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.