When I was growing up, I thought churches that observed Easter were well meaning, but deceived. I felt sorry for them and their lack of knowledge. There they were, thinking they were celebrating the death and resurrection of our Savior, but instead they were unintentionally worshiping an ancient Babylonian goddess named Ishtar. The pretty eggs, some filled with chocolate surprises, that the other kids went out to hunt and the fluffy stuffed bunnies some kids got in their Easter baskets- all of those things were based on elements of the ancient pagan worship of Ishtar herself.
How did I know this? Because that’s what my parents told me. How did they know? Because that’s what they were told by their parents, who had been told by ministers in my church, who had been told by their superiors, who had been enlightened (ultimately) by the founder of our church- Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong. How did he know? Well, he wrote an article explaining the sources of his knowledge in our church’s publication which you can still read here in its original 1973 form: The Plain Truth About Easter.
He opens by writing, “WHY DO you believe the things you believe, do the things you do?
The chances are you never stopped to ask yourself that question. You have been taught since childhood to accept Easter as the chief of the Christian holidays. […] Because of the ‘sheep’ instinct in humans, most of us believe a lot of things that are not true. Most of us do a lot of things that are wrong, supposing these things to be right, or even sacred!”
It wasn’t until decades later, as an adult, that I decided to stop being such a “sheep” and do the research myself- to follow the sources Mr. Armstrong cited in his article and investigate other sources as well. It was this research that led to the realization that his opening statements were the height of irony.
This meme does an excellent job of succinctly stating most elements to the “Easter is pagan” argument (and I’ve already seen it making its rounds among many- including some that share my religious background):
Basically, the entire argument centers around linking a presumed observance of a holiday in honor of Ishtar (who they describe as an ancient sex and fertility goddess) to modern day Easter celebrations by way of similarities. The most important similarities being a) the name; b) eggs; and c) bunnies. For good measure, they tack Constantine onto the end as the villain who is responsible for corrupting Christendom with this celebration.
Without further ado- let’s get to the fact checking!
All Things Ishtar
The background for the meme above does feature the ancient Babylonian goddess Ishtar (most likely). It is an image of the “Burney Relief” circa the 19th or 18th century BC and it is believed to represent either Ishtar or her older sister Ereshkigal. However, the idea that she was the “goddess of fertility and sex” is an extremely oversimplified one. Referring to her Encycolpedia Britannica entry, we learn:
- “Ishtar, (Akkadian), Sumerian Inanna, in Mesopotamian religions, goddess of war and sexual love. Ishtar is the Akkadian counterpart of the West Semitic goddess Astarte. Inanna, an important goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, came to be identified with Ishtar, but it is uncertain whether Inanna is also of Semitic origin or whether, as is more likely, her similarity to Ishtar caused the two to be identified.”
So, while she (or they) was associated with fertility and sex, she was also equally associated with war, storehouses, dates, wool, meat, grain, rain, thunderstorms, and contradictory forces such as fire and putting out fire, rejoicing and sadness, fairness and hostile opposition. It’s quite likely you may store foods such as meats and grains (and you may subsequently use those stored goods to prepare a Passover meal), or enjoy rain and thunderstorms. Maybe you have started a fire and put one out; been happy or cried. Maybe you or a family member have defended our country by fighting in a war. As likely as the former are, it is equally unlikely that the ancient pretend goddess Ishtar or Inanna or whatever else she is called had anything to do with your motivation. As a matter of fact, you were probably oblivious to the fact that she was associated with any of those things until you read the encyclopedia.
Eggs and Bunnies?
What about her symbols? We have been told that her symbols were eggs and bunnies. The Wikipedia entry for Ishtar/Inanna is surprisingly one of the most complete and thorough sources of information that I came across. This is usually not the case with Wikipedia, but her entry cites an impressive 263 sources from ancient mythology experts. The symbols listed for her across multiple sources agree. They are: a six, eight, or sixteen point star (most commonly being the eight pointed star) which is sometimes accompanied by a crescent moon; “hook-shaped twisted knot of reeds, representing the doorpost of the storehouse, a common symbol of fertility and plenty”; the rosette; a lion (she is sometimes depicted wearing armor and riding a lion in her capacity as a war goddess); gates; and doves. I have been unable to locate even one source that lists either eggs or bunnies as symbols for Ishtar.
Elements of Worship?
How was she worshiped? According to the multiple sources cited by Wikipedia, “The cult of Ishtar may have involved sacred prostitution, but this is disputed. Hierodules, known as ishtaritum are reported to have worked in Ishtar’s temples, but it is unclear if such priestesses actually performed any sex acts and several modern scholars have argued that they did not. Women across the ancient Near East worshipped Ishtar by dedicating to her cakes baked in ashes (known as kamān tumri). A dedication of this type is described in an Akkadian hymn. Several clay cake molds discovered at Mari are shaped like naked women with large hips clutching their breasts. Some scholars have suggested that the cakes made from these molds were intended as representations of Ishtar herself.” Does any of that sound like modern Easter tradition to you? Me either. No eggs, no bunnies- no dice. I mean, there was cake. But I’m pretty sure cake in and of itself is not pagan and if anyone served a “naked, large hipped, woman holding her breasts” cake, it wouldn’t have been well-received at any Easter dinner I’ve ever attended.
How about the pronunciation of Ishtar? We were told it was “Easter.” First of all, it should be noted that phonetics is an absolutely terrible and unscholarly way of equating words with differing language bases (such as “Ishtar” and “Easter”), but since there is no evidence that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter” I thought I’d go ahead and include it. The name Ishtar is of Arabic origin. Click this youtube link and listen to “Ishtar” being pronounced:
It is clear that it is pronounced “Ish-tar,” or you could get away with “Eesh-tar” perhaps, but not “Easter.”
Let’s do an Ishtar recap: not simply a “fertility and sex” goddess, but the goddess of multiple things, not pronounced “Easter,” doesn’t have eggs or bunnies included in her list of symbols; eggs and bunnies not used in her worship. The entire argument for the Easter/Ishtar connection is based on commonalities between the two observances- associations that simply do not exist.
If one takes the time to read through Ishtar’s mythology, an interesting pattern will emerge. In the hymn Inanna and Utu, Inanna goes down into the underworld and eats the fruit of tree that grows there and becomes knowledgeable. In the poem, Inanna Prefers the Farmer, she chooses between a shepherd and a farmer to become her husband. The theme of the poem is the competition between the farmer and the shepherd for divine favor in which the shepherd ultimately prevails. Ishtar appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh in which a god sends a global flood to annihilate all life on earth. Notice any similarities? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Abel the shepherd receiving divine preference over Cain the farmer, the global flood of Noah’s day. There is certainly a lot of “borrowing” going on between pagan mythology and biblical truth, but it’s clear who is doing the borrowing. The moral of the story is that similarities between pagan and modern traditions do not always indicate that the original source of the tradition is pagan. In fact, when we adopt this faulty guideline as our assumption, we play directly into the hands of modern Neopaganism which argues these very points in order to claim that the entire Bible is fiction, merely based on pagan mythology that predates it.
All Things Eostre
Unlike Ishtar, who is well documented in mythology, so as to leave us with no doubt that she was worshiped (there are volumes of written myths, statues, carvings, etc), there is a grand total of one source testifying to the existence of a goddess named Eostre. ONE. This source is an 8th century English monk called the Venerable Bede. Prior to Bede, there is no mention in any Germanic, Celtic, or English ancient literature about this proposed goddess. This is certainly odd considering this literature is otherwise filled with the beliefs and religious practices of these people groups. It should also be noted, that by the time of Bede’s writing, the use of the term Easter or Ostern (in German) was already well established.
The Venerable Bede
In 725 AD, Bede wrote De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”). The relevant passage reads:
- “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.” (The Complete Works of Venerable Bede, Bd. VI, London 1843 Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina CXXIII B, Bedae Venerabilis Opera, Bd. VI,2, Turnhout 1977)
This particular passage comes from a section of his work in which Bede is giving his opinion on the etymologies (study of the origin of words) of the Old English names for the months. Professor Ronald Hutton, well-known British paganism and occultism historian, notes the following on Bede’s assessment in his book The Stations of the Sun, “It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact.”
As it turns out, there is another inconsistency with Bede’s conclusion other the fact that Eostre is not mentioned in any work other than his own. Anthony McCroy writes, “Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after gods, such as Wednesday (‘Woden’s day’), the names of their months were either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning ‘wheel,’ referring to the turn of the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solmónath (roughly February), meaning ‘Mud-Month’; or referred to actions taken in that period, such as Blótmónath (roughly November), meaning ‘Blood Month,’ when animals were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.”
Einhardt and Charlemagne
Another source to corroborate an Eostre claim comes from a couple of fake quotes purported to come from Charlemagne’s biographer and courtier Einhard circa 771-840 in his Vita Karola Magni and read as follows:
- “Easter – *Ôstara) was a goddess in Germanic
paganism whose Germanic month has given its
name to the festival of Easter. Ôstarmânoth
is attested as the month-name equivalent to
‘April’ that was decreed by Charlemagne,
but as a goddess Eostre is attested only
by Bede in his 8th century work De temporum
ratione. Bede states that Ēosturmōnaþ
was the equivalent to the month of April,
and that feasts held in Eostre’s honor…
replaced the “Paschal” observance of
Passover.” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, §29.)
- “Easter – *Ôstara) was a goddess in Germanic
Einhardt’s actual quote is quite lengthy so I won’t quote it all, but you can access and read an English translation of it at at the following link. The relevant portion is Section 29 beginning on page 23 and ending on page 24: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/eginhard_grant.pdf As you can see, Einhard merely states that Charlemagne chose to keep the Germanic month names. There is absolutely no reference here to a pagan goddess named Ostara or Eostra. Anthony McRoy notes another reason these false quotes are ridiculous, “Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.”
To recap Eostre: While indeed the German month “Eosturmonath,” which is translated “Paschal month” (which refers to “Passover month”), and is thus connected to the English word “Easter,” there is only one, highly dubious connection to a speculative German goddess. If the existence of Eostre cannot be established due to absolutely no historical record, even less can this supposed goddess be connected with any of the things with which she is being attributed- namely eggs and bunnies.
Again, the elements necessary to establish a connection between the worship of a pagan goddess and modern Easter traditions are notably absent.
If you’re like me, all this information leaves you wondering where in the world all of this misinformation linking modern Easter traditions to pagan goddesses comes from. Enter Alexander Hislop.
All Things Alexander Hislop
Hislop was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland who lived from 1807-1865. In his work, The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife published in 1858, Hislop concocts elaborate (yet fanciful) tales of Constantine hijacking what was the “true Christian faith” and replacing it with various pagan errors dating back to Babylon and indeed originating with none other than Nimrod himself who he claimed was married to the goddess Semiramis. His book was very popular in its day (and is indeed still cited today even though modern day scholars have thoroughly refuted most of his outlandish claims).
If you are a member or ex-member of the church I was raised in (or its various offshoots), this information should sound very familiar to you even if you don’t recognize Hislop’s name. Mr. Armstrong (1892-1986) was very influenced by his work. I counted 3 direct quotes from Hislop and at least 2 citations of sources that are re-quotes contained in Hislop’s book in Mr. Armstrong’s article inked above. The issue with re-quoting the source according to Hislop rather than affirming the original source directly is problematic as we will note from Ralph Woodrow’s testimony below, Hislop was notorious for misquoting or misrepresenting his sources.
Ralph Woodrow’s Role
In the 60’s, and evangelist by the name of Ralph Woodrow latched onto Hislop’s work and rekindled interest. Indeed, Woodrow became a ardent promoter of Hilop’s work, even writing his own work based on Hislop’s called Babylon Mystery Religion that achieved international fame. However, when scholars began discrediting Hislop’s claims, Ralph Woodrow began to research Hislop’s work himself. To his credit, when Woodrow became aware of his error, he publicly apologized, pulled his book from publication, and wrote another book (The Babylon Connection) debunking Hislop’s assertions.
The following quotes are excerpts from Woodrow’s article, The Two Babylons, recounting his journey to the truth:
- “Hislop’s ‘history’ was often only an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths.”
- “The subtitle for Hislop’s book is ‘The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.’ Yet when I went to reference works such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Americana, The Jewish Encyclopedia, The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Worldbook Encyclopedia – carefully reading their articles on ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Semiramis’ — not one said anything about Nimrod and Semiramis being husband and wife. They did not even live in the same century. Nor is there any basis for Semiramis being the mother of Tammuz. I realized these ideas were all Hislop’s inventions.”
- “ While seeking to condemn the paganism of Roman Catholicism, Hislop produced his own myths. By so doing, he theorized that Nimrod, Adonis, Apollo, Attes, Baal-zebub, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Januis, Linus, Lucifer, Mars, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Narcissus, Oannes, Odin, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Teitan, Typhon, Vulcan, Wodan, and Zoroaster were all one and the same. By mixing myths, Hislop supposed that Semiramis was the wife of Nimrod and was the same as Aphrodite, Artemis, Astarte, Aurora, Bellona, Ceres, Diana, Easter, Irene, Iris, Juno, Mylitta, Proserpine, Rhea, Venus, and Vesta.Take enough names, enough stories, and enough centuries; translate from one language to another; and a careless writer of the future might pass on all kinds of misinformation.”
- “Because Hislop wrote in the mid-1800s, the books he refers to or quotes are now quite old. I made considerable effort to find these old books and to check Hislop’s references; books such as Layard’s Nineveh and Its Remains, Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, as well as old editions of Pausanias, Pliny, Tacitus, Herodotus, and many more. When I checked his footnote references, in numerous cases I discovered they do not support his claims.”
- Woodrow gives a sampling of Hislop’s rampant misrepresentation of his sources:
- Mr. Amstrong quotes this Lent information in the Plain Truth About Easter article linked above: “In another appeal to Wilkinson, Hislop says that a Lent of 40 days was observed in Egypt. But when we look up the reference, Wilkinson says Egyptian fasts ‘lasted from seven to forty-two days, and sometimes even a longer period: during which time they abstained entirely from animal food, from herbs and vegetables, and above all from the indulgence of the passions’ (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, vol. 1, 278). With as much credibility, we could say they fasted 7 days, 10 days, 12 days, or 42 days. Hislop’s claim appears to have validity only because he used partial information.”
A quick google search on the “pagan origins of Easter” will yield a plethora of articles from various sources all repeating this same misinformation over and over and over again. However, the number of times a story is repeated doesn’t increase its veracity and historical information is only as reliable as its primary source. Digging deeper and finding the root of the source is imperative.
We noted at the beginning of this article that the entire case for linking modern Easter traditions to the worship of ancient pagan dieties rests solely on the similarities that can be documented between the two. We have aptly shown that this is a tenuous link in and of itself and Woodrow’s wisdom learned the hard way should be noted, “Gerald Ford, an American president, might be confused with Henry Ford, the car manufacturer. Abraham Lincoln might end up as the inventor of the automobile, the proof being that many cars had the name ‘Lincoln.’ The maiden name of Billy Graham’s wife is Bell. She has sometimes gone by the name Ruth Bell Graham. The inventor of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell. By mixing up names, someone might end up saying Billy Graham was the inventor of the telephone; or that he invented Graham Crackers. In fact, the inventor of Graham Crackers was Sylvester Graham. Again, similarities could be pointed out. Both men were named Graham. Both men were ministers. But the differences make a real difference: Sylvester was a Presbyterian and Billy a Baptist, and they were from different generations. Building on similarities while ignoring differences is an unsound practice. Atheists have long used this method in an attempt to discredit Christianity altogether, citing examples of pagans who had similar beliefs about universal floods, slain and risen saviors, virgin mothers, heavenly ascensions, holy books, and so on.”
Attempts to identify eggs and bunnies with the worship of these goddesses (one of whom cannot even be confirmed to have existed) come up completely empty. When your case is built on commonality and no commonalities can be established- you have no case.
However, this is the logic Hislop’s argument is built on. Woodrow writes, “Hislop produced his own myths. By so doing, he theorized that Nimrod, Adonis, Apollo, Attes, Baal-zebub, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Januis, Linus, Lucifer, Mars, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Narcissus, Oannes, Odin, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Teitan, Typhon, Vulcan, Wodan, and Zoroaster were all one and the same. By mixing myths, Hislop supposed that Semiramis was the wife of Nimrod and was the same as Aphrodite, Artemis, Astarte, Aurora, Bellona, Ceres, Diana, Easter, Irene, Iris, Juno, Mylitta, Proserpine, Rhea, Venus, and Vesta.”
Hislop was clearly not doing research to discover truth. He was engaging in mix and match mythology cherrypicking in order to corroborate his predetermined theory. Mr. Armstrong’s admonition in the opening lines of his Easter article are an ultimate irony. Generations of people who have been raised (and are being raised) to believe these fallacious arguments about Easter and its traditions believe simply because this is the “truth” they have been taught. Never questioning. Never researching the claims. Claims that collapse under the weight of the evidence against them.
You don’t have to adopt modern traditions into your personal observance of the death and resurrection of Christ. However, harassing or judging other believers for their choices by claiming that they are inadvertently worshiping pagan goddesses and/or mimicking pagan celebrations is wrong because there is not a shred of historical evidence to support the arguments. At best you are engaging in divisive, non-edifiying behavior. At worst you are undermining the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith by giving credence to Neopagan claims that myths predate our faith and are foundational to it.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll move on to the very polarizing topic of Constantine as he relates to the Easter controversy. Finally, in Part 3 we’ll investigate legitimate origins of various Easter traditions.