If you are on Facebook or generally run with a pagan crowd via social media, the above image may have flown across your screen. It’s become something of an annual thing. I first saw this a few years ago. I twitched a little bit and then continued on with my day. Now, it seems I can’t get away from it this year. So, rather than merely twitching, I’m going to give my response to it. (Spoiler: I’m not happy.)
There are so many things wrong with this on so many levels. Revisionist history irritates me to no end. Intentional mangling of information and presenting it as fact makes me furious. This is a meme that I keep seeing reposted with the intent to ‘set the record straight’ about Easter. I confess, I get angrier each time I see this. I can appreciate the desire to demonstrate the pre-Christian roots of this celebration. I can even appreciate the desire to normalize pagan faiths. You don’t do that by way of bullshit. A few minutes of fact checking and this is revealed to be utter garbage.
Ishtar is not connected with Easter in even the remotest fashion outside of this meme. The name Ishtar is pronounced entirely differently than the word Easter and comes from a completely different culture. She is indeed an Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sex. Ishtar is believed to be a cognate to Innanna and Astarte. (They are Sumerian and Aramean goddesses, respectively.) Her name is understood to be pronounced ‘ish-tar’ given what we have been able to do with reconstructing the ancient language that her name comes from. The egg and the ‘bunny’ are not her symbols. She is associated with lions and a seven pointed star.
The closest we can come to an association with the spring season is the myth of her descent into the underworld. This myth is considered to be a part of seasonal worship patterns with Ishtar’s descent associated with the fallow time of year and her return to the upperworld with the return of fertility. This association, however, is not as strong as others would like to paint it. The figure that is tied most closely to the fertility of the land is not Ishtar but her lover Tammuz. Ishtar and Tammuz are a pair that bring fertility to man and livestock (in Ishtar’s case) and the land (in Tammuz’s case). This, however, is only one interpretation. In another interpretation, Ishtar’s return to the upperworld comes when she sends Tammuz in her place to stay with Ereshkigal (Ishtar’s sister and the goddess of the underworld) because he did not mourn her absence. The lore is unclear here and the historical record is inconclusive as to which interpretation is correct. There is, however, a growing consensus among scholars that the second variant of the tale of Ishtar’s descent is accurate, which would make her the primary deity of fertility.
Now, what does this have to do with Easter? Not bloody much, to be honest. A vague seasonal overlap and some passing similarity in the visual appearance of her name to the term Easter (which only occurs in the English language, from what I can tell) is the best connection you’re going to get here. Easter is a word that comes from an entirely different part of the world and an entirely different period in history. Easter has been shown to be derived from the old English term Ostara (which has multiple spellings and can be found in the Germanic people of continental Europe from this era as well). Ostara seems to be connected with a goddess of the same name, though there are functionally no records of her worship.
Ostara is believed to have the hare as an animal associated with her, but there is no solid evidence either way. She is also believed to be associated with eggs, but that connection is equally questionable. The folk practices of Easter are considered by many to be cultural vestiges of the worship of Ostara. Within the modern pagan community, Ostara is observed as the celebration of the Spring Equinox and many give homage to this mysterious deity. These observances, however, have a great deal of overlap with the culturally dominant Easter folk practices. While there is an effort to ‘take back’ the folk practices, the lore is functionally non-existent and the corpus of devotional activities of mainstream pagans are of modern manufacture.
Now, someone may ask where I personally fall on this matter. It is a fine question and I believe it merits answer. Ostara is a Germanic goddess whose historical cult of worship was in many ways lost by the time Bede wrote of her. I honor her as a fertility goddess. I am of the opinion that she is most likely of the Vanir. It is my belief that she is a mighty goddess that is not directly approached because people are not sure how to approach her. At the Spring Equinox, I pour out offerings for her as I do for the other gods. I ask her blessing upon my efforts over the growing season and upon my growing children. It is my suspicion that children and young of any life form are under her special care. I think that the connection between Ostara and eggs comes because this is when birds begin nesting.
I also think that my area celebrates Ostara early when we go by the calendar because the birds are not nesting yet, but it is easier for my children to celebrate it in proximity to the Christian celebration of Easter because there is less friction with our Christian community. At the Spring Equinox, I am not only celebrating and honoring Ostara, by the way. I also give offerings and celebrate Freyr and Gerda. It is my sincere belief that this is the time of year that Freyr returns from Helheim to his bride. Thus, I make a point to pay homage to them as well at this time of year.
If you want to point at the pagan origins of Easter, that’s great. Let’s look at the real origins rather than this bad fiction meme.