#FolkloreThursday: The Easter/Ishtar/Ostara Thing & Invented Traditions

#FolkloreThursday: The Easter/Ishtar/Ostara Thing & Invented Traditions March 24, 2016
Burney Relief, Queen of the Night, uploaded by Rama (Wikimedia, C.C.)
Burney Relief, Queen of the Night, uploaded by Rama (Wikimedia, C.C.)

Hey, I’m starting a blog post series! It’s titled #FolkloreThursday in honor of the Twitter hashtag that celebrates folklore once a week. Some of the hashtag is “hey did you know?” type stuff, and some is more scholarly. I try to contribute something every so often, but with this blog post series, I’m initiating a regular (hopefully weekly) posting about some folklore fact, theory, method, or history from an academic perspective. This is partly to contribute to more general knowledge about folklore, and partly because one of my major folklore pet peeves is when people assume that knowing something about folklore they’ve experienced means they know about the academic study of folklore.

For this week, with Easter looming, I thought I’d dispel the idea that the Christian holiday of Easter is based on the ancient near Eastern fertility cult of Ishtar. This post on The Belle Jar says it all, really: yes, Ishtar was associated with fertility and sex (though Herodotus is an admittedly shady source), but had nothing to do with Easter. In fact, the link between pagan goddess Ostara and Christian holiday Easter emerged quite strongly in Jacob Grimm’s research which, while pioneering, was problematic in some regards too (e.g. he apparently didn’t have a written source on Ostara’s history). So, maybe take the Ostara/Easter link with a grain of salt, too. Christianity has obviously syncretized a number of local pagan traditions, but teasing out the links, when perhaps not everything was written down in the first place, is tough, and I’m more intrigued by why this notion is getting more attention than whether it’s true or not.

However, I also don’t want to set a precedent for this post series, or my blog in general, being all about “Let’s dispel this obviously untrue folklore!” Because that’s not the whole story when it comes to folklore studies; sometimes truth value matters, sometimes it doesn’t, and most of the time we as folklorists are not terribly interested in that question, we’re more interested in why a community finds folklore relevant enough to continue transmitting/performing.

So, I’ll wrap up this blog post with one more folklore tidbit: the idea of invented traditions and how they apply to holidays. For some decades now, folklorists and anthropologists have acknowledged that tradition is dynamic, and that no tradition has existed forever. Despite the fact that the rhetoric of “this is how things have always been” is quite appealing, we do need to examine where these traditions came from, who benefits from them, and who benefits from their construction remaining invisible (to answer the latter two questions with one case study, the diamond industry’s ad campaign in the 1930s has now passed into lived tradition/folklore, and you can guess who benefits).

In short, every tradition was at one point invented, and with holidays, I think it’s helpful to pay attention to not only what the scholarship says, but also the way these traditions play out in lived experience. Does your enjoyment of a holiday stem most from how you spend it, or from what you believe about its origins? There’s no right answer here, but it could be useful food for thought.

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  • Kevin K

    I’m looking forward to further posts on this subject. There’s a ton of misinformation out there, and it’s just a giant game of whack-a-mole to pound that stuff back into its hole.

    Or, to use my favorite quote: “The internet is full of people spouting off on subjects they have zero knowledge of.” — Abraham Lincoln.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Ah yes, that infamous internet quote. I hope I can clear up some misinformation and contribute positively to these discussions!

      • Kevin K

        Is attributing random quotes to Abraham Lincoln (including that one, which I freely admit I made up on the spot) considered folklore?

  • Well, regardless of how the myth started, somewhere around 1999 in Days of High Woo-Woo I decided to adopt Eostre/Ostara as a persona and put a Scandinavian twist on the name.

    I also love chocolate, and bunny rabbits. Coincidence? I. Think. Not.

    As for the sex thing, My libido was last seen on the side of a milk carton — And then I lost the milk carton, too. 🙁

    • Peter_J88

      That’s a sad story about your libido. I hope it comes home at some point or hasn’t been murdered by life.

      • *sniffle* Já, I miss it. I’m half-expecting it to come stumbling in sometime in the wee hours of the morning, giggling and smelling of cheap gin.

        • Peter_J88

          Yep, and it’ll be to drunk to fuck… Sad face

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      When I saw “Astreja” my mind went immediately to Freja, who was probably as close to Ostara (or Ishtar, for that matter) as a Scanadinavian variant might get…

      • I always saw Freyja more as My auntie, and Myself more as one of the Æsir/Vanir kidlets, in the same generation as Thor. My back story is that Ostara got lost on the way to Scandinavia and just showed up again fairly recently.

        I suspect the rabbit and I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque… 😀

  • Loren Petrich

    I think that the problem is that modern-English “Easter” sounds a lot like “Ishtar”. Thus the pseudo-etymology.

    There’s a big problem with the name “Ishtar”. It’s an Akkadian deity name, and texts in Akkadian were only rediscovered in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. That name does have cognates like Hebrew Ashtoreth and borrowings like Greek Astarte. Neither “Ashtoreth” nor “Astarte” sound much like modern-English “Easter”.

    There is also a big problem with the name “Easter”. It’s found in English and German, but not much elsewhere. Easter – Wiktionary has a good list. Names for Easter in many languages, like Romance ones and Greek and some Germanic ones, are derived from Hebrew Pesach, the name of Passover in that language.

    • Bob Jase

      And Pesach is related to the Mayan name Pacal.

      Hey, if Foxy is going to eliminate bad folklore we need something to replace it.

      • Jeana Jorgensen

        Just use the hashtag #fakefolketymology and I’m good with it!

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Thank you for contributing from a historical linguistics perspective. These kinds of etymologies drive me nuts, but folk etymologies persist for a lot of reasons – people find them compelling, there’s often a narrative attached to them, and so on.

  • Bob Jase

    “no tradition has existed forever.’

    i disagree – bullshit has existed since humanity began and will continue until we are gone.

    • Peter_J88

      Lol… That equates to the only unchanging thing in the universe is change… Except bullshit, which also doesn’t change.

  • alverant

    So what pagan traditions/beliefs did christianity syncretize to create Easter?

    Side note, I attended your panels at Capricon last month. They were very interesting. I’m glad you’re here where I can read more of your posts.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Oh hey, thanks for letting me know! I’m glad you enjoyed the panels.

      I’m trying to think of specific examples; I’m guessing that my folklore colleague Jack Santino has covered them in his book on holidays in the American tradition, All Around the Year. But in general, resurrection has been a major theme of pagan traditions all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so for monotheistic religions to incorporate it at all is a nod in that direction.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I associate Easter with chocolate given the large amount of chocolate that was available on Easter when I was a child. Europeans first encountered chocolate during the conquest of Mexico. Champlain sampled the brew when he visited New Spain in the sixteenth century. It was too bitter for his palate. Chocolate also shows up in the history of the Jesuits. They had a reputation for consuming chocolate during Lent because it would not be “expedient” to abstain from the savory beverage.

  • Peter_J88

    That diamond story is truely fucked up. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by western capitalism. I think the problem we have as humans is that we’re not aware of the past enough or we don’t take the time to research it. Thankfully, though, to social media and the internet this is changing. I guess as we become better informed of the past we’re less likely to make the same mistakes in the future.

    • alverant

      Considering the human costs involved in mining diamonds, the story only gets more fucked up. If the diamond industry wanted, they can open up their vaults to make diamonds cheaper. Of course they won’t since it would hurt their profits. So they keep diamonds artificially rare and innocent people will continue to suffer from it.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Yes, I’m also hoping that more/better education will help combat this sort of thing.

  • BeaverTales

    I was reading about Astaroth, and how she morphed from fertility goddess to demon once Christianity defeated the various Pagan sects in the Roman Empire and stole their traditions, including hers.


    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Yes, the demonization of formerly benevolent spirits is a trend that happens with religious colonization.

  • Bri

    The first time I saw the Isthar/Easter thing going around I wondered how really true it could be and if the holiday of Easter itself could be connected to a specific pagan holiday. Would it be safe to say though that the resurrection story itself, Jesus/God’s son coming back from the dead could have been influenced by resurrection stories from other mythologies though (Osiris is the big one that comes to mind)?

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      I do think a lot of the resurrection myths are probably related to one another, though of course it’s difficult with oral traditions to prove *how* they’re related (e.g. which came first, which exerted an influence on others, and so on). But since it makes more sense to look at a single origin of a practice which spread through cultural contact, instead of assuming that each culture in a geographical region that was connected independently came up with the same thing… there’s probably something to this idea.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    Easter is named for the month of the Germanic calendar on which it typically happened to fall. That month was named for a Germanic pagan goddess, but that is no more special than the month of March being named for a Roman god of war, sports, agriculture, and pretty much everything associated with young men. (Mars was a more versatile and less destructive than the Greek Ares, with whom he came to be associated.)

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Hm, that’s an interesting take on it. I wonder what it is about naming months (and in our case, days of the week) after pagan deities, and how that practice changes when the mainstream culture doesn’t believe in those deities any longer (vs. if it happened at a time when they were still an active part of the belief system).

  • Arbustin

    Any thoughts on the connection of the Jewish holiday of Purim [which fell during Holy Week this year because it’s a leap year on the Jewish calendar, usually falls about a month earlier] to Ishtar? It’s believed that the Persian-Jewish heroine of the story, Esther, is cognate with Ishtar. Beyond that, there’s folklore that hamentaschen, the three-cornered jam- or paste-filled cookies for Purim that most children are taught are based on the villain’s [Haman] hat, are really an allusion to female fertility?

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Huh… I hadn’t heard of the Esther/Ishtar correlation before. I do tend to be a little skeptical of the “cavernous object = vaginal symbol” association, though.

      • Veronica Schanoes

        Just FYI, Raphael Patai says there’s no real connection between Esther and Ishtar in The Hebrew Goddess. I don’t have my copy on hand, so I can’t give you the exact quotation, but he’s pretty definite about it.

  • The ritual drama of Cybele and Attis as enacted by the Romans in ritual every March was a much more likely source for the Easter theology than any Germanic goddess. The enacted the drama of the god dying, mourned for three days, then the god was resurrected and people celebrated with feasts and celebrations. And the ritual was prevalant from a few centuries before “Christ” to some centuries after.

    • Jeana Jorgensen

      Right, and that’s an interesting point… I do think that resurrection narratives and rituals from similar geographic regions might’ve had an influence on one another.

  • roberto quintas

    Thanks a lot! I’m really tired with christian histery about Easter being Pagan, as it is bad thing. There is also one link between Easter=Eoster=Ostara=hAust(os) [same root of Austria]. It’s the Aurora, or Dawn, who bring the spring.