#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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