Monday, April 1, 2013

In your Ishtar bonnet?

I have seen this little bit of nonsense making the rounds on the social media, especially among my atheist pals. As with the mythicist nonsense claiming Jesus is Osiris that inevitably circulates around Christmas, I find myself having to debunk those who try to “debunk” religion with bad research. Whatever one’s religious persuasion, there is nothing to be gained from propagating errors. 
  1. English and German are the only major languages that use a cognate of the term Easter for the Christian festival surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Most other languages use a cognate of the Greek πασχα (pascha), which is itself derived from the Hebrew פסח (pesach), the festival of Passover. This is because the biblical narratives place Jesus’ crucifixion as occurring over Passover (albeit not all on the same day), and because the symbolism of the Passover sacrifice was used by early Christians to contextualize the crucifixion.
  2. The English word Easter derives from the Old English Ēostre, which was the name for the month of April. There is a single reference in late-antique Christian source claiming that the month was named for an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Ēostre,¹ but we have no primary references to this goddess, and we know nothing of any festivals in her honor.
  3. The word Ēostre may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *aus- (or *h₂wes), meaning “to shine,” which is the root of the names of several other Indo-European dawn-goddesses, including the Greek Eos and the Roman Aurora and Venus.²
  4. The idea that Germanic Easter practices might derive from the festivals of the goddess Ēostre comes primarily from the romantic speculations of Jacob Grimm (who, on top of being a founding figure in Germanic philology, was prone to spreading fairy tales).
  5. None of this has anything to do with the East Semitic goddess Ishtar. The word Ishtar derives from the Semitic root *ʿṯtr, probably meaning “star,” and has no connection the Indo-European root of Easter.³ 
I don’t know enough to speak to the origins of Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny, but my suspicion is that they are relatively late developments. I certainly haven’t ever seen a bunny associated with Ishtar. I suspect her lion would have eaten it.

More generally, I don’t understand the impulse among my fellow non-believers to try to somehow de-legitimize Christian holidays by linking them to earlier traditions. Of course they come from earlier traditions; everything does! Does giving Easter a Babylonian or Germanic origin somehow undermine it more than giving it a Jewish one? This tack was understandable when it was used by Protestants to attack Catholic practices as paganish, but when it is done by non-Christians, it just seems like they are trying to show off how much smarter they are. Which is ironic when you don't fact-check first.

CORRIGENDUM: In the eternal circle of pedantry, you can't correct anyone without yourself being corrected. In a parallel discussion on the Facebook page of a rock-star friend of mine, a fellow named Joseph Hopkins took issue with my dismissal of Bede's account of the goddess Ēostre, pointing out that inscriptions from numerous second- and third-century CE German votive statues mention "matron Austriahenea," which seems to derive from the same root as Ēostre (see, for instance, Philip A.Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic Goddess: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons, 2011). I remain skeptical, especially in the absence of a cognate North-Germanic goddess, but this is obviously outside my bailiwick. Still, no bunnies, no eggs, no Ishtar.

¹ I will admit that most of my information came from the Wikipedia article on Ēostre, which is unusually well-researched and has references to scholarly discussion on the topic.
² American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, “aus-”.
³ DDD, “Astarte,” “Ishtar”; American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition, Appendix II, “ʿṯtr”.


  1. It occurs to me that today is April Fools' Day, so I wanted to confirm that this post is intended to be serious. Besides, I don't celebrate April Fools' Day because everybody knows it just started as a pagan festival.

  2. "More generally, I don’t understand the impulse among my fellow non-believers to try to somehow de-legitimize Christian holidays by linking them to earlier traditions."

    They're just pointing out the obvious - that there was nothing unique or original in Christianity - but doing it in a lazy "it's on the Internet so it must be true" kind of way. I used to find this irritating, but now I just don't care.


All comments are moderated by imperial fiat. You have the right to say what you want, but I don't have to give you a forum. Don't be a schmuck: that is the whole of the Torah. The rest is just commentary.