Easter, that time of year where myths collide, where public holiday pay is at its best, where chocolate is just that little bit more tempting than normal.
So what mythical story can be peeled out of this mishmash of consumerist marketing, fable, religion and myth?
Well, one thing is for certain. Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon after the March equinox. Simple so far; it is a day when daylight is equal to darkness, and its something that comes once a year (even though this same halving of daylight/night happens twice a year).
When it comes to the ‘true’ origins of Easter, any Googler or budding mythologist is bound to stumble over a couple of interesting names;
Jesus: The Jewish preacher/leader who after his death became the central figure of Christianity, believed religiously to to be the son of the Christian God.
Eostre: the supposed-to-be Anglo Saxon goddess of dawn and spring.
Ishtar: A Babylonian goddess of sex and fertility.
Inanna: The Hades to Ishtar’s Pluto, her Mesopotamian counterpart but with a couple key differences (namely a couple more details known about her).
Prior to Christianity, many ancient religions had myths and legends about the death and rebirth of gods and goddesses. Celebrations of these gods usually occurred in the springtime.
There’s no doubt that Western Easter traditions incorporate a lot of elements from a bunch of different cultures, religions and stories. You can’t really say the holiday is just about resurrection (figurative or literal), or about Spring or just about fertility and sex in the same way you can’t take one word from a book and say “here guys here, this is what this book is really about”. Mythology, stories, life rarely work that way (and if they did wouldn’t that be boring?)
To try and unpack Easter a bit we have to look a little closer at the above figureheads (given Jesus is the most well known I’m gonna skip over him, the man already gets more than enough attention, besides, he’s far more interesting as a comparative spring board for me than a mythic figure in his own right—we all know the Jesus/Easter story).
So let’s start off with the “mythos” of Eostre.
You’re probably wondering why I put mythos up there in quotations. Well, it’s because really, no one is actually sure that Eostre even existed.
She’s supposed to be an Anglo Saxon goddess of dawn and spring. Whether known as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos — all are said to be European derivatives of an ‘ancient’ word for spring: Eastre (this is a painful and false simplification).
But cutting down to the truth of it outside of this circulating in the popular consciousness as the “true pagan roots of Easter” Eostre (sometimes Ostara) has only one historical (not even really mythological) reference in the whole of human history.
Christian scholar The Venerable Bede, writing in his book De Ratione Temporum (The Reckoning of Time) about 725AD, declared that Easter (the holiday) was named after Eostre (the mother goddess of the Saxons.) Not exactly a great source to start with as he wasn’t a Saxon himself, and no Saxon recordings, tales, or remnants of culture mention anything about a mother goddess called Eostre.
Bede wrote; “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor 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-honored name of the old observance.”
Basically he’s stating that during Ēosturmōnaþ (roughly April), pagan Anglo-Saxons had held feasts in Ēostre's honor, but that this tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Many scholars, theorists and mythologists doubt the existence of this convenient goddess all together (or at least her ties to Easter), but that doesn’t mean stories since that ‘discovery’ haven’t popped up about tying this Eostre goddess even more to the Easter holiday.
There’s a common fable associated with Easter where Eostre, was walking through the forest one day and saw a wounded bird. Realising that even if she healed it, the bird would never fly again (because reasons), so, feeling immense pity, she turned the bird into a rabbit, but the rabbit still laid eggs, coloured eggs (because reasons).
This is essentially a pretty convenient explanation for the history of Easter and a couple of its main staples; the Easter Bunny/coloured eggs. Convenient, as you’ve probably guessed, because it is not an ancient mythic story but rather was invented around 1987 as a marketing campaign for Easter Eggs, but didn’t receive widespread popularity as an actual mythic story until it was published in an American kid’s mag in 2002.
More importantly though, it is most likely an adaptation of the old folkloric tale Protestant German immigrants in the Pennslylvania Dutch area told their children about the character Osterhase a rabbit who laid colourful eggs.
The idea of Easter being rooted in pagan myth, and specifically in the stories of mythic goddesses is the kind of thing people like to say honestly a little too often. Everyone knows this by now, well at least, they know something about it.
Unlike with the story of Eostre the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar casts a very large and undeniable shadow in the mythological world.
Ishtar (sometimes Astarte) was the daughter of Anu, worshipped in the upper Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria (in what now is known as northern Iraq, eastern Syria and south east Turkey). She was a key player in THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH (both the earliest recorded piece of literature as well as the first superhero story, take that Superman!)
Like Eostre, Ishtar has been associated with Easter for mainly the way her name sounds; Ish-ta, Eas-ta, but also because of some of the mythology that seems to surround her.
Mythologically speaking, the story of Easter and namely Jesus, is one of death, sacrifice and resurrection.
One of Babylonia’s most famous myths about, ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ Ishtar describes her descent to the underworld. In this myth, Ishtar (a powerful wise mother-goddess in her own right) approaches the gates of the underworld and demands that the gatekeeper open them.
The gatekeeper of the underworld hurried to tell Ereshkigal, Ishtar’s sister and the Queen of the Underworld; a place where the dead fed on dust, wore feathers and stood about in service as servants for Ereshkigal.
This Underworld however (and like many other later interpretations) was multilayered, each layer protected by massive walls with locked gates and monstrous guards. To proceed through them, Ishtar not only had to name each part of the gate and the staff who maintained it, but she also had to pay to cross each threshold.
One by one she took off her jewels, her garments and last her weapons as payment.
When Ishtar finally passes through all seven gates, reaching the throne of Ereshkigal, she was naked and without weapons. In rage, Ishtar threw herself at Ereshkigal, but Ereshkigal ordered her servant Namtar to slaughter Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her.
Ishtar’s death left the earth in turmoil: the soil wouldn’t yield to planting, animals stopped breeding and no human womb could conceive. Ishtar however, was as said one of the wiser deities; she had left her faithful lieutenants prepared.
Her chief warrior Asu-shu-namir (scholars have recorded Asu-shu-namir as a “transvestite” and intersex, but scholars generally are a bunch of old white men, so I’m using the term non binary which is what Asu-shu-namir’s identity description more-so lends itself to now, anyways…) was sent as a messenger of the gods to beg for Ishtar’s corpse.
Through flattery and eloquence, they were able to appeal to Ereshkigal and retrieve Ishtar’s body. Unknown to Ereshkigal, Asu-shu-namir carried into the underworld with them a secret vial of the water of like, provided by Ea (Enki), and with that they revived Ishtar.
In a complex bargain that was eventually struck, a man by the name of Tammuz (Ishtar’s concubine) agreed to take Ishtar’s place in the underworld for half of the year, every year, during which time Ishtar’s grief without him brought on a great winter, Tammuz’s sister Belili, remains below the other half of the year, and Ishtar’s happiness makes the earth flourish. (remind you of Persephone and Hades? It should.)
At each gate, on her return, Ishtar recovered another piece of her armoury and wardrobe, in the same way the world redressed itself as the seasons go through cycles.
Some scholars believe that Ishtar’s initial descent was made in an attempt to rescue her love Tammuz (remind you of Eurydice and Orpheus? It should) Yet, with the discovery of Inanna’s corresponding Sumerian myth, some potential light’s been shed on Ishtar’s motivation and greater details to the story have been uncovered, something we’ll get into below.
In regards to Ishtar and Easter, yes some parallels (understandably, given how much Bible stories were inspired by earlier mythologies) between her story of resurrection, sacrifice and Jesus’ it’s fair to say the two (her own mythos and Easter’s) share some similarity, but not to the extent where you can say they’re properly correlated (yet).
As an aside, yeah, Ishtar was associated with fertility and sex (seemingly important for an ‘Easter’ goddess if popular thought is to be believed). the lion, the gate and the eight-pointed star symbolically belong to her.
Despite common misconception, Easter has nothing to do with her. Death, resurrection, fertility, the idea of the seasons changing and a celebration of that change and charge into the Underworld through dance? Yeah, that’s more Ishtar’s style.
A little more is known about her counterpart Inanna.
In the Sumerian tradition, in which most of the Bible is rooted in, Inanna’s own resurrection story, known in most circles as “The Descent of Inanna”. is a story etched on cuneiform clay tablets dating as early as the uruk period (ca. 4000–3100 BC) (though more recent belief is that Inanna stretches back to 2100 BC).
Inanna was the most prominent female deity in the sausage fest that was the ancient Mesopotamia pantheon. Her's is one of the earliest epic myths recorded.
We know this story because it has been found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dug up from the sands of Iraq by archaeologists, and because linguists have deciphered the Sumerian language and given us English translations (kudos guys!).
Though a popular myth we have only really portions of it, it is incredibly similar to Ishtar’s tale, so I’ll just go over the interesting differences to Ishtar, and the interesting similarities to Jesus’ Easter tale.
Let’s start with the first part of the myth. Inanna and Jesus both travel to a big city (in Inanna’s world the Underworld has a number of names, including “the Great Earth” and “the Great City”), where they are arrested by soldiers, put on trial, convicted, sentenced to death, stripped of their clothes, tortured, hung up on a stake, and die. All in that order.
Specifically, after three days, both Inanna and Jesus are resurrected from the dead (Inanna both dying and being resurrected in a similar way to Ishtar above). At this point it’s probably key to remind you of the two stories differences, one being about a goddess and the other a ‘divine’ man. But, what is great about these two myths is that they are an excellent display of a mythic template, the specific tropes and patterns stories took (and really, still take today).
Different to Ishtar’s story (or just perhaps providing more details) when Inanna returns to the upper realm she searches for her substitute to take her place in the Underworld. She doesn’t want to send anyone who has been missing her and mourning her down there. Yet, returning home she finds her husband Dumuzi on his throne completely unconcerned about her being gone. Furious, she decides that he will be her substitute.
Dumuzi, understandably is less than pleased by this whole ‘banished to the Underworld thing’, he protests vigorously and is helped to escape by his brother-in-law Utu, the Sun-god. But then a compromise is agreed upon, whereby Dumuzi will spend six months of every year in the Underworld, and for the other six months his devoted sister, Geshtinanna, will substitute for him. Life and fertility thus return to the earth. And that’s how the story ends.
As you’re probably thinking there’s not a whole lot here tying Easter, Ishtar and Inanna together. Aside from similarities (and out right adaptations) of the Biblical story behind Easter, the actual celebration itself, rabbits, eggs, chocolate, time of year, really doesn’t have all that much to do with either Goddess.
More so, this time of year, spring/autumn, the changing of seasons and time of the vernal equinox was a mish-mash of all different celebrations, festivals, feasts in honour of many many gods, all with rich stories and mythologies rooted in the changing seasons, resurrection, fertility and renewal.
There are many gods and goddesses dying and rising that represent the cycle of the seasons the stars, and the path of humanity. In Christianity one way the Jesus story changes from its Inanna and Ishtar counterparts is that it is detached from this agricultural cycle, the dying just only happens once—it is removed from the season it is celebrated within.
There is definitely more to say on this matter (the confusion of Pagan roots/inspiration and what is actually a Pagan takeover) but since Jesus is associated with some, what we’d call, living mythologies, it is in poor taste to talk about the correlation between Easter and Paganism too much further, outside of the obvious closing statement;
Really, when we talk about Easter being traditionally pagan, we’re talking about two different occurrences, the Easter most western people celebrate (chocolate bunnies, eggs, eating decadently), and the Easter with religious significance/ties. Neither Easter really has Pagan 'origins', but rather houses elements of several different mythologies (from their actual stories to their symbolism -rabbits and eggs-) in a collage of adaptation. This all comes together showing how mythologies, and ritual understandings world over, are informed and adapted by older myths and understandings. A thematic and narrative symbiosis that's hard to pin down in its entirety.
How does chocolate fit into this you ask?