It’s a common story we read this time of year: Easter has its origins in the worship of pagan gods, it’s time and date was set, intentionally, to coincide or to repurpose ancient pagan festivals of fertility, sex, and reproduction. But, do these persistent, perennial myths have any basis in reality?
Spoiler alert: no—not really, and it’s time we set the record straight.
Easter is Based on the Pagan Celebration of Spring
First, on the dating of Easter, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that it was scheduled to coincide with an already existing ancient pagan festival.
Easter, in actual fact, has been celebrated since the beginning of the Christian Church to coincide with the Jewish Passover. It was at Passover, traditionally, that Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised from the dead. The first Christians celebrated Easter—Jesus’ death and resurrection—based on when the Jewish people celebrated Passover. Because the Jewish Passover was set using a lunar calendar the date of Easter was also fixed in the same way.
From Jesus’ death up until AD 325, the Christian Church celebrated Easter either on the first day of the Jewish Passover or on the first Sunday of the Jewish Passover. It was the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, that fixed the date of the week which Christians should worship as Sunday. Easter, therefore, was moved to the first Sunday of Passover and has been fixed there ever since.
It has, historically, absolutely nothing to do with the spring equinox even if it seems to often fall around the same time of the year.
Easter is Derived from the Goddess Ishtar
The second perennial myth that pops up, every year, like an unwanted volunteer is that Easter originates with the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, Ishtar.
At first glance, the myth seems plausible. After all, if you imbibe enough in the Easter wine “Ishtar” and “Easter” might, kind of, sound similar. But, sadly, even the most cursory amount of research into this subject proves it to be nothing more than another baseless myth.
Ishtar, we know, was a real goddess worshipped in ancient Mesopotamia but was she the goddess of fertility? It seems unlikely.
Our best sources indicate that Mesopotamian gods weren’t worshipped in that way—there was, in actuality, no god or goddess “of” a certain thing. To say that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility is like saying that George Clooney is an actor who plays doctors. While George Clooney did famously play a doctor on the TV show ER it isn’t all that he does. In fact, it isn’t even what he’s probably best known for, remembered for, or his best work. Did some ancient Mesopotamians worship Ishtar because they were trying to get pregnant? It’s possible. But she wasn’t exclusively a “goddess of fertility” in the same way that George Clooney isn’t an “actor who plays doctors.”
And what about rabbits and eggs?
The only evidence we seem to have that indicates that symbols may have been associated with Ishtar tells us that, if anything, she was depicted as a star, a lion, or a gate. No eggs of bunnies are anywhere to be seen.
OK, Then Easter Comes from the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre
If not one thing, well then, maybe another.
The third myth which crops up this time of the year suggests that if Easter isn’t based on the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar maybe it’s origin is in the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre.
At least the name sounds more plausible if you say it with a thick cockney accent.
Here too, however, the theory falls apart pretty quickly.
What do we know about this Anglo-Saxon goddess? Well, hardly anything. What we do know comes from St. Bede, the 7th century monk and scholar who wrote about life in England at the time. What does Bede tell us about Eostre? That she was an Anglo-Saxon goddess associated with spring and that she was worshipped in some parts of Northern England.
And that’s it.
No associate with bunnies, eggs, or fertility. And no discussion of her appropriation by the Christian Church.
She’s a passing footnote in Bede’s extensive history but because the name sounds similar she’s come to be attached to the Christian celebration in spite of the evidence, or lack thereof.
What, I think, is most important to note here is that no evidence seems to exist that Eostre was worshipped in any ancient context. At least, it’s clear from history, that any Christian worship taking place at the time of Easter far predates any worship of Eostre in the Northern England communities where it may have been taking place.
What remains even more interesting, in terms of evidence against, is the name of Easter itself.
The name “Easter” in English and German is unique. Nearly everywhere else in the Christian world, the word for the date corresponds much more closely to the word “Passover.” In Latin and Greek it’s “Pascha.” In French it’s “Paques.” If the Christian Church borrowed the name and festival of Easter from an obscure pagan goddess, they forgot to pass the memo on to the rest of the non-English and non-German speaking Church.
Actually, Easter is an Ancient Christian Celebration
A look at the evidence that Easter has ancient pagan roots should make it clear, but to logically think it through makes a conclusion even more definitive.
After all, if one is to suggest that Easter has pagan origins, rather than its roots in a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, one has to make some pretty ridiculous assertions.
Does it make sense that Christians borrowed the name and date for their most important celebration from a Mesopotamian goddess worshipped in one specific part of the world?
Does it make sense that Christians borrowed the name and date for their most important celebration from an obscure Anglo-Saxon goddess worshipped a world away in a very specific part of Northern England?
And, isn’t it rather damning that the term for Easter remains, in nearly every other language other than English and German, overwhelming similar to the word for “Passover.”
I think it’s reasonable, logical, to conclude that Easter has its origins in Christian tradition. Plain and simple. Any other origin requires an extraordinary leap of logic which I don’t think it’s possible to make.
Did Christians steal or repurpose an ancient pagan festival or goddess for their most important celebration of the year?
If you enjoyed reading this article listen to Episode 003 of The Cordial Catholic Podcast. It’s all about Easter myths and goes on to talk about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—are these nothing more than historical myths, too?
Click here to listen to the episode.