ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice


Understanding the human experience.
Anthropology in Practice Home

Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Photo by Willow Gardeners. CC, click on image for license and information.

Eggs occupy a special status during Easter observances. They’re symbols of rebirth and renewal—life bursts forth from this otherwise plain, inanimate object that gives no hint as to what it contains. In this regard it is a handy symbol for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it is is a symbol that has held this meaning long before Christianity adopted it.

Ishtar depicted on a vase in the Louvre. Public domain.

There is a meme floating around Facebook that some people have rallied around and are sharing as a “truth” of Easter. It proclaims:

Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?) After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.

Clearly, we all know that Facebook memes are the ultimate source of information—particularly when they makes a biting point about something or some group that is not particularly favorably viewed. But it is well known that under the Roman Empire, Christianity did indeed adopt the pagan rituals of conquered peoples in an effort to help convert them. It worked pretty well as a strategy as it allowed the conquered peoples to continue a semblance of their observances as they remembered, and with time the population would be replaced with those who only knew the new traditions. This is not a secret. However, there are a few things wrong with the Ishtar meme that a simple Google search will turn up:

  • Ishtar was the goddess of love and war and sex, as well as protection, fate, childbirth, marriage, and storms—there’s some fertility in there, but as with Aphrodite, there is also an element of power. Her cult practiced sacred prostitution, where women waited at a temple and had sex with a stranger in exchange for a divine blessing (and money to feed hungry children or pay a debt).
  • Ishtar’s symbols were the the lion, the morning star, and eight or sixteen pointed stars—again, symbols of power.
  • The word Easter does not appear to be derived from Ishtar, but from the German Eostre, the goddess of the dawn—a bringer of light. English and German are in the minority of languages that use a form of the word Easter to mark the holiday. Elsewhere, the observance is framed in Latin pascha, which in turn is derived from the Hebrew pesach, meaning of or associated with Passover. Ishtar and Easter appear to be homophones: they may be pronounced similarly, but have different meanings.

Our helpful meme places the egg in Ishtar’s domain, but Ishtar doesn’t seem to be connected to eggs in any explicit way. However, there are plenty of other older traditions that involve the egg as a symbol of rebirth and feature it prominently in creation mythologies:

  • Ancient Egyptians believed in a primeval egg from which the sun god hatched. Alternatively, the sun was sometimes discussed as an egg itself, laid daily by the celestial goose, Seb, the god of the earth. The Phoenix is said to have emerged from this egg. The egg is also discussed in terms of a world egg, molded by Khnum from a lump of clay on his potter’s wheel (1).
  • Hinduism makes a connection between the content of the egg and the structure of the universe: for example, the shell represents the heavens, the white the air, and the yolk the earth. The Chandogya Upanishads describes the act of creation in terms of the breaking of an egg:

The Sun is Brahma—this is the teaching. A further explanation thereof (is as follows). In the beginning this world was merely non-being. It was existent. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay for the period of a year. It was split asunder. One of the two egg-shell parts became silver, one gold. That which was of silver is this earth. That which was of gold is the sky … Now what was born therefrom is yonder sun (1).

  • In the Zoroastrian religion, the creation myth tells of an ongoing struggle between the principles of good and evil. During a lengthy truce of several thousand years, evil hurls himself into an abyss and good lays an egg, which represents the universe with the earth suspended from the vault of the sky at the midway point between where good and evil reside. Evil pierces the egg and returns to earth, and the two forces continue their battle (2).
  • In Findland, Luonnotar, the Daughter of Nature floats on the waters of the sea, minding her own business when an eagle arrives, builds a nest on her knee, and lays several eggs. After a few days, the eggs begin to burn and Luonnotar jerks her knee away, causing the eggs to fall and break. The pieces form the world as we know it: the upper halves form the skies, the lower the earth, the yolks become the sun, and the whites become the moon (3).
  • In China, there are several legends that hold a cosmic egg at their center, including the idea that the first being or certain people were born of eggs. For example, the Palangs trace their ancestry to a Naga princess who laid three eggs, and the Chin will not kill the king crow because it laid the original Chin egg from which they emerged (3).

The Sun God, Ra with an egg-shaped disk over his head. Public domain.

These are some of the stories that build the foundation for the tradition of eggs at Easter. Contrary to the assertion of our meme, eggs and bunnies actually do have something to do with the idea of resurrection: in these early stories, the creator often emerged from the egg itself in some form:

The cosmic egg, according to the Vedic writings, has a spirit living within it which will be born, die, and be born yet again. Certain versions of the complicated Hindu mythology describe Prajapati as forming the egg and then appearing out of it himself. Brahma does likewise, and we find parallels in the ancient legends of Thoth and Ra. Egyptian pictures of Osiris, the resurrected corn god, show him returning to life once again rising up from the shell of a broken egg. The ancient legend of the Phoenix is similar. This beautiful mythical bird was said to live for hundreds of years. When its full span of life was completed it died in flames, rising again in a new form from the egg it had laid (4).

The Phoenix was adopted as a Christian symbol in the first century AD. It appears on funeral stones in early Christian art, churches, religious paintings, and stonework. The egg from which it rose has become our Easter egg. As with many symbols, the Easter egg has continued to shift. When the Lenten fast was adopted in the third and fourth centuries, observant Christians abstained from dairy products, including milk, cheese, butter, and eggs. In England, on the Saturday before Lent, it was common practice for children to go from door to door to beg for eggs—a last treat before the fast began.

Even the act of coloring eggs is tied to the idea of rebirth and resurrection. While egg decorating kits offer a vibrant means of decorating eggs today, the link between life and eggs was traditionally made by using a red coloring. Among Christians, red symbolizes the blood of Jesus. Among Macedonians, it has been a tradition to bring a red egg to Church and eat it when the priest proclaims “Christ is risen” at the Easter vigil and the Lenten fast is officially broken (5).

I love the Easter traditions at Church. The lighting of the Easter candle reminds me of my childhood Diwali celebrations and the lighting of Christmas lights as they all represent means of driving away darkness. Ishtar may well have some connection to the rites of Spring, and admittedly Easter itself is an observance of Spring, but in an age when so much wrong has been done in the name of religion, and religion is a focal point for criticism and debate, it’s worth remembering that the overlap of time and history has given us richer traditions than any of us can truly be aware of—and that memes shouldn’t be taken at face value.

 

Cited:
Newall, Venetia. (1967) “Easter Eggs,” The Journal of American Folklore Vol 80 (315): 3-32.
RE Hume, ed. (1931) The Thirteen Upanishads. London: 214-215

Notes: 1. Newall: 4 | 2. Hume: 214 | 3. Newall: 7 | 4. Newall: 14 | 5. Newall: 22

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 7 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. marieharbon 3:40 pm 03/31/2013

    Actually, there is a connection between Oestre and Ishtar. Ishtar is associated with Venus, which is often referred to as the morning star, or light-bringer with its association with Lucifer (lucis = light). Venus is the planet of love and marriage traditionally.

    There are Babylonian egg myths too featuring Ishtar being hatched, and the mystic egg falling from heaven to the Euphrates. These same myths are recycled from their Egyptian/Babylonian origins and do seem to be connected to the old pagan rites.

    The mythology of Astarte (Greek) and Ashtoreth (Jewish) seems very similar too. Everything seems to have a common origin.

    Worth looking into further.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Saadi 4:06 pm 03/31/2013

    Has anyone looked to a Persian tradition regarding colouring eggs in this regard?
    Persians colour eggs on the first day of spring.
    The Romans had already adopted the Cult of Mithras and Persian pagan elements in Christianity are legion: Worship on Sunday, the day of the Sun God, the halo which is Persian and not Greek or Jewish, monogamy & no kosher diet, rituals involving flowing robes and candles etc.
    There is also the story of three Persian Kings or Magi who could not have travelled to Jerusalem as it was too far into the territories of their Roman enemies, suggesting that the child born of a virgin in the manger was Mithras…

    Link to this
  3. 3. ValerieTarico 4:47 pm 03/31/2013

    The Facebook meme you quoted was just plain silly, but the question of a relationship between Easter and Ishtar is not. It appears that the story of Ishtar may have a stronger bearing on the Christian resurrection story than on an Anglo-Saxon goddess Easter. http://awaypoint.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/ancient-sumerian-origins-of-the-easter-story/

    Link to this
  4. 4. kenric 7:27 pm 03/31/2013

    http://realtruth.org/articles/070302-005-eiao.html

    Link to this
  5. 5. Cairenn 8:22 pm 03/31/2013

    Wrong goddess. The name Easter comes from Oestra, a Germanic goddess. There may be similarities with Istar, but those are found all through mythology. Many mythologies have a flood myth.

    They saw a hare in the moon.

    SA,please check and get your information correct.

    Link to this
  6. 6. michaeldilts 3:03 pm 04/1/2013

    “Eastre” or “Eostre” (in the Northumbrian dialect) is the Anglo-Saxon name of the Indo-European Goddess of the dawn. She was an important divinity, and her name shows up in various forms in the kindred languages: Latin “Aurora,” Greek “Eos” (Homer’s “Rosy-Fingered Dawn”), Vedic Sanskrit “Ushas,” Old High German “Ostara.” All of these names ultimately go back to a root *aus- which meant something like “shine” and was used to describe the rising sun and the direction of the sunrise. “East” in Modern English is from the same root. The newly-converted Anglo-Saxons chose to name the Christian holiday after their beloved Goddess: “Eastredaeg.” Most other Christian communities kept the name of the Jewish spring festival during which the crucifixion was supposed to have taken place. As the author points out, Ishtar was a completely different Goddess form a completely different culture and time period.

    Link to this
  7. 7. ralphellis 1:39 pm 04/25/2014

    .

    Actually, Easter and the Easter-egg came from the Egyptian Isis.

    In Egyptian Isis was called Ast or Est, from which we derive Ester or Easter (referring to a star or the heavens). And remember that Isis-Est was a fertility goddess, as much as she was the Queen of Heaven.

    And the Easter-egg came from the spelling, because Est was spelt with the easter-egg glyph. So yes, there are associations with fertility in the symbology of Est (Isis). Oh, and Ishtar (Isht-ar) came from the Egyptian Est (Isis), and not the other way around.

    http://oi58.tinypic.com/29lmwrn.jpg

    Ralph
    (See: Cleopatra to Christ)

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X