No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.

Post by Adrian Bott.

  1. The festival of Pascha was celebrated for centuries before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons who named it ‘Easter’ in their own relatively small part of the world. (It’s still called Pascha, or a variant thereof, outside those areas.) So no, it wasn’t ‘originally pagan’ or about a Goddess of sex and fertility. Much to the disappointment of us English folk, the world does not revolve around what went on in England.

    Greek: Pascha; 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; English: Easter. HOLY CRAP IT LOOKS A BIT LIKE ISHTAR IN MY LANGUAGE, THEREFORE THE WHOLE FESTIVAL MUST BE ABOUT A BABYLONIAN GODDESS. Horrifyingly, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science put this image up on their Facebook; thankfully they took it down when called on it.
  2. Bede, our only source for the Goddess Eostre, states that the festival of Easter was named after the ‘old observance’ of Eostre’s feasts during the month of Eosturmonath. He does not say that anything survived of these feasts except that name. Some scholars have suggested that Bede made her up, and academia is still divided on this point, although it remains unclear what his motive for doing so might have been.
  3. No, Eostre’s symbol wasn’t a hare. That was an unsupported guess made by the folklorist Jacob Grimm in 1835. Grimm was baffled by the Easter Hare tradition, finding it ‘unintelligible’, and guessed that ‘the hare was probably the sacred animal of Ostara’. Later writers misrepresented his guess as a statement of fact.
  4. No, votive inscriptions from the Rhine don’t refer to Eostre; they’re to the Matronae Austriahenae, who may well be linguistically related, however.
  5. No, eggs were not symbols of Eostre either. There are no known symbols of Eostre. Our sole source — Bede — doesn’t mention any.
  6. No, hot cross buns weren’t eaten by the pagan Saxons. That ludicrous claim comes from the long-outdated 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
  7. No, Eostre is not the root of the word ‘oestrogen’. That comes from Latin ‘oestrus’ meaning ‘frenzy’, used in sexual context since 380 BC. Oestrogen was discovered in the 1920s, the human ovum in 1827. Unsurprisingly, Anglo-Saxon goddesses played zero part in either process.
  8. Yes, if Eostre existed, she was probably a dawn-goddess (see Indo-European mythology) though Dr Philip Shaw suggests she was possibly the goddess of a local region, probably Kent.
  9. No, Eostre isn’t a form of Ishtar or Astarte. That comes from a certain strand of Christian belief that all pagan gods are played by the same small cast of demons. Ishtar was ancient Babylonian, Eostre (if she existed) Anglo-Saxon; thousands of miles and many hundreds of years apart.
  10. By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. (For comparison, that’s about the same as the distance from London to New York.) To make that journey today, you would have to travel through Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and Belgium before crossing the English Channel and making the final trip up to Tyne and Wear in the UK. Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.
  11. There is, however, linguistic evidence to suggest a Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess (Hausos) who may be the antecedent of Eostre. This is NOT the same thing as postulating a single entity who turns up across the centuries in different guises. That’s Time Lords you’re thinking of.
  12. No, Ostara is not an old name for the Spring Equinox. Only modern pagans use it in that way. The Spring Equinox was first called ‘Ostara’ in the 1970s.
  13. As rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans and are not an indigenous species, it is impossible for rabbits to have been sacred to any indigenous British Goddess.
  14. No, Jacob Grimm didn’t uncover a rich oral history that mentioned the Goddess Ostara. Grimm found no direct evidence for a Goddess called Ostara at all. He never claimed to have done so.
  15. Yes, Grimm hypothesised the existence of the Goddess Ostara. He did so because he didn’t have any direct evidence of her. If he had encountered direct evidence, oral or otherwise, he would have recorded it.
  16. No, people who debunk pagan myths about Easter aren’t all Christians. In fact, many fundamentalist Christians don’t like Easter; they think it’s unbiblical and unchristian to celebrate it. It therefore suits them down to the ground to claim that Easter was originally Pagan. By contrast, the number of pagans who find ill-informed claims embarrassing and worthy of careful correction is growing rather high.

Most years, Adrian goes slightly feral over myths about Easter: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013. Mentioning the “burning times” is also good for a throbbing forehead vein.

60 thoughts on “No, it’s not all about Ishtar. Some mythbusting Easter facts from your friendly pagan sceptic.”

    1. No. Actually Lilith is a misidentifocation. Scholalry consensus is that it is Ishtar or Ereshkigal.

      Jacobsen has a list why it is not Lilith including the fact she is standing atop lions which is only a trait of Ishtar. Lilitu is not associated with lions. The mitre on her head indicates she is a goddess, Lilith was never a goddess. Images of evil spirits rarely survive because people would destroy them in ritual.

  1. Ishtar is Semiraimis, from Babylon . . . not Eostre, and having not a thing to do with Britain.

    Words sounding a little similar doesn’t make them the same, does it?

  2. Please, please, please give me permission to translate this in French and put it on my FB group/page/anywhere. People need to learn how to think before they repost.

  3. Agreed on all points but one. You said it would be impossible for rabbits to have been worshiped by an indigenous British goddess as they were brought by the Romans. But Eostre is not an indigenous British goddess, she’s an Anglo-Saxon goddess. The Anglo-Saxons came to Britain after the Romans left. Also, Eostre is associated with the hare, but that sort of became conflated with bunnies in recent times. Anyhow, the hare was common on mainland Europe, and is also thought to be brought by the Romans (the brown hare, mountain hare may have been present in remote areas), so the Anglo Saxons would have had access to them before and after their migration to Britain. That’s kind of a big slip there, confusing Anglo-Saxons with native Britons…

    1. Ah, point 13. ;) It might have been a big slip if it hadn’t been an entirely deliberate piece of mischief. The statement, you’ll note, is factually correct. There’s a reason I used the words ‘indigenous British goddess’. It was intended to trip up those who unthinkingly circulate ‘Eostre’s magic bunny’ stories without bothering to look into history.

      As I explained back in 2013 when David asked for permission to copy this for Rationalwiki (it was originally a Facebook piece – I can link you to the conversation if you’re sceptical) anyone who’s familiar enough with the various historical populations of the British Isles to notice the ‘indigenous’ catch is probably someone with whom we can have a productive conversation, rather than someone who’s just cutting and pasting nonsense.

      Anyway, Aelfie, given that this piece was partly written to address some of the issues with a piece you yourself circulated called ‘The Historicity of the Worship of Ostara’, it’s very heartening to see you agree with it. If you’re willing, there’s a lot we could talk about, given our obvious common ground:

      What are your feelings regarding Shaw’s dismissal of a pan-Germanic Ostara? As you no doubt know, if Shaw’s analysis is correct and Eostre was purely a local Kentish goddess, then Grimm’s speculative reconstruced Ostara collapses. Shaw also proposes that the name Ostarmonat was exported to Germany by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, rather than being illustrative of local belief!

  4. Very good, factually solid article, which I linked to on FB as rebuttal for this very same graphic meme. I don’t know how many times, the closer we get to Resurrection Sunday, that these things appear.

    Tom Bryant
    BA-Philosophy – Clemson Univ.
    MA – Religious Studies – Univ. of South Florida

  5. Is any of this supported by any evidence or references? I’m not saying you’re wrong, its just you seem to say no this isnt the case without any referencing.

    1. Sure. Refer to Jacob Grimm ‘Deutsche Mythologie’ regarding points 3, 14 and 15. For points 2 and 5, refer to De Temporum Ratione by the Venerable Bede. For points 4 and 8, refer to ‘Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons’ by Professor Philip Shaw of the University of Leicester. Regarding the lack of evidence for hares or eggs being symbols of Eostre, see the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Additional helpful reading: The English Year by Steve Roud and Stations of the Sun by Professor Ronald Hutton.

  6. What is true, is that the Christian Church has repeatedly used and co-opted the various festivals and holidays of indigenous people to make it easier to convert them to Christianity. often whether they wast to or not. whatever the historical or linguistic connections there are. THIS is the one commonality you will find throughout all of it.

  7. Whilst all this might be accurate ( ie current Eostre belief being largely a recent social construction within the fertile breeding ground of modern neo-paganism) I can’t help finding the way that the pagan community behave in regards to these issues thoroughly off putting.

    The entire movement has been predominately based on someone or another’s imaginative syncretisation of perceived ye-olde-more-valid-pre-Christian-hay-day. The modern mythos of neo-paganism operates in waves and fads, very similar to the behaviour of early Christian cultures and sects, with each sect claiming to be more authentic and having a greater authority on THE truth than the other.

    Another similarity is how early Christian’s developed an identity based on paranoia and persecution, which modern neo-pagans also seems to cherish. They *want* to believe that evil Christians have misappropriated their beliefs. They want to believe they are misunderstood and marginalised. That is part of the appeal and part of the identity (and they carry no irony in respect to wearing faux medieval crushed velvet and how that might engender marginalisation when they stamp their feet and demand to be taken seriously).

    Heaven forfend that anyone mention that their *actual* ancestors were Christian, in both the recent past and the last several hundred years, so it is their own heritage they are disrespecting when they attack Christianity and accuse it and them (as if they are a separate group of people) of cultural appropriation (and as if they entire span of human history has not been a series of cultural appropriation anyway).

    I watch in disappointment as meme after meme goes around mocking those pagans who believe in the Ishtar/Eostre/Astarte belief, when they were the very same pagans who a few years previously had been sharing the memes condemning Christians for stealing Eostre from them!! The same is true for Mabon. For the “burning times” and the newest one…. St Patrick!!! I mean serrrrrioulsy? meme after meme this year from pagans claiming that celebrating St Patrick was to celebrate the man who “ethnically cleansed Ireland of druids” based on NO HISTORICAL EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER. Actually, in ignorance of what historical evidence there is.

    It seems neo-pagans need to have a poster child campaign for their identity as historically oppressed people by evil Christians. Mabon no longer valid, Eostre no longer valid….oh wait lets hate on St Patrick.

    As if “pagans” were all one people? And ignoring entirely that it was ancient pagans who persecuted Christians originally (the Vikings were particularly nasty to the early Christian monks oooop North), that it was various different tribes and groups of pagans who spent years in blood shed, war and occasional genocide on the British Isles, well before Christianity even exited. The whole thing is sodding ridiculous. Oh and not forgetting that the “Celts” weren’t even the “native” people on the British Isles, but (as far as we know) the first tribe to invade from mainland Europe, and that the first settlers to the British Isles had been upper Paleolithic and Neolithic people migrating up from the Iberian peninsula and building stone monuments as they went. Gods knows what the “Celts” did to them when they migrated over here, but I doubt it was to just give all the natives a cuddle and cherish their cultural heritage.

    I respect Adrian, the friendly pagan iconoclast for sticking his head above the parapet and pointing at elephants in the room. But sometimes I wonder if there is anything more to modern paganism than an endless cycle of elephants in the room, shattered illusions and fakelore?

    1. You mean what do the fox, stork, cuckoo, bunny, hare, fluffy yellow chick, eggs and wizard have to do with Jesus. Easter traditions are about much, much more than ‘bunnies and eggs’. In Germany, the Easter Fox is an earlier egg-deliverer than the rabbit, In Sweden, they even have an Easter Wizard, and children dress as witches. None of this has anything to do with Jesus, but the important point is that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with paganism, either.

      Christmas puddings are an ancient Christmas tradition that have nothing to do with Jesus, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they symbolise Odin’s testicles.

      The instinct to see incongruous elements of festivals as pagan survivals is characteristic of outdated Victorian folklorism. To quote The English Year:

      ‘The real danger is from a far more virulent virus – the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of ‘folkiness’, are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.’

  8. Cultures are the devil’s answer to reason and all develop myths of varied sort. How many men have fallen in battle because they have been taught that the enemy challenges their myths? It is so easy to write a good story and so hard to unravel the truth before we finish persecuting the victims?

  9. This is all very compelling and in the many rambling verses of explanation I may have gotten lost. So basically, easter isnt a result of paganism? And its certainly not born of Christian beliefs…. so what it it? (For the lay person please!) :)

  10. .

    Actually, Easter and the Easter-egg came from the Egyptian Isis.

    In Egyptian Isis was called Ast or Est, from which we derive Ester or Easter (referring to a star or the heavens). And remember that Isis-Est was a fertility goddess, as much as she was the Queen of Heaven.

    And the Easter-egg came from the spelling, because Est was spelt with the easter-egg glyph. So yes, there are associations with fertility in the symbology of Est (Isis). Oh, and Ishtar (Isht-ar) came from the Egyptian Est (Isis), and not the other way around.

    (See: Cleopatra to Christ)

    1. It is worth noting that the comment author’s last line is a reference to his book that seriously posits that Jesus Christ was the grandson of Cleopatra, and that the comment should thus be read in Comic Sans.

    1. What’s to correct? As I already told you on Twitter, I don’t suggest Uruk was Ishtar’s point of origin.

  11. Ēostre continues into modern English as Easter and derives from Proto-Germanic *austrōn meaning ‘dawn’, itself a descendent of the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning ‘to shine’ (modern English east also derives from this root).[1]
    The goddess name Ēostre is therefore linguistically cognate with numerous other dawn goddesses attested among Indo-European language-speaking peoples. These cognates lead to the reconstruction of a Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess; the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture details that “a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn is supported both by the evidence of cognate names and the similarity of mythic representation of the dawn goddess among various [Indo-European] groups” and that “all of this evidence permits us to posit a [Proto-Indo-European] *haéusōs ‘goddess of dawn’ who was characterized as a “reluctant” bringer of light for which she is punished. In three of the [Indo-European] stocks, Baltic, Greek and Indo-Iranian, the existence of a [Proto-Indo-European] ‘goddess of the dawn’ is given additional linguistic support in that she is designated the ‘daughter of heaven'”[2]

  12. Very interested to hear your opinion about one theory I read; be forewarned, it was in a bushcraft and survival magazine, so caveat lector.
    The theory is that the arriving Anglo-Saxons had encountered rabbits before, but not hares. In Britain, they were confused by these oddly behaving English ‘rabbits’, which didn’t live in burrows, but in nests on the ground. Secondly, leverets are difficult to spot in the wild, since they abandon their nest and ‘freeze’ to avoid predators.
    These two facts resulted in a very odd piece of Anglo-Saxon natural history: hares make nests, and birds make nests. Birds lay eggs, therefore, so do hares.
    Hares are rabbits that lay eggs in nests on the ground.
    Hence, the Easter Bunny dispensing eggs.

  13. I’d like to hear what the author has to say about the reply posted by Spencer on January 16, 2015. You can say all you want about the lack of written evidence on the pagan influences in modern Easter Celebrations; but the reality of what has survived can’t be ignored. We still use pagan symbols of fertility and renewal at the same time of year that pagans did – how do explain that ? The surviving oral and ritualistic tradition easily compensates for the lack of written proof. There is nothing unreasonable or illogical in assuming that early Christianity adopted common practices into their rituals as the movement spread out of the Middle East. There is evidence of it everywhere! One only has to look at the global diversity of Christian practices to see that it has been adopting, adapting and evolving throughout it’s history – why would it have done so LESS when it was first disseminating?

    1. You’re exhibiting a profound lack of imagination. The first pagan to connect the spring solstice (or eggs, etc.) to the idea of renewal was not a special genius unique among humanity. Similar ideas are common to most cultures throughout time and to posit a common genesis is simply silly.

    2. The author says ‘Thank you, Spencer, for copypasting the very information relating to the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess that I refer to in point 11 of the article.’

      To address your point that we ‘still use pagan symbols of fertility and renewal at the same time of year that the pagans did’: there are several questions to ask here. Firstly, what ‘symbols’ do you mean? Secondly, how do you know that a given animal or object was being used as a ‘symbol’? Thirdly, which pagans do you mean? Fourthly, how do you know that the ‘symbol’ in question was used by them?

    3. To give an example, a lot of people claim that bunnies are symbols of fertility, and that this is a clear link back to pagan times. There are numerous problems with this. Firstly, Anglo-Saxon pagans (who gave us the name Easter) are not known to have used rabbits to symbolise fertility. There is no archaeological evidence to suggest that they did; it’s speculation. Secondly, the earliest known attestation of an Easter ‘bunny’ is in fact an Easter hare, and it dates from 1682. So the tradition cannot be proven to be ancient. The earliest description of the Easter hare does not give it a symbolic role; it’s a provider of treats for children. To make matters even more complicated, hares were used to symbolise chastity rather than fertility.

      The concessions made by the Church in the mission to pagan England actually involved allowing animal slaughter and feasting to continue as an accompaniment to the Christian rite, but without the sacrificial context. This is explicitly laid out in Gregory’s letter to Mellitus.

  14. And what’s funny is that photo claims her symbols are rabbits and eggs but she’s surrounded by owls and standing on a lion. That alone will make me NOT trust the claim made.

  15. on the plus side though – both the pagans and the christians are into human sacrifice, and what better time for it than the spring – I personally like to combine both in the ancient sumerian tradition of luring a priest into a burning straw effigy of edward woodward…

  16. You are a full blown idiot and you don’t have one bit of this right. Roster, Ostara, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus, Semiramis are all the same person. Her oldest name is Inanna, from Sumer. She is the original archetype for the later versions. She is also called the Queen of Heaven. She is the source of the holiday Easter and her name, Ishtar, is pronounced like Easter as well. She is the original dead/resurrected god/goddess.

  17. You’re wrong. Ishtar, Venus, Aphrodite, Astarte, Ostara, Oestre are all names for Inanna, the orighinsal dead/resurrected god….from Sumer.

  18. Being one of those that has promulgated the Eostre theory, I’m interested in this thread. Is it so weird to think that European ancestors celebrated the coming of the spring, rebirth etc and that hares/rabbits and eggs are natural symbols? These (whatever the truth) have been interpreted and corrupted by many over the centuries, not least the Christians. But we still celebrate Thor and Odin once a week, and whilst we might not have the written history that proves that Easter is connected to fertility/spring, whether or not it’s related to a god, I’m more inclined to believe the sense of it. We can be too trusting of the tiny fragments of written history we have.

  19. What christians do not celebrate easter? I have never heard about that before. Christmas was a later addition to christianity, but easter was the main festival after the resurection of Christ.

  20. Whatever the fuck you said, Ishtar came first. But she is not the source. We’d have to go back to the original mother goddess in Gobekli Tepe. And your crack about Time Lords is infantile. Your ego-rich rant is laden with hubris. Ever heard of Jung’s Archetypes? (Feel like I’m talking to a child.) Oh, nevermind. Live in your bubble.

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