What’s in a Name? (Easter vs. Pascha)

It seems like every Paschal season, Orthodox Christians are faced with some attack on the faith, these have been varied in nature, but some gems that stick out are, for example, the popularization in 2007 of the so-called “family tomb” of Jesus. This was a tomb containing several ossuaries that purported to belong to Jesus, and various members of his family.  

In recent decades, although the idea itself can be traced back to the folklorists and antiquarians of the nineteenth century, it has become more and more popular to attack the idea that Christ, as God, rose from the dead on Pascha, but the very idea that this is a uniquely Christian festival.  

Eoster and Ostara

Through a variety of misunderstandings, and a great deal of ignorance, various groups, both neo-pagan groups as well as Protestants reacting to what they perceive as Roman Catholic error (an interesting, if rather slapdash article entitled Paganism and Easter published in 2009 is an example of this) have claimed that the celebration of Pascha is actually a pagan festival that was adopted by Christians. 

Much of the misunderstanding comes from the name we use for the celebration of the Resurrection in English, Easter.

The blog ancient-origins makes a startling claim about the potential origins for the celebration of Easter: 

“Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal. Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season.” 

The Venerable Bede, a seventh century theologian and scholar gives us one of the only testimonies about this goddess in all Anglo-Saxon literature. Her name, Eoster, and the High German version of her name “Ostara,” which was postulated by the linguist Jacob Grimm. The name of this goddess is related to the Greek goddess Eos, and the Roman goddess Aurora, related to the word for east, this is then, a goddess of the rising sun, he says: “Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.” 

The existence of this Eoster/Ostara goddess and the utilization of her name for the Christian feast day of Christ’s Resurreciton, has led to the creation of some puzzling postulated origins of Easter customs. Adolf Holtzmann, a late nineteenth century scholar, for example, postulated that the rabbit or hare must have been a sacred animal associated with Eoster (Holtzmann Deutsche Mythologie). The Easter bunny, however, is not an ancient custom, but is first recorded in the seventeenth century Germany.

In looking at what the Venerable Bede says about Eoster, we see that there is no actual connection between the two festivals:

Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes. (Venerable Bede De Mensibus Anglorum 15)

Eoster month, which we now understand to be the Paschal month, was formerly called so after a goddess of theirs Eoster, and for whom in that month a festival was celebrated, from which that month takes its name. That same name is now given to the time of Pascha, calling the joy of the new celebration with the accustomed name of the ancient observation.

The Christians did not appropriate the holiday of another religion and pass it off as their own, in the hopes of making Christianity more palatable for pagans, or something of that nature. Rather, the Christian celebration falls generally in a month that bears the name of a pagan festival. This name is later adopted for the Christian festival, that is the only connection.

Easter or Ishtar? 

Some have postulated that, rather than being connected to the Germanic goddess Eoster/Ostara, there is a connection to be made between the Christian festival and the worship of the Sumerian/Babylonian goddess Inanna/Ishtar. This connection has gained notoriety recently, in the last twenty years or so, due to a proliferation of posts on Facebook, which point out a similarity in the pronunciation of Ishtar and Easter: “After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar)…” (Quoted in Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter in The Scientific American 2013). As with the claims made with the goddess Eoster, there are a number of misconceptions about the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, which lead to apparent connections with the celebration of Easter. There are claims, for example, that she is associated with eggs and bunnies, as a fertility goddess, but these are spurious at best, as she is more normally associated with the lion, the morning star, and with the eight and sixteen pointed star (Ibid).  

The most interesting evidence of a connection between the story to Christ’s Resurrection and the goddess Inanna/Ishtar comes from an enigmatic Sumerian epic poem called the Descent of Inanna. In this poem, the goddess Inanna descends to the underworld, she then resurrects from the dead. Assuming, for the moment that the early Christians would have had any knowledge at all of this poem, which is one of the most ancient poems in human history, and would not have been in the reading repertoire of even the highly educated in the Roman empire there are, in a broad sweeping sense, parallels between the story in this Descent of Inanna and Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, both Christ and Inanna descend to the underworld and resurrect.  

This is where the parallels between the two stories end. “From the great heaven she set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven the goddess set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below. My mistress abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld. Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld” (lines 1-5 text is taken from: https://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htm). What was her purpose in this abandonment of her place in heaven, to go and visit her elder sister Ereckigal: “Because lord Gud-gal-ana, the husband of my elder sister holy Erec-ki-gala, has died; in order to have his funeral rites observed, she offers generous libations at his wake — that is the reason” (lines 85-89). There is no history of Salvation here, culminating in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, but an interaction between deities, in which one of the goddesses abandons her temples in the various Sumerian cities to visit one of her chthonic relatives.

There are some other seeming parallels between the Passion and Resurrection of Christ and the story of Inanna/Ishtar, which lead Heather McDougall in an article entitled The Pagan Roots of Easter to comment: “The Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung … on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld…” This interpretation of the poem is rather problematic, and only results from a superficial reading of the text. So, for example, Inanna/Ishtar is not hung on a stake and then descends to the underworld, rathe she descends to the underworld and cannot return, but is put to death after being systematically divested of her divine vesture and accoutrements, rather than showing a victory over death, this underscores the implacability and power of death, over which even the goddess Ishtar is unable to be victorious. The mention of the “stake” in her article is misleading as well, the word choice a clear attempt to associate her death with that of Christ on the Cross, but the text does not bear out this association: “After she had crouched down and had her clothes removed, they were carried away. Then she made her sister Erec-ki-gala rise from her throne, and instead she sat on her throne. The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook” (lines 164-172). She is not hung on a “stake,” but on a hook, a symbol of her degradation and defeat by the power of death. Even her own father, Enlil, one of the most powerful of the Sumerian/Babylonian gods, is unable to assist her: “In his rage father Enlil answered Nincubura: ‘My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. Inanna craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?’” (lines 190-194).  

Finally, Inanna is allowed to return to upper world, but she needs to offer a person to take her place in the underworld. She decides to offer her consort Dumuzid in her place: “She looked at him, it was the look of death. She spoke to him (?), it was the speech of anger. She shouted at him (?), it was the shout of heavy guilt: “How much longer? Take him away.” Holy Inana gave Dumuzid the shepherd into their hands” (lines 354-358).

There does not seem to be a way in which this story of Inanna/Ishtar would be able to serve as paradigmatically for Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Rather than showing triumph over death, Inanna/Ishtar is defeated by death, an attitude very much in line with other Sumerian/Babylonian mythologies, we see a similar frustration at the implacability of death in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example.

Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha

Behind the attempt to associate the Resurrection of Christ with pagan religion and holiday is the underlying assumption that Christ is not God, and did not rise from the dead, but that the early Christians adopted what they saw as popular beliefs around them to help spread their religion. This, as Orthodox Christians, we must deny wholeheartedly. Without Christ’s Resurrection, we have no salvation, are still “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14). 

Christ’s Resurrection is witnessed to in each Gospel. Some are quick to point out that there are discrepancies between the different Resurrection accounts, some have one angel, some two, etc… This is not the mark of fabrication, but of eyewitness. Different details remained in the minds of the apostles, different details were of importance to them, these are then recorded in the Scripture. If Christ had not Resurrected, gone to the disciples and explained to them the necessity of His death and Resurrection, they would have dispersed, found a new Messiah (there were many hundreds of Messiahs, all claiming to be able to defeat the Romans), instead they risk death themselves, and most were martyred, for Christ.

Christ truly did Resurrect from the dead, “trampling down Death by death; and upon those in the
tombs bestowing life!” (From the Paschal Apolytikion) This is why, outside of English and German, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is called Pascha, a variant on the Hebrew Pesach, the Passover festival, but this time it is not the angel of death that is passing over the people of Israel, but we who are passing from death to life. Rather than the adoption of some pagan cult into Christianity, Pascha is the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, His defeat of death, and our salvation. 


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"All of creation is a burning bush of God's energies."
Saint Gregory Palamas