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.

    Ishtar-Easter

    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 That ludicrous claim comes from the long-outdated 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.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.

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

  1. Thanks very much. I do very much the same every year from the other side of the fence! Shall link to this from my blog when I’m back from our Paschal Mysteries.

  2. 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?

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  5. Morrigane Feu on

    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.

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  7. Aelfie on

    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…

    • Cavalorn on

      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!

  8. 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

  9. alex on

    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.

    • Cavalorn on

      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.

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  11. jon_the_id on

    Trust me, all of this can be backed up by references. Cavalorn doesn’t make stuff up or speculate.

    • David Gerard on

      Not an unfair request, of course. Adrian, feel like dredging through the books to supply some further reading?

      • Cavalorn on

        Already did. See above. If people would like me to be more specific, then that’s fine; citation matters.

  12. 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.

  13. Hannah on

    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?

    • Cavalorn on

      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.’

  14. 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?

  15. kyleigh on

    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!) :)

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