Easter Isn’t a Pagan Festival

From Christ and Pop culture. Some think Easter is really just an adopted pagan celebration. The author of this article thinks otherwise.

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You probably all knew this was coming.

After last year’s huge hit column regarding the origins of Christmas, there was no choice other than to write a follow-up that looks at how extremely un-pagan the origins of Easter are. The answer, of course is that they’re super extremely un-pagan. Like, not even a little bit pagan. Like, so un-pagan that you’ll wonder if pagans ever even exist by the time you get to the end of this.

They do, by the way. But, like, you might not think they do.

Let’s start at the beginning, though. We’ve all heard the most popular theory that gets bandied about this time of year by the usual cadre of atheists, neo-pagans, and fundamentalist Christians, the one about how the word Easter is actually derived from Ēostre, the name of an ancient pagan goddess of spring and fertility, who was associated with bunnies and eggs. (To which, no doubt, most of her congregants would respond, “What do bunnies and eggs even have to do with a fertility goddess? We’re really losing track of the true meaning of Ēostre.”) None of that is actually true, though. Or, at least, there’s close to zero evidence for it.

So, if Easter did coincide with an Anglo-Saxon feast to a goddess no one’s ever heard of—well, I mean, coincidences happen. There are only so many days in the year, you guys.

The reality is that there’s no real reason to think the goddess Ēostre was ever a thing. She gets mentioned exactly once in all of the ancient literature we have, and it’s just a passing reference in a work that otherwise has nothing to do with her.

The work, written in the eighth century A.D. by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian Christian monk, is called The Reckoning of Timeand is basically just an extended treatise on how to read a calendar (it’s as scintillating as it sounds). Bede explains several popular calendars, including the Julian calendar (which is more-or-less the one you know) and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar, which contains the month Ēosturmōnaþ (essentially equivalent to present-day April), which Bede says is named for Ēostre, who was traditionally worshiped then.

There you go, right? Actually, there are about a thousand reasons to think Bede was either mistaken or just making stuff up here. In the first place, months in the Anglo-Saxon calendar were generally named for activities associated with them (like “harvest”), not for deities—and it’s as likely as anything that Ēostre was the word for “east” or “dawn,” meaning the name of the month referred to the return of the sun after winter. Nor is Bede, a literally cloistered monk working in what’s present-day Scotland, generally recognized as an authority on Anglo-Saxon culture. And, again, if Ēostre worship ever happened, there’s no evidence left of it—no mythology, no records of worship practices or liturgies, no customs, no idols or other artifacts. Nothing. (Jacob Grimm—of “the Brothers Grimm” fame—also wrote extensively on the worship of Ēostre, but he didn’t cite a single source, and no one’s ever been able to corroborate his work.)

But hey, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ēostre worship was a real thing that actually happened. Isn’t it still kind of weird that the holiest day in Christianity—a religion whose roots are primarily Jewish, Greek, Latin, and north African—is named after an Anglo-Saxon goddess? Yeah, probably—which is why English is the only language where it’s called Easter. In every Indo-European language other than English and German (where it’s referred to as Ostern), it’s called some variation of Pesachthe Hebrew word for Passover. That makes sense, since the celebration of Easter dates back to long before the first Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity—back, as far as anyone can tell, to the earliest days of the Christian religion itself. The earliest Christians considered themselves devout Jews as well, and directly associated Jesus with the Passover lamb, who in the Exodus narrative was said to have died in place of Israel’s firstborn children (this is made explicit in John’s Gospel, which portrays Jesus as dying at the same time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered). Easter, then, was celebrated at the same time as Passover, not only because Jesus’ death and resurrection had occurred then, but also because they were regarded as the fulfillment of it.

So why do English speakers (and German speakers, sort of) call it Easter instead of Pesach? Apparently, they just named the holiday after the month it happened in, the same way a lot of Americans refer to Christmas as “the winter holiday” or Independence Day as “the Fourth of July” (no doubt, in 1,000 years or so, there will be endless conspiracy theories about how Independence Day is SECRETLY A HOLIDAY ABOUT JULIUS CAESAR). What we do know is that the earliest explicit reference to the Christian Pesach feast comes from an A.D. 150 sermon by Melito, bishop of Sardis—in which he alludes to Easter as a well-established tradition—while Anglo-Saxons didn’t start converting to Christianity until almost A.D. 600. So, if Easter did coincide with an Anglo-Saxon feast to a goddess no one’s ever heard of—well, I mean, coincidences happen. There are only so many days in the year, you guys.

Of course, there are even more out-there conspiracy theories about Easter, as well, like the idea that it’s actually a holiday dedicated to the ancient Sumerian goddess Ishtar—because, wow, Easter and Ishtar sound kind of alike! I guess. Sort of? That idea, like most ideas popular with the internet conspiracy set, can be traced directly back to nineteenth-century Christian fundamentalists—namely Alexander Hislop, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who published the 1853 pamphlet The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife, which put forward the astounding claim that Constantine, upon deciding to Christianize the Roman Empire, basically just took paganism and changed a few names to make it seem Christian—and then literally nobody noticed what he had done for a millennium and a half. Among Hislop’s claims is that—(sigh) yes—Easter is actually a holiday to Ishtar. It’s not at all clear how, or why, Constantine convinced pagan Anglo-Saxons (and nobody else) to celebrate a Christian holiday named after a Sumerian goddess who wasn’t even particularly popular in Sumeria itself at the time—but that hasn’t made the idea any less popular among Internet Skeptics™.

In short, there’s just not a lot to connect Easter to pagan goddesses beyond vague coincidences like “these two things may have happened in the same month” and “these two words kind of sound like each other.” Nor does celebrating Easter somehow make you party to the worship of goddesses that may or may not have been worshiped in the distant past, because that’s stupid—you can’t worship a goddess by accident.

So happy Easter / Pesach / Resurrection Sunday / whatever the heck you want to call it! Now go find some of those eggs you hid before they start to smell.

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