Is Easter a pagan holiday? Is it inspired by deities such as Ishtar and Ostara/Eostre?
Around most popular holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, there’s a movement of people who claim that the holidays have origins in pagan deities or practises. This has done more harm than good, however, as I’ve seen it lead to nothing more than division and judgement towards those who want to eat some chocolate bunnies or go on an egg hunt on Easter Sunday. I recognize the intent behind these claims but they do not result in a justified judgement and there’s no solid evidence to support them. In part one I’ll begin by addressing the two claims that the word Easter is derived from pagan goddesses. In part two I’ll focus on the tradition of the Easter Bunny and its eggs.
The Word “Easter” Was Derived From the Pagan Goddess Ishtar.
Straight off the bat, there’s a problem with this claim: it isn’t the only one being made by the anti-holiday crowd. That there are two claims (the second I’ll address below) made for two different deities should give us pause. They both can’t be right. The second problem both claims have is that they assume Easter is the holiday’s original name. The name of the holiday, in the original Greek and Hebrew, is Pascha or Passover, not Easter, so the claim amounts to nothing more than an association fallacy.
But let’s get one thing straight. Ishtar was a real deity and she was in charge of fertility. This deity was worshipped around the first century B.C. in Mesopotamia and was associated with Tammuz, who was Ishtar’s lover. Easter is an English word which started to develop around A.D. 900-1200. That’s a thousand year gap between the two. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big leap to claim that the word “Easter” was derived from an obscure pagan goddess that was worshipped a thousand years before. The burden of proof lays heavily on those making this claim and I’ve yet to see anyone bear it. That it merely sounds like it could be derived from the goddess is hardly sufficient evidence to conclude that it is. Additionally, how we pronounce the name in English is different to how those in the Ancient Near East did. How do critics know those in ancient times pronounced Ishtar the same way we do?
The Word Easter Is Derived From the Pagan Goddess Ostara/Eostre.
The second claim made by the anti-holiday crowd goes a little deeper than the first one. For one thing, it seems a lot more reasonable on the surface than the Ishtar comparison. The goddess in question is a Germanic one about dawn or sunrise and there is an etymological connection between the German word for Easter and the English. The German word for “Easter” is “Ostern” and the word “East” is “Osten.” One could make the claim that the word “Easter” is derived from this but is simply about Jesus rising from the dead in the east.
The only source we have on this goddess is from a Christian historian named Bede (673 A.D. – 735 A.D.). Outside of that, there’s no evidence at all from either Christian or pagan sources that this is even a real deity, that it was ever worshipped, or that there were ever rituals associated with her. Because of this scholars are highly skeptical of the claim and believe that maybe he had simply made it up or that he had another goddess in mind but mixed up the names. What it comes to do is that we just don’t know.
If we graciously grant that there was a goddess named after the dawn, that it was a real deity, and that the word Easter was explicitly derived from it and it wasn’t a mere coincidence, it doesn’t change a lot. Christians commonly took over pagan festivals and practises. It was their way of saying that the entire world belongs to the God of Abraham and that He alone is the true God. If the Lord wants to claim something as His own He has every right to. Pagans do not have a monopoly on such things and they are the ones who have to give it up. The intention behind the practise or object is always the most important thing, not the object itself. This goes for Easter eggs as well but we’ll get to that in part two.
The bottom line is this claim is incredibly shaky. Even if we were to find that it was true it needn’t matter for as already mentioned the real name for Easter is Pascha so any associations by name are irrelevant. Still, I don’t believe the word “Easter” is explicitly derived from any pagan deities and if the anti-holiday crowd insist it’s so I found a small nugget that might trouble them. Acts 12:4 in the KJV uses the word “Easter” instead of the traditional word “Passover.” What’s more interesting is that the beloved version is the only one that uses it. It’s no coincidence that most of the anti-holiday crowd are also KJV onlyists so with this they have to abandon either one or the other. If they claim that Easter is pagan they need to admit that the KJV replaced the traditional word with a pagan one. That will surely hurt their idea of inerrancy and I’m not so certain they’ll want that.
But why do we call the holiday Easter at all? As we know Easter is held on the fourth month of each year. On the Anglo-Saxon calendar, this was called Eostremonath. A likely reason for the name is that people saw that the Passover was being held on this month and thus it started to be known as the Eostremonath celebration. This was then shortened to Easter. While the word Eostremonath was derived from a pagan deity it’s obvious that that wasn’t in the minds of those who used the name to reference Resurrection Sunday. And once again it’s always the intention that matters.
In the end, we need to put this all aside and remember the real reason we celebrate Easter: to remember the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The claims of pagan association are nothing more than vague word games and needn’t be taken seriously.