24:3

    Quote:

    “And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the Age?” Math 24:3

    In reality, the disciples wanted to know which sign (Great Month) of the precessional zodiac would be dominant at Jesus’ birth and which would be dominant when that Great Month ended. The answer was Aries (lamb) for the birth and Aquarius (water carrier) at the end of Pisces (in about AD 2500).

    See Luke 22:10. The ‘house’ where the water bearer would go, was an astrological house, not a domestic house.

    Ralph Ellis

    See “Cleopatra to Christ” or “King Jesus”

    The 1st century Hamat Teverya zodiac from Tiberias.

  • dingojack

    Ralph Ellis – see footnote mine #14.

    Dingo

  • https://www.facebook.com/ralph.ellis.144 Ralph Ellis

    >>Dingo.

    >>Reconstructing the beliefs or customs of long dead

    >>cultures is fraught with difficulties.

    Yes, and no. The thing is, that the goddess Isis never really died out. So we do know a lot about her.

    In Judaism she was worshipped by the Jews of Jerusalem as the Queen of Heaven. They might try to deny this, but read the Book of Jeremiah and you will see I am right.

    In Christianity, Isis and Horus were merely adopted and recast as the Madonna and Child. And the statue of Mary in the Pantheon in Rome is merely Isis with a re-cut headdress.

    http://oi44.tinypic.com/ostq95.jpg

    And if you look at the zodiac from Hamat Teverya on the Sea of Galilee, you will see that we have also retained much of the astrology that the Nazarene Jews of the 1st century AD were venerating.

    http://i45.tinypic.com/2zf6783.jpg

    So no, this is not a long-dead custom at all. It is all around us still, if we open our eyes. The only problem is that many dare not open their eyes, because to do so will conflict with their belief system. Sorry, but that is their problem, not mine. I am only recording the mythological and historical truth here.

    Mazal Tov

    (which actually means ‘Good Constellation of the Zodiac’)

    Ralph Ellis

    See: “Cleopatra to Christ”.