Is Easter named after Ishtar?

Claim

The celebration of Easter was copied/stolen from the ancient worship of Ishtar.

Rating

False

Explanation

Ishtar (Inanna in the Sumerian) was a Mesopotamian goddess, whose worship is widely attested in the historical and archaeological records. It is commonly claimed that the Christian celebrations of Easter were originally dedicated to Ishtar.

This claim is based on the supposed similarity of the two words: Ishtar/Easter, the role of Ishtar as a fertility goddess, Ishtar’s own death and ressurection, and the idea that Ishtar’s symbols were the rabbit and the egg. But how true are these claims?

Names

The first claim so often made is that Ishtar is pronounced “Easter”, offering us a clear homophone that gives the false impression that this actually means anything factually relevant – but this is not how etymology actually works.

It is also completely false. Ishtar (Ištar) is pronounced phonetically: Ish-tar. The name for Easter comes from the Germanic language family – Ostern – and relates in no way to the name of Ishtar.

Put very simply, this false homophonic link only works in two languages, namely English and German. Most other cultures who celebrate Easter do not call it “Easter”. In Dutch, for example, it is called Pasen; in French, it’s referred to as lesPâques. The festival ultimately derives its name from the Greek word Pascha, which in turn is based on the Hebrew Pesach (Passover).

The Christian writer Sozomen (fifth century) describes an important decision made at the council of Nicaea as such (1.21):

On the termination of this doctrinal controversy, the council decided that the Paschal feast should be celebrated at the same time in every place.

Even before the council of Nicaea, we have clear evidence for the name of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Meliton of Sardis wrote a homily entitled “On Pashca”, in which he describes Pascha as now being a celebration of Jesus and his resurrection (65):

Many other things were proclaimed by many prophets concerning the mystery of the Pascha, who is Christ, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen

To put it bluntly, there is no link between the name of Ishtar and Easter, and even if such a link could be found it is not relevant because Easter was not the actualy name for the festival in the ancient or much of the modern world.

Goddess of?

The link made between Ishtar and Easter often relies on the representation of Ishtar as a fertility godess. This is a misleading label.

Like all ancient deities within a polytheistic pantheon, Ishtar possessed varying attributes and realms of influence. Her associations also rely on the time period under discussion, and the regions in which she was being worshipped. There are in fact many “Ishtars”, and over time she became an amalgamation of various godesses.

This is highlighted by the invocation of Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela as two seperate goddesses during the Neo-Assyrian period (The Esarhaddon Prism 4-7) :

the legitimate ruler, the favourite of the great gods, whose name from his youth up Ashur, Shamash, Bel and Nabu, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, for the kingship of Assyria had proclaimed.

Ishtar’s association with fertility is often present in her mythology and worship, but it is not her most prominent association. The one area of life she was consistently associated with was sex and erotic passion (The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi 4):

As for me, Inanna [Ishtar],
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
As for me, the young woman,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will station the ox there?
Who will plow my vulva?

Of course fertility sits as a by-product of this sexual activity, so Ishtar is frequently aligned with the fertility of humans, animals and the lands more generally. It is worth noting that the Sumerian pantheon had other more suitable candidates for the title of “fertility goddess”, such as Ninhursag.

For Ishtar, another important aspect of her divine personality is declared very clearly in the Code of Hammurabi:

May Ishtar, the goddess of fighting and war, who unfetters my weapons, my gracious protecting spirit, who loveth my dominion, curse his kingdom in her angry heart

Ishtar was a goddess of war. The dichotomy of sex and violence in a goddess is not uncommon in the ancient world, and gives a stronger sense of Ishtar’s realm of control: strong passions, primordial urges, and potential devastation.

Resurrection

One of the most famous myths concerning the godess depicts her descending into the underworld to confront her sister Ereshkigal, who ruled over the land of the dead. Within this myth, Ishtar returns to the land of the living after having been killed by her sister’s instruction (Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld):

The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her – it was the look of death. They spoke to her – it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her – it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook. After three days and three nights had passed, her minister Ninshubura carried out the instructions of her mistress

According to the Sumerian version of this myth, Inanna entered the underworld where she was killed and remained so for three days and three nights before she was brought back to life and allowed to leave. Her freedom came at a cost, she needed to replace herself in the underworld with someone else - she chose Dumuzi, her husband.

Superficially, this story offers some comparisons with the resurrection story of Jesus, but on closer inspection they are not particularly relevant. Jesus was resurrected from death on the third day, after two nights, and his is a saviour-story, he died for others; whereas Inanna chose to condemn someone else to death to ensure her own freedom.

Her very presence in the underworld was part of an illegitimate power grab, rather than some form of sacrifice for mankind. It is also sometimes claimed that Inanna was crucified, but this is clearly not the case.

The Neo-Assyrian version of the tale, Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld, tells a shorter version of the same story. Notably, this version gives a different cause of Inanna’s actual death in the underworld, and it does not mention the three days and three nights. This suggests that the important part of the story was not the nature of the death and resurrection, but the descent into the underworld itself, the effect this had on the world above, and the relationship between the two sisters

Symbols

The argument that rabbits and eggs were the symbols of Ishtar is one made without any evidence. To date, there are no images of Ishtar with either symbol prominent.

Akkadian seal (ca. 2350–2150 BC) depicting the armed goddess Ishtar. Note the lion she is resting her foot on, and the eight-pointed star in the top left.

In contrast, we can categorically show that Ishtar was associated with lions. She is also regularly pictured with a common symbol: an eight-pointed star.

It is hard to argue against silence, but ultimately what is important here is that there is no evidence to the claim that rabbits and eggs were symbols of Ishtar.

Conclusion

The claim that Easter is based on the earlier worship of Ishtar is complete nonsense. It is based on ideas that sound plausible to those who have never studied the subject before, however it relies on falsehoods and purposeful misrepresentations of the evidence.

Easter is not a homonym for Ishtar, and is in fact not the original term for the Christian celebration anyway nor is it the most common one used in modern languages either. Ishtar was associated with fertility, but this was not her most prominent association, which was a combination of sex and warfare.

Indeed, to discuss Ishtar at all as the source of Easter celebrations, one would need to be specific about which Ishtar they were referring to, but then again no incarnation of the goddess would fit anyway. Ishtar’s resurrection bears only the vaguest of resemblances to the story of Jesus, to claim any more is to be disingenuous.

And finally: no the Easter Bunny was not a companion of Ishtar.

It is for these reasons we have rated this claim as false.

Related claims

References

  • Rivkah Harris, “Inanna-Ishtar as Paradox and a Coincidence of Opposites,” History of Religions 30.3 (1991), pp. 261-278
  • Barbara Nevling Porter, “Ishtar of Nineveh and her collaborator, Ishtar of Arbela, in the reign of Assurbanipal,” IRAQ, vol. 66: Nineveh. Papers of the XLIXe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part One (2004), pp. 41 - 44
  • Peter Gainsford, “Easter and its supposed pagan links”, Kiwi Hellenist (2016; last accessed 1 April 2021).
  • Tim O’Neill, “Easter, Isthra, Eostre and eggs”, History for Atheists (2017; last accessed 1 April 2021).
  • Louise M. Pryke, Ishtar (2017).
  • Spencer McDaniel, “No, Easter is not named after Ishtar”, Tales of Times Forgotten (2020; last accessed 1 April 2021).
  • Yaǧmur Heffron, “Inana/Ištar (goddess)”, Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy (2016; last accessed 1 April 2021).