Ishtar vs. Easter: Pick Your Story

Ishtar vs. Easter: Pick Your Story April 6, 2015
Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo


In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.

But this meme also appeared on my feed:


The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?

The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme. First, she points out that the English word “Easter” isn’t related to an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, but rather to a Germanic goddess named Eostre or Ostara. This was the goddess of the dawn, who brought light to the people. McArdle also observes that other European languages don’t use the word “Easter” at all. Instead, they call the day of the resurrection “Pascha,” which comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” meaning “Passover.”

Second, she claims that there is no evidence that Ishtar’s symbols were eggs and bunnies. In fact, Ishtar’s symbols were ancient symbols of power – a lion and stars.

For argument’s sake, I’m willing to concede that while the meme’s comparison of Ishtar to Easter is problematic, there are some interesting similarities between the goddess Ishtar and the Easter story. But what I find really interesting are the differences.

Since the meme brought it up, let’s compare the Ishtar myth to the Easter story. First, I’d like to tell you about my guide when it comes to understanding ancient myths, René Girard. In his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard claims that the Gospels and ancient myths have a lot in common. They are both structured around what he calls a “mimetic crisis.” For our purpose here, “mimetic crisis” basically means a cycle of violence. Ancient myths and the Gospels are similar in that they both have violence in them. But that similarity only heightens the fact that they deal with that violence in radically different ways. Let’s first take a look at how the Ishtar myth deals with violence.

Ishtar and Violence

Ishtar was the goddess of sexuality, love, fertility, storms, and war. She had many lovers and a violent streak. Don’t mess with Ishtar. This goddess gets her revenge! According to mythologist Felix Guirand, “Woe to him whom Ishtar has honoured! The fickle goddess treated her lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly…Even for the gods Ishtar’s love was fatal. In her youth the goddess had loved Tammuz, god of the harvest,…This love caused the death of Tammuz.”

Ishtar proposed marriage to the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, but he refused, citing the violent faith of her previous lovers. “And why should I marry you?” Gilgamesh asked the goddess. “You have harmed everyone you have ever loved!” Ishtar was enraged by his refusal and sought revenge by asking her Father, the god Anu, for special permission to use the Bull of Heaven as her secret weapon against Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, that great warrior, killed the Bull. In a clear example of a mimetic crisis, Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh, then Gilgamesh cursed Ishtar. After they were done with their playground taunts, (I can hear my children teasing each other, “neener-neener-neener”) Ishtar got her revenge by killing Gilgamesh’s best friend. (Hopefully my children won’t do that!)

Ishtar is a god of violence and Gilgamesh is a man of violence. The ancient myths legitimate violence against women and against men. No one is spared from violence and revenge is taken for granted as a way of life.

Easter and Violence

Easter is an anti-myth. It de-legitimizes violence. As Girard observes, there’s no denying the violence in the story. Just a few days before Easter, Jesus was abandoned by his followers and executed at the hands of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities of his day. But as opposed to Ishtar who asked her Father for revenge, Jesus literally prayed his Father would forgive those who killed him. “Father,” Jesus prayed from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

On Easter, Jesus continued to reveal that mythical violence has no place in the heart of God. Jesus was resurrected to transform our world; to transform us. Because of the resurrection, we no longer have to believe in the mythical ways of violence. Instead, we can believe in the nonviolent love of God.

If Jesus were a myth like Ishtar, he would have come back for revenge. He would have killed his Roman persecutors and their religious allies. He probably would have murdered his cowardly disciples. But Easter is no myth. It’s Gospel. It’s the Good News that God doesn’t seek revenge, but rather offers forgiveness and peace to the world.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What did Jesus teach his disciples? In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught them the anti-myth. He taught them that the true God has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with nonviolent love. He modeled for them an alternative way relating to their fellow human beings, not with mimetic cycles of violence, but with forgiveness and nonviolent love.

Ishtar vs Easter

In the end, the Ishtar and Easter stories do have some things in common. They both offer strategies for dealing with violence. Those strategies are clear. Ishtar legitimizes a life of violence while Easter provides the alternative of forgiveness.

Which story will you pick?

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  • Yabber Dabber

    While I endorse your overall theme, I do have some issues with the detail.

    Firstly, Ishtar does not take revenge by ‘killing Gilgamesh’s best friend’. This judgement is exercised and carried out by the council of the great gods (Anu, Enlil, and Shamash).

    Secondly, it is extremely misleading to suggest that the epic of Gilgamesh sanctions violence (‘Gilgamesh is a man of violence. The ancient myths legitimate violence…’). On the contrary, the whole force of the epic is to portray the violent impulses of the hero as immature and unwise. This is why the citizens of Uruk cry out to the gods when Gilgamesh sexually abuses newly married brides. It is why the great gods condemn Enkidu to death after he and Gilgamesh needlessly slay the forest guardian Humbaba and slaughter the bull of heaven. It is why the chief god is condemned and reproved in no uncertain terms for sending a flood that nearly destroys all life on earth. It is why Gilgamesh only finally obtains wisdom when he realizes that it is better to save life than to destroy it.

    Thirdly, I agree that the overall message of the gospels is one of non-violence and individual forgiveness (along with its inevitable counterpart of peaceful resistance against oppressive systems – Roman imperialism in this case). However, it can’t be ignored that there are also discordant elements of retributive violence in Christian teaching. Specifically, the sort of violent revenge rhetoric that we find in the book of Revelation and in many denominational beliefs about Jesus’ second coming.

    Consequently, I think that your stark contrast between violent pagan mythology (admittedly often so) and the non-violent story of resurrection and return (certainly vengeful at times) is broadly accurate but a little too simplistic to do justice to all the data.

    • This is a great comment. Thank you, Yabber Dabber. I take your message about Gilgamesh to heart. I can see how it might be more of a warning about violence than an endorsement. So, thanks for that. The book of Revelation is a strange text when it comes to theology, but when it comes to ethics, it has a radical call to nonviolence – “Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.” The second coming has been interpreted in many different ways. I interpret it through the verse in Hebrews that says, “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I do think Jesus will finally deal with evil, including my own, but he will do it in the same way he did 2,000 years ago – through nonviolent love and forgiveness. But, yes, there are other interpretations.

      Again, I really appreciate your comment.

  • guest

    This is what’s called a false choice. I believe in neither story. I admire what Gadhi and others have accomplished through non-violence but sometimes violence in necessary. Your telling of the Jesus story leaves out Jesus’ violent outburst against the moneylenders, his constant browbeating of his disciplines and the fact he threatened those that don’t believe him with Hell. He may be less violent than Ishtar but he’s no Buddha…the man had a temper. Plus his ‘Father’ in the old testament is constantly violent- boils, plagues, murder of children by his command, omnicide when he flooded the world, smiting left and right…not much of a model of peace and love.

    • Ahh, you have a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Jesus interpreted the Bible differently. Whenever he was provoked by his disciples to kill their enemies, he pushed them in the other direction. Why? Because he claimed that God loves everyone, including those we call our enemies.

      As for what you call Jesus’ violent outburst against the moneylenders, he never killed anyone. He stood up for justice, which meant critiquing an unjust and violent sacrificial system that perpetuated political, economic, and religious oppression. You could call critiquing that system “violent,” but it’s a far cry from killing. I wouldn’t call cracking a whip violent. I would call it waking us up to work for justice.

      As for hell, Jesus talked about heaven and hell as realities here on earth. “The kingdom of heaven is among you,” he said. Heaven is among us in the form of love, compassion, justice. Hell is also among us in the forms of hatred, bitterness, and injustice. When Jesus spoke of hell, he was talking about realities that we make and empowering us to choose which reality we will live into.

      Now, his working for justice did lead to political and religious authorities uniting against him. They did kill him. And how did he respond to that violence? The one Christians say who truly reveals the nature of God offered forgiveness and peace. As a Christian, I interpret all of life, including the Bible and theology, through the lens of Christ.

      • Howard Wideman

        Well said. We carry the weight of our sins here and now. Hell is reality with out god and I’d rather be with Jesus worshipping my father/mother god

        • ‘The weight of our sins.’ Sorry, but I rarely, if ever, think about sin. How often do you!

  • Regarding the ending of Matthew- the so called Great Comission- have you read Mark 16: 1-8? This is the ending Mark wrote. The rest of 16 was forgery. Yet the forgery has no ‘commission’ at all. Mark wrote before Matthew. How did Matthew ‘get’ this comission? I’m betting that his faith community fabricated it. After all, the Gospels are faith statements, not biography.

    • Harbinger

      The earliest Greek Manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus) that we have – none of them contains the long ending for the Gospel of Mark (Mark chapter 16, verses 9-20).

      For well over 1000 years it was believed that the long ending for Mark was the correct ending until the discovery made by Tischendorf and others. While there is some space in one of the codices for the long ending, the space provided there is not conclusive proof that a long ending belongs there and it was be extrapolation on anyone’s part to conclude that the long ending was supposed to placed there.

      Matthew then, written after Mark, contains a ‘great commission’ forgery based upon a forgery (Mark, chapter 16, verses 9-20).

  • Joe T. Sloper

    People, this stupid Ishtar > Easter meme has been circulating for decades. Even my wife thought it was true when I mentioned this just now. It is not true.

    It. Is. Not. True. The word comes from Eostre, the germanic–including anglo-saxon–goddess of the springtide. The word is very old (for an English word). It’s in the Book of Knowledge (wikipedia). If you are partial to other sources for online fact-checking they’re out there. We are free to compare Sumerian stories of performative morality with Christian ones but it has nothing to do with our word for Easter.

    Sigh. At least it’s _our_ word. French calls it “Passover”, pâque. Le pâque is Easter but la pâque (or « pâque juive » of all things, Jewish Passover) is Passover.

  • Joe T. Sloper

    My apologies if the previous message seemed irritable; etymology is one of my favorite topics plus I have a headache. Namaste. Have a nice day.