Monday, May 19, 2014

Ishtar ≠ Easter: Stop Getting your History from Internet Memes Richard Dawkins

The source of my annoyance today: The Richard Dawkins Foundation Facebook page.  Here’s a meme I wouldn’t mind if I never saw again.  (Thank’s Richard for exposing it to over 75,000 people and contributing to its being shared by 195,000.)

First, let’s review why this piece of puerility has zero correspondence with historical reality. Second, I have a brief sermon to those in the Hebrew Roots movement who most often spread this nonsense:

1)   Is the name Ishtar pronounced Easter?  No.  Here are the vocalizations of the goddess collected from the primary texts within the Brill Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible:

If Easter isn’t a Semitic word what is its etymology?  The answer is Proto-Germanic (if you buy Bede’s highly problematic explanation) or more likely Latin. (Sorry if that bores you.)

2) Are bunnies and eggs symbols of Ishtar?  Nope.  Her primary symbol in the iconography is Venus.  When I recently visited the Oriental Institute, I photographed this image of a lion representing the goddess from the Ishtar Gate.

The lion is one of her most commonly associated symbols from the third-millennium onwards.  The two objects in her hands in the meme are probably a symbol of a ruler and a rope—ANE icons of sovereignty.  There is also a famous Gilgamesh passage that associates her lovers with lions, steeds, a certain variegated bird, and shepherds.  I have never seen an image or text which associates her with bunnies or eggs.  Those symbols have different historical origins.  As a side note, I suppose one could argue the “grass of life” utilized to revive Ishtar’s corpse in the underworld by the fly-like kurgarru and kalaturru might be an etiological candidate for that plastic Easter grass that stops up your vacuum cleaner belt…Perhaps this could be a good thesis for Acharya S.’ next book. (Just make sure I get credit for first thinking of it.)

3) Was Easter a pagan holiday that was Christianized?  The reality is much more boring.  Easter was a development out of the Jewish Passover festival.  To be sure, pagan and secular elements were added, but these were prior additions to the existing holiday and not the origin of the holiday as Gene Vieth of Patrick Henry College mentions here.

The meme claims that Constantine (*groan* Why does Constantine always have to be the deus ex machina of every Christian conspiracy theory?) invented Easter as a Christian holiday.  This is dalse considering the Roman bishop Victor was already riling up arguments over the two diverging dates of Easter in the late 2nd century (cf. Eusebius, Church History 5.23.3).  How exactly did Constantine invent Easter if Christians were already arguing about its proper celebration date over a century before he was born?

A word to the Hebrew roots movement:

Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions?  My problem with the Hebrew roots movement is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible.  I’ll give you some examples:

John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments. (Here’s an M.A. Thesis on this); or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil.  John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind.  We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal.  The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad.


  1. The Burney relief does not likely show Ishtar. the owls and owls' feet are out of place for her. More likely Lilitu.

    1. Nope. The scholarly consensus is that it is Ishtar in her killili form. Lions are not associated with Lilitu and very often demon images do not survive as they were destroyed in rituals.

      T.Jacobsen's figurative language should clear up why it is mostly likely Ishtar for you.

  2. So how and why did the fertility symbols such as the egg and the rabbit get involved with Easter?
    also, why should Christians celebrate Easter on a specific date if it was not mentioned in the Bible?


    1. It seems Christians ought to have the freedom in Christ to celebrate the day of the resurrection if they wish regardless of its being established as a "holiday" in scripture. The early church took calculating the date of Easter very seriously and invested a tremendous amount of debate in the subject. Here's a couple academic articles on that:

      As for bunnies and eggs, as far as I'm aware their origins are unknown due to the expansive use of these symbols throughout history, especially eggs. It is very possible it stems from the "red egg" miracle tradition of Mary Magdalene in early Christian tradition. The bunny had some association with the regeneration of spring--easily connected to pagan constructs, but equally easy to sever from pagan constructs and simply take as a metaphor.

      Here's an illustration: Because we moderns use symbols of arrow-pierced hearts on Valentines this does not mean in anyway that anyone takes the Greek gods seriously anymore of that it is a form of secret worship to the gods. The metaphor is able to be retained without allegiances to their pagan religious sources.

  3. It's like you watch a bunch of William Lane Craig debates and come up with your strategy. You put the burden of proof on those arguing against you, even though your religion doesn't make sense. Like how you put the burden of proof on the post put up by the Richard Dawkins foundation, but then didn't provide proof for your own answer of the holiday's origin. You still haven't even provided evidence of Jesus being mentions by historians during the time he supposedly lived. You still haven't provided evidence that Jesus was God in the flesh. What about those miracles? Do you believe them? No "miracle" has passed the scientific test.

    Different origins for Easter are given, which makes sense because the origins of the holiday would be hard to trace. The fact is that dependable sources don't give the holiday Christian, or Jewish origins. Of course we are largely talking about semantics. It's just like how we know that American Football originates from older forms of Football, even though it is a different sport. Easter may be a different holiday from numerous spring equinox celebrations that pre date Christianity, but it still has it's roots in many of those rituals. For the most part Easter didn't originate from Passover, and Passover didn't originate from God passing over the Israelites in Egypt so he could kill Egyptian first born children.

    1. Your first source supports everything I've said here. I don't disagree with any of it. Your second is a reference to Bede who is the source of one of the possible etymologies I mentioned in this post. The remaining three I don't care to read because they are internet encyclopedias--one archon away from Yahoo answers. I also don't disagree with the bit you've said about Easter traditions having pagan roots either. I don't understand how any of this is relevant to the actual content of my post.

    2. I'm confused. Has William Lane Craig been discredited as an historian? Are his peer-reviewed writings, and those of the other sources the author mentions, somehow inferior to the un-reviewed, inch-deep writings of popular culture sites like Snopes and religionfacts? Why not cite Zeitgeist if you are determined to win an argument regardless of the reliability of your sources?

    3. Lew GR10 Atheists often focus on this supposed "lack of evidence" that Jesus existed. Despite many of the documents that witnessed his existence. The irony is the proofs that we do have are from those who criticised him. The Jewish Talmud documents his existence with reference to him "boiling in excrement" along with his "whore of a mother." If that isn't proof enough for you, I do not know what will be.

      The fact remains...that those who conquer...write the history, or re-write the history.

    4. howabout... none of you have the answer to anything and everyone is wrong including me so we can shut up and move on instead of debating the ancient symbols of meaningless lies meant to control each other in a "my religion is better than yours" kind of way, which is how most of human history has been existing for thousands of years and up to this day...

  4. The prehistoric mind,eg, Stonehenge like cultures, equated the Sun with the heat of females when in estrus. Estrus becomes "East", then Easter, where the sun rises & gets warmer in the Spring as animals start to propagate. In order for the Roman Empire to gain control over pagans their religious holidays were adapted to the new definitions brought about by Christ's advent & adoption by Rome as the state religion. Easter varies because of its need to conform to the pagan system of religious sun worship.

  5. The prehistoric mind,eg, Stonehenge like cultures, equated the Sun with the heat of females when in estrus. Estrus becomes "East", then Easter, where the sun rises & gets warmer in the Spring as animals start to propagate. In order for the Roman Empire to gain control over pagans their religious holidays were adapted to the new definitions brought about by Christ's advent & adoption by Rome as the state religion. Easter varies because of its need to conform to the pagan system of religious sun worship.


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