No, Easter is not Connected to Ishtar
Even though they may sound the same, there is no connection between the Mesopotamian goddess and the Christian holiday.
(Author’s note: this is not an attempt to proselytize any religious traditions. Nor is it a debate on the validity of the Christian traditions. I am working with the assumption that many scholars agree that Jesus was a historical figure, regardless of religious beliefs).
For many people, this weekend is the celebration of the Easter holiday. The day celebrates the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion. This event is the cornerstone of Christianity and is marked by people worldwide.
However, this is also the time of year when some people spread a recent misconception about the celebration of Easter. This theory can be traced back to the 1853 book The Two Babylons by Rev. Alexander Hislop.
You may see posts on social media claiming that Easter derives its name from the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. This theory posits that similarities in the names as the primary support for this theory.
However, much as I explained in an earlier article about how AD does not stand for “after death,” this is a false claim. While some pagan/pre-Christian traditions are associated with Easter, the worship of Ishtar is not one of them.
Who Was Ishtar?
Ishtar (or Inanna in Sumerian) was a primary goddess in Mesopotamia. As was common in Mesopotamia beliefs, Ishtar had many aspects of her personality depending on the period discussed. One common mislabel is her as a fertility goddess.
Ishtar is sometimes referenced as a fertility goddess, even though other goddesses such as Ninhursag work better for human reproduction. At times Ishtar is not only associated with human fertility but also with the fertility of the land and livestock.
In most accounts of Ishtar, she is depicted more as a goddess of sex and erotic love akin to Venus. In the Code of Hammurabi, her most important role is laid out as a war goddess.
This dichotomy of sex and violence gives us a better picture of her role in her society. She was the governess of solid passions, primal urges, and potential death.
One argument that the Ishtar/Easter theory brings is the similarity in the names. The problem is this only works in two languages: English and German. In other languages, the celebration of Easter is phonetically different. In Dutch, it is Pashen; the Greeks call it Pasha. The festival is more aligned with the Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which coincides.
The word Easter comes from the Germanic word Ostern. Neither word has any connection to Ishtar or Mesopotamia. In early Christina writings, the celebration of Easter is called Pascha, and the English word simply evolved from the Germanic term.
Rabbits and Eggs
Two of the most famous symbols of Easter (next to the Cross) are rabbits and eggs. Both are symbols of fertility and rebirth. In ancient times, rabbits were seen as sacred religious symbols in British and Germanic cultures and were not eaten. Like many ancient cultures, spring festivals were common as the winter ended and the world became more fertile.
When early Christian founders joined together to determine the dates of important religious celebrations, they agreed upon springtime as the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As with Christmas (many Biblical scholars agree Jesus was likely born in the spring), the date coincided with holidays and traditions that the non-Christian people already celebrated.
Many who propagate the Ishtar/Easter myth claim that eggs and rabbits are associated with Ishtar. However, there are no images from the ancient world depicting her with these symbols to date. She is often shown with a lion or an eight-pointed star.
This point is, at first glance, the strongest argument in the connection between Ishtar and Easter. In Christian teachings, Jesus is executed on Good Friday and is resurrected again on Sunday. Some versions even have him entering the Underworld to lead the Patriarchs Moses and Abraham to Paradise. Christians see this event as Jesus dying and suffering as a way to redeem the people of the world with his rebirth.
There is a myth that is somewhat similar involving Ishtar. In the Mesopotamian story, Ishtar journeys to the Underworld to confront her sister Ereshkigal and take over as the realm’s ruler. In specific versions of the story, she is killed on her sister’s order and remains in the realm of the dead for three days and nights before returning to the living land. However, her rebirth came at a cost, as she had her husband, Dumuzi, take her place. In other versions, the death and resurrection portion is left out, and the focus is on the journey to the underworld.
On the surface, these seem like similar stories of death and rebirth. However, when looking at the core of each tale, we can see significant differences. The story of Easter is a saviour story of Jesus giving his life for others. With Ishtar, it is purely for selfish reasons; she wishes to take over her sister’s realm and sacrifices her husband to leave the underworld.
In The End, There is No Connection
In conclusion, while there are connections between pre-Christian traditions and Easter, there is no connection between Ishtar and Easter. Most pre-Christian traditions we associate with Easter come from European cultures in Germany and Britain.
While there are other pre-Christian traditions of gods and goddesses dying and being reborn/resurrected, the reasoning for these stories is often different from the Christian beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection. Usually, these gods and goddesses had personal motivations for their journeys (knowledge, vengeance, power, etc.); in the Christian traditions, the resurrection and Easter are about love and redemption.
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