Written by Austin VanKirk—
Spring is my favorite time of year. I love smelling the earth after a seasonal shower, noticing the flowers blooming into color, and seeing the trees regaining their green. After months of bareness and cold, the world starts to come alive again. In a way, it is reborn.
This is also the time of the year that we encounter the Christian holiday, Easter, probably tied for first place with Christmas as the most important Christian holiday. In this country, I imagine it to be a rarity for somebody to not be acquainted with the story of Easter. The short version is we have a (demi-) deity, Jesus, who dies and rises again to divinity, and in doing so, saves the world.
What’s interesting to note about this story is that it’s not unique. Sure the particulars—the names, places, protagonists, and antagonists—change, but the basic story is one that has been cropping up in mythology and religion since, well, always. And this is something that is pretty well spread across the world. The Norse have the god Baldr, who will return from Hel after Raganrök (the end of the world). In Hinduism there is a similar concept occurring with the god Vishnu, who has been reincarnated several times. The ancient Egyptians had Osiris, who was revived after being torn to pieces at the wishing of his sister-wife, Isis. Jarilo, a Slavic deity, was said to die every year and be reborn as a herald of spring. Greeks believed in the story of Adonis, who was resurrected by Aphrodite. There is also the Greek myth of Persephone, who returns from the underworld (she’s the wife of Hades, god of the underworld who dwells there), each year, bringing spring with her, and allowing winter to overtake the world when she returns to the land of the dead.
And then we have, in my opinion, the best of these stories. It’s also the one that is receiving attention on the Internet since Easter is rolling around. It’s the story of Ishtar, a goddess in ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, and Akkadian belief, who goes to the underworld. Some sources say it was to rescue her husband who had died. Other sources claim that she just wanted to usurp the underworld for herself, stealing it from her sister goddess. Regardless, she enters a state of death while there and everything on earth stops having sex. Oh, yeah, she’s the goddess of fertility and sex. Nobody can get it on without her say-so. The other gods immediately recognize this to be a tragedy—because what’s life without good sex?—and revive her. She returns from the underworld and people and animals are able to have babies again—just like in the spring. This story is a bit more complicated and longer than what I have recounted here, and deviates depending on which mythological slant you use—but you get the idea. Still, every year in the spring the people who believed in this story had a festival to commemorate Ishtar’s revitalization.
So, what has people riled up is the perceived similarities between Easter and Ishtar, causing some to claim that Easter is really just a Westernized version of Ishtar’s festival. The first of these is the resemblance in names. I imagine most people would say “ish-tar,” but more phonetically and perhaps culturally correct, the name would be pronounced “eesh-tar,” which kind of sounds like the way we say Easter. There have also been claims that Ishtar’s symbols have been the egg and the rabbit, modernly connected with the Christian holiday. Now, mythology is something I research for fun. I find it fascinating. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I know and have read a fair amount about many religions and mythologies (including Christianity—just to stave off the inevitable backlash). Ishtar’s symbols have been the owl, lion, and bull—nothing about eggs or bunnies. Apart from the name similarity and the whole spring=fertility=(re)birth motif, the claim is kind of thin. Further doubt is cast when we look at the word in countries with Latin-based languages; their words for “Easter” more closely resemble “Paschal,” which derives from the Hebrew word for Passover.
Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Romans (influenced by the Greeks, influenced by the Mesopotamians, i.e. Akkadians et al.), the folks who brought Christianity to the rest of Europe, didn’t somehow tie the Christian holidays and practices with the beliefs of the people they were thrusting their religion upon to make it more palpable. For instance, when the United States first became a thing, most of the people who had come here were of Germanic descent (so, we’re talking Germans and Anglicans). They of course had their religion, Christianity, and its holiday, Easter. But, what’s super interesting is that the Germanic people, before the Romans shoved the Old and New Testaments down their throats, believed in a dawn goddess whom they held feasts for in April. Scholars have named her symbols the rabbit and egg. This goddess’ name? Well, in Old English it’s Eastre. Do I have to connect the dots further?
The point is, what we believe in (Christian or otherwise) hasn’t been monolithic or kept in some historical vacuum throughout the years. Our belief systems have influences coming from all sorts of unlikely places—perhaps even ancient Mesopotamia. The overlap of the resurrection story cross-culturally serves as a reminder that although we have our beliefs, it’s quite likely that they’re just one version of the same story.
But what do I know?