Thursday, 24 March 2016

Easter and its supposed pagan links

Note. This is superseded by a two-part piece I wrote in 2018, ‘Easter and paganism’: part 1, part 2.

Oops! I suddenly remember Easter is approaching. I actually had a couple of posts ready to fire off on misconceptions about Socrates, but they’ll just have to wait. This topic takes me out of my usual stomping grounds: but we did take a look at Christmas’ supposed pagan links back in December, so it only makes sense to take a squizz at Easter too.

Plus it’s hard to resist when the red rag of misinformation is being waved in your face. This billboard has been making the rounds on social media:

Image of billboard (unknown location and date)

Some commentators have claimed that it was erected by a group of conservative Christians offended at the supposed paganisation of Easter; I haven’t been able to verify that, though it seems likely enough. But the same material crops up in New Atheist propaganda too. Here’s a sample from Richard Dawkins’ Facebook page three years ago --

Posted to ‘The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official)’ Facebook page, 28 March 2013

This is the same kind of logic as equating Jesus with the Egyptian sky god Horus because ‘son of God’ happens to sound kinda like ‘the Sun’ in Modern English. (Yes, some people do genuinely think that: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

When conservative Christians join forces with supposed rationalists in propagating such complete nonsense you have to pause and think. Sure, you can snidely remark that ‘The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’ isn’t actually interested in evidence and logic -- and by all means, please do -- but that’s just a verdict, not an explanation.

On the Christian side, the motivation is about keeping Christian festivals pure and uncontaminated by any non-Christian elements. On the New Atheist side, the agenda boils down to arguing that
Christianity, like most modern religions, is a combination of older religions. There are no real new ideas, just recycled dogma used to control those who require a supernatural belief system
(as summarised by one of the commenters on the 2013 Facebook post). Now, motivations are not things that can be factually ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: it isn’t anybody’s business to dictate how people should want a religious festival to be conducted. What we can do, though, is look at the evidence that they draw on to inspire their preferences.

Briefly: there is none. There is no evidence to suggest any link of any kind whatsoever between Easter and Ishtar. Ishtar was a god whose heyday was in 3rd-2nd millennia BCE Mesopotamia. The earliest association of Jesus’ death and resurrection with the name ‘Easter’ is in an 8th century CE text by a monk in northern England (Bede, De temporum ratione §15). Similarly, there is no basis for Dawkins’ claim that ‘eggs and bunnies’ were ever part of Ishtar’s iconography.

More fundamentally, the English name ‘Easter’ is an idiosyncratic title for the festival. Most languages name the festival after the Hebrew Passover, or Pesach: that’s the case in both ancient and modern Greek (Πάσχα), Latin (Pascha) and the Romance languages (Pâques, Pascua, Pasqua, etc.), most Germanic languages (Pasen, Påske, páskar, etc.), and many others like Albanian (Pashkë), Finnish (pääsiäinen), Irish (Cáisc), Russian (Пасха), Turkish (Paskalya), and Welsh (Pasg). Most languages in the Slavic cultural zone instead call it one of several variations on ‘Great Day’ or ‘Great Night’ (Czech Velikonoce, Lithuanian Velykos, Polish Wielkanoc, Latvian Lieldienas). And then there are a few outliers, like Serbo-Croat (Uskrs, from an Old Slavonic word for ‘resurrection’) and Hungarian (Húsvét, from hús ‘meat’, marking the breaking of fast at the end of Lent).

But ‘Easter’? We find that, or a cognate of that, in only two languages: English (Easter) and German (Ostern). It is not derived from a phonetic variant of Ishtar, as both the Christian billboard and Dawkins seem to think, but from an Indo-European root *h2eusṓs meaning ‘dawn, sunrise’. This is the same root that gives us ancient Greek ἠώς/ἕως, Latin aurora, Lithuanian aušrà, and Sanskrit uṣas (all = ‘dawn’); in German and English it also gave us Ost/east ‘east’. (And in case it needs pointing out: Ishtar started out as a Sumerian goddess, not Indo-European, and her name has no connection to this Indo-European root.)

The religious aspects of *h2eusṓs are much harder to pin down than those of Ishtar or Pascha. In several parts of the Indo-European world *h2eusṓs provided the name of a dawn goddess, such as Eos (Greek), Aurora (Roman), Aušra (Lithuanian), Ushas (Vedic), and Eostre (Saxon English). These deities probably do have a degree of commonality in their origins, but it is very difficult to gauge how far their roots extend: Ushas is important in the Vedic hymns, but the others are relatively obscure. In particular, we know basically nothing at all about the Roman Aurora (before she got conflated with Eos) or the English Eostre, other than their names.

The Greek dawn goddess, Eos, snatches the mortal object of her desire, Tithonus
Mus. Fine Arts Boston 95.28, Attic kylix, ca. 470-460 BCE
The following snippet, from the 8th century English writer Bede, is the source of everything that we know about Eostre:
...Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretetur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant; consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.
...and ‘Easter-month’, which is now understood as the Paschal month, since it had the name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and they celebrated her festival in that (month); they now give the Paschal season a nickname after her name, referring to the joys of the new solemnity with a word customary for the old observance.
-- Bede, De temporum ratione §15
That is literally all the testimony that exists about Eostre. You’ll notice that there’s nothing about ‘eggs and bunnies’ here either. And there’s nothing like the amount of information that you’ll find if you read the Wikipedia article on Eostre. The sum total of everything in the world that is known about Eostre is
  • her name
  • she was a goddess in northern England some time before Bede’s lifetime
  • she had a festival in the same month as (the Christian festival now known as) Easter
Everything else that you may ever hear about her is surmise and speculation. This includes Jacob Grimm’s derivation of Easter from ‘Ostara’: Ostara is Grimm’s conjectural reconstruction of an Old High German form corresponding to Eostre; but since there’s no evidence to put Eostre anywhere except Northumbria, it’s not a necessary conjecture.

[Addendum, 28 March: in fairness to Grimm I should add that his conjecture was motivated by the parallelism between Bede’s ‘Eostur-monath’ and the German name for April instituted by Charlemagne, ‘Ostarmanoth’, as recorded in the Vita Caroli Magni. However, Charlemagne was no pagan, and the Vita doesn’t mention any pagan goddess: ‘Ostarmanoth’ already refers to the Christian festival. The hypothetical goddess is Grimm’s doing.]

We can try to find out a bit more by comparing the paraphernalia and linguistic formulas associated with the various Indo-European dawn goddesses. But not much turns up. In the Vedic hymns Ushas once gets called ‘daughter of Dyaus’, and it’s possible that there’s a parallel in a reference to the Lithuanian sun goddess as Diēvo dukrýtė. In a few places Ushas is called ‘immortal’ (ámartiyā) or ‘ageless and immortal’ (ajárā amṛ́tā); in Greek, Eos is twice called ‘immortal’ in 5th century BCE poetry, and ‘immortal and ageless’ is a common formula in early Greek epic (ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀγήρ[α]ος, especially in the longer phrase ‘immortal and ageless for all days’, the latter part of which is a very early formula; in one place, Iliad 8.538-9, ‘immortal and ageless’ appears in close connection with a reference to sunrise; in the Catalogue of Women both formulas get used in connection with Herakles’ wife Hēbē ‘Youth’, ‘he [became] immortal and ageless and possessed lovely Youth, / daughter of Zeus’).

See further M. L. West, Indo-European poetry and myth (Oxford, 2007) pp. 217-227, but with the caveat that West’s suggestions, however learned, are still pretty insubstantial. But even though they’re largely conjectural, there’s still nothing about ‘eggs and bunnies’!

The plain fact is that we don’t have any good evidence of where the Easter Rabbit, hot cross buns, and Easter eggs come from.

The Easter Rabbit. Grimm speculated that the rabbit was sacred to his conjectural goddess ‘Ostara’. Others have since suggested something similar for Eostre. But since everything we know about Eostre is contained in two sentences by Bede, this is all just speculation. No one has any real idea where the Easter Rabbit comes from. Speculating about pagan influences is perfectly legitimate, but taking those speculations for granted would be tendentious.

[Addendum, 27 March: like the eggs discussed below, rabbits and hares are a very ancient symbol in various religious iconographies. The problem is how to link the pre-Christian iconography to the Easter iconography. J. B. Lehner, writing in the 1930-1938 edition of the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, believed the ‘Osterhase’ dated to the 18th century; C. J. Billson, writing in 1892 about the tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter, found evidence of the custom in southern and central England (Kent, Hertfordshire, Surrey, and Leicester) going back to at least 1620 and perhaps to 1574. In 1957 J. B. Bauer tried (subscription needed) to draw a line between evidence of that period and testimony from Christian symbols and writers dating back to the 3rd century, but the links look tenuous to my eye, and the earliest evidence cannot be tied to Germany/England.]

[Addendum 2, 28 March: the Rabbit appears earlier in Germany too: a 1682 essay by G. Franck von Franckenau mentions that in central Germany Easter eggs were called di Hasen-Eier (hare-eggs) from a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children. That still doesn’t antedate Billson’s English hare-hunting customs, but it shows that the Rabbit/Hare wasn’t a late import into Germany. On the other hand, the tradition that Franck von Franckenau describes is associated with other animals in other parts of Germany, notably the Osterfuchs (‘Easter fox’).]

Cross buns. It’s hard to find any reputable discussion of the history of this yummy foodstuff. The Wikipedia article is atrocious. ‘The ancient Greeks may have marked cakes with a cross’, we are told: well they may also have enjoyed standing on their heads whistling The Star-Spangled Banner, but let’s stick to evidence, shall we? By the way, the word ‘bun’ most certainly does not come from Greek boun (which is a form of the word for ‘ox’); the OED isn’t confident in the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects that it may come from Old French.

According to the OED the earliest occurrence of the term ‘cross bun’ is
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
-- attributed to a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733
The Almanack cited doesn’t seem to be extant, but it doesn’t matter, because I’ve found a still earlier reference in Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, or The antiquities of the common people (Newcastle, 1725), p. 312. Prior to that date, the only serious contender for cross buns is the ‘St Alban’s bun’, with an incised cross, reputedly invented by Thomas Rocliffe and given as alms to the poor starting in 1361. It’s hard to find documentation even for that, other than in recent news media. But I’m prepared to believe it could be true.

[Corrigendum, 30 March: the reference in Bourne’s book is actually part of an appendix written for a 1777 reprint. So the lost 1733 Poor Robin’s almanack remains the earliest known reference to cross buns.]

Anyway, as with the Easter Rabbit, the upshot is that there is no unbroken tradition of cross buns going back to antiquity. Unlike the Rabbit, even if earlier references did turn up there doesn’t seem to be any room to imagine pagan input into the tradition.

Easter eggs. The eggs are much more complicated, because egg-decorating has been a custom in many different cultures for many millennia. But there’s very little to indicate when, where, and why eggs became associated with Easter. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and Greek Orphic mystic thought, but there’s nothing to support a link. One very early Christian text cites the phoenix as an example of a natural wonder (First Clement §25, probably late 1st cent. CE); but Clement’s phoenix isn’t reborn in an egg, it instead builds a tomb for itself. Even if there is a real link there, there’s no later evidence to corroborate it. Wikipedia alleges that Easter eggs were decorated by ‘early Christians of Mesopotamia’, but provides no traceable evidence: this looks like it must be inspired by the Persian festival of Nowruz on the March equinox, since egg decoration is one of the customs associated with Nowruz, but it’s not easy to verify how far back the custom goes or whether there’s any reason to link the custom with ‘early Christians of Mesopotamia’.

The most useful treatment, it seems, is a discussion of -- you’ll love this -- mediaeval egg blessings, in Adolph Franz’s book Die kirchlichen Benediktionen im Mittelalter (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1909), vol. 1, around pp. 589-594. I haven’t been able to get access to Franz’s book -- alas! who wouldn’t want to read a discussion of mediaeval egg blessings? -- so I have to rely on a 1925 second-hand report by the Breton scholar Dom Louis Gougaud (subscription required). Gougaud’s executive summary is that Easter eggs are a much later development than either the conservative Christians or the New Atheists would have you believe:
The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
A modern egg blessing in Poland (source:

Even after the 10th century, eggs and Easter do not get associated with one another strictly. There are plenty of mentions of various kinds of food at Easter which happen to include eggs, but that isn’t compelling evidence for ‘Easter eggs’ as a thing.

But one of Gougaud’s references sticks out: a French letter dating to 1399 treats ‘Easter eggs’ as something more-or-less proverbial --
Lesquelz alerent demander leur potage, que en appelle Eufs de Pasques.
... people who would go and ask for their (allotment of) food, which is called ‘Easter eggs’.
-- reported by Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (orig. publ. 1678) s.v. ‘Ovum’
(Du Cange’s source for this snippet is ‘Lit. remiss. ann. 1399 in Reg. 154. Chartoph. reg. ch. 459’: if anyone can expand this cryptic abbreviation, please do!) This gives pretty strong support to a link in one of Gougaud’s other references, a mediaeval discussion of Easter customs at the Abbaye de Fleury, St. Benoît-sur-Loire -- regrettably undated, though Gougaud seems confident that it is earlier -- where we find mention of a custom of giving alms to a hundred poor people, which at Easter (and only at Easter) included two eggs.

So a link with Ishtar is a product of the modern imagination; Eostre is for real, but we know essentially nothing about her. Eostre probably has something to do with other Indo-European dawn goddesses but we have no evidence at all about what the parallels might be. The Easter Rabbit and Easter eggs might have some pagan origin, but there’s no actual reason to think so, and no verifiable link to any pre-Christian customs. The idea of putting designs on buns is surely not a Christian invention, but the association of hot cross buns with Good Friday surely is.

What have we missed? Oh right, the date of Easter. For that I’ll link to my older post on Christmas: the date of Christmas follows from the date of the first Easter anyway. The traditional date of the Resurrection was probably chosen to coincide with the March equinox. Even that doesn’t represent a borrowing from pagan customs, though: contrary to popular belief, ancient pagans weren’t really into solstices and equinoxes as a religious thing. The Greco-Romans, at least, tended to be interested in solstices and equinoxes for calendrical and astronomical purposes. If religious purposes came into it at all, it was very much secondary, like how some Greeks celebrated the summer solstice as the start of the calendar year. It looks very much as though calendrical and astronomical purposes are the impulse for early Christian interest in the equinox too. However, other than the reference in Malachi 4:2 to ‘the sun of righteousness’, and the likelihood that the Quartodeciman movement of the 2nd century was involved in some way, the exact nature of the theological rationale is likely to remain mysterious.


  1. Fantastic stuff! Tiny comment: Ishtar was Babylonian, the Sumerian equivalent (and inspiration) was Inanna!

    1. Yes, in hindsight it was a mistake to talk of her 'starting out as Sumerian' - I don't know the history of whether Inanna = Ishtar is a case of syncretism between Babylonian and Sumerian goddesses, or simple re-naming. I ought to have assumed the first!

      By the way I wrote a two-parter in 2018 as an update to this piece. (The 2018 piece doesn't touch on the Sumerian Inanna.)