A look at the history of the holiday we call Easter reveals strange associations between the Christian faith and the seemingly unrelated practices of early pagan religions. Many Easter traditions practiced today, including colored eggs and the beloved Easter bunny, have all evolved from pagan symbols, traditions and from myths about the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.
Goddess of romance, procreation, and war, Ishtar was also worshiped as the Sumerian goddess Inanna. An account of her descent to the Underworld and subsequent resurrection is contained in one of the oldest writings ever discovered: the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish and the epic story of the Mesopotamian demigod named Gilgamesh, recorded about 2,100 BC.
The most famous of the myths of Ishtar tells of her descent into the realm of the dead to rescue her young lover, a vegetation god forced to live half the year in the Underworld. When Ishtar approached the gates of the Underworld, ruled by her twin sister, the goddess of death and infertility, she was refused admission. During Ishtar’s absence, the earth grew barren since all acts of procreation ceased while she was away. Ishtar threatened to break down the gates and release all of the dead to overwhelm the world and compete with the living for what food remained until she was allowed to enter and plead her case with her twin.
Easter is allegedly named for a Saxon goddess who was known by the names of Oestre or Eastre, and in Germany by the name of Ostara. She is a goddess of the dawn and the spring, and her name derives from words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east. The term estrogen also stems from her name. Also a fertility goddess, Ostara is said to bring an end to winter, with the days getting brighter and growing longer after the vernal equinox.
The March Hare was regarded as sacred in many ancient traditions and was associated with the moon goddesses and various deities of the hunt. Given their repute for prolific mating and reproductivity, it is understandable that the rabbit came to represent lust, sexuality, and excess in general. The Easter bunny character first appeared as a 16th-century German tradition, which said that if well-behaved children built a nest out of their caps or bonnets, they would be rewarded with colored eggs. The legend became part of our own folklore in the 18th century, when German immigrants settled in America.
In contrast, our Christian faith is founded on everything the Bible teaches about the source of life and eternal life –– on the One who conquered death through death, He who holds the keys to death and the afterlife, Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul clearly advises a young Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:6-8)
I love jelly beans and Russell Stover’s marshmallow eggs covered in milk chocolate as much as anyone, I suppose. But knowing what we know, my family and I, at the risk of being called the Easter Grinch, might hesitate just a little to say “Happy Easter.” We prefer instead to proclaim, along with the multitude of saints gone before us, “Christ is risen!” followed by an affirming, “He is risen, indeed!”