So what do we find when we look into this? Where to begin? Well, the one part the picture gets right is that there was a Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of fertility and sexuality named Ishtar. Ishtar was a major figure in the religion of the people who lived in the region the ancient Greeks referred to as Mesopotamia, which means “[the land] between the rivers” (i.e. the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which reside mostly in what is modern-day Iraq). Her existence has been celebrated by the peoples in the area since at least the early bronze age (which started around 3600 BC in that region). This included not just the Assyrians and Babylonians, but even more ancient peoples of the region such as the Sumerians and Akkadians. The goddess became popular throughout much of the ancient Near East, and her name varied slightly from location to location, but I have not come across any iteration that is thought to have been pronounced like we pronounce “Easter”. Both the Akkadian and Sumerian spellings render a name pronounced as it looks: ish-tar. As for her “symbols”, she had many, and as a caveat I’ll concede that it may be possible that eggs were one of them; eggs are a symbol of fertility in numerous religions throughout the ancient world, and it’s not insane to think that the ancient Mesopotamians may have been among them. However, that does not mean that she was associated with eggs symbolically. I can find sourced examples of Ishtar being associated symbolically with lions and the planet Venus represented by the design of an 8-point star (or this may be a separate symbol, I’m not positive). Depending on how much you want to draw out the association between Ishtar and similar variations of the goddess in the ancient Near East, you might be able to add certain crowns, serpents, or possibly even dates to the list of symbols, but I can’t find anything mentioning either eggs or bunnies, and I honestly do have a book here with me on ancient Near Eastern goddesses.
So how on earth does coloring eggs fit into the resurrection of Jesus, and why is a bunny rabbit hiding them? Totally valid questions I think everybody has had. And again, it’s obviously not in the Bible, so people could be forgiven for thinking that there are non-Christian sources for the traditions. Coincidentally, the practice of dying eggs for Easter does apparently come from Mesopotamia. Not from ancient worshipers of Ishtar though, but from early—wait for it—Christians; possibly as early as the 2nd century. They dyed eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ shed on the cross. Now, it may be that eggs were chosen as the object to decorate because they were associated with rebirth, but that’s harder to prove—although certainly not an outrageous consideration. Regardless, it was not an idea borrowed directly from any part of Ishtar worship, as her worshipers had been gone for centuries by the time the Christians started their egg dying traditions. And that is not to say that this was the first instance of eggs ever being painted in history. Indeed the ancient Sumerians did so. But as far as being able to connect the practice to Easter, the first people to do it were Christians themselves, not any sort of pagan. Adding to the popularity of egg-oriented traditions at Eastertime is the fact that many denominations of Christianity did not consume eggs during Lent. This not only led to a surplus of eggs at Easter, but the Sunday itself was the end of the Lenten fasting, and thus a great opportunity to eat a bunch of eggs. So what’s with the bunny? It’s a good question. That too is a Christian tradition. It comes from the Lutherans, and the earliest known mention of the concept is from an essay by a doctor in the late 1600’s who refers to it as an Alsatian (a region on the Rhine river that has been under both French and German control throughout history) tradition of an Easter Hare who acts basically like a Santa for Easter, judging children and delivering eggs, candy, and toys accordingly. Now, why the Alsatians picked a hare is harder to answer. What is certain is that it had nothing to do with Isthar. Her worshipers were separated by the Renaissance Alsatians by a couple thousand years and several hundred miles. That rabbits and hares are a symbol of spring and rebirth, or even fertility (hence the eggs) is not out of the question, but there hardly seems to be conclusive proof for it. However, it may have been the weirdness of their fertility that had more to do with the connection. In the ancient world, rabbits and hares were believed to be hermaphrodites. There is speculation that this led to them being associated with the Virgin Mary, as demonstrated by some medieval and Renaissance art (e.g. “Madonna with Rabbit” by Titian). This theory also lacks conclusive proof, of course, but it is still worth considering.
Moving on to Constantine. I suppose it would be fair to say he “Christianized” the [Roman] Empire, but how he did so is important to understand. He was indeed the emperor who made Christianity the official state religion of the Empire, and he did many things to support the growth and acceptance of Christianity therein, and he certainly deserves historical recognition for doing so. He did this largely though legal means, significantly: by rescinding previous laws that legally persecuted Christians, by adding new laws that granted perks and legal benefits to sanctioned churches, and by organizing church councils to ensure uniformity within the religion. What he didn’t do was foist the religion upon the masses, let alone rename a supposed Ishtar-based holiday and call it Easter. There’s just so many things wrong with that. Again, Ishtar worship had been gone for centuries by the time Constantine was born. Even if there had been a springtime celebration centered around Ishtar in the Bronze Age, it was long, long gone by the days of the Roman Empire, so there was nothing to copy over anyway. That Easter is celebrated in the spring should come to absolutely no surprise to even the most noncommittal and oblivious Chreaster**, but just so we’re all on the same page, it is and always has been because Easter is celebrated in remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus, which the Bible places on the Sunday after the Jewish festival of Passover, which is and has been celebrated in the early spring. Now, interestingly—well, it is to me, at least—Emperor Constantine did have something to do with the date of Easter. Part of Constantine’s efforts to “Christianize” the Empire involved trying to make church practices uniform throughout the Empire. In his day—and in fact still somewhat in the modern day—there wasn’t a standardized date for celebrating Easter. When Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325, standardizing the day Easter would be celebrated was a major topic and huge point of debate. In fact, the subsequent t introduction of the Gregorian Calendar (the calendar now used by most of the world) in 1582 was designed specifically to stay consistent with the decision for celebrating Easter decided at Nicaea 12 centuries prior. And Constantine did not make the specific dating decision himself. Like the vast majority of his theological laws, he deferred to Church authorities to make the final decisions; he basically acted as a manager and organizer. He just gave the order for others to make a decision. Easter was already widely celebrated throughout the Empire by the time of the Council of Nicaea, hence Constantine feeling the need to standardize the date.
So Easter has nothing to do ancient Mesopotamian paganism, but it may actually have a superficial connection to German paganism—a goddess, even. But it’s also worth noting that “pagan” has a really broad meaning that can get abused, particularly in cases like this. “Pagan” has come to mean something like ancient religions, or religions outside the mainstream. And this is a fine definition, but bear in mind that just because one religion is considered pagan doesn’t mean it will have anything in common with another pagan religion. The Germans of the Middle Ages had what is considered a pagan religion, and the ancient Mesopotamians had pagan religions as well. But that does not mean they are at all similar. So when people say things like, “Christians stole this idea from the pagans”, regardless of historical truth, that could mean any number of incredibly different religions. Anyway, the word “Easter” comes from German, and was used by at least as early as 899. There is debate over the precise etymology (i.e. the history of the word), but it is generally believed to come from the Old English Ēostre, the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess. And indeed it is believed that this was a fertility goddess associated with the springtime. So really, if you’re going to allege that Christians stole Easter from the celebration of an ancient fertility goddess, this is the one to pick. But this is only what Germanic languages (including English) call the holiday. Almost every other language uses some variation on “pascha”, from the Hebrew Pesach, the name for the Passover festival. So even if the Germanic language speakers “stole” Easter from the German pagans, you still have all the other languages that don’t have the pagan connection. And as we’ve discussed, the major Easter traditions can be accounted for from Christian sources. So while it is entirely possible that the Germans had a springtime festival in honor of a fertility goddess, the Christian springtime celebration of the resurrection of Jesus replaced it organically as Christianity became more popular than the pagan religion over centuries for a variety of reasons. It had nothing to do with Constantine, and nothing to do with stealing from pagan fertility cults.
* I have seen some people refer to this as a meme, which is not technically correct (Scientific America’s blog, which of all people should know better). A meme has to have a theme that can be varied to convey a new, but similar idea. This is effectively a single use picture and text combo.
** For those of you who haven’t heard this word, it’s portmanteau of Christmas and Easter, and it refers to people who only attend church services on those two days (or otherwise attend very few services).
“When God Was a Woman” by Merlin Stone
“Constantine and Eusebius” by Timothy Barnes