2015-03-25

Easter and Ishtar

That's correct: The "correct" score is zero.

This image does the rounds every Easter. In particular in skeptical places, where people really ought to know better. Not that the claims are new — we'll soon find out when, where and by whom they were first made.

To begin with, we're not completely sure about the (albeit very nice) relief. Is it Ishtar? Is it even authentic?
The relief is displayed in the British Museum in London, which has dated it between 1800 and 1750 BCE. It originates from southern Iraq, but the exact find-site is unknown. Apart from its distinctive iconography, the piece is noted for its high relief and relatively large size, which suggests that it was used as a cult relief, which makes it a very rare survival from the period. However, whether it represents Lilitu, Inanna/Ishtar, or Ereshkigal, is under debate. The authenticity of the object has been questioned from its first appearance in the 1930s, but opinion has generally moved in its favour over the subsequent decades.
- Wikipedia: Burney Relief

Let's see:
  • Ishtar isn't pronounced "easter".
  • There is no relation, direct or indirect, between our Easter and any known celebration of Ishtar.
  • Ishtar was an East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love and sex, but also of war.
  • Eggs were no symbol of Ishtar.
  • Eggs as a symbol of spring and rebirth is ancient and obvious. As for Easter, hens begin laying eggs during Lent when our catholic forefathers and -mothers weren't allowed to eat them, making them the food of choice when Lent was over. (Christian History: How the Fast of Lent Gave Us Easter Eggs.)
  • Bunnies were no symbol of Ishtar. There is a misconception that Ēostre, a Germanic goddess who was celebrated in the spring, had a hare as a symbol. That's just an unsupported guess that was later misrepresented as a statement of fact. However, Easter bunnies are known only since the 17th century.
  • Do people interpret eggs and bunnies as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus? Of course, you are free to choose symbols and connect them whatever way you see fit — but as for historical records, there aren't any.
  • How Emperor Constantin viewed Christianity is a historically very important subject that's been discussed a lot. He did not, however, "decide to Christianize the Empire". He decreed tolerance of the religion and was baptized just before his death (which wasn't unusual at the time).
  • I'm unsure as for how long the cult of Ishtar remained, but it was certainly gone long before Constantine's regime around 300 AD.
  • What is a holiday "actually" about? For Christians, Easter is about the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus; it is, in some way, the same holiday as Jewish Passover, which is about the liberation by God from slavery in Egypt etc. Same holiday, different motives. The connection with Ishtar is completely made up. (And even if there had been a historical connection, it wouldn't imply that our Easter actually is some pagan sex party.)
  • The word "easter" possibly comes from "the month of Ēostre"; or "east", where the sun rises; or both.
So, who came up with these ideas?

Alexander Hislop, it appears. He was a minister in The Free Church of Scotland, which was formed in 1843 when lots of people decided to leave the Church of Scotland.

Though he certainly didn't like the CoS, Hislop spent most of his venom on the Catholic Church. According to his very dubious findings it's actully a continuation of old pagan religions, from Babylonia in particular. IHS (which, despite what you might believe, is a Christogram, a short form of "Jesus") should be read Isis-Horus-Set. Lent is a pagan tradition observed by the Babyonians, the Egyptians and, mirabile dictu, the Aztecs. Hislop finds a pagan pedigree in Easter buns and oranges, traditions I'm unfamiliar with. And on it goes ...
Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.
- Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (1853, 1858)

Hislop's point is certainly not that true Christianity is pagan, only the heretic varieties. When the infamous crackpot festival of a movie Zeitgeist touted the ridiculous "facts" of Hislop, in particular regarding the equally viral and equally incorrect connections between Jesus and Horus, their point is that Christianity of all kinds is "actually" pagan.

It is beyond weird to see fans of atheist cum laude Richard Dawkins in the footsteps of the dabbling 19th century minister as well as Zeitgeist the movie.

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