Cultural Appropriation, Ishtar, Eostre, and Easter

this post is by Aelfwynne

Cultural Appropriation is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and artreligionlanguage, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

This has been in the news a lot lately in both pagan and mainstream media. Groups ranging from fashion designers to practicing pagans have been scolded for handpicking bits and pieces from other cultures to use for things from aesthetics in fashion to neo-pagan ceremony.

(See this article from Jezebel)

In the US, this typically happens between the dominant culture and Native American culture. Native Americans then speak up and say “HEY! Give us our stuff back!” And more power to them. They have every right to do so. After having their culture nearly wiped out, I praise their efforts to safeguard their traditions and preserve their original meaning within their cultural context.

Most people aren’t fully versed in the history of the conversion of Northern Europe to Christianity. I delineate Northern from Southern because Southern Europe, being integrated into the Roman Empire and with more frequent interaction with the Middle Eastern and North African countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, has a completely different history and relationship with Christianity than does Northern Europe. My personal delineation between Northern and Southern Europe draws the line between Romance speaking and non-Romance speaking countries in the West, so I include countries often considered “Central Europe” in my definition, as well as the United Kingdom and Ireland. Granted England was under Roman rule, but for a much shorter time comparatively, and the pagan Germanic tribes took over after Rome left. So they have more in common with Scandinavia and continental Germans for our purposes here.

I can’t spare the space to give you a run down on the conversion process, but stay tuned for future blogs on that. If you aren’t well versed in it, please Google the following: The Northern Crusades, Charlemagne and Widukind or Charlemagne and the Saxons, and the Wendish Crusade. That’ll be enough to whet your whistle.

To get back to the point, much of the conversion of Northern Europe happened with armies and much bloodshed. In some cases, it led to the virtual genocide of entire ethnic groups (Google the Teutonic Knights and Prussian genocide). When these people were conquered, they were forced to give up their ancestral ways. From religion, to festivals, and folk traditions. They were oppressed by the new dominant culture; Christianity and the new systems of social control and governance. When caught practicing their ancestral ways, the penalties could be severe. Many victims of the witch hunts were, in fact, people caught practicing their traditional folk practices which were now outlawed.

Destruction of the Baltic Pagan Temples During the Northern Crusades

Destruction of the Baltic Pagan Temples During the Northern Crusades

Fast forward to today, and we find the descendants of these people making great strides in reviving their ancestral ways. Through scholarly research and archaeology  we’re piecing together the puzzle of what our own indigenous faith looked like. Personally, I think this has great potential beyond the realm of our own self identity. For the first time in recent history, so called “white people” are connecting to a tribal past. By understanding our own indigenous roots, and that we too were victims of oppression and assimilation, we can better understand issues faced by indigenous people who have gone through this more recently, or are experiencing it now.

Incidentally, there are, in fact, still indigenous groups of Caucasian people today living very close to their ancient tribal ways and facing persecution of the same kind that other indigenous people around the world are facing. But we’ll explore that in another post.

Now what does all this have to do with cultural appropriation?

Well, by now, pretty much everyone is fully aware that holidays like Christmas and Easter were originally pagan and commandeered/re-purposed by Christians. This was clear cut cultural appropriation the first time around, but it was so many hundreds of years ago that most of us don’t consider it that way. However, in the case of Easter, it seems to be happening all over again.

Again, I don’t have the time and space to give you a run down on the historical evidence for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. But before you jump in with the nauseatingly cliche comments like “there is little evidence for her,” please take a look at the rundown of the available evidence in our Facebook post, which I hope to expand and blog at some point.

The Goddess Eostre by by Jan Fibinger

The Goddess Eostre by by Jan Fibinger

 

So, we have established that there IS evidence for Eostre, and that she is the namesake of the Spring festival we know as Easter. Yet, there has been a recent movement to associate Easter with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.

Ishtar is a goddess completely removed from the the linguistic and geographic region where Eostre reigned. Ishtar is related to Astarte and Inanna, all found in the Middle East area. 

For those who don’t know much about mythology, let me explain something. There are people who attempt to force connections where there are none. This goes back to the Romans who forced connections between their own gods and the gods of the North. These connections are often tenuous at best and completely erroneous at worst. In the old pagan world, mythologies were heavily influenced by geography, climate, society, and culture. So a society in a desert climate for example will have very different mythologies than people in a fertile green area. Defined seasons with harsh winters will develop different mythologies than temperate climes where seasons aren’t as extreme. Agrarian farming societies will place higher emphasis on fertility and Earth mother goddesses, and in hunting/nomadic societies masculine sky gods will dominate. So for cultures who are removed from each other both geographically and linguistically, it doesn’t make sense to force connections between their gods. 

I could go into a breakdown of Ishtar/Astarte/Inanna and why she is very different from Eostre/Ostara, but by all means, please look at each for yourself if you don’t take my word for it. They each have very well cited Wikipedia entries. Ishtar’s entry connects her to the goddesses I’ve mentioned, but make NO connection between her and Easter. Conversely, both entries for Eostre and Easter mention the connection to the other.

Yeah, it’s Wikipedia, I know. Again, see my post on the historical evidence on Eostre for more links.

But back to cultural appropriation. The idea that we are a cultural minority may come off as laughable to some. Sure, we’re part of the Caucasian majority who has gone around oppressing all the other minorities in the world, right? Well, not so fast. We are a religious minority. And we are a people making a legitimate attempt to reclaim and revive the part of our culture that was oppressed by an invading dominating foreign culture. And as such, it is important to recognize our holidays and the deities represented by them.

Now, Ishtar probably did have a fertility festival. I am in no way denying that. But it wasn’t called Easter. If you think this is a petty splitting of hairs, then consider this. Would you approach a Hindu and say, “well I like that holiday of yours, but I prefer St. Peter as my patron. So I’m going to use your holiday but insert my patron saint and parade around telling people the holiday is in honor of him.” That would be terribly rude and offensive. Similarly, would you approach a Hindu and say, “oh Ganesh is so cool! Well I’m going to make him the center of my Christmas celebration.” The Hindu person would probably find that offensive as well and would explain that Ganesh has nothing to do with Christmas.

The Goddess Inanna by The Goddess Inanna, related to Ishtar, by pearlwhitecrow.deviantart.com

The Goddess Inanna related to Ishtar, by pearlwhitecrow.deviantart.com

So why is it acceptable, when European pagans are only now reclaiming their indigenous religions, to pluck the patron deity of a particular holiday out and insert an unrelated foreign deity from a completely different culture, in a completely different part of the world?

It’s NOT ok. Eostre has been buried for centuries. People today are still denying that she was ever worshiped. Thankfully new research is coming to light showing that she, in fact, did have a wide following through continental German speaking areas over to England. When we are finally reclaiming this goddess it is offensive to our culture to disregard her.

And, hello? It’s offensive to the culture Ishtar came from to take her out of her own cultural context and insert her into a foreign one! So please, pagans, wise up! Do your research. Stop spreading false information.

I must also assert that what’s good for the geese is good for the gander. If stealing, perverting, and twisting other people’s cultures is offensive and wrong, well I’m here to say that I’m of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon descent, I practice a form of paganism that honors my ancestral heritage, and just as anyone else would be, I’m offended when the goddess that we only recently “resurrected” from the depths of hidden history is pushed out again. And just like anyone else in this world, I am within my rights to want to protect the integrity of my ancestral culture.

** Please see the FOLLOW UP to this post **

 

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16 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation, Ishtar, Eostre, and Easter

  1. Jody Mena

    I see where you’re coming from and deeply agree on some levels. At the same time, I’m torn, because my own family’s ancestry dictates that I would be either Christian or Muslim by heritage. The insistence that cultural heritages be sacrosanct leaves me out in the cold, as one who has CHOSEN a Pagan path. Not to mention I consider myself an Eclectic Pagan, we frequently pick parts of different paths or traditions and create our own way. We intend no disrespect, to the gods or to humanity, it is just the way we worship. Is that really so offensive?

    Reply
    1. northerngrove Post author

      The point in regards to cultures, is to be true to the cultural context of whichever culture you’re representing. It’s not to say that you must only represent your own heritage. But be sensitive to the heritages of others. Don’t misappropriate other cultures with disrespect. Every culture for the post part had a spring festival. If we want to celebrate Middle Eastern spring festivals, by all means, have at it! The point is simply that in English speaking cultural heritage, EASTER derives directly from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. It is disrespectful to cut an indigenous goddess out of her own festival.

      Reply
  2. freemanpresson

    I definitely agree with this. It’s not that we have to be “pure” and pick one ancient culture to cleave to (that would be silly), but we need to not erase each other’s Gods.

    To clarify about Ishtar (one of mine), though: “Ishtar” is Akkadian for “Goddess,” as in the top Goddess, the Queen of Heaven. Most places, this was that same as the Sumerian Inanna; in some cities, it was the title of whoever their tutelary Goddess had been before the Babylonians took over (speaking of erasure).

    She is also cognate to Astarte (same Deity seen through a different cultural lens).

    It would be really weird if the name Ishtar HAD migrated that far North. Almost unthinkable (but ask me sometime what “Sheela nu-gig” means in Sumerian 🙂

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Journeying to the Goddess

  4. Rose of Sharyn

    I find comfort that there was such a widespread earth centric celebration of spring and fertility in many parts of the world and that the similarity should unite us not tear us apart. Just as there were pyramids in acient cultures that never would have crossed paths, Godesses with same atributes but different names does not lessen the universal reverence for the celebration of life.

    Reply
    1. northerngrove Post author

      You’re missing the point completely. It’s not to discredit that there was an Ishtar and she probably had her own festival, which if you had read and not skimmed the article, I clearly explained that. What you’re proposing would be as if I pranced around saying “the Vikings built the pyramids!” And then along comes someone of Egyptian descent who says “what a minute, no they didn’t! The Egyptians did!” And then there’s the likes of you saying “well, who care’s who built them, we can never really know the truth so lets all just hold hands.” The Egyptian would turn around and call bullshit and say “um, no, we know exactly who built them and your misappropriation of my culture is disrespectful.”

      Reply
  5. rain

    Thank you. I believe I understand the intent of your post and agree with the need to connect whatever people believe and practice to some degree of historical authenticity and accuracy. My only critique would be in your choice of word “Caucasian” which is geographically specific to the people of the Caucasus mountain area near the Black Sea. It is a unique culture in and of itself. I don’t believe the word can be used as a synonym for “white” people, and “white” is a social construction created to perpetuate race inequality. For more information on the Caucasus mountain cultural mythology, one could read the Nart Sagas by John Colarusso.
    Blessings.

    Reply
    1. northerngrove Post author

      Well, yes, the Caucasus have a rich culture all their own. But now we’re getting down to semantics. As “Caucasian” is pretty standard for “white people” these days. So that would be a whole other conversation in its own right.

      Reply
      1. Awena

        But “semantics” is what your post is about. Semantics means the meanings of words. You have to operationalize words before you can get everyone agreeing on what they mean so you can use them effectively. Someone goofed and thought Easter came from Ishtar… so you’re clearing that up. That’s a good thing. Someone also goofed and thought “white people” is synonymous with “Caucasians” and there’s also a lot of misuse of those words to clear up. Call ’em as you see ’em. 🙂 Rain is doing us all a shaman-like favor, and pointing out cultural constructs to us, that we take for granted as the natural order. I thank Rain for the clearer vision. 🙂

  6. Donnacha DeLong

    I’m sorry, but you’re making a common mistake as many archaeologists up until recently – they idea that ancient Europe and the Middle East were somehow made up of isolated units insulated from foreign interference. More and more discoveries point to the inaccuracy of this concept. Some of the beaker people of Stonehenge fame were born in the apps. One of the largest copper mines of the Bronze Age was in southern Ireland, yet exported across Europe. The great Middle Eastern Religions of Sumer and Babylon appear to have their roots in central Turkey, the same place the pre-Classical religion of Crete started. Celtic culture stretched from Turkey to Ireland, including parts of Germany, Switzerland as well as Spain and France, without a distict ethnic population – a purely cultural transmission. The idea that there’s some commonality between Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte/Asherah (and possibly Aphrodite) and Eostre is not beyond the realms of possibility.

    Reply
    1. northerngrove Post author

      Well first of all, I never said there were no ancient connections between cultures at all. Yes, there are ancient ties. However, there are more recent Indo-European connections between the indigenous European pagan religions and Hinduism than there are with the Middle East. There comes a point when so much time and distance has separated people that groups become individual and distinct cultures. Sure Celtic culture had a far range, nobody’s denying that. But would you say that Galacians in Portugal are identical with the Gaels of Scotland? Absolutely not! There may be similarities and shared cultural heritage, but they are distinct cultures. Eostre in Anglo-Saxon society would be so far removed from Babylonian Ishtar that it’s disrespectful to each respective culture to conflate them in such a way, and more so to say “Oh well all people are the same, all festivals are the same.” They aren’t.

      Reply
  7. EmberVoices

    Granted that Eostre is not the same as Ishtar, I’m pretty sure the connection being drawn is the linguistic proto-Indo-European root word? There are some really fascinating connections between references in India, references in the Near East, and references in Germany.

    It would be a mistake to say that there is no history connecting all these practices, but if one is drawing their practices from a certain area and era of history, it doesn’t work to randomly swap something else in, even if there is a connection threading from a different era connecting the two areas.

    What I’m wondering is if this is mostly just a product of Eclectic Wiccanate Pagans modifying the Wheel of the Year to suit the deities they’re actually called to? It wouldn’t surprise me at all of there are spring festivals on the Sumerian calendar for honoring Inanna. I can see drawing parallels of purpose and timing between that and other festivals celebrating the arrival of Spring.

    There is also value in Syncretism. But it’s important to recognize that there’s a difference between comparing, syncretizing, and equating. The latter is, especially from a Reconstructionist, hard-polytheistic perspective, most likely to be wrong.

    –Ember–

    Reply
    1. northerngrove Post author

      There certainly are Spring festivals in the Sumerian calendar, and most calendars. But I could find no Spring festivals relating to Ishtar, and this blog was written a year ago, I can’t remember if I had looked for one for Inanna. Spring festivals all around the world share similar iconography, because eggs and new life comes with Spring the world wide.

      There may be (and likely is) a distant connection to Middle Eastern deities. But, as I said, the connection is so distant, it makes little sense to connect our current holiday to it when there is a much closer connection. The Eostre connection is closer culturally, geographically, and historically in the time line. She is the direct ancestor to our modern holiday in the English speaking world, and Ostara likewise in the German speaking world.

      Reply
      1. EmberVoices

        Pretty much.

        I’m not sure I’d say there’s merely a “connection” between Eostre and Ostara, either as festivals or as goddesses. Ostara is just a linguistic morph of Eostre (I’m not a Linguist, so I can’t explain how that works, although I do have a sense of what it means). and the modern Ostara festival is directly based on the historical celebration of Eostre. So to say there’s a “connection” seems to imply that it’s something tentative.

        There’s a *connection*, at least linguistically, between the names and modes of worship across Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Germanic goddesses of the Dawn and/or Spring, with names that derive from the Indo-European root for “Star” (if I recall correctly).

        Particularly fascinating is a minority religion among the Kurds, called something like “Magi” (but I’m not sure I’m spelling it right), where they actually have a set of in-between gods who reinforce this connection, including the connection between the Eastern goddesses and Ostara – but they’re not a widely documented group, and I only know about them from having an acquaintance whose family practices that tradition. Fascinating stuff.

        And really, moderately beside your point, which I agree with – that it doesn’t really matter if you go back far enough to find a single source of which these are all branches. Unless you are worshipping in the manner of that source, which we don’t have data for.

        If you’re honoring one of the branches, honor in the manner of that branch, yes? It just makes more sense.

        If you’re developing some modern hybrid, well, okay… but be respectful of your sources when you do. Some things matter more than convenience.

        –Ember–

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