Originally written for read.cash.
Every Easter, a meme goes around saying that the Christian holiday Easter actually comes from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. This isn’t done for scholarly reasons, either; it’s meant to be a little “gotcha!” to the Christian religion because some people really have nothing better to do.
Here’s the thing: no one denies that a lot of pagan practices were absorbed into Christianity. Religions have borrowed from other traditions for as long as humans have practiced formal religions. In fact, it’s probably been going on for longer than the existence of the major religions!
Moreover, if you’re going to point out this bit of trivia, you should at least point to the proper practices that were adopted into it. In this case, Ishtar isn’t the source of Easter. We have to look to Germanic roots to find our Easter traditions.
Why Are Pagan Practices Part of Christian Holidays?
Let’s start with that question. The tradition of borrowing customs, holidays, and even gods and other religious figures from others is old. The Hittites were very fond of it, and the Greeks and Romans also did it quite a bit, especially as they attempted to synchronize their gods with those of every culture and religion they encountered, believing all gods to be their own, just using different names, visage, and taking on different roles within different nations.
Christianity doing this is nothing new, nor was it considered inappropriate in the ancient world. The early(ish) church also had a reason for wanting to do this: conversion.
Christianity was one of the first religions to demand conversion. If you didn’t relinquish your worship of other gods, you couldn’t be saved. Jesus’ blood could cover all sins, no matter how heinous, but you had to accept his gift of salvation first, and the church demanded exclusive worship of their god, whom they considered separate and unique, in order to receive this gift.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convert if it requires a huge lifestyle change. Some change is fine, but most of us would have a hard time, say, converting to the Amish lifestyle. It would demand too much sacrifice on our part, even if one admires the Amish life.
Let’s look at it another way: veganism. How many readers here consider themselves animal lovers or conservationists? There are probably quite a few animal lovers, and I count myself among them. However, giving up all meat and dairy is a steep lifestyle change. You’re really only likely to do so if a.) you don’t care for meat much to begin with and/or b.) you’ve saturated your memory with shocking images of animals being tortured for the consumption of their dead bodies.
Vegans want more people to convert, sort of like a religion, but you can’t just tell people to give up their favorite foods. That approach hasn’t worked in the past unless the person you were converting was really, really gung-ho about it. To get the vast majority of people converted to a cruelty-free diet, you have to make it so that they don’t feel like they’re giving much up.
The solution? Imitation foods. You can get imitation eggs, soy milk, animal-free mayo, and all kinds of plant-based “meat”. Still, a number of people scoff at the added expense and the fact that it still isn’t real eggs and dairy, including that it doesn’t have the same nutritional value as the real thing. As such, on the horizon now is the start of cultured, or lab-grown, meat: real meat without the overcrowded conditions of animals pumped up with artificial hormones whose lives come to premature ends when they’re unceremoniously slaughtered.
This solution means you can still eat real meat without the guilt of, for example, sitting down to a Red Lobster meal, knowing that your immediate pleasure is only the result of killing one of these creatures in one of the most horrifying of ways.
In a way, Christianity was like the ancient veganism. You can convert while as little suffering on your part as possible. You may have to detach yourself from your former gods, many of whom you may have felt you had a close relationship to, and you may have to look at some of your formal lifestyle choices as sinful now, but you can still enjoy all of your former celebrations, and many of your gods may have even been informally transfigured into saints.
So, why do people nowadays have a problem with this? I believe it has to do with our current view of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a neutral term, and it’s a phenomenon that has always occurred. Cultures and religions borrow from one another; that’s one of the reasons they grow and change. If they don’t, they become derailed or stagnated, and in time they could die out altogether. Even if a culture gets largely subsumed into a more widespread culture, it doesn’t fully die, as aspects of that culture will always live on in the wider culture.
Despite our recent efforts, you cannot preserve a culture in amber like Jurassic Park’s mosquitos. To do so is to keep it from growing, to keep it from interacting with the rest of the world. The ancient world had no issue with this exchange, or occasionally even theft of other practices. There were no people pointing their fingers, accusing other people of mimicking their ceremonies, holidays, etc.
Repurposing another ceremony, holiday, symbol, ritual, etc. to fit your own culture or religion wasn’t a crime, it was just how things went. Today we look down upon such things, feeling that it wasn’t original enough or that appropriation is inappropriate. In reality, I doubt any pagans were upset that Christians were adapting their own customs and symbolism into their religion. If anything, that just made them easier to identify with and less alien to the rest of the world.
What Are the Real Pagan Roots of the Easter Celebration?
Now that we have that soapbox moment out of the way, does Easter actually go back to Ishtar? No, it doesn’t. Here’s how the meme goes if you haven’t seen it already:
Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?) After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.
There are all kinds of things wrong with this. Let’s look at them.
Firstly, Ishtar isn’t simply the goddess of fertility and sex. I think people are getting her mixed up with the Athenian interpretation of Aphrodite, or the Roman’s Venus. Ishtar is the goddess of: sex, love, war, protection, childbirth, fate, marriage, and storms. That’s a lot of stuff to preside over! There is a hint of fertility in that her cult’s followers practiced sacred prostitution, which is the act of having sex with her priestesses in exchange for blessings, but it isn’t listed as one of her official titles.
We don’t know of her being associated with rabbits or bunnies at all. Her symbols were the lion, eight to sixteen-pointed stars, and the morning star. These are symbols of power, and rabbits have never been as particularly powerful creatures. Remember, this a goddess who engages in war and storms, not just love and sex.
Moreover, the word “Easter” isn’t derived from the name Ishtar, it’s probably actually derived from the Germanic goddess of the spring, Eostre. This goddess is quite obscure, and we don’t really have much information on how people in old Germanic and Norse tribes would have worshiped her, but she’s still a far more likely candidate for Easter than Ishtar is.
The Assyrian and Babylonian empires had collapsed long before the rise of Christianity, so it would be a strange idea to borrow from their religions as a way of making Christianity more accessible to their contemporaries. As stated, the point of borrowing and repurposing pagan traditions to fit the new faith wasn’t to disguise their own lack of tradition, it was to make conversion easier. Taking names and symbols from a long-gone civilization wouldn’t be a winning move.
As the Roman Empire was happily trying to get a foothold in Europe, it would make more sense to start adopting their traditions and appropriating their celebrations. This puts Eostre in the right time of history to become the basis of the English Easter celebration. Just as Eostre welcomes the spring, which has traditionally been correlated with birth and renewal, so it can be easily translated to the Christian observance of Christ’s resurrection. Christ is reborn and takes his place in Heaven, and Christians are born again. The same symbols of spring can easily be fit into the holiday.
As for eggs, they also aren’t symbols of Ishtar. Instead, eggs seem to pop up in different cultures with similar symbolic meanings at different times. In other words, this just something that is universal, developing simultaneously around the world.
Ancient Egyptians believed the sun god hatched from an egg, while the Finnish people believe the whole world was hatched from an egg. Hinduism also uses eggs as a way of teaching about the universe, and the Chinese believed there was a cosmic egg at the center of their universe.
If anything, going by Christian artwork dating back to the first century CE (AD), the Easter egg comes from the Phoenix, a bird that lives for hundreds of years, dies in flame, and is reborn from the egg it lays just before combustion. It’s the Phoenix that became a metaphor for Christ’s resurrection, not Ishtar.
As for coloring the eggs, that may be uniquely Christian, with different colors originally holding different symbolic value, such as red being the color of Jesus’ blood and a reminder of the Passion.
Stop spreading this meme! It’s not factual and doesn’t make a lot of sense, historically speaking.