Every year brings another Easter, and every Easter brings yet another deluge of myths, memery, and general skullduggery about its “true origins.” While most may believe the far-fetched claims have been debunked by now, and that the facts are good and settled, unfortunately conventional wisdom has not gotten things quite as right as it seems. Well-meaning folk are still spreading misconceptions about Easter, Ishtar, Ostara, and the pre-Christian world as a whole, to this day.
To be clear, Easter (Pascha) is a genuinely Christian holiday, the credulously widespread theory of a Germanic *Austrā (“*Ōstara”) is quite flawed, and at the same time the widely-lampooned claims about an “Ishtar” connection hold much more to them than meets the eye. Little-known facts on the matter dramatically undermine the predominant narrative, which actively bent our understanding of history towards seemingly Romanticist and nationalist tendencies.
Now, dear reader, you might be wondering what any of that has to do with Tegos Skrībbātous, a blog about ancient Celtic language and polytheism. And that, I have to say, is a great deal more than you’d expect — for a key to unravelling the mess, and getting to the “true origins of Easter,” actually lies in reading some of the foundational texts of our religion: Ancient Roman votives from Britain.
Moreover, the topic intersects with fundamental concepts of the polytheistic past, which makes our proper understanding of it highly impactful to developing Paganism in an authentic — that is, a pluralistic and anti-racist — way.
At this point probably no Pagan — or any other online person, for that matter — is unfamiliar with the meme that Easter is secretly a Pagan holiday named for the “Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar.” This has been going on for years now, with the earliest memes I could find dating back to 2012 (although I’m sure some circulated longer ago than that).
Nonetheless, a pivotal moment in the discourse’s history happened a year later, in 2013, when The Richard Dawkins Foundation shared on Facebook what is now an infamous image macro of a Babylonian relief, with a white text overlay arguing the point:
If this sounds more like what you’d expect from conspiracy theorists and tabloids than a scientific organization that ostensibly promotes Fact and Reason, you would not be unjustified, for many of these memes were simultaneously being promoted on Facebook by accounts like “Truthaholics” and “Illuminati TV.”
While undermining Christian traditions with women’s sexuality, Middle Eastern culture, and Paganism proved a potent formula for virality, their reckless disregard for factual accuracy left them wide open for a blow-by-blow takedown from the now-Internet-famous Adrian Bott (a.k.a. “Cavalorn”) on “Rational Wiki.”
Interestingly, few seem to have improved or added much upon Cavalorn’s assessment in the intervening decade since, despite the amount of discourse that is done on the subject each and every year. His article still serves as the basic template that most “debunkers” follow. It is a relatively clear, concise, and comprehensive takedown of the “Easter = Ishtar” meme — but it also introduces some crucial mistakes that get repeated by people to this day.
Cavalorn’s article is of course correct that there is a legitimately Christian holiday known as “Pascha” (or some variant thereof), which is only locally referred to as Easter, Ostern, etc. by English and German speakers.
According to the 7th Century Northumbrian monk Bede, the English name for Easter came from Old English Ēosturmōnaþ, a month named in honor of the Goddess Ēostre, Who was honored by pagans with feasts at that time of year, prior to conversion. So while the name Easter undoubtedly has a Pagan origin, the evidence points to a different one than described in the meme, and it does not fundamentally undermine the Christian nature of the holiday itself.
But not content to stick to this positive evidence for the origin of Easter’s name, Cavalorn tries to further argue against an Ishtar connection:
By Google Maps, Ishtar’s holy city of Uruk lies a phenomenal 3,500 miles from Jarrow, where Bede wrote down the name of the alleged Goddess Eostre. … Ishtar was not only 3,500 miles away from Eostre, she was about a thousand years earlier in time, too.
The reader is apparently supposed to infer from these numbers that it is inherently improbable and absurd that Old English people would know anything about an ancient Mesopotamian Goddess.
What’s striking about this logic is how it overlooks the glaring contradiction that Bede himself was a Christian monk, meaning he worshipped a God Whose origin lay nearly as far from Jarrow as Ishtar’s did! Jesus existed “about six hundred years earlier in time” than the Venerable Bede, yet no one would ever ponder that as some reason for why Jesus should not have been known to Bede, or to have played a significant role in Bede’s society the way Cavalorn implies must have been the case for Ishtar.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption that Christianity was uniquely capable of sweeping across the world, as if other Near-Eastern religious traditions weren’t.
But even a cursory glance at Roman history proves otherwise. In fact, we have direct proof that the Goddess Astarte Herself (that is ʿAṯtart, the Levantine cognate of Ishtar) was worshipped in ancient Britain:
Yes, for all the incessant hullabloo about how ridiculous one would have to be to believe that Old English people could know the Goddess “Ishtar,” everyone apparently overlooked a beautifully preserved artifact that proves Astarte’s cult had not only been established in England, but in Corbridge, even — not far from Bede’s monastery!
The inscription reads:
Ἀστ[άρ]της βωμόν μ’ ἐσορᾶς Ποῦλχέρ μ’ ἀνέθηκεν
Thou seest me, an altar of Astarte: Pulcher set me up. (Cook, 1909)
So while Cavalorn (and basically everyone else) has doubted that word of the Goddess could have reached 3,500 miles from the city of Uruk to Bede’s ears, how about 25 miles from the city of Corbridge? It hardly seems far-fetched.
Of course, this doesn’t speak to any connection between Astarte and Ēostre (we’ll get to that issue later), but it is important to hammer home the point: Mediterranean and Near-Eastern religious traditions were not only “known” in ancient Britain, they proliferated.
It should be obvious that centuries of Roman occupation of Britain established the panoply of Roman Gods there that everyone would expect, but moreover that Rome itself was never homogenous, always incorporating and syncretizing cults from all over the Mediterranean. This is why we not only find hundreds of Latin inscriptions to Roman Gods in Britain, but also some Greek inscriptions to Levantine ones (as above). There are dozens of surviving Mithraea in Britain that we know of. Multiple attestations survive of a temple to the Egyptian Goddess Isis in London. The Anatolian Goddess Cybele’s Galli priesthood seem to have been established in Britain, too (Hennig, 2008).
This notion that Barbarians of the Iron Age North had no contact with Mediterranean and Near-Eastern cults is what’s far-fetched — not the reverse! Examples of it happening are not scarce. The phenomenon was not only normal, but after Roman rule it became overwhelmingly typical, to the point that modern people’s widespread ignorance of it speaks to some sort of failure of basic history education. This systematic ignorance is probably not incidental, but perhaps stems from nationalist biases of the past, whose roots lay in 19th Century Romanticism.
Speaking of 19th Century Romanticists, what about Grimm?
In his 1835 work Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm introduced the near universally-repeated hypothesis that the Old High German and English holiday names Ôstarâ and Eástre relate to Indo-European words for ‘east’ and ‘dawn,’ thus pointing to a Goddess of Dawn.
Naturally his work did not provide a modern linguistic reconstruction to clarify the finer points of his theory, but he himself even identifies a couple key shortcomings with it:
So evidently we are dealing, at most, with the holy month and Goddess tradition of the West Germanic branch of our language family — far from being a “pan-Germanic” Goddess, as is usually touted. But wait — isn't Ēostre a cognate with many other Indo-European Dawn Goddesses? Well, not quite...
A pillar of the argument that Ēostre represents a Germanic dawn Goddess is by way of comparison with other “Indo-European Dawn Goddesses”: namely, Aurōra, Ἠώς (Ēṓs), and उषस् (Uṣás), all of which ultimately reconstruct back to Proto-Indo-European *H₂éus-ōs.
Its development into Greek and Sanskrit is self-evident, but to understand the Latin development, realize that Latin underwent what is called “s-rhotacism,” where intervocalic *s became *z, which became /r/. Evidently the feminine noun ending -a had been added to Her name in Latin, unlike the other branches. E.g.:
*H₂éus-ōs + -a > *Auzōz-a > Aurōra
That point is important so that we can quickly see how Ēostre is not quite like the others: While the *h₂éus- root could figure into Her name, it must have been modeled with a different stem like *-reh₂- rather than *-ōs-: *H₂éus-reh₂-.
This is not an insignificant point. As Pronk (2018) points out:
If there was indeed a PIE noun *h₂eus-r-, there must have been a semantic difference between it and the PIE s-stem *h₂eus-s-. It seems to me that one can indeed be reconstructed based on the languages in which either or both nouns have been preserved. The s-stem clearly denotes the deity Dawn in Vedic, Greek, and Latin. The r-stem, on the other hand, does not denote the deity but only a part of the day in Balto-Slavic and Greek and, with one exception, in Vedic. ... Lundquist sees this as an indication for the secondary nature of the r-stem, but I think that it rather points to a semantic difference between uṣár- and uṣás-.
The temporal, non-personified meaning of *h₂eus-r- might also point to the origin of the r-suffix in this word. The suffix *-(e)r- was at some point productive in words denoting a time or period, e.g. Lat. nocturnus, hībernus, Gk. νύκτωρ.
To put it simply: Ēostre’s name is not a direct cognate with the Proto-Indo-European “Dawn Goddess” theonym, which did not survive in Germanic. At best, Ēostre’s name would have to represent a later development where the literal term for ‘dawn’ was repurposed to Her as an epithet — a convoluted development that would have only occurred in isolation for West Germanic.
But even that hypothesis runs into a problem: There is no evidence that this word for ‘dawn’ survived in Germanic at all!
The only known Germanic representation of the *h₂eus- root lies in the adverbial derivation *h₂eus-tero- > *austera- which in every Germanic language means ‘east,’ not ‘dawn’ itself, and which would have to be modified ad hoc to yield *Austrōn-.
The Proto-Germanic word for ‘dawn’ is *greujan- (Kroonen, 2013), which was sometimes later replaced with other terms in the daughter languages, such as with derivatves from “morning” or “day” (e.g., English ‘dawn’ < OE. dagian < P-G *dagāną < *dagaz ‘day’ + *-āną.)
Point being, if West Germanic speakers had repurposed a literal term as an epithet or theonym of their Goddess, it’s formally hard to see how it could have contained the *h₂eus- root, which semantically could only have applied in some circuitous and archaic or poetic sense at that point.
Setting aside theoretical linguistics, Sermon (2008) raises another overlooked point:
Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface, who were likely to have been celebrating Easter by that name during the course of their missionary work. Did the eighth-century German converts simply adopt the Old English names Eastron and Eastermonað into their native language, which then appeared in Old High German orthography as Ostarun and Ostarmanoth? This explanation would seem to fit the known evidence, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.
Which comports well with the fact that the origin of the term Easter is only attested in isolation by Bede. If this had been a widespread term prior to the Anglo-Saxon missions, we would anticipate some other testimony of that fact. The Northumbrian monasteries were an influential center of literature and missionary work, so they may indeed have been the source that spread an otherwise local tradition around the English and German speaking worlds.
So at this point the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis has to answer how a cult like Ēostre’s could have developed uniquely amongst the English within the relatively short timespan that they were pagan. It’s not a very workable scenario. Yet, there is an escape available from this conundrum...
The local Northumbrian Goddess we noted from the beginning, Whose cult is securely attested, has a name that is already substantially similar to the desperately sought after yet maddeningly elusive *Austrā reconstruction: Astarte. Sermon continues:
It is theoretically possible to project forward the name Astarte to an intermediate *Astare or *Astre, which could then have appeared in Old English orthography as Eastre/Eostre. Furthermore, there is an earlier precedent for this intermediate name on the bilingual gold tablets from Pyrgi in Italy (c.500 BC), that contain dedications to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret (עשתרת) and her Etruscan counterpart Astre (ΑΣΤΡΕ) (Heurgon 1966).
Critics might argue that knowledge of a cult from the Roman period would not have survived to be transferred to the English. These altars were set up by mere peregrines and invaders whose cultures would have left Britain when they did, right?
Well, no. Roman identity persisted in “Sub-Roman Britain,” and we have a useful case study where we can demonstrate a non-native God’s memory persisting from the Roman period through to English times:
An Old English name for Hercules is Ercol, which doesn’t fit what we’d expect for an English pronunciation of His name. But the phonetics can be well-explained if Celts in antiquity had learned Hercules’ name, and continued using it in their native tongue for it to undergo the systematic British sound changes into the Medieval period (Chruszczewski, Sauer, 2002). This indigenized form, Ercol, was later transferred to English speakers.
So not only do we have proven examples of such a survival and transferrance, but perhaps now is a good time to mention the companion piece to Astarte’s altar from Corbridge — that of Herakles of Tyre (a Hellenized reference to Baʽal).
So wait — are you really telling me that some bullshit meme doing kling-klang etymologies with “Easter” and “Ishtar” (because they sound vaguely similar) was right?! Is this what passes as a valid source of information to you?
Nope! The memes aren’t the real origin of the original claim. The connection between Easter and Astarte was first made in an 1853 pamphlet called The Two Bablyons, by the Scottish bishop Alexander Hislop:
What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte ... The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain.
Note that he says “Astarte,” not “Ishtar!” We can see from this passage that Hislop probably had knowledge of the two altars from Corbridge that I mentioned above, even though he does not reference them explicitly. The altar to Herakles of Tyre (“Bel”) was documented since 1702, and Astarte’s since 1754.
So while his broader allegations have little to recommend, Hislop indeed seems to have been working off legitimate documentary evidence from not far outside his locale, rather than hallucinating these connections or playing with kling-klang etymologies.
Hislop’s relatively more informed allegations only later got distorted through a game of Telephone until it became the 21st Century “Ishtar meme” we are familiar with today.
Before ending this analysis of Ēostre, it is worth pointing out that there is more to Indo-European comparative studies than linguistics. Making comparisons of names alone would be superficial. Comparisons should also be made of traditions, though this seems little done in Ēostre’s case (perhaps for a reason).
It’s always stood out to me that Ēostre had such a major festival that its name never died — an emblem of Indo-European “Imperishable Fame.” And yet, I’ve never heard of anything that corresponds to that for the Goddesses to which She is compared (Aurora, Ēos, Ushás, etc.)
I won’t delve into Hindu traditions, which I lack familiarity with, but the poet Ovid wrote a striking verse of dialogue from Aurora that confirms my impression:
Of all that have their dwelling place upon the golden sky
The lowest (for through all the world the fewest shrines have I)
But yet a Goddess, I do come, not that thou shouldst decree
That Altars, shrines, and holy days be made to honour me.
— Metamorphoses (XIII, 332, A. Golding trans.)
In case the 16th Century verse is unclear, She is addressing Jupiter with humility, acknowledging that She has the fewest shrines of all the Gods, and that She does not demand for shrines or holy days to be made in Her honor.
Of course, comparative reconstructions never perfectly align. But if your theory depends entirely on making these comparisons, it seems a bit of a problem to have to draw a parallel between literally the most famously-worshipped God of one tradition with one of the least-worshipped of another!
If we do want to look to Roman traditions for a comparison to Ēosturmōnaþ, the obvious candidate would be Veneralia, a feast to Venus that opened the Calends of April. Of course, Venus does not bear comparison to a Dawn Goddess. On the other hand, She was freely syncretized with Aphrodite in antiquity, Who was interpreted with Astarte! (Budin, 2004)
It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where the Veneralia was celebrated in Roman Britain, but devoted via interpretatio to Astarte in this locale where Her cult had been established.
So at the end of the day, do I think Ēostre is Astarte? No, that can’t be proved. As far as the identity of the great Goddess, all we can be sure of is that Ēostre is Ēostre.
There are many people who successfully worship Her as a Goddess of dawn and spring, or who have similar success with a reconstructed cult, such as to Ôstera. And regardless of which theory one subscribes to, referring to Her as a Goddess of “The East” isn’t wrong!
On the other hand, it’s important for Pagans to understand the cosmopolitan reality of pre-Christian Britain, to dispense with nationalist notions of ethnic purity and worldviews that entrench notions of a “primacy of the Germans.”
Not only was Astarte very much worshipped in Britain, but connecting Her to Ēostre is actually a more tenable theory than the reconstructed “Germanic Dawn Goddess” is — even if we ultimately cannot find a clear answer in the historical record either way.
It’s probably necessary to mention here that there was also a continental Germanic cult to the Matronae Austriahenae, Whose root clearly harks back to the Germanic *h₂eus-tero- ‘east’ term mentioned earlier. Needless to say, the name Austriahenae would not yield the simple theonym Ostara that we are looking for, and furthermore De Bernardo Stempel (2021) convincingly argues that this is one of many instances where the Matronae’s epithet refers to the ethnonym of the dedicants rather than a theonym to a particular Goddess (i.e., these are Matron Goddesses of what she terms the “East-born” people).
So while a noteworthy cult, there’s no substantive impact from the Austriahenae regarding theories about Ēostre, except to confirm in yet another way that this root evidently only survivied in Germanic as *h₂eus-tero- ‘east.’