Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs

As I mentioned in my last post, two things we can now be sure the internet will deliver up at Easter are rehashes of the tedious "Jesus never existed" thesis and memes telling us that "Easter is actually pagan!".  The one above has become one of the most popular in recent years, so much so that its "Ishtar = Easter" claim has taken on internet factoid status. More recently, online New Atheists seem to have finally worked out that the "Ishtar" claims are New Age garbage, so they now prefer ones like these:

From the 'No More Make Believe' Facebook group

From the 'Philosophical Atheism' Facebook group
Of course, in typical online New Atheist style, both the "No More Make Believe" and "Philosophical Atheism" groups on Facebook pontificate about  evidence reason, scholarship and fact-checking, but then merrily post any old crap if it has a suitably anti-Christian slant.  So let's actually apply some reason, look at some scholarship and do some fact-checking and see how these glib little memes stand up to the kind of critical scrutiny supposed "rationalists" should apply consistently.

Ishtar and Easter

Back in 2013 someone posted the "Ishtar = Easter" meme on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science's Facebook page.  Around the same time someone noted this on the  Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science site, posted a link to a Scientific American article that made a rather poor attempt at debunking the meme, and then they actually made a smart point:

"There have been many of these types of ideas spreading around through documentaries & books these days. Many of them seek to connect Christian traditions with pagan ones. I must say, I can understand the reasons behind the claims: However, there still has to be historical proof to back such claims."

Fact-checking using evidence?  What a great idea.  Unfortunately the 25 responses the post received displayed little to no sceptical analysis, let alone any actual reference to source material or evidence.  Most of the comments simply droned on about how the idea was "highly plausible" or some general comments about how "Christians adopted many pagan practices and beliefs".  There were also some even more crackpot contributions, such as the guy who doubles down and says Easter is not derived from Ishtar ... but from the goddess Isis!  There was one lonely comment from someone who actually bothered to do "some simple Googling" and managed to work out that Easter and "Ishtar" have nothing to do with each other, however he got completely ignored.  So much for fact checking by the fans of the so-called "Foundation for Reason and Science".

Let's take the claims in the meme one by one:

"Ishtar is pronounced 'Easter'"

No, it isn't. In modern English, it's pronounced the way it looks, with "Ish-" as the first syllable.  The original Akkadian name is 𒀭𒈹 DINGIR INANNA , which is transliterated as D-IŠTAR (the first letter here is "dingir", which indictes that this is a deity's name), so this was probably pronounced "ISH-tar" or perhaps "EESH-tar", but not "EAST-er".  Any similarity between the way the modern English form "Ishtar" looks and the modern English word "Easter" sounds is purely co-incidental.

"Easter is originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex."

Contrary to popular opinion, the idea that ancient deities were somehow the gods or goddesses "of" simple, particular things is far too simplistic.  Ishtar was the Akkadian counterpart to the Semitic goddess Astarte and came to be identified with the Sumerian goddess Inanna.  Inanna had some associations with fertility - she was associated with the date palm and with wool, meat and grain.  There is some evidence that Ishtar's cult involved sacred prostitution, though this is disputed, since it comes from a very late account by Herodotus.  She had several lovers, but a clear indication that she was any kind of "goddess of sex" is hard to establish.  This element seems to get emphasis in the meme because the idea that Easter was "originally about fertility and sex" rather than anything boring and Christian is much more fun to believe.

"Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?)."

Ishtar was associated with several symbols, but "the egg and the bunny" are not among them.  Her symbols seem to have been the star, usually with eight points, often alongside a crescent moon or a rayed sun or both, the lion and the gate.  

"After Constantine decided to Christianize the Roman Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus."

This sentence doesn't make much sense on two levels.  Firstly, Constantine did not decide "to Christianize the Roman Empire".  He converted to Christianity in 312 (or maybe just came out openly as Christian then) and in 313 he decreed toleration of all religions, ending the periodic persecution of Christianity in the Empire.  Despite this, he did not embark on any campaign to impose Christianity on the Empire and, at least initially, took an outwardly neutral path on religion so as not to alienate the still largely pagan senatorial and equestrian classes on which he depended for his administration.  Later, he passed edicts that ended most state sponsorship of the pagan cults and sought to limit public pagan worship, though it's unclear how rigidly the latter were enforced.  The conversion of the emperor and his family to Christianity and, more importantly, the removal of massive imperial funding of pagan temples and centres certainly did have the effect of greatly increasing conversions to Christianity over Constantine's reign and that of his successors, but the Empire was not "Christianised" until the reign of Theodosius, who made Christianity the state religion in 380 AD; 43 years after Constantine died.

The only connection between Constantine and Easter is his calling of the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD, with the aim of settling several disputes within the Christian churches.  While the primary issue for the Council was sorting out the Arian Controversy over the nature of the Trinity, the Council also ruled on when Easter should be celebrated.  This issue had been controversial within Christianity for some time, with Eusebius reporting that as early as 190 AD there had been disputes about whether the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated in line with the Jewish Passover or only on a Sunday, since Jesus is reported to have risen from the dead on the Sunday after his crucifixion.  Most Christians in the west of the Empire celebrated the Resurrection on a Sunday but in the east many churches kept in sync with the Jewish Passover, with the relevant day often falling on a weekday as a result.  So the Council of Nicea ruled that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday and seems to have ordered that it should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21.

Obviously the fact that Christians were having a dispute about when Easter should be celebrated indicates that there was already a celebration of Easter long before Constantine, so the claim that somehow "Easter was changed to represent Jesus" (whatever the hell that means) is clearly garbage.  And the only reason their celebrations of Easter were connected to the vernal equinox is because that is the time of the Jewish Passover and Jesus was said to have been executed around Passover.  So the date has a purely Christian origin that has nothing at all to do with pagan festivals (though Passover may have had a prehistoric origin in some kind of Semitic spring festival).  Finally, there is no evidence of any association between Ishtar and the vernal equinox, let alone the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21.  

Those who peddle this stupid New Age "Ishtar = Easter" meme also don't explain how the word somehow jumped all the way from the Middle East to England, skipping pretty much every single other Christian nation on the way.  This is why, despite the fact the festival is called "Easter" in the English speaking world, in almost every other European language it is some variant on the Greek Πάσχα:

French: Pâques; Romanian: Paşti; Portugese: Páscoa; Italian: Pasqua; Spanish: Pascua; Faeroese: Páskir; Swedish: Påsk; Icelandic: Páskar; Welsh: Pasg; Norwegian: Påske; Danish: Påske; Dutch: Pasen; Russia: Paskha.

Πάσχα in turn is derived from the Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach) meaning ... Passover.  Only an idiot could look at this and somehow conclude that the English word "Easter" had anything at all to do with the name of an ancient Akkadian goddess who was worshipped two millennia before the first English speakers and 4,000 kilometres to the south east of England.  But there are a lot of idiots on the internet and, unfortunately, it seems some of them are associated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The goddess Eostre, according to some neo-pagan hippy on Pinterest

So How About the Goddess Eostre?

If Easter has nothing to do with Ishtar, what about the claims about it coming from "the pagan goddess Eostre"?  We are told that this is the "real" origin of Easter in other memes propagated uncritically by online New Atheists.  Apparently she was a "pagan goddess of light and fertility" and a "Spring Goddess" who "breathed life back into the world".  Lots of online sources seem to know a great deal about her and tell us that she was associated with hares and rabbits ("thus the Easter Bunny, see?") and eggs ("fertility symbols that have nothing to do with silly old Christianity!").  These things are all asserted with the internet's usually breathless assurance and so it all seems perfectly clear that "Easter" was originally this pagan goddess' spring fertility festival.  Unless you bother to actually check on the sources of all these claims and find this is not clear at all.  In fact, it's actually highly uncertain.

To begin with, we have the grand total of one reference to any pagan goddess called Eostre, and it's pretty dubious.  It's actually found in an early medieval Christian work focused on that vexed issue of the calculation of the date of Easter.  In 725 AD the prolific English monk and scholar Bede wrote De temporum ratione or "The Reckoning of Time" to help monks calculate Easter, but in the process he detailed various calendrical schemes, gave a potted history of the earth and, thanks to the work's popularity, helped fix the BC/AD dating scheme as the standard.  In his discussion of calendars he gives us the traditional Old English names for the months, with a brief discussion of each.  Some of his etymologies seem to refer to the agricultural cycles of the year, such as Weodmonath (August) or "weed month" or Thrimilcemonath (May) "three milkings month" so called because in that month cattle were milked three times a day thanks to lush spring grass.  Others refer to pagan practices.  Bede says Halgemonath (September) is "Holy Month" because it was a "month of sacred rites", possibly associated with harvest.  And he says two months were named after goddesses - Hrethmonath (March) after Hrêða and Eostremonath (April) after our Eostre:

"Eostremonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance." (Bede, De temporum ratione, XV)

That would seem to settle it - here is an early medieval source telling us that the month in which Easter (usually) falls was named after a pagan goddess called Eostre, so the festival is pagan.  Except things aren't quite that simple.

We have no other references to this "Eostre" anywhere in any other source.  Our sources of information on early Germanic mythology are scanty and fragmentary, but it is odd for us to have just one reference to a deity and no other indication of their worship: no references to her in other Christian sources, no inscriptions, no charms mentioning her name, no place names indicating her cult sites and no cognates of her name in later Old Norse texts on the Viking gods.  Bede was writing in the early eighth century and a couple of generations after England had converted to Christianity.  Even then many pagan practices and ideas would still have survived, but how familiar with them a devout monk living in the monastery of Jarrow would have been is not clear.  The lack of any other references to this goddess is suspicious and there is a very good chance Bede didn't have a clue what "Eostremonath" meant and that he invented an "Eostre" goddess to explain the obscure name.

The month name was not only found in England, however, and the prolific nineteenth century philologist Jakob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales fame) noted that in his day some Germans still called April "ostermonat".  He also pointed to the Old High German version of the same month name: "ôstarmânoth" and the recorded Old High German words for two festival days: "ôstartagâ" and "aostortagâ".  He concluded from this that Bede must have been right and that a feast of "Eostre" or "Ostara" must have been held at this time.

Grimm was very good, however, at finding Germanic gods and festivals in the most fragmentary and obscure of evidence and while the Old High German cognates for the month name and festival days may indicate something pre-Christian, they don't necessary add up to a goddess.  The very cautious modern scholar of all things pagan, Ronald Hutton, accepts that Bede and Grimm may have been right, but we can't be very sure:

"[T]he Anglo-Saxon eastre, signifying both the festival and the season of spring, is associated with a set of words in various Indo-European languages,signifying dawn and also goddesses who personified that event, such as the Greek Eos, the Roman Aurora, and the Indian Ushas. It is therefore quite possible to argue that Bede’s Eostre was a German dawn-deity who was venerated at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon “Estor-monath” simply meant “the month of opening”, or the “month of beginning”, and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season, but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the Dawn itself.” (Hutton, Stations Of The Sun, p.180)

The etymology seems to trace back to the Indo-European root "*aus-" meaning "to shine" which in turn is the root for the modern English word "east" and a range of cognates referring to "the dawn", to "shining" and to the "sun". So "Eostremonath" could refer to an otherwise totally unattested goddess, a goddess not associated with Easter or it could be a reference to the month when the sun shines again as winter gives way to spring.  We simply don't know.

More neo-pagan New Age fantasy

Rabbits, Hares and Eggs?

So Easter has nothing at all to do with Ishtar and Eostre may not even have existed.  What about the pagan remnants that are Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?  As already noted above, there is no evidence linking Ishtar to eggs, rabbits or hares, despite the claims to that effect.  And if we can't even be sure if there was an Eostre, clearly we have no information about her being connected to eggs or bunnies if she existed.

Given that no eggs or rabbits appear in any of the Easter narratives in the gospels, most people assume they have to have pagan origins.  After all, the usual Christian explanation that the eggs "symbolise the rebirth of Christ at his Resurrection" sounded dubious to me even as a child.  But it seems that the tradition of decorating and eating eggs at Easter does have a medieval Christian origin after all.

Christianity has long instituted days of fasting in association with various festivals and celebrations in its liturgical calendar and the earliest evidence we have of a 40 day fast before Easter comes in the festal letter of Athanasius from 330 AD.  What a "fast" meant varied, but it usually involved abstaining from meat and often also required avoiding all animal food products, including cheese, butter and eggs.  The fifth century historian Socrates Scholasticus noted at least some people abstained from eating eggs on fast days and the Council in Trullo in 692 AD recommended that people do so:

"It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain."

By the Middle Ages, abstaining from eggs on fast days and in Lent had become the standard practice in western Europe.  Thomas Aquinas made this requirement perfectly clear:

"Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods." (Summa Theologica, II.2. 127)

So this prohibition gave rise to two European customs maintained to this day: eating pancakes and pastries on "Shrove Tuesday" before the Lent fast began and eating eggs on Easter Sunday when it ended.  Using up what eggs, milk and butter people had before the fast made sense rather than letting this perishable food go to waste.  And since hens would be paying no attention to any fasts and still laying through Lent, there would have been plenty of eggs on hand to eat on Easter Sunday morning.  In fact, eggs gathered in the week ahead of Easter could have been stored or hard boiled in preparation for Easter Sunday morning, when they would have been quite a treat to peasants who had just endured over a month on a diet of bread, vegetables and some fish.

We have the first references to these eggs being decorated in the thirteenth century, but that practice may have started earlier.  What we don't have is any reference to any pagan spring festival or customs involving eggs.  The most logical source of Easter eggs, therefore, is the Christian practice of a Lenten fast in which this readily available staple could not be eaten.

The "Easter Bunny" is a modern commercial take on the northern European association of hares (not rabbits) with Easter.  Again, there is no evidence of any pagan origin here.  Hares are generally shy and solitary animals, but in early spring they become more social as part of their mating behaviour.  So around March in most of northern Europe hares can be seen in the fields "boxing" - with males competing for mates and females occasionally rebuffing males physically.  The sight of groups of hares in the fields would have been a sign of the onset of spring and that Easter was around the corner for rural people without calendars, thus the German and Dutch tradition of the "Easter Hare" which came to the US and became the "Easter Bunny".  So, again, no paganism.

Where Does All this Crap Come From?

So Ishtar had nothing to do with Easter, Eostre may not have even existed and Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny aren't pagan either.  So where did all this crap come from?  One of the interesting things about having spent several decades tracking down crank pseudo history is how often I find these dumb ideas can all be traced back to single sources.  In this case we have memes being shared uncritically both by New Agers and neo-pagans and by vehement New Atheists.  Which is deeply ironic, given that the source of these memes seems to be a nineteenth century fundamentalist Christian minister.

Alexander Hislop (1807-1865) was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and parish schoolmaster in Caithness.  He was a vehement critic of anything to do with Catholicism and became convinced that while good Protestants like him followed the true faith of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church was actually the ancient Babylonian mystery cult of Nimrod, an obscure pagan figure mentioned a few times in the Old Testament.  According to Hislop, Satan allowed the Emperor Constantine (him again) to hijack the true Christian faith and lead it into idol-worship and Papist errors and that it was only by recognising this and throwing off any pre-Reformation vestiges that people could return to true Christianity.

Hislop initially published this thesis as a pamphlet in 1853, but then added a large amount of material to it and published it as The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife in 1858.  Hislop's book is a remarkable case study in the level of abject nonsense that can be created out of a stupid initial assumption, a burning desire to find (or create) evidence to support it and the motivating energy of good old fashioned bigotry.  So Hislop takes sources that have since been shown to be wrong and new information from digs in the Middle East that he didn't understand to create a fantasy of stunning complexity and idiocy.  We are told that the mitres worn by Catholic bishops take their shape from the "fish head hats" worn by the ancient priests of the god Dagon, though this ignores the fact that Catholic mitres didn't take their current form until at least the tenth century and earlier forms didn't look anything like the bizarre hats in Hislop's dubious illustrations of these pagan priests.  And where Hislop was unable to come up with evidence he simply makes strings of assertions, like "Nimrod was born on December 25" or "Christmas tree baubles are Babylonian sun symbols" - none of which have the slightest substantiation.

Not surprisingly, Hislop's book became a best-seller and remains very popular among the loonier elements of fundamentalist Protestantism.  The Jehovah's Witnesses still cite Hislop as an august authority in regular articles repeating his claims.  The infamous tract publisher Jack T. Chick was a huge fan of Hislop and several of his crazier evangelical comic books were simply rehashes of Hislop's thesis (such as his 1987 comic "Why is Mary Crying?").  And white supremacist groups of the "Christian Identity" variety also regularly feature Hislop's claims in their material.

Hislop seems to be the ultimate point of origin for the claims that Ishtar and Eostre were the original source of Easter, thanks to the wickedness of Catholics and, of course, Satan.  He devotes a whole section to the pagan origins of Easter in his chapter on the wicked Satanic festivals of the Catholic Church:

"What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name,… as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar ..." (Hislop, p. 103)

He goes on to detail a fervid fantasy about Middle Eastern gods being taken to Britain by, of course, the Druids, who he claims worshipped the Babylonian god Baal.  Then he makes the following series of leaps:

"If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort, Astarte, was also worshipped by our ancestors, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar.  The religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter - that month, among our Pagan ancestors having been called Easter-monath." (Hislop, p. 104)

He then traces this pagan Easter and its Catholic customs via a circuitous route via the 40 day fast of "the Yezidis, the Pagan Devil-worshippers of Koordistan" and, somehow, the "Pagan Mexicans" and the cults of Adonis, Osiris, Ceres and Tammuz before it was imposed on the poor Christians of Britain by the wicked and Satanic Church of Rome. He concludes:

"Such is the history of Easter. The popular observances that still attend the period of its celebration amply confirm the testimony of history as to its Babylonian character. The hot cross buns of Good Friday, and the dyed eggs of Pasch or Easter Sunday, figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now." (p. 107-08)

Pretty much all the elements of the memes above can be found here, though not the Satanic hot cross buns, which Hislop condemns as celebrating "the goddess Easter" and therefore also evil.  I imagine Mr Hislop was not much fun at parties.

Hislop's junk scholarship was very popular and while his whole thesis generally only appealed to his hardline Protestant audience, his claims permeated nineteenth and early twentieth century culture.  So we can find them popping up in esoterica, in tracts by Theosophists and occultists and in Freethinker pamphlets, which recycled anti-Catholic material with uncritical enthusiasm.  And now we find the supposedly "rational" New Atheists of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the  the "No More Make Believe" and "Philosophical Atheism" Facebook groups cluelessly regurgitating this hoary fundamentalist Christian nonsense because they don't check their facts and just take any nonsense that appeals to them on ... faith.  Oh, the irony.

Update - April 19 2017: In a great victory for rationalism, I have now been blocked by the the "No More Make BelieveFacebook group.  I suppose that's one way of dealing with pesky people who point out their errors of fact.