Silly, Tedious, Ignorant: The Bad Eggs of Easter

Every time there is a major Christian festival, someone pops up with the claim that, of course, this was really a pagan festival that Christians appropriated. And then the rest of the herd pass along whatever latest silly graphic (like the one above) has been created this time around to make the same claim.

Every single one of these claims is silly, tedious and ignorant. Not to mention intrinsically unlikely, given the determined opposition by Christian leaders East and West to any watering down or mixing of the Gospel message with local culture or religion.

Take the graphic going around Facebook showing a statue of Ishtar, with the claim her name is pronounced Easter, and that, like obviously, dude, that’s where Christians got the whole idea of Easter.

This essay, first published in 2018,
is reprised because, every year sure as eggs,
the pagan origin myth is also reprised

There is not a single thing in that post/graphic which is true. Not even the statue – a statue of the queen of the night from the Old Babylonian period – some 2,000 to 1500 years before Christ. It could later, in the neo-Babylonian period (c600 to 500BC) – have been thought to be an image of Ishtar (pronounced ‘Ishtar’, as it is spelled, not ‘easter”). But there are other possibilities, and archaeology is uncertain.

Ishtar was a minor goddess in the Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian pantheon. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persian Cyrus the Great in about 550BC, and the few temples dedicated to Ishtar fell into desuetude or were converted for use by Achaemenid deities. The Achaemenids then underwent a religious revolution of their own with the rapid growth of Zoroastrianism, before being defeated by the Greeks led by Alexander the Great at Gaugamela in about 331BC.

At Alexander’s death, the Eastern part of his empire was taken over by his general Seleucus Nicator. His dynasty, the Seleucids, maintained control over a large but declining empire that included most of the Middle-East until being defeated by the Roman general Pompey in 63BC.

By the time we get to 1st Century Judea we are more than 500 years from the time anyone had any serious interest in Ishtar, and 1400 kilometres away by normal trade routes.

There are no references to Ishtar in 1st Century Greek or Roman literature, and it is unlikely anyone living in Judea or Galilee or Samaria had ever even heard of her. Suggesting that because Ishtar and Easter sound vaguely alike they must mean the same thing makes as much sense as saying chocolate and choo-choo train sound alike so they must mean the same thing. It is just silly.

Quite apart from this, the word “Easter” was not used to describe the celebration of the Lord’s passion until over five hundred later, in England. Everywhere else, even today, the word for that celebration is Pascha, derived from the Hebrew word pesach, meaning Passover. It very early became a custom for Christians to give each other gifts of red-dyed eggs on the morning of Pascha, partly because they had been fasting from eggs and meat for the last forty days, and this was time for celebration, but more importantly, to symbolise passing over into new life won through the blood of Christ.

The Venerable Bede, the great historian of the early English Church, offered an explanation for the use of the term Easter in chapter fifteen of De Ratione Temporum (On the reckoning of Time), written about 725 AD:

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath 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.

In other words, Bede says that the name of the month of April, when the Pascha normally occurs, was Eosturmonath, and gradually Christians in England began to call the Paschal feast by the name of the month in which it occurred, so it became the feast of Easter.

However, careful as Bede usually is, this sounds like a “just-so” story; an explanation invented after the fact, and without any evidence. Kipling’s delightful Just-so stories were amongst my favourites as a child, and I can still tell you how the camel got its humph.

Bede is the only person to refer to a goddess by the name of Eostre. All later references to Eostre, or Ostara, or whatever other transliteration is given, including works by the Brothers Grimm, are based on this single sentence. It is likely that Bede simply assumed that because other Saxon months were named after gods and goddesses, Eosturmonath must have been too, so he deduced the existence of a goddess Eostre.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has another explanation:

“There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term.”

In other words, the Christian use of the phrase “In albis” – “at the dawn” (of new life, new beginnings, new hope) became in Old German “eostarum” dawning. Eosturmonath was named after the Paschal celebration. The word Easter ultimately derives from Christian use of the Old High German word eostarum, meaning dawn.

Whether Bede was right, or modern scholarship and the Encyclopaedia Britannica are right, the Pascha was well-established throughout the empire and beyond, long before a small group of Christians in England began using the name of the month to refer to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter Wales is a former Anglican clergyman

This essay was first published by Quadrant Online in 2017 and is reprised today because the intervening years have seen no decrease in the production and appetite for ahistorical nonsense.

20 thoughts on “Silly, Tedious, Ignorant: The Bad Eggs of Easter

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    George Soros is behind it, for sure!

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Or, on second thoughts, maybe the Russians . . .

  • Salome says:

    It’s not just English: the German word for Easter is Ostern (hence the interest of the Brothers Grimm), but ‘pascha’ words do the job in other Teutonic languages such as Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. But two is a pretty small number of languages to be naming the festival after anything but the Passover.

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Good article thanks Peter, well explained and well written. As an atheist I regard all religion as basically superstitious nonsense. But the more that the left persist in trying to re-write history and deny the basis of our of current civilisation, i.e. Christianity, the more I will defend it.

  • dcburgos says:

    But wait… all Romance Languages derive the name from the Hebrew, so in Spanish it is “Pascua” and similar in Italian, Portuguese… As the world spans beyond the Anglo-Saxon world, any silly claims by leftist revisionists is pure nonsense…

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    In other words, no one knows . . . or cares!

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    My grandkids love Easter. They relate to Esta iggs.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    Take the graphic going around Facebook over the last few days showing a statue of Ishtar, with the claim her name is pronounced Easter, and that, like obviously dude, that’s where Christians got the whole idea of Easter from.

    It is truly marvellous how much can be beaten up out of a single egg laid on Facebook.

  • DougD says:

    “given the determined opposition by Christian leaders East and West to any watering down or mixing of the Gospel message with local culture or religion.”
    Really? Look at Queensland Anglican churches displaying pagan symbols:https://anglicanfocus.org.au/2020/07/06/stunning-aboriginal-dot-paintings-to-travel-around-our-diocese/
    And was the Pope doing his job when he covered up the crucifix in Malta cathedral to avoid giving offence to muslim refugees? https://www.christianitydaily.com/articles/15500/20220406/pope-francis-removes-cross-from-malta-event-venue-to-avoid-offending-muslims.htm

  • Adam J says:

    A good article about another indication of an intellectually dead society. No-one who knows anything about the origin of Christianity would say this rubbish. That means 90% will say it while enjoying the benefits of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Commerce use both Christmas and Easter as a time to inundate us with a blizzard of advertising in the hope of draining our pockets whilst the Orthodox outfits observe both times as religious periods as they should for the reality of the bottom line is that the Romans nailed a bloke to a cross for speaking his mind. One is fairly certain that our supposed Christian leader would stand by whilst State Premiers practiced that quaint method of subduing those of us who spoke out against the now multiple jabs for the “dreaded” if that thought crossed their minds, just as he has stood by whilst they have used other methods probably due to the fact that it’s difficult to import nails and stuff from China these days.

  • en passant says:

    Next thing we know ‘they’ will be denying that the Easter Bunny and Santa Klaus Schwab are not real …

  • Stephen Due says:

    The vast majority of Australians live in a post-Christian thought-world and have no knowledge of the meaning of Easter. They know nothing about anything at all except what the media tell them, and believe nothing except what the government decrees. They live in a very deep pit of abysmal ignorance and strut around as if they were wonderfully clever, just like the stupid ‘celebrities’ they emulate.
    Unfortunately some consequences of this state of affairs are more serious than disputes over the origin of a word. The utter folly of the response of the ‘authorities’, the ‘experts’ and the general population to the alleged ‘pandemic’ is a case in point. All one can say to those people who fondly imagine they belong to some kind of noble intellectual elite that is leading the fine upstanding members of the Australian ‘community’ on to greater things than the invention of refrigeration is – dream on!

  • whitelaughter says:

    Thank you for that – while I knew that the only reference to Hrotha was in Bede, the more likely explanation of Easter coming from Albis was new to me. Much appreciated.

  • guilfoyle says:

    As the liturgy is full of references to Christ as ‘the Paschal victim,” and the “Lamb of God”, and as the Gospel for Easter Sunday, St. John, places the Last Supper on the ‘parasceve’ (the eve of the Passover)’, the rather smug, badly-educated claims to a pagan origin simply reveal how some people are not only ignorant, but they are proud of their ignorance.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Next question – eostarum, dawn – do Easter and the compass direction both derive from this?

  • rosross says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the early Christians, like all religions, scooped up local deities and festivals and incorporated them in order to lure the masses.

    Ishtar was hardly mediocre and the festival of Oestre did predate Christianity. Just as Christmas is a collection of both Christian and non-christian, generally referred to as pagan given their ancient nature, so too is Easter.

    Does it matter? As Carl Jung so pertinently said, Symbol is the lost language of the soul, and festivals, like Easter and Christmas, resurrect some of that symbolism for everyone. All religions have drawn on those which went before and that is logical and sensible. There is evidence that much Judaic and Christian teaching can be found, once hieroglyphs could be translated, to have been taken from the ancient religion of Isis, the Great Mother.

    Many of the attributes for Mary, the mother of Jesus, can be translated almost word for word for Isis and we know that many of the attributes of Jesus, can be found at the feet of the Roman God, Mithras.

    Any celebration and exposure to symbolic messages and metaphor, can soothe the human soul, regardless of whether they follow a religion, are atheist or agnostic.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    The bulk of this article argues that pascha became known by the name of the month in which it usually occurs. Then in concluding Peter Wales states, “Eosturmonath was named after the Paschal celebration.”
    Am I alone in finding this confusing?

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