Saturday, March 24, 2018

Easter Ishtar?

“You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off!”

This is the most popular comparison of differing pronunciations in the famous musical Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.

There’s a similar contrast that many make today that is not as funny though: claiming that since Easter sounds like Ishtar, that they must be the same. Yes, both are pagan goddesses, the name Easter being Germanic and Ishtar being Babylonian. I know memes have been made making this connection, and are spread around the Internet, that the name Easter actually derives from the name of the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. Both the function and the name of that goddess sound so compatible to Easter that many consider it to be more than merely coincidental. But we must be careful, for appearances can be deceiving. Denying this would be naive and sensational, traits Christians should avoid in order to reach out to maturity. Thus, claiming that they must be the same as they both sound similar and may share some similar traits would be immature. Rather, any such connection should be solidified by rigorous scholarship instead. Anything less would be amateurish and would ultimately be a disservice to ourselves and others.

With that said, I will share some notes that demonstrate that we must err on the side of caution here. First, for the sake of my Jehovah’s Witness audience, notice what some Awake! and Watchtower articles have said:

Awake! 1992 4/8 What Does Easter Mean to God?, box on page 6: What Is the Origin of the Word “Easter”?
  • “The name, which is in use only among the English- and German-speaking peoples, is derived, in all probability, from that of a goddess of the heathen Saxons, Ostara, Osterr, or Eastre. She was the personification of the East, of the morning, of the spring.”—Curiosities of Popular Customs, by William S. Walsh.
  • “We are told by an ancient English chronicler, the Venerable Bede, that the word ‘Easter’ was originally the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, known as Eostre or Ostara, whose principal festival was kept at the vernal equinox. We only have Bede’s word for it, for no record of such a goddess is to be found elsewhere, but it is unlikely that Bede, as a devout Christian, would have gone out of his way to invent a pagan origin for Easter. But whether or not there was ever such a goddess, it seems most likely that some historical connection must exist between the words ‘Easter’ and ‘East’, where the sun rises.”—Easter—Its Story and Meaning, by Alan W. Watts.
  • “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. However, recent studies by Knobloch . . . present another explanation.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
  • “The English name Easter, like the German Ostern, probably derives from Eostur, the Norse word for the spring season, and not from Eostre, the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess.”—The Encyclopedia of Religion. [This source derives Easter from a word and not a goddess.]
Watchtower 1996 4/1 pp. 3-4 Easter or the Memorial—Which Should You Observe?
The name Easter, used in many lands, is not found in the Bible. The book Medieval Holidays and Festivals tells us that “the holiday is named after the pagan Goddess of the Dawn and of Spring, Eostre.” And who was this goddess? “Eostre it was who, according to the legend, opened the portals of Valhalla to receive Baldur, called the White God, because of his purity and also the Sun God, because his brow supplied light to mankind,” answers The American Book of Days. It adds: “There is no doubt that the Church in its early days adopted the old pagan customs and gave a Christian meaning to them. As the festival of Eostre was in celebration of the renewal of life in the spring it was easy to make it a celebration of the resurrection from the dead of Jesus, whose gospel they preached.”

[End quotes]

So the connection is not made with Ishtar, but with the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn “Eostre” or “Eastre” (if it is to be derived from a goddess at all). But does Eastre find her origin in Ishtar, or something else? One source states that:
There are a growing number of Christians that think that the [name] “Easter” is rooted in pagan Babylonian tradition. One of the basic assumptions is that the name “Easter” is but a Christian remake of “Ishtar”, a Babylonian goddess. Even though the words sound similar, they probably have no etymological connection. The English word “Easter” likely comes from the Proto-Germanic “austron”, which means “sunrise” – arguably a fitting name for the “rising from the dead.” (Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? by Dr. Faydra Shapiro and Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg.
Please focus on this quotation only, and do not be distracted by anything else on that webpage article, and shift focus to something you may dislike and then ignore what was quoted here for the purpose of dismissing it, as that would be dishonest and thus manifest an immature, shameful, and unchristian demeanor. So if you are mature enough to focus on what I quoted, then you see that Eastre would derive from the Proto-Germanic “austron,” or “sunrise,” not Ishtar. This is good to remember, and does not affect the true statement that Easter has been infused with pagan symbolism.

So while Ishtar is related to her equivalents of Astarte and Ashtoreth, it would be a mistake to apply this to the Germanic goddess Eastre. Lastly, one article on “What Does the Bible Say About Easter?” says:
Name: The Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The English name Easter is of uncertain origin; the Anglo-Saxon priest Venerable Bede in the 8th century derived it from the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre.” Others link it to Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess who had the Babylonian counterpart Ishtar. (
While it admitted that “others link it to Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess who had the Babylonian counterpart Ishtar,” this is not to be adopted dogmatically. I think including this line leans towards being a disservice for having the potential to produce ill-informed fanatics. But that was not their intention.

As we are reminded in Philippians 4:5: “Let your reasonableness become known to all men.” Thus, we should be “cautious as serpents and yet innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and only present information that has been proven to be reasonably true, not basing it on shoddy research that only results in confirmation bias. Scholarly, reasonable, and mature Christians then take the origin of the name Easter to its Germanic roots and leave it at that. Taking it any further would be sensational. To that I say:

Let’s call the whole thing off!


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Additional reading: