Ishtar and Easter?The image at the right – which I personally did not create but which I am clarifying here because it contains a valid point – is trotted out and circulated widely at Easter time, to the delight of many thousands who gleefully pass it around on social networking. Such notables as atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins have uploaded the image, without commentary or clarification, much to the chagrin of some who wish to dissect its claims.

Critics point out that the name “Ishtar” – meaning “star” in Semitic – is not related to “Easter,” as asserted in this image. This Ishtar-Easter rebuttal is publicized in long screeds filled with snarky commentary by non-experts that are receiving thousands of views and hundreds of remarks but that are shallow and do not address the subject adequately.

Although true etymologically, the Ishtar-Easter rejoinder turns out to be a bit of a straw man argument. The word is “Eostre” in the Old English, and it has to do with “east,” but it appears also to be related to the Greek word “Eos,” which refers to the dawn and was deified as the dawn goddess:

This word Eos, Eostre, Ostara, is related to Sanskrit and Vedic usra or ushas, the Zendic ushastara and the Lithuanian Ausra, the old Teutonic austron, and the male spring or dawn deity…

Since Ishtar was also a dawn goddess, it is possible that even in antiquity she and Eos were conflated or remarked upon as having some relationship. Although the impression is given that the correspondence between Ishtar and Eostre is completely preposterous and merits an inquisition, the identification of Ishtar and Eos has been made by past scholars, such as American classicist Dr. Joseph E. Fontenrose:

The Akkadian terms haritu and shamhatu both mean prostitute and were often used as epithets of the goddess Ishtar… Fontenrose…argues that the “harlot is surely a form of Ishtar and parallels Aphrodite/Eos as well and Artemis in Greek myth.” (Donald H. Mills, The Hero and the Sea, 50)

As another example, regarding the ancient fertility goddess, in How the Easter Story Grew from Gospel to Gospel, biblical literature professor Dr. Rolland E. Wolfe includes a discussion of Ishtar:

In the polytheistic pantheons of antiquity there usually was a king or chief of the gods, and also a female counterpart who was regarded as his wife. This mother goddess was one of the most important deities in the ancient Near East. She was called by the various names of Ishtar, Athtar [sic], Astarte, Ashtoreth, Antit, and Anat. This mother goddess always was associated with human fertility. In the course of time Mary was to become identified with this ancient mother goddess, or perhaps it should be said that Mary was about to supplant her in certain Christian circles.

In the long run, while the words “Ishtar” and “Easter” may not be related, the celebration of “Easter” is assuredly a pre-Christian vernal equinox and fertility festival.

Further Reading

Is Easter Christian or Pagan?
Easter: The Resurrection of Spring
Moses, the Promised Land and Easter