Is Easter a Pagan Celebration?

Easter Bunny and Coloured Eggs

There is a thread of radical Protestant Fundamentalism that likes to attack traditional Christian celebrations -- particularly Christmas and Easter. We see this primarily among the Jehovah's Witnesses (which aren't technically Protestant or Fundamentalist but rather a separate religion entirely more akin to Arianism). The Protestants include, but are not limited to: Quakers, Churches of Christ, Anabaptists, Congregationalists and some Presbyterians. Other Fundamentalist groups come in too. In addition, a growing number of Judaic Evangelicals (Messianic and Sabbath-keeping groups) do not celebrate Christmas and Easter, and often attack them as "Pagan in origin." While I'm not going to criticise these groups for their own religious practises, I will say their criticism of traditional Easter celebrations is out of line and poppycock. Most of the time, whenever they attempt to "reveal the true origins of Easter" the only thing they really reveal is their lack of education in the areas of history and religion.

The Goddess Ishtar
Babylonian Relief in British Museum
Here's the gist of their argument. It's really very simple, but there are subtle variations of it depending on the particular denomination attacking Easter. The main idea is that Easter is really a super-secret worship of the ancient Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Because you see, the Church of Rome (that is The Roman Catholic Church) has secretly and deviously concocted a plan to make us all unwittingly worship a Pagan goddess. You know, because that's what Rome does I guess. So according to these conspiracy theorists, the name "Easter" is how you actually pronounce the Babylonian name Ishtar, and the celebration of Easter is really (secretly) all about sex, and just uses the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as a cover. So look out! These rascally popes have actually got you worshipping a naked fertility goddess with wings and bird claws, instead of Jesus Christ, every Easter celebration, and your kids are participating in it! The conspiracy continues to point out that the symbols of Ishtar were eggs and rabbits. So once again, Easter is all about Pagan sex. Those chocolate Easter bunnies and coloured eggs are actually sex symbols, and you're kids are eating them!

Easter/Ishtar Meme
Often Circulated on Social Media
I know, it sounds so ridiculous, right? Well, that's because it is ridiculous. But you would be surprised to discover just how many Protestants (and modern Arians like the Jehovah's Witnesses for example) actually believe this stuff. They usually get quite militant about it too, using it as some kind of justification for their own religious practises, while condemning the culture around them as "Pagan." They publish long articles, with elaborate "archaeological findings" that supposedly prove their point. They've been doing it for decades. Then of course, with the advent of social media, came the Easter/Ishtar memes, consisting of a single picture of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and a brief synopsis of their hysterical conspiracy-theory typed over it. Again, I'm not going to criticise their Sabbath-keeping here, nor their Passover-keeping, nor their avoidance of Christmas and Easter in their own homes, nor any of their other religious practises. If they want to do those things, that's their business, but when they attack our Catholic practises, I'm pleased to call out rubbish for what it is.

First of all, the ancient Babylonians did not pronounce Ishtar as "Easter." That's just bunk. The name Ishtar is likely Semitic in origin, and was identified in ancient times with the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth or Astarte. All of these names were pronounced exactly as they're spelt. In fact, the English spelling of those names is based on a phonetic interpretation of the actual Semitic words. None of them were pronounced as "Easter" -- not a single one. Secondly, even if they sounded similar (which they don't) that does not mean they have the same etymological origin. For example; the English words "here" and "hear" are two completely different words that mean two completely different things. They sound the same, but their origins are completely different. The same would be true for Ishtar and Easter, if indeed they sounded the same (or similar), but in fact they don't.

The origin of the word Easter is a linguistic fluke actually. In most languages, the word for Easter is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover...

  • Bulgarian – Paskha
  • Danish – Paaske
  • Dutch – Pasen
  • Finnish – Pääsiäinen
  • French – Pâques
  • Indonesian – Paskah
  • Italian – Pasqua
  • Lower Rhine German – Paisken
  • Norwegian – Påske
  • Portuguese – Páscoa
  • Romanian – Pasti
  • Russian – Paskha
  • Scottish Gaelic – Càisg
  • Spanish – Pascua
  • Swedish – Påsk
  • Welsh – Pasg

In other languages it's referred to as follows...

  • Bulgarian - Velikden (Grand Day)
  • Polish - Wielkanoc (Grand Night)
  • Czech - Velikonoce (Grand Nights)
  • Slovak - Velká Noc (the Grand Night)
  • Serbian - Uskrs or Vaskrs (resurrection)
  • Japanese - Fukkatsu-sai (resurrection festival)

It is only in English and German that the name "Easter" is found in reference to the feast...

  • English - Easter
  • German - Ostern

There are two possibilities for this. The first, and in my opinion more likely, explanation is that the old Germanic word for the eastward direction is "eostarun" which is a reference to the rising dawn. Thus Eostarun/Ostern/Easter is likely a reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as like the rising dawn. It also could be a reference to it as an eastern feast, since Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion. To this date, the German word for east is "osten."

To play devil's advocate, I'll cite a source that almost seems to back the Pagan origin of the word "Easter." St. Bede wrote in the 8th century that he believed there was a connection between the English word "Easter" and the German word "Ostara," which was the name of a Teutonic goddess of the rising sun (no direct connection to fertility here). He surmised that because the Paschal Feast of the Resurrection happened in the same month named for this goddess, the month we call April today, Christians simply stole the name and applied it to the Feast of the Resurrection. I love St. Bede, but I think he's oversimplifying things here. As I established above, the German word for east is "osten," and the German word for Easter is "Ostern." It only stands to reason that a Teutonic goddess, named after the rising sun (which always comes from the east) would be named "Ostara." However, after playing devil's advocate, I still believe the etymological connection to the German word for east (osten) is stronger. We have to remember that English was originally called Anglish, and it was the language of the German tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) that invaded Britain in the 5th century from northern Germany. These Germans spoke Old German, a language now extinct, which evolved into Old English (Anglish), Middle English, and finally Modern English. It's extremely likely that the Old German word "eostarun" simply became the English word "eastern," which eventually led to the English word "Easter" for the Feast of the Paschal Resurrection, which came from the east, just like "Ostern" is now the German word for the same religious feast. We must remember that in ancient times, any land east of Greece was considered "the east" or "the orient." Palestine, from which Christianity originally came, was considered an eastern religion to the ancient people of western Europe.

English and German are unique, in that they both have their own common word for the Paschal Feast of the Resurrection, but that word is more likely tied to a direction than to Paganism, and it most certainly has no connection to the Semitic goddess of fertility, war, and fate -- Ishtar.

In the Easter/Ishtar meme, that frequently circulates social media, there is a reference to Constantine. Many Fundamentalist conspiracy theories centre around this particular Caesar, who legalised Christianity in AD 312 with the Edict of Milan. The conspiracy goes on to theorise that Constantine actually changed Christianity after this to make it more Pagan. Again, this shows a total lack of historical scholarship. Constantine originally sided with the Arians, not the Christians, but was eventually forced to assent to Christian Trinitarian theology after the Council of Nicea in AD 325. He himself remained religiously aloof in his personal life, until he was baptised on his deathbed. He had virtually no influence on Christian theology, but eventually found himself influence by it. Many of the so-called "doctrinal inventions" of Constantine (such as the papacy, prayer to the Saints, Purgatory, Marian devotion, etc.) can be well documented in the writings of the early Church, decades to centuries before his arrival. So no, Constantine did not introduce "Easter" to the Roman Empire. In fact, he likely never heard the word in his entire life. Constantine did not reinvent Christianity. Rather, Christianity reinvented him.

Like all good conspiracy theories, they're usually crafted with the skin of the truth, stuffed with a lie. It is true that Ishtar was a Babylonian goddess of sex and fertility. However, she was also the goddess of war, power, protection, fate, childbirth, marriage and storms. Her western counterpart was the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Roman goddess Venus. However, her symbols were not eggs and bunnies. They were rather; lions, owls, gates, and the eight-pointed star. The connection between Ishtar, eggs and bunnies, is in fact a fabrication. It's a complete myth with no basis in the archaeological record.

Now Christians have always used symbols in nature to make obvious parallels to theological truths. Eggs have always been a symbol of new life. That is of course what they literally are. Likewise rabbits, particularly little bunnies, are symbolic of spring. I live in the Ozarks of the southern Midwest United States, and every spring this place is just hopping with bunnies of all types. I mean they're everywhere, especially the little baby bunnies. Springtime has always been associated with new life in many cultures and religions. Anywhere there is lush vegetation, you're going to have a lot of rabbits in the springtime. Likewise, Christians celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ are celebrating new life as well. So it only stands to reason that the symbols of eggs and bunnies would play into that. Eggs represent new life. Rabbits (bunnies) represent springtime, which also represents new life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about new life. So there you go. These are symbolic parallels in nature that point to the supernatural resurrection. So long as Christians view these things only as symbols, there is certainly no harm in them, and there is most certainly no connection at all with Pagan fertility goddesses.

So as you can see, this whole "Easter is Pagan" conspiracy is just rubbish, put together with amateur scholarship, by people who have an anti-Catholic prejudice to begin with. So enjoy those Easter bunnies and coloured eggs, but just make sure your kids know they are merely symbols of the new life that comes from the resurrection of Jesus Christ.



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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

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