Where Easter really comes from

News & Politics

We moderns sure love fairy tales. I suppose we find them comforting. There’s one we tell at this time every year, gathering around the glow of our laptops to welcome the coming of spring. Here is how it goes.

Long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a coven of wicked priests who above all else desired power. They hypnotized their people with fanciful tales: a talking snake. A shepherd king. A man who rose from the dead.

It’s true: We are so very small, so very exposed. You didn’t have to make up a new story to say that. The old story makes it vivid as can be, if you listen.

Every year, at just around this time, the people gathered for a festival to celebrate the undead man. They called it “Easter,” and it was a day of great merriment. The people sang songs and drank wine; they feasted, high and low alike. They told their children that if they were very good, they too would never die.

But they were, all of them, deceived.

For in truth the story of Easter was a clever ruse, a kind of spell cast by the wicked priests to conceal their true nature. As long as the people were distracted with this fantasy, they would keep their focus on the life “after death” and let the priests run real life on earth. To give their story the ring of truth, the priests cloaked it in shreds of older stories told by other priests in other lands.

But though the priests were clever and powerful enough to shroud the entire world in this elaborate deception, for some reason they forgot to change the names of things: “Easter” was just a slanted way of saying “Ishtar,” the name of another made-up goddess. Ishtar’s rites of fertility had once marked the start of spring, when things grow.

That is why the sons of reason were able to see through the priests’ trickery and mount a rebellion, which began about 1600 years after the priests started telling their story. Now we tell our story, the true story: There never was a talking snake or a man who rose from the dead. There never were any gods. We are alone here, we shivering apes who have learned to tell stories, and if we can’t tell true ones, then we make them up.

This bit of modern folklore resurfaces every year in the form of a meme. The most popular version comes with a picture of the Burney Relief, a terra-cotta sculpture from the Fertile Crescent showing the nude and winged figure of a woman thought to be Ishtar herself. In 2013, the meme was posted to the Facebook page of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Dawkins, the celebrity atheist, writes on the Foundation’s website that “Critical thinking is the real saviour of humankind.”

In every way, the story of Easter arising from the corpse of Ishtar is false. Historically, its details have been debunked again and again by Assyriologists who study ancient Mesopotamia — starting with the fact that “Ishtar” was almost certainly not pronounced anything like “EESH-tar,” and ending with the fact that “Easter” is an English word. It is related not to the Akkadian “Ishtar” or the Semitic “Astarte” but to Anglo-Saxon words for sunrise and the east.

Even as a fairy tale, the story is absurd on its face. The idea that the Catholic Church could engineer mass deception across Europe, replacing homegrown festivals with another one imported from the reaches of Assyria — altering it to reflect a new religion but neglecting for some reason to rename it — beggars belief. It’s almost as implausible, in fact, as the notion that Galilean fishermen could convincingly fake a resurrection.

But as a myth, which is what it is, the origin story of Easter in Ishtar reveals something. Like all myths, it expresses ideas about human nature. In it, man amounts finally to a weak and fragile animal huddled under layer upon layer of self-deception, which he wraps around himself to keep out the cold. Peel back the centuries of stargazing and legend, and you find a trembling savage, naked and confused, watching the heavy tread of the seasons and trying helplessly to impose some order on an indifferent world. That is the moral of the story.

It’s a funny thing to want to believe — to try to insist on so desperately that you weave it into a pseudo-historical puppet show and put it on every year, in hopes of convincing the gullible that what you call “critical thinking” is their “real saviour.” There are deceitful priests in this world, but most of them don’t wear cassocks and stoles.

What’s funny is that if all you wanted was to say that man is very vulnerable, or that what we celebrate at Easter was already hinted at in history and ritual from before the crucifixion, then the truth would have done just as well. In the biblical languages, and in every modern language descended from them, Easter is not called “Easter.” It’s called Pâques, or Pascha, or Pasquale — some variant of the Greek Pascha, which comes in turn from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning “Passover.” Easter does fall near the date of another spring festival, but it doesn’t start in Iran. It starts in Egypt.

“When I see the blood, I will pass over you.” Jews remember this moment in the first month of their calendar year, just after the spring equinox when the days begin finally to grow longer than the nights. They too tell a story of people huddled and afraid, ever alert, within a whisper of death. They ate with their shoes on their feet, traveling gear in hand, ready to sprint the minute they got word. And outside their houses passed the avenging angel, bone-chillingly silent, bringing slaughter.

It’s true: We are so very small, so very exposed. You didn’t have to make up a new story to say that. The old story makes it vivid as can be, if you listen: “You shall eat in haste.” Hurry. Bring only what you need. The desert ahead is dangerous. That is what the old stories take for granted, and it is still painfully obvious, even in our warmth and comfort. At any moment the dreaded day might come — the spasm of pain, the collision on the highway, the unthinkable phone call. We know this. Alas, we know.

But that is not the miracle. The miracle comes a couple of sentences later, spoken to those who have already dared to see the situation for what it is, those brave enough to stage a real rebellion. To those people, who walk through the darkness, a great light dawns: “There shall be no plague upon you to destroy you.”

It’s because we already realize how close we live to annihilation that we are in awe of our own survival: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, ten thousand at thy right hand. But it shall not come nigh thee.” Given that there could be nothing, and given that instead of nothing there is life, every breath drawn is a flicker of this one miracle. Every moment alive is a shadow cast by unseen wings.

In another room, in another land, another gathering of Jewish fugitives ate together to remember the Passover. Outside, death was waiting. Their teacher knew it would not spare him. And on the night he was betrayed, he took bread, broke it, and said: “This is my body, given for you.” The next time he ate it, he said, hunger and thirst would be over for good. A Paschal mystery.

Every year, at just around this time, men of dust come hungry and limping and full of sorrow, to hide from the shadow of death. And this is the miracle: that it shall not snuff us out. Everyone knows what kind of killing field we live in, what kind of cliff face waits for us all at the end. But we shall go over it and not die. “When I see the blood, I will pass over you.” Today is the end of winter. Today is the start of spring. Alleluia: Our passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Spencer Klavan’sSubstack.

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