The True Origins of Easter

There is a reason I am a pagan: because I know too much about history and folklore to believe that any one religion is correct. Despite this fact, or maybe because of it, I also believe that religion is kind of like chocolate (or maybe it’s just because I can’t seem to get away from either this time of year): there’re a million and a half different ways to consume it and everyone consumes it a little differently. Some like milk chocolate, some like white chocolate, some like dark chocolate, some like it with peanut butter, some like it with caramel, some like it as bitter and as basic as the good mother made it, and some can’t stand chocolate at all. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how the person sitting next to me takes their chocolate, nor does it matter whether or not they take it the same way that I take mine, all that matters is that they are a human being and that I treat them with the same respect that I expect them to treat me.

Unfortunately, this time of year (as with every other religiously driven time of year) can bring out some of the most childish behavior in people. Especially people who enjoy shaming and riling up Catholics. Which brings me to the following two most repeated metaphorical, wet and obnoxious raspberries of the seasons.

             

Initially, I was going to go with “the worst in people”, but, in truth, this isn’t the worst, it’s just childish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for spreading knowledge, but only if that knowledge is unbiased. It’s one thing to inform someone of the historical origins behind a holiday. But it’s something entirely different to call someone else’s chosen god “Mr Imaginary Himself” or to dumb a holiday that plays a very significant role in someone else’s religious story down to “celebrating fertility and sex”. It’s just childish. Especially when the facts you use to do so are either historically shaky, at best, or just down right wrong.

Let’s just get the first part out of the way and say once and for all that Easter has nothing, I repeat, nothing to do Ishtar. Now, Assyrian/Babbylonian/Egyption mythology is not my strong suit. I prefer my mythology the same way I like my climate: Northern and not in direct sunlight. There are plenty of people on the internet who are much more versed in the subject than I am, so I’m just going to give you the condensed version.

Cadbury Lion

1) Ishtar is not pronounced “easter”. In English, we pronounce it exactly as it looks. Plus, Ishtar was only one of her many names. Inanna was her Sumerian name. More on that in point four.

2) Ishtar, not unlike Freya, is the goddess of love, sex, and war. So, to say that fertility and sex was all Ishtar ruled over is leaving out a good third of what she is about.

3) Ishtar’s (and Inanna’s) symbols were the lion, the gate, and the eight-pointed star. Now unless you count that lion from the cadbury ads, lions and rabbits are pretty hard to confuse, and I’m pretty sure gates & stars have nothing to do with eggs.

4) Inanna was the one who was honored at the Vernal Equinox, but the celebration was called Akitu and involved a sacred marriage rite very much like the great rite Wiccans celebrate during Beltaine. But as far as I can tell, the Assyrians and Babylonians didn’t perform this form of worship for Ishtar or even celebrate her during the Vernal Equinox. So, the creators of this meme almost got it right, but failed miserably in doing so.

5) In the parts of the world the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Sumerians all lived, the words for the same celebration as Easter are all based on the original Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach. In Latin and modern Greek it’s Pascha, in Italian it’s Pasqua, in Spanish it’s Pascua, and in French it’s Pâques. I can’t even say that Easter or it’s variations are only used in Northern Europe since in Danish Easter is Påske, in Dutch it’s Pasen, in Swedish it’s Påsk, in Icelandic it’s Páska, in Finnish it’s pääsiäinen, in Irish it’s Cásca, and in Scots Gaelic it’s A’ Chàisg. In German, Easter is Ostern, a variation on Ostara and Eostre. So, to say that we got the word Easter from an Anglican pronunciation of Ishtar when we and the Germans are the only languages that use this word for this holiday is reaching for something that just isn’t there.

While, Ishtar and Inanna are interesting goddesses with rich histories who deserve plenty of recognition, the simple fact is, Ishtar has nothing to do with Easter except that her name maybe, kind of, sort of could possibly sound like Easter (and only in English) and Inanna was celebrated on the Vernal Equinox.

Now that Ishtar is out of the way, let’s talk about Eostre. Well, first let’s talk about Ostara. In the 8th century, Bede, an English monk, wrote The Reckoning of Time which recorded the various methods for marking time throughout history. In this book, Bede states that according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar the month of April was called Eosturmonaþ in Old English and Ostar-manod in Old High German, both of which translate to “Easter Month”. Bede also stated that during this month, the goddess Eostre was celebrated. I’m sure you noticed that Eosturmonaþ was celebrated in April. The Vernal Equinox is in our modern March. March on the Anglo-Saxon calendar was called Hreðmonath in Old English, translated to “Spring Month”. According to Bede, Hreðmonath was a celebration of the goddess Hreða, or Rheda. Bede is the only written reference we have to both Eostre and Hreða, but more on this in a moment. Unfortunately the only substantial record we have of the Germanic calendar comes from Bede, and he only recorded (as far as I can find) the names the Anglo-Saxons and Ancient Germans used. It is possible that their calendar was set up in a way that the Vernal Equinox fell in April rather than March, but if it’s close to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, this wouldn’t have been the case. Plus, given that Hreðmonath translates to “Spring Month” I would be more inclined to say that the Vernal Equinox was celebrated during Hreðmonath. But that’s just my uneducated opinion.

Ostara as we know it wasn’t really given a name until Gardner presented Wicca to the public in the 1950’s. Even then, for those who need a reminder, Wicca was only created in the early 20th century and cherry picked various practices from a whole horde of the world’s traditions, lumping them all together to form something new. It’s not an ancient religion, just a highly appropriated one. The traditions and symbolism we now use for both Easter and Ostara have been used by the Germans at least as far back as Jacob Grimm in 1835 who recorded the tradition of Easter Eggs and the “Easter Tale” in his book Deutsche Mythologie.

While modern Ostara is celebrated on the actual day of the Vernal Equinox, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or right after March 21st, which also happens to be the Vernal Equinox. Was this planned? Yes and no. In 325 ACE, as Christianity really began to take hold as a religion, the Council of Nicaea got together to lay down the rules and regulations of Christianity. One of the issues at hand was the fact that everyone across the Christian nations was on a different calendar, which meant that Passover and Easter were being celebrated on different days according to who was where. The Council of Nicaea, the sly dogs that they were, simply stated that The Church would no longer use the Judaic calendar and that there would be a worldwide calendar put into place. But not by the Council. No, they left that job for someone else to figure out. Though, who wasn’t exactly decided upon either.

It took several centuries, but finally in the 1500’s Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar to the world. But just deciding on a date for Easter wasn’t, for whatever reason, quite as easy as Christmas because the Church decided that this (in my totally uneducated opinion) off the wall arithmetic of days would have to do. Why the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or right after March 21? I have no earthly idea, and, quite frankly, I don’t entirely care enough to weasel it out of the internet (aren’t I giving you enough already?). However, the point is, the all knowing leaders of the church chose the Vernal Equinox for a reason. The reason? Most likely the same reason they made some gods into saints and others into demons: it made their job easier. The people the Church was converting were already celebrating on this day. Why not take that celebration and just move it into the church? And so it was.

Because I can already hear the cries of downtrodden Wiccans & Neo-Pagans yelling about the church stealing their holiday, it is important to note that the Vernal Equinox doesn’t really “belong” to anyone. It’s an astronomical event. Just about every culture that was smart enough to track the time of day noted its significance, along with the Autumnal Equinox and both the Winter and Summer Solstices. The Romans marked the Vernal Equinox with Hilaria Matris Deûm, a holiday that had been taken from the Greeks, who called the day Ascensus. Unfortunately what the day entailed went relatively unrecorded beyond the fact that it honored the goddess Cybele. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the Vernal Equinox, or Sham El Nessim, as far back as 2700 BCE and the Vernal Equinox seems to have marked the beginning of just about every calendar that wasn’t European, including the Summerians with Akitu.

Getting back to the topic at hand, the idea of Eostre is honestly a shaky one at best. There just aren’t a whole lot of historical references to refer to. We don’t know much about her or what her celebration was like. In fact, Bede’s exact words were: “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.” That’s it. He doesn’t even say whether the celebration was held on the Vernal Equinox, just that Passover has adapted the German name. It wasn’t until Jacob Grimm and his Deutsche Mythologie that we begin to see more ideas about who Eostre was, and those were primarily conjecture. It is important here to remind (or maybe even inform) everyone that the Grimm brothers were not folklorists, historians, or even anthropologists. They were Linguists. Not to mention they were practicing in a time where conjecture over historical findings was passable knowledge. A lot of Jacob Grimm’s work begins with language and ends with his own ideas of how the language could have influenced the culture. He postulates that because there is the Norse Austri, the Eastern dwarf who holds up the skull of Ymir, there may have been a female form named Austra. The fact that there isn’t a female form for Nodri, Sudri, or Vestri (North, South, and West respectively) doesn’t seem to come up. His end points stem from language rather than mythology, folklore, or history. These are the translations of Grimm’s writings on Eostre:

“We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (temp. Car. Mag.). The great Christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG remains the name ôstarâ … it is mostly found in the plural, because two days … were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.”

“Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great Christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.”

Its pretty and nice to think about, but there’s a lot of “must have”s and “seems to be”s with little references to historical or folkloric records to back up his arguments.

So, is Eostre a goddess or not?

For me, I believe a bit of both. I believe that Eostre was an important figure, however, I do not believe that she was a goddess. I just feel that if she had been a goddess there would have been more record of her. I read in an article once (that I have since lost in the vast black hole that is the internet and can’t find for the life of me. Always save your sources, kids!) that Eostre was more likely some sort of nature figure akin to nymphs or elves. She was an important figure for the area that Bede grew up in, important enough to garner a festival. But by the time Bede began his writings, probably even long before he was born, Eostre had faded into unfortunate obscurity along with so many other Norse and Celtic figures. Bede, no longer a follower of the religion, most likely remembered a story about a figure who’s name was used for the month of April and either assumed or created the memory that she must have been a goddess.

But, hey, I’m not a historian or a folklorist (yet!), so my word is far from truth. This is just my take and everyone has a right to their own. Welcome to the wonderfully confusing world of folklore and mythology!

Upon researching this post I came across a tumblr user whose words regarding this whole topic will most likely sum up more than a few people’s feelings as they reach the end of this long, winding mess:

The Smell of Sage

Here’s the way I see it—religion is religion and mythology is mythology: a confusing mess that you can only sort out if you have the passion and the wherewithal to do so. At the end of the day, is Easter pagan? Sort of. Did the word Easter come from Eostre? Yes. Was Eostre a “real” goddess? That’s still heavily debated. Are Easter eggs and the Easter bunny pagan? Well, yeah. Does any of this really matter? No. Why? Because at the end of the day, no matter who you worship or what religion you subscribe to, we are all celebrating the same thing this time of year: the end of winter and the beginning of spring. So rather than shame-riling your Christian acquaintances while also trying to prove that you are the smartest of your facebook friends, eat some chocolate, dye some eggs, and celebrate the real reason for the season: it’s finally spring, damn it!

Corrected Ishtar & Easter Meme

By the way, here’s a corrected version of the Ishtar meme that I came across while searching for the original. I will definitely be sharing the corrected meme if I come across the original on my facebook feed. And, in the spirit of spreading unbiased knowledge, I welcome you to do the same.

Sources:
The Bell Jar, “Easter Is Not Named After Ishtar, And Other Truths I Have To Tell You”
Faktoider, “Ishtar and Easter”
Scientific American, “Beyond Ishtar: the Tradition of Eggs at Easter”
Mental Floss, “A Month by Month Guide To The Anglo-Saxon Calendar”
Wikipedia, “Inanna”
History, Interrupted, “It’s Eostre Time Again, or a Parade of Logical Fallacies”

Interesting Reads About Easter:
Patheos, “Eostre, Easter, Ostara, Eggs, and Bunnies”
Patheos, “Move Over Easter Bunny, Here Comes the Easter Fox”
The Guardian, “The Modern Myth of the Easter Bunny”
Association of Polytheist Traditions, “Eostre and Easter Customs”
Daily Kos, “History For Kossacks: Easter (Eostre) Is A Pagan Goddess (or maybe not)”
Library of Congress: Folklife Today, “On the Bunny Trail:In Search of the Easter Bunny
Adrian Bott (Cavalorn), “Eostre: The Making of a Myth”
“Part 2”
“Hunting the Spurious Eostre Hare”
“Eostre, Ostara and the Easter Fox”
“On What We Mean When We Say ‘Pagan Fertility Symbols'”
“Figuring Out When Eostre’s Feast Days Really Took Place”
“The Case for Eostre, Part 1: The Eostur Sacrifice”
“The Case for Eostre, Part 2: Bede Revisited”
“The Case for Eostre, Part 3: Meanwhile, Six Thousand Years Ago…”

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