Happy Ishtar Day: The Origins of Easter

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Today from Sandy Bay, Maine to San Diego, California, Americans will don their Sunday Best, attend a religious service, and enjoy the Spring air while their kids search for candy and eggs. A  joyous celebration on both the Christian and secular calendar, it wasn’t always that way — or maybe it was.

Easter was looked on with some skepticism by the ultra-religious Puritan sect when they showed up at Plymouth Bay. According to author Steve Englehart, these earlier settlers had bona fide religious reasons to eschew the holiday. “They knew that pagans had celebrated the return of spring long before Christians celebrated Easter…for the first two hundred years of European life in North America, only a few states, mostly in the South, paid much attention to Easter.”

It took the Civil War to bring Easter celebrations to the American parade of holidays. Starting about 1870, Christian families began to commemorate the holiday with brightly colored eggs and small treats for the kids.   Churches in the South saw Easter as a source of hope for an American spirit beaten down by four years of civil war and its aftermath of grief. Easter was called “The Sunday of Joy,” and war widows  traded the dark colors of mourning for the happier colors of spring.

The Bible’s story of Christ’s resurrection was the basis for the celebration which coincides with the Jewish Passover. In the fact, the Biblical origins of Easter were decidedly Jewish.

Acts 12:1 tells us that King Herod began to persecute the Church, culminating in the brutal death of the apostle James by sword. This pleased the Jews so much that the apostle Peter was also taken prisoner by Herod. The plan was to later deliver him to the Jews. Verse 3 says, “Then were the days of unleavened bread.” The New Testament Church was observing these feast days described in Leviticus 23. Verse 4 of Acts 12 explains: “And when he [Herod] had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions [sixteen] of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

The word “Easter” in Acts was clearly referring to the days of Passover. The word translated “Easter” is the Greek word “pascha”(derived from the Hebrew word pesach; there is no original Greek word for Passover). It always means Passover.

But the festival likely has origins before the Hebrew feast of Passover. Two thousand years before the accepted birth of Christ, ancient Babylonians were marking the beginning of Spring with a gala celebration honoring the resurrection of the god, Tammuz, who was killed by a wild boar. Tammuz was returned to life by his mother/wife, Ishtar (after whom the festival was named) with her tears. Ishtar was actually pronounced “Easter.”

Ishtar was quite the racy goddess, as historians Will and Ariel Durant explained in their monumental work, The Story of Civilization:

 “Ishtar …  interests us not only as analogue of the Egyptian Isis and prototype of the Grecian Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, but as the formal beneficiary of one of the strangest of Babylonian customs…known to us chiefly from a famous page in Herodotus: Every native woman is obliged, once in her life, to sit in the temple of Venus [Easter], and have intercourse with some stranger.”

Need anyone wonder why the ancient Hebrews would want to amend this legend and the Puritans to forget about it all together? They didn’t consider Babylon “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” for nothing.

Another theory, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, is that Easter celebrations have their linguistic origins in the Anglo-Saxon fertility rites of the goddess, Eastre. “Since Bede the Venerable (De ratione temporum 1:5) the origin of the term for the feast of Christ’s Resurrection has been popularly considered to be from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre, a goddess of spring…the Old High German plural for dawn, eostarun; whence has come the German Ostern, and our English Easter” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. 5, p. 6).

But what about Easter eggs? How did they enter the mix? Christians have always used the egg to symbolize the rock tomb from which Jesus emerged into new life. But the symbolism predates the Christian era. Pagan theology considered the egg as a symbol of Spring’s rebirth from Winter. (Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 233). The Egyptians had a slightly different spin considering the egg the symbol of the passage of life from one generation to the next.

“Eggs were hung up in the Egyptian temples. Bunsen calls attention to the mundane egg, the emblem of generative life, proceeding from the mouth of the great god of Egypt. The mystic egg of Babylon, hatching the Venus Ishtar, fell from heaven to the Euphrates. Dyed eggs were sacred Easter offerings in Egypt, as they are still in China and Europe. Easter, or spring, was the season of birth, terrestrial and celestial.” (Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, James Bonwick, pp. 211-212)

The pagan tales of gods and goddesses was quite an ecumenical affair with many civilizations sharing the same deity but branding each with a different name that suited their populations. Thus Ishtar became Astarte to the Greeks and Ashtoreth to the Jews. Nimrod, the Biblical figure who built the city of Babylon (and was mentioned in Genesis) is another example. He was worshiped as Saturn, Vulcan, Kronos, Baal,  and Tammuz by succeeding civilizations but the story remained more or less intact for centuries.

Easter thus is an international affair going back centuries and spanning civilizations from the Babylonians to ourselves. Who says things really change?

So Happy Ishtar, Eastre, or Easter Day to us all!

UPDATE: In her comment, Elaine M mentions the ubiquitous Easter Bunny. I neglected him/her and I’m sorry. The Easter Bunny seems to have it origins in ancient Babylon, too. Seems the god, Tammuz was noted to be especially fond of rabbits, and they became sacred in the ancient religion. Because Tammuz was believed to be the son of the sun-god, Baal. Tammuz, like his father, became a hunter and his favorite prey was–you guessed it– the Ishtar Bunny.  And the legend kept going … and going … and going. A lot like a bunny we know today!

Source: The Real Truth

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

48 thoughts on “Happy Ishtar Day: The Origins of Easter”

  1. I tend to believe a more likely explanation of the bunny and the egg is that they represent fertility (i.e. multiply like rabbits for the bunny; the egg’s significance in that regard is obvious). So pagan celebrations of spring and fertility go hand in hand. “Springtime: When a boys fancy turns to…” as the saying goes. Why does Playboy have the same symbol as Easter? Again, getting it on is why.

  2. @JC: As an atheist for my entire adult life, with about half of my extended family religious, I have long maintained the attitude that any excuse to get together with family is a good one, it doesn’t really have to make sense. I’d be happy to bake a cake and fire up the barbecue in honor of Bugs Bunny’s birthday, I do not really care why.

    If some people want to think BB is real, well, they know what I think, I know what they think, so pass that macaroni salad George makes, it is awesome.

  3. Tony,

    True. On simpler creatures, it may just be instinctual caring behavior that gets imprinted on an inappropriate target, but for creatures that have evidenced fairly high orders of intelligence (e.g. elephants, dolphins, dogs) I would have to agree that attributing the phenomena to simple mis-imprinting is probably the fallacy of simple cause.

  4. So, I was just confirmed Catholic (mainly for my Fiance’s benefit, so we ‘can raise a catholic family) but I have many ‘struggles’ with the teachings.

    Partly as I know many things Christian are adapted from many things Pagan. (As with all religions as the article mentions.)

    So, now I sit here, as a Catholic, with many philosophical arguments going on in my head.

    Part of which is that I have a slight belief that the religion you profess and practice is ultimately the religion that your brain associates with and strives to conform with…that ‘hell’ comes from being out of sync with the religion you are closest to. So now, I worry that, being surrounded by Catholicism while having issue with a great many Catholic ideas…I’ll end up on my death bed and my brain will be confused leading me away from a peaceful death.

    Agh. It was much easier to just go into the woods or by the lake and light up a doobie and contemplate nature. I guess I’m really just a pagan, which makes Easter and Christmas much easier to celebrate.

    1. “It was much easier to just go into the woods or by the lake and light up a doobie and contemplate nature.”

      Amen to that. Truth is we’re all going to die sometime. Live is here now to be led and to get whatever enjoyment you can from it. The essence of all religion and of all philosophy is the “How” of living the best life. In truth it all comes down to what choices you make for yourself. The afterlife, if any, is an unkown used to control people through fear of eternal damnation. Seriously, does anyone believe that the Creator of this whole Universe has some puishment system in mind that evisions terrible eternal tortures? From my perspective that belief is in itself blasphemy.

  5. @Gene: It isn’t just same species altruism, either. I have read reports of wild elephants running off a lion to protect a human. There are numerous reports of wild dolphins attacking sharks to protect humans, and I read a report of a wild dolphin saving a child from drowning by propping her up and pushing her toward the beach.

    And of course, there are dogs. I would not be so quick (as some) to attribute all of these to some cognitive error of pack identification.

  6. MIke S.,

    I think even a cursory examination of the natural world indicates both mechanisms are in play. Predation and competition are counterbalanced by phenomena like elephants tending their sick and injured, dolphins assisting each other in giving birth and vampire bats feeding other vampire bats too weak to hunt. These behaviors all have one thing in common: they aid in the perpetuations of genes (or at least “like enough” genes).

  7. Anon said:

    “If you think atheists have the market on being mean….. You are misinformed……I have met many atheist that are more christian like than professed Christians….. Meaness knows no race, age, gender, education or social economic level….”

    I’d like to see where these atheists are, that you are referring to. The only ones I’ve come across spend so much hot air arguning and debating about something they supposedly don’t believe in. Which makes me really suspicious that most atheists are actually agnostics with an atheist wrapper. You can’t be so mean and hateful and so mean spirited about something you supposedly don’t believe in. That’s insanity. But that’s what most atheists are doing. Granted the majority of the atheists I run into are online, but I’ve never seen so much bitterness, such hateful words, and such illogical BS and an abundance of straw-men arguments that come out of atheists. It’s been argued that atheism is a worthless religion. I believe it.

  8. Ken McBride bleated:

    “All religions are based on misogyny, guilt and fear, they just have different holidays!”

    You’re using the all-to-conveneint stereotypical knee-jerk atheist catch-phrases. Aside from the fact you’re using the word “religion” which could mean anything, including the utterly useless religion of atheism, if we take the Bible, for example, God uses a phrase “FEAR NOT” 365 times. That’s literally a “FEAR NOT” for every day of the year. So before you paint wish such a broad brush, you might want to be a little more informed.

    Also you might want to ease up on using so many strawman arguments. Throwing in references to Santa Claus only gives more merit to the theory that Santa Claus causes atheism.

  9. AY:

    that was my point, neither Christians, Jews nor Muslims have any corner on the morality market and neither do atheists.

    I always tell my wife that when a person starts telling you how Christian they are you need to grab your wallet and hang on tight.

  10. Bron,

    If you think atheists have the market on being mean….. You are misinformed……I have met many atheist that are more christian like than professed Christians….. Meaness knows no race, age, gender, education or social economic level….

  11. anon:

    all I was saying was that Ken McBride doesnt have all the answers and why get upset, a dog chases a cat. Atheists dont like religion, some I imagine are bad people and are afraid of the concept of hell. Others dont like the Golden Rule and so try and make excuses to not practice it in their daily lives and some are decent people who have a moral compass based on the Golden Rule [in secular terms of course].

    So what if he is a militant atheist trying to convince himself that religion is bad? If he thinks atheists havent done their fair share of killing for some idea or used fear for control or engaged in misogyny then he is an idiot.

  12. Mike Spindell 1, April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    “All religions are based on misogyny, guilt and fear, they just have different holidays!” [quoting Ken McBride]

    The content of the prophets and philosophers of most religions are quite pertinent to living a good life, unfortunately religious leaders have a long history of perverting original meanings into vehicles to promote their own, or that of the established state. Confucius, in 600 BCE; Buddha in 500 BCE; Rabbi Hillel the Elder and Jesus almost contemporaneously, came up with the same formulation as the basis of the wisdom they wished to impart. Do not treat other human beings in ways you would not want yourself treated. That is the essence of almost all religions.
    Recently, in historical terms, evolutionary biologists have “unearthed” evidence that those dynamics you mention (“the golden rule”) are one origin of species at the microbe level.

    Perhaps Ken needs to get in touch with his inner microbe. 😉

    1. “Recently, in historical terms, evolutionary biologists have “unearthed” evidence that those dynamics you mention (“the golden rule”) are one origin of species at the microbe level.”


      Interesting stuff. My suspicion has always been that human existence is not simply survival of the fittest, in alpha male terms, but our ability to act cooperatively with eqachother.

  13. anon.:

    Thank you for the reasoned and reasonable reply. I always look forward to your contributions whether I agree with them or not. Believe it or not, sometimes I do.

  14. Mespo,
    I missed this:
    “Jainism has no such beliefs as is true of several Eastern religions, and many other religions have rejected the flaws you cite. Of course, that is no proof of their validity as a religion but it is proof of their utility as a moral reinforcer.”

    Permit a small addition:
    One of the indians who followed Alexander on his retreat, with a view to proselytizing, was a Jain. A few weeks into the journey, he, realizing his approaching death. in accordance with his faith, arranged a bonfire and placed himself upon it with no visible reaction. The greeks and his own followers had appealed in vain.

  15. Bron, Mark,

    Enforcing civility whether on blogs or in real life is done in many ways.

    I tend to see this as prisoner’s dilemma with repeated plays with the winning strategy (sadly) being “Tit for tat with forgiveness”.

    We can all act together and win, or we can defect against each other and we all lose.

    All religions are based on misogyny, guilt and fear, they just have different holidays!

    I genuinely found McBride’s contribution here to be reprehensible, gratuitous, offensive, ignorant, pompous, arrogant, and disrespectful at its worse, or to give McBride the benefit of the doubt, he is trolling us.

    As Ken McBride is a repeated player here, the winning response for all of us to his defection, to help him understand, is tit for tat.

    It’s actually pretty sad that the superior solution to prisoner’s dilemma is tit-for-tat, but I didn’t make the rules, John Nash did.

    Was the last line over the top?

    It’s an interesting question. I can certainly agree that with the usual guides to civility that I adhere to, it definitely seems to be. But honestly, I think coming to this forum today to announce that all religions are based on misogyny is pretty damn obnoxious and uncivil as well. So tit for tat with a bit of a punch in the nose.

    But I accept your guidance that it was over the line, in this thread, today.

  16. To all who sank the ship of Happy Ishtar, let us thank Mespo and retire as quietly as we can; and hope that peace will reign until tomorrow.
    And that includes me as well.

    Cast no more oil upon the waters, the fish are having difficulty breathing already.

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