Apr 20, 2019

Origins of Easter Rooted in Fertility Worship, not Ishtar

Ishtar = Easter Meme
This time of year, the Internet is full of articles discussing Easter, which is celebrated tomorrow, April 21, 2019. So many articles are written on the topic, I had initially decided to forgo weighing in myself. That is until I saw the image shown left and articles presenting its textual content as fact.  This "Ishtar = Easter" meme is so common this time of year, it's taken on Internet factoid status. Seeing it again gave me the desire to weigh in on this topic after all.

Who Was Ishtar?

The image shows a relief carving of the Mesopotamian war goddess, Ishtar, which is on display at the British Museum. Ishtar was a powerful goddess whose name was famously given to the blue gates of the ancient city of Babylon.  Layered over the image is text connecting Ishtar to Easter.

This is a neat image. Ishtar is certainly an interesting deity. War is often portrayed through male deities like Ares or Mars, so any female war goddess is worth noting and studying. Indeed, the entirety of ancient Mesopotamian religion puts ancient Greece's mythology to shame, at least in terms of the sheer number of gods and goddesses that were worshipped. Unfortunately, the image is also quite wrong.

Christian Appropriation of Pagan Worship

Ostara (Eostre)
The origins of Easter are certainly debated. However, most scholars believe the holiday has its roots in the Germanic "pagan" worship of Eostre (Ostara). Eostre was the goddess of fertility and spring, portrayed in the image to the left. The worship of Eostre was well-rooted in England as well, as the island had been colonized by Germanic tribes before 410 CE when the Romans departed from the island they called "Britannia."

When the Roman Empire later declared Christianity as its official religion, Christian leaders undertook systematic cultural appropriation of pagan religion by superimposing Christian holidays over the older beliefs. In 595 CE, Pope Gregory sent a mission of 40 monks led by Augustine to England with instructions to convert the pagans to Christianity. Augustine was told to allow the outward forms of the old, "heathen" festivals and beliefs to remain intact, but where possible, impose Christian ceremonies and philosophy on them. So, Augustine did.

This approach proved, at once, both successful and diabolical. Pagan rituals in existence long before Christianity utterly disappeared. In many instances, the cultures that fell victim to this appropriation of their beliefs were cultures based on an oral tradition, meaning they did not write down the details of their beliefs or religious practices. Thus, much of the who, what, when, where, why, and how they worshipped has been lost to us. This unfortunate result can be seen most clearly in the near complete confiscation of Celtic religious rituals, beliefs, and practices.

Easter Began as Fertility Worship

On a lesser scale, the results can also be seen with the transformation - and masculinization of Eostre worship into today's Easter. Yet, because the outward forms of Eostre worship were allowed to remain, we can still catch of glimpse of the origins of Easter, particularly in its timing and symbols.

First, the timing of Easter directly connects the holiday to fertility worship. The holiday is celebrated in the springtime when the whole world, both plants and animals, renew themselves through reproduction. The original worship of Eostre also celebrated this continuous cycle of rebirth. Modern-day Christians observe Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon of the Vernal Equinox on March 21. Because it is tied to the appearance of a particular full moon, Easter is not celebrated on the same day every year. It can be celebrated on any date between March 22 and April 25. However, it is still tied to spring and rebirth because it is tied to the Vernal Equinox, important in pagan ritual.

Second, the symbols most commonly associated with Easter clearly denote fertility worship. While the religious aspect of Easter celebrates a male deity, Jesus, rising from the dead after the Crucifixion, most people associate Easter with two, principal symbols: a rabbit and an egg. This hearkens to an older belief system. Rabbits are well-known in the animal kingdom for their superior reproductive abilities, a nod to ancient religious practices which often included reverence for animals.
The Orphic (World) Egg

Moreover, the egg is a symbol of both fertility and eternal life that has been reflected in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times, long before the coming of Christianity. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that Ra, the sun god, was hatched from a cosmic egg. The ancient Egyptians often thought of the sun as being an egg, one that was laid by Seb a celestial goose. From this egg, it was also believed the Phoenix hatched. For interesting reading on the symbology of the egg, you can find this article from Scientific American, which also rejects the "Ishtar = Easter" meme.

Easter Has Nothing to Do With Ishtar

In contrast to Eostre, Ishtar was a war goddess, at least primarily. She was also known in some parts of ancient Mesopotamia as Inanna. Far from fertility symbols like the rabbit, Ishtar's was the lion, denoting ferociousness, strength, and power. She was also closely associated with an eight-pointed "Star" of Venus at a time when ancient astronomers thought the planet Venus (which shines brightest in the night sky) was a star like the Sun. Instead of eggs featuring prominently in Ishtar worship, women worshipped Ishtar by making cakes baked in ashes.

To be fair, Ishtar was also the goddess of love and beauty. Some believe her ancient followers may have engaged in sexual rituals as part of their worship. This could denote a type of fertility worship. However, this hypothesis is much debated and requires further study. There is certainly insufficient evidence to conclude that Ishtar is the original source of our Easter holiday.

Upon careful examination, there is nothing about Ishtar, except for a slight similarity in name, that connects that goddess to Easter. And, Eostre is even closer to our modern word Easter than Ishtar. Old English is almost a direct match. In Old English, Eostre was spelled Eastre.

Memes Are Often Misleading

Despite a rather obvious connection between Eostre and Easter, the "Internet machine" pushes the "Ishtar = Easter" idea every year through images like the one above and related articles. The reasons for misinformation on this particular topic are not entirely clear. Much about the Internet cannot be fully explained or understood by regular folks. All that can be said is that this is an Internet meme, and memes are often deceptively attractive but misleading.

Example of Internet Meme from Saturday Night Live
The word "meme" comes from the ancient Greek "mimeme," meaning "imitated thing." "Meme" was coined by British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He proposed the theory that memes replicated in people's thoughts as part of cultural evolution. Internet memes are simply one subcategory of a phenomenon that cannot always be trusted as authoritative or truthful. 

Like the seasonally-repeated "Ishtar = Easter" meme, memes are not rendered true simply because they are repeated; replication is simply what they do. They are simply part of our cultural consciousness, but that does not make them accurate. Our conscious thoughts are often wrong.

If you see or read about the "Ishtar = Easter" connection this year, know that it is a mistaken meme. You can safely disregard the notion that our modern Easter holiday has anything whatsoever to do with an ancient Mesopotamian war goddess.

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