In light of the current holiday season and since this blog was midwifed by a discussion of the Easter/Ishtar connection, I thought that it would make an excellent first topic. But a lot of Easter’s celebrants are actually kind of unsure as to its specifics. When is it? What is with the eggs?
Exactly like this.
Easter has a distinction of being one of the few modern Western holidays that functions on a lunisolar basis. (Given there are a lot of holidays that use Easter as a determining date.) That is, it takes its cues from the phases of the moon as well as the dates of the seasonal solar calendar. This is because it matches up with Passover, the Jewish festival that Jesus Christ died during. This is one of the factors that all of the Christian accounts of Jesus’ ministry have in common. Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. This is why sometimes people refer to Easter as “early” or “late”; it isn’t. It’s just functioning on a mixture of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and contemporary calendars. But let’s go back to the festival that gave rise to Easter.
Passover is its own bag of fire and brimstone. As we all know, this fertility festival celebrates the continuation of the fecundity and traditions of the Jewish people. It’s one of the more uplifting narratives in the Pentateuch, where the god of the slaves of Egypt came to their aid in a trying time and led them to freedom. It commemorates that the covenant between Abraham and his God is unbroken with an eight day festival and Seder dinner as well as some of the most over-the-top acting possible by mortals.
(Paramount Pictures, 1956)
Passover is also deeply rooted in Bronze Age mythology, since the focus of its narrative relies on what is certainly an unhistorical account. The Ancient Egyptians did not keep slaves, though possibly the Hyksos occupiers of Egypt did. Exodus was composed during a period in the history of the Jewish people called the Babylonian Captivity. Because the Babylonians did keep slaves, much like the Egyptians in the story of Exodus. In fact, the people of Judea were enslaved en masse following their military defeat by the Babylonians. According to the biblical account, the Babylonians marched the entire country of Judea to Babylon with no pants on to keep them from escaping. Obviously, the Babylonians were not big on human dignity.
Taken in this historical context, the story of the “Egyptians” getting their comeuppance for enslaving the Jews is very clearly what the Jewish writers of the Pentateuch were hoping would happen to the Babylonians when God got around to it.
This captivity shaped most of the narrative of Exodus and it set up the narrative of the God of the Hebrews as a champion of the downtrodden. Exodus provides a fantastic development in humanity’s relationship to the divine. The god this story shows is not a god of the successful and powerful. It’s a revolutionary god that destroys the unjust slave-owners and brings them low. It’s not hard to see how this conception shaped a lot of early Christianity; a narrative that continued into the formation of Islam. According to Jesus, rich people can’t go to his kingdom and Mohammad ministered to slaves more than the status-quo. Exodus is also a portion of the story where this revolutionary omnipotent god kills a lot of people to make a political point. That’s fine, it’s not like any of his followers have taken that to heart and done the same.
HE SHOULD BE IN SCHOOL, DAMMIT.
I’m not saying that this tendency toward religious violence is the fault of the faithful or even the writers of Exodus. But when you live in an occupied nation (whether occupied by Fatamids, the British, or Israelis), there is a framework in the story of Exodus for what the only just outcome is. What would god do? Kill all of the occupiers until his demands are met.
There are a lot of good people that ignore the Bronze Age revolutionary theology (notably Jesus’ supposed ambivalence toward Roman occupation) that came about during the Babylonian Captivity, while still appreciating the compassion of the story. There are just way too many people that haven’t. Many books could be written about the story of the books of the Torah and their intimate connection to the historical period of their collection and recording, but this post is about what gave rise to Easter. But wait, what about this Ishtar?
Fun Fact: Telling a friend to watch this film violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Ishtar was a fertility goddess with several aspects, notably that of an underworld goddess and warrior. Variations of her tales can be seen throughout the ancient world. She just happens to be the first account we have of these stories. It is Ishtar who speaks out against the flood that destroys humanity in the pre-biblical account, it is she who commands the monstrous Bull of Heaven that the great hero Gilgamesh slays (The myths of Theseus and Mithras echo this event.), she who is tricked into descending into the underworld (Like Persephone in the Greek pantheon.), and she who rises again more powerful with dominion over life and death. (Like Christ.) At one point in the Epic of Gilgamesh, she threatens the king of the gods, Anu, with destroying the world with a zombie apocalypse and he takes the threat seriously enough to bend to her will. The story of her descent into the underworld is the basis from which the biblical Salome’s dance of seven veils originates.
What a resume.
She was associated with the planet Venus in the extremely complicated astrology of the Babylonian faith. The wandering star, she answered to none of the other gods in these early myths and had a reputation for autonomy and unpredictability.
Around the Vernal (Spring) Equinox in mesopotamian faith, like virtually every other civilization in the Northern Hemisphere, there was a fertility festival celebrating the growing season. In Babylon, it became a celebration of the ascendancy of the city hero god Marduk, who slayed the feminine serpent of chaos, Tiamat. During this festival, Marduk’s marriage to the powerful goddess Ishtar was also commemorated. This is a way of associating a fairly recent and local god with a more established and popular goddess. It also associates the death of a chaotic feminine goddess, Tiamat and the male supremacy over an independant goddess, Ishtar. The gender and power implications of this chapter of Ishtar’s mythology are staggering.
Ishtar was a popular deity that was herself probably an amalgam of several earlier city goddesses in the fertile crescent. Among them certainly is the Sumerian equivalent, Inanna. It’s quite easy to imagine how similar goddesses with disparate domains of fertility, autonomy, The large number of these deities resulted primarily from isolation. It’s not uncommon to read Bronze age accounts, like those that were edited into the Pentateuch, that treat certain cities belonging to certain gods.
And here, the weakness of our limited sources and distance in time is most important to remember. Ishtar and her component parts were worshipped by hundreds of generations of human beings. Over time, as trade expanded and empires formed in the region, they were combined and amalgamated into larger regional deities. This is a common process in polytheistic faiths, as cultures combine, trade, and unify in a world that has been steadily shrinking since the Agricultural Revolution. It’s called syncretism, or the combination of religious traditions over time. Ishtar, or Astarte as she was known to the Greeks, is the result of this process. Helenistic religion associated Astarte with fertility and warfare, breaking up her qualities into either Aphrodite, Athena, or Artemis when attempting to reconcile her worship with their own faith.
This trading of virtues, ideas, and the synthesis of new concepts among these faiths actually seems to follow a competition trajectory that would not surprise anyone whose heard of memetics. Since ideas are rather hard to measure except through their expression and the historical record is definitely an unscienfic sample, I would not go so far as to claim that sycretism is evidence of meme theory. They are consistent, however. I should note for those who haven’t heard of it that memetics is a theory of idea competition and reproduction with simple tenants but some controversial proponents. It’s an intriguing framework to treat ideas as living things that can reproduce, mutate, and go extinct, however this theory of idea competetion is sometimes taken by pseudoscience to irrational conclusions by those who don’t understand it, not unlike other scientific theories.
The Roman Empire, with its unified language and trade systems, took sycretism to its logical conclusion, combining regional deities into the gods of the official Roman faith. It’s why we find Hebrew inscriptions in niches of temples to Jupiter throughout the Empire. The God of the Hebrews was just another paternal sky god that was, from the Roman perspective, just as entitled to use Jupiter’s temples as Helenes worshipping Zues or Egyptions worshipping Osiris. This culture of syncretism and its facilitation of the spread of Romanized Christianity certainly deserves its own post at some later point. The important thing to remember is that its during this era of pan-Mediterranean syncretism that Easter was made a Christian holiday.
Five or six days after the Ides of March (Which isn’t just an auspicious day for a coup d’etat; the Ides is the name for the midpoint of every Roman solar month.) was a festival called Quinquatria. This holiday fell on the 20th or the 21st day of March, the vernal equinox for that particular year. It was sacred to Minerva, who was a goddess of warfare and the moon. Owls, night, autonomy, and fertility are all rather disparate aspects associated with Minerva, but common beliefs that echo Ishtar. However, it’s a small leap to directly correlate the two. Because if any correlation was there, it was almost entirely in the hearts of minds in believers. In any case, it was this holiday that was replaced with Easter in the late Empire as it Christianized.
Now, recently, there was an image circulated by the Richard Dawkins Foundation that found me via a muscian friend that gave rise to this article:
The text covered up her cool bird feet.
In doing the research necessary for this post, I was actually quite frustrated with how much oversimplification was necessary to make the leaps this image makes. The kind of leaps that ignore millennia of human history and some of the great evolution of human thought made before the European Enlightenment. Its main argument centers around the pronunctiation similarities. This is somewhat silly, as the languages that Ishtar’s name were written in are all quite dead. We know that the Greeks called her Astarte and roughly how to pronounce Ancient Greek, but any pronunctiation of the name of this name of this goddess as it was spoken is merely educated conjecture.
The RDF can certainly do better to advance understanding than pass along inaccurate and pithy memes. I don’t mean to attack the organization, but I hold those that purport to stand for reason and science to a higher standard than the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Venerable Bede, a Christian historian, claimed that there was another ingredient in this Easter holiday equation. Notably Eoster, a Germanic goddess of dawn and fertility. Much ink has been spilled over whether he was correct or if there even was an Eoster as he describes. Perhaps I’ll save that post for next Easter.
Something we often forget as modern observers of these ancient cultures is how much time everyone, from high priests to slaves, thought about these faiths everyday. Do you know how much space in your mind is taken up with cherished scenes and stories from films and books? Ancient popular religion held many of the same places in the hearts and minds of its followers.
People are not primitive, no matter their culture. They’re very good in the aggregate at dealing with problems in a pretty efficient manner. They are capable of observing and forming complex relationships and patterns, no matter what they set their mind to. And religions are incredibly good at making disparate concepts work very well together, in spite of their logical inconsistencies. So of course there’s only one virginal god of fertility and warfare, she just has many names. And of course she likes the spring-time and of course she likes owls and hold the keys to the gates of life and death. These all make sense because if you start invalidating pieces of this divine personage, then the entire idea of deities comes into question.
One thing is certain: By understanding the roots of these contemporary faiths and their celebration, we can shed the trappings that the people who believed these faiths once needed for survival. And when we no longer prize either ignorance or violence in the name of faith, we can cherish the rich history and excellent virtues these traditions have left us with.
All sources are available for free online as a matter of the Icarus philosophy.