After posting my article about the long-standing problems with the “Easter / Ishtar” discourse, someone pointed me to Steff Scott’s book on the same subject, From Ishtar to Eostre: Reframing the Near Eastern Origins of an Anglo-Saxon Goddess (2022). I had heard of it before, but put off reading it in order to let my arguments take shape independently, and to avoid writing a response to Scott’s book. Now, however, I have read the book and am ready to review it...
Scott’s work shoots an overdue salvo against the overwhelming “conventional wisdom” that Ēostre represents a pure, Germanic inheritance of an Aryan Dawn Goddess — and that any suggestion of Near-Eastern influence is not only ridiculous, but a dangerous lie that harms the integrity of these cultural traditions, or even “appropriates” Germanic heritage.
Scott, a devotee of Inanna, had been researching the calendar of Nippur several years ago, and was struck by how it contradicted the frequent arguments that “Ishtar” had no festivals around the time of Easter. This led Scott to tumble down the rabbit hole, and ultimately conclude that the conventional wisdom was not so wise after all.
This topic is tendentious territory, and some of Scott’s colleagues understandably warned against getting into it. I think Scott deserves a lot of credit for having the temerity to try against this damaging and widespread narrative that erases the cosmopolitan and multicultural reality of the Pagan past (white-washing it with dubious, antiquated “reconstructions” that were promoted by Nazis).
But while Scott successfully refutes some core points of that narrative with substantive research and information, they unfortunately fall into predictable pitfalls that deeply undercut the book’s ability to close this case once-and-for-all.
Scott’s research into Near Eastern studies means their book covers the issue from angles that my own article did not. My personal research is in Celtic and Indo-European linguistics, which allowed me to evaluate the arguments about Germanic reconstructions instead, and whether Ēostre could plausibly represent the Astarte of Roman Britain passing into Old English. My lack of familiarity with ANE studies leaves me unable to evaluate Scott’s work in that arena.
Unfortunately, though, when Scott ventures into the arena I am capable to evaluate, they stumble into some major pitfalls that seriously undermine the book’s credibility to deal a fatal blow to their opponents’ arguments.
In the book, Scott reviews how the Phoenicians had extensive contact with Iberia, and probably even Britain, for over a thousand years, including to bring Astarte’s cult to Spain (which was home to the Celtiberians at the time). It’s a nice illustration of how extensive and far-flung multi-cultural links really were back then, including with Celts, to the contrary of what is commonly believed.
That point about Phoenecians in Britain, however, leads Scott, without warning, explanation, or citation, to make the eye-popping claim that the Isle of Britain’s name actually derives from a Phoenician term, “Baratanac,” meaning, ‘land of tin.’
I was able to trace this claim to the 17th Century theologian Samuel Bochart, whose theory was eviscerated all the way back in 1823 by Jonathan Williams, who called it one of the “many deceptions of this kind ... which [Bochart] imposed on the minds of the credulous and ignorant.”
I have to say I agree with Williams!
I find this a particularly bad misstep on Scott’s part, because the primary struggle with dismantling the flawed “Ostara” narrative is in large part a linguistic one, where people have the perception that Ēostre’s “Ishtar” connection is nothing but antiquated crankery and kling-klang etymologies. By gullibly buying into this nonsense, Scott will only make those skeptics feel vindicated. Avoiding crankery and establishing credibility in this area is vital.
But Scott’s linguistic problems don’t end there.
Scott has a tendency to dig up long-discarded theories from the distant past, like Laurence Waddell’s claims (1924) that the Newton Stone from Aberdeen is a Phoenecian votive to Ba‘al (the stone is undeciphered, but possibly Pictish), and that Ba‘al is the namesake for the Gaelic festival of ‘Beltane’ (to be fair, this etymology is actually suggested in the Medieval Sanas Chormaic, but has no real evidence to reccomend it).
Scott claims, also without evidence, that Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, was named as a “Governor of Tagus,” in reference to the Iberian river of that name. They baselessly assume this links the Iceni tribe in Norfolk to the Phoenecians, and Boudica’s devotion to the Goddess Andraste with Astarte. It’s an incredibly flimsy premise that unjustifiably leaps from one conclusion to the next on the proverbial corkboard, without even attempting to paper over the differences in form between Andraste and Astarte.
It’s important to note, prasu- would not mean “ruler” in Gaulish, while tagus (which is found all over outside of Hispania) would. So it’s incoherent to think this name could mean a “ruler of Tagus.” Prasutagus’ name is best explained by Xavier Delamarre (2006), who postulates the etymology *kʷr̥-stu-tāg-o-s ‘Chef-des-Incantations.’
While some connection between the Iceni and Iberia is not outside the realm of possibility, the evidence certainly does not “make for a convincing case” like Scott believes.
Scott redeems themselves somewhat on the linguistic front when they cite a more credible, modern scholar in Philip Shaw (2011), who raises the point that the presence of the letter R in Old English Ēostre indicates a thematic *r that wasn’t present in the precursor to English east.
Shaw refutes the notion that Ēostre was a pan-Germanic Dawn Goddess, and suggests instead that She was a local English Goddess Whose theonym derives from a people-group whose ethnonym contained the ‘east’ root, similarly to the Matronae Austriahenae on the continent. Scott takes Shaw’s localization of Ēostre to point to Astarte, Who was worshiped near Bede’s monastery, albeit without providing a linguistic argument for that possibility like I did in my article.
But Scott stumbles yet again when they reveal they don’t grasp the most basic concept of Proto-Indo-European linguistics that they need to refute: Scott characterizes the Indo-European theory as meaning Bede would have had to have some knowledge of a Goddess from 5,000 years before his time, clearly not understanding that under the Indo-European model, the Goddess would have been inherited over time, to remain native and familiar in Bede’s language.
This misunderstanding snowballs throughout the book, because it also leads to Scott’s inability to draw any link between the attested Astarte votive in Northumbria with the theonym Ēostre. Without understanding how sound changes work over time, Scott is blind to how these two forms could be related, and instead barks up the wrong tree of trying to establish some sort of link with the Akkadian form Ishtar, which is never attested in Britain. This ends up perpetuating the infamous kling-klang etymology that has so strongly inured people against any possibility of Near-Eastern influences with regards to Ēostre.
It also exhaustingly leads Scott to ramble on for dozens of pages in “Part 2” of their book, to justify linking Ishtar with Astarte so that She can be linked to Ēostre — all of which is, frankly, unnecessary and pointless when one already understands how the phonetics of Astarte could plausibly be passed into Old English.
It’s unfortunate that From Ishtar to Eostre never overcomes these basic stumbling blocks, because that means it misses a major opportunity to deal a conclusive blow against the predominant narratives.
But I do want to point out areas where the book does shine and make some valid contributions to our understanding of the topic:
In my article, I suggested that the Scottish bishop, Alexander Hislop, was the origin of the belief that Ēostre and Astarte were connected, but Scott has found three different 18th Century German texts that did the same. Clearly the historiography of this argument bears further examination.
I appreciated how Scott reviewed the history of the current discourse, such as how it was shaped early on by a totally-not-racist Heathen blog called “The Northern Grove” in 2013. Scott also traced some of the entrenched beliefs Heathens have about Ostara to the Völkisch movement of the 19th Century, including an anti-Semitic magazine that was titled with Her name: “Ostara.”
Scott also did well in reviewing the epigraphic evidence of Roman votives in Britain, which is really a lynchpin of this whole issue. While my article obviously reviewed the Corbridge altars, Scott’s book covers more terrain than just that by smartly taking altars into consideration that may have been encoded with Roman interpretatio.
Scott mentions how the idol of Astarte from Eryx had been stolen and installed on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, where Her cult was established as Venus Erycina. They also detail how Astarte’s cult was likely brought to Britain by Syrian-born Roman soldiers, particularly the Cohors I Hamiorum who had left a votive near Hadrian’s Wall to Deae Suriae (The Syrian Goddess).
At the same fort, a dedication was made to Dea Suria, also calling Her Virgo Caelestis ‘The Celestial Virgin’ (which RIB wrongly attributes as a reference to the Empress Julia Domna; Birley 2012).
Scott references yet another votive to Bona Dea, “Regina Caelestis” (Heavenly Queen) which in my opinion shows that these epithets don’t necessarily reference Astarte, but are still of relevance to the broader topic of Near Eastern cults being established in Britain.
One of the more intriguing votives mentioned is to Jupiter Aeternus Dolichenus and Caelestis Brigantia, which seemingly shows a syncretism of Syrian and British cultus. Here, the consortship and “Caelestis” epithet combine to provide a stronger link to interpretatio with Astarte, for Whom Juno Caelestis may have been a Romanization. It is also worth contemplating whether the interpretatio with Brigantia might be related to how the Goddess Brigid’s feast day is associated with the opening of Spring (albeit earlier in the year than Easter), although there are many other possibilities.
Scott goes on to list a number of other Near Eastern Gods Whose cults were attested in Roman Britain, which really drives home the point of how Britain had extensive contact with the very types of Gods that many “debunkers” deny was possible. Clearly the Goddess Ēostre was not necessarily worshiped in a “barbarian” vacuum...
While I think the book set out with an admirable goal, and that its thesis is on the right track, and that it makes some important contributions (as I just mentioned), there have been a number of shortcomings that prevent me from endorsing it overall.
While I appreciate Scott’s analysis of Ishtar, Astarte, and Inanna to explain Her prominence and importance in the ancient world, there are definitely some passages from the book that shake my confidence in Scott’s approach. For example, Chapter 3 is dedicated to the “origins” and evolution of the Goddess and religion, where Scott’s analysis starts all the way back in the Glacial Age (55 million years ago) and then talks about Neolithic Art as, “reflective of animistic belief systems and shamanic religious practice [in a time period when] the human race still saw itself as part of the animal kingdom, not outside it.”
I don’t have the space here to unpack all of how that language is antiquated, colonial, and overly speculative. But almost every word of that statement shoots up red flags. Combined with the other fringe and antiquated theories Scott freely embraces (as detailed above), it just doesn’t inspire confidence in their approach to analyzing the Near Eastern topics that I lack familiarity to evaluate myself.
Ultimately, I think this topic needs to be revisited in a more authoritative and credible way.
This issue is a genuinely important one for modern Paganism, and I was rooting for Scott throughout reading the book, since I really do agree with the general direction Scott is running in. While the book may not live up to my hopes of being a surgical demolition of tired narratives, it is at least a refreshing starter for a conversation that is desperately needed.
I still hope the book will spur a reexamination of the topic, and lead to fresh appraisals that have more scholarly precision. And I hope that my own article shows there is an informed and technical basis for refuting the Romanticist “Grimm” school of thought that currently prevails in Pagan circles.