Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.29.13

Happy Easter, Which is Not Named After Ishtar, Okay?

Department of Awful Facebook Memes

My unfavorite new Facebook meme is this bit of sillyness which has apparently been spotted everywhere from the feeds of my college friends to (allegedly) that of Richard Dawkins' Foundation for Reason and Science:


I immediately knew that this was a bit of nonsense for the simple reason that Easter is an English word.  The Greeks and Romans called it Pascha, which is why Easter is Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, and Paques in French.  How exactly did the name of a Canaanite fertility goddess skip all the way to England from the Middle East without stopping in Rome or Byzantium?

Belle Jar has more:

Ishtar was the goddess of love, war and sex. These days she is particularly associated with sacred prostitution* (also known as temple prostitution), which, in the religions of the Ancient Near East, took on the form of every woman having to, at some point in her life, go to the temple of Ishtar and have sex with the first stranger who offered her money. Once a woman entered the temple of Ishtar for the purpose of sacred prostitution, she was not allowed to leave until she’d done the deed. I can’t imagine that sacred prostitution sex was ever very good sex, but hey, what do I know? Probably some people were pretty into it – I mean, if you can imagine it, someone’s made porn about it, right?

Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that, yes, Ishtar was associated with fertility and sex. However, her symbols were the lion, the gate and the eight-pointed star; I can’t find any evidence of eggs or rabbits symbolically belonging to her. And Easter has nothing to do with her.

Most scholars believe that Easter gets its name from Eostre or Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess. English and German are two of the very few languages that use some variation of the word Easter (or, in German, Ostern) as a name for this holiday. Most other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover.

. . . But at its roots Easter (which is pronounced Ishtar) was all about celebrating fertility and sex.

Look. Here’s the thing. Our Western Easter traditions incorporate a lot of elements from a bunch of different religious backgrounds. You can’t really say that it’s just about resurrection, or just about spring, or just about fertility and sex. You can’t pick one thread out of a tapestry and say, “Hey, now this particular strand is what this tapestry’s really about.” It doesn’t work that way; very few things in life do.

The fact is that the Ancient Romans were smart when it came to conquering. In their pagan days, they would absorb gods and goddesses from every religion they encountered into their own pantheon; when the Roman Empire became Christian, the Roman Catholic Church continued to do the same thing, in a manner of speaking.

And do you know why that worked so well? Because adaptability is a really, really good trait to have in terms of survival of the fittest (something I wish the present-day Catholic Church would remember). Scratch the surface of just about any Christian holiday, and you’ll find pagan elements, if not a downright pagan theme, underneath.

Know what else? Most Christians know this. Or, at least, most of the Christians that I’m friends with (which is, admittedly, a fairly small sampling). They know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and they know that there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, and they know that rabbits and eggs are fertility symbols. But they don’t care, because they realize that religions evolve and change and that that’s actually a good thing, not a bad thing. The fact that many Christian saints are just re-imagined pagan gods and goddesses doesn’t alter their faith one iota; because faith isn’t about reason or sense, it’s about belief.

Look, go ahead and debate religion. Go ahead and tell Christians why what they believe is wrong. That’s totally fine and, in fact, I encourage it. A little debate and critical thinking are good for everyone. But do it intelligently. Get to know the Bible, so you actually know what you’re disagreeing with when you form an argument. Brush up on your theology so that you can explain why it’s so wrong. And have some compassion, for Christ’s sake – be polite and respectful when you enter into a debate, even when the person you’re debating with loses their cool. You want to prove that you’re better, more enlightened than Christians? Great, do it by remaining rational and level-headed in the face of someone who’s willing to stoop to personal attacks. To behave otherwise is to be just as bad as the people you’re debating.

The general rule of infographics and similar fare is that the more deliciously it skewers people you don't respect very much, the more likely it is to be a fake.  Always good to consider before you click that "share" button.