Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ishtar vs. Easter vs. the truth

There has been a rather unfortunate upswing lately in sites that have names like "The Dark Truth About ____," and which try to put us all in a state of shock and dismay by informing us about the rather sketchy origins of some of our most cherished institutions and traditions.

Because, apparently, such institutions and traditions never change.  At all.  If you decide to participate in a May Day celebration next week, you are not just having a party to welcome in spring -- you are actively participating in a tradition that comes from the medieval witches' celebration of "Walpurgis Night" and are therefore you are directly guilty of paganism, devil worship, sacrificing virgins, and who knows what else.  (Actually, for the record, I like Jonathan Coulton's take on this tradition, as he describes in his song "First of May." WARNING: this is SERIOUSLY NSFW, and not for those who are easily offended.  But also funnier than hell.  You have been warned.)

It's not just religious traditions that evidently can't ever change.  Ann Coulter, that voluble purveyor of pretzel logic and ad hominems, has claimed outright that Democrats are all racists because the Democratic Party was a staunch supporter of the institution of slavery.

150 years ago.

Even worse, though, is when these claims tie a tradition to some dark origin... and then gets those origins completely wrong.

I.e., when people lie about stuff just to stir folks up.

All of this comes up because of a link that was sent to me by my pal and fellow blogger Andrew Butters, of the wonderful and entertaining Potato Chip Math.  Entitled "The Truth About Easter and the Secret Worship of the Annunaki," this site makes some rather astonishing claims.  Here, in a nutshell, is what the author says that you're doing when you celebrate Easter:

  • Actually worshiping the goddess Ishtar, who was known to Germanic tribes as "Eastre," who was the goddess of sex and fertility.
  • Revering Ishtar's grandfather Anu, who was a Babylonian god and also part of the Annunaki, who lunatics like the person who wrote this think are actual aliens who have visited the Earth in spaceships.
  • Probably going to church services where ministers wear vestments, which are representations of the god Dagon's "scaly fish suit."  (For the record, I did not make that quote up.)
  • Participating in an occult ritual (if all of the above wasn't enough).  All of the world's prevailing religions are actually run by Satanists.
  • Hinting that you'd like to sacrifice children to the Phoenician god Moloch, and would do so if you had the chance.
  • Taking part in "dark and gory rituals."
And here you probably just thought you were going to church, having Easter egg hunts, and coming home to a nice baked ham with mashed potatoes and steamed peas.


Okay.  So can we take a look at these claims, then?

First, there is no evidence that "Ishtar" and "Easter" are cognates, however they may sound a little bit alike.  Ishtar (and her Phoenician cousin, Astarte) seem to be names that have changed relatively little since their Proto-Indo-European roots.  To quote linguist Paul Collins on the subject:
The name of the goddess Eshtar (later Ishtar) occurs as elements in both Presargonic and Sargonic personal names.  It has been suggested that Eshtar derives from a form of 'Attar, a male deity know from Ugaritic and South Arabian inscriptions (Roberts, 1972: 39).  The corresponding female forms are 'Attart/'Ashtart.  The two names may have designated the planet Venus under its aspect of a male morning star ('Attar) and a female evening star ('Attart).  This would apparently account for the dual personality of Ishtar as a goddess of love (female) and of war (male).  In Mesopotamia the masculine form took over the functions of the female and a goddess developed contrary to its grammatical gender; perhaps under influence from the Sumerian Inanna who may have possessed similar attributes.
The origin of the word Easter comes from the name of a Germanic goddess of spring, Eostre, but her name has a different etymology, apparently completely unrelated to Ishtar.  The origin of the name is in the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning "shine."  (As such, the name is a cognate of the word "east.")

Okay, so maybe the Christians did adopt the bunnies and eggs and whatnot from a Germanic spring festival.  Can't see how that's a problem, really, if all of the Hoppin' Down The Bunny Trail nonsense floats your boat.  But it doesn't have anything to do with Ishtar -- and therefore neither has it any connection to Anu (and the Annunaki, who, by the way, are mythological figures, and therefore not real.  Cf. the definition of the word "mythological.").  Which means that any idea that Easter is secretly about sacrificing children to Moloch is three degrees removed from anything even resembling the truth.

And throwing in Dagon is just plain weird.  "Scaly fish suit," indeed.  I mean, all right, the pope's vestments are a little goofy-looking, if you regard them with an unbiased eye.  But I'm not seeing the "fish suit" thing.

The whole thing makes me nuts.  I mean, if you're going to dream up some ridiculous conspiracy theory, at least get the freakin' facts right.  Linguistics is not some kind of cross between free association and the Game of Telephone.

And don't claim that decent, ordinary people are actually participating in something they're not actually participating in.  You haven't scored any points in your favor by doing so, and you haven't proven anything except that you may be an asshole.

So to anyone who celebrates Easter, and who saw this floating around on the interwebz and was upset by it, you can relax.  Your festivities last Sunday were not somehow a thin veneer of good cheer over a "dark and gory ritual."  As for me, I'm waiting for next week.  The First of May sounds like more fun, all things considered.

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