Easter: Ancient Sumerian Roots of the Resurrrection Story

Ishtar--the goddess who became the resurrected Jesus?

Ishtar–the goddess who became the resurrected Jesus?

An interview with Dr. Tony Nugent, ordained minister, scholar of world religions, and symbologist. 

Many ancient religions, including early Hebrew and European pagan traditions, evolved in part out of star worship.  Because so many traditions treated celestial events including the solstices and equinoxes as auspicious, it can be hard to tease out which holiday traditions originated where.  But even Church authorities say that our Easter holiday was named after an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess alternately known as Estre, Eostre, and Ostara.

Over time, religious traditions tend to merge and blend, which the Catholic church saw as an opportunity rather than a problem. Authorities advised early missionaries simply to retain local holidays and rituals and give them new meaning.  A letter from Pope Gregory I to St. Mellitus, credited with Christianizing England, suggested that it would be easiest to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons this way.

In pre-Christian Europe, Lent, which originally meant no more than “spring,” culminated in a day or week celebrating the emergence of new life. A festival of Eostre is associated with the vernal equinox, which landed this year on March 20. The modern Easter holiday draws on both the Anglo-Saxon tradition and the biblical crucifixion stories, which tie the resurrection to the lunar calendar, Passover and Sabbath. Easter is now set for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox. And yet, still today, we celebrate the holiday with ancient symbols of fertility: brightly colored eggs and a highly fertile, promiscuous animal, the hare or rabbit.

But the roots of Easter in goddess worship go much deeper than the name and pagan symbols associated with the holiday. The very death and resurrection story itself may be an adapted and historicized version of a more ancient tale, one that involved a dying and rising goddess. What is that story?

Dr. Tony Nugent, scholar of world religions and mythology. Dr. Nugent is a symbologist, an expert in ancient symbols. He taught at Seattle University for fifteen years in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and is a Presbyterian minister.

Easter is coming. Some people are saying that the crucifixion and resurrection narratives simply retell the cycle of seasons, the death and return of the Sun. Others say that these stories are literal histories. But you say the reality is more complicated than either of these. You argue that the Easter stories – the death and resurrection of Jesus have very specific mythic origins.

Nugent: I view the story of Christ in the Gospels of the New Testament as a powerful and spiritually wise sacred story. While the story is told as if it happened, it is a theologically and mythically constructed history. The conclusion of the story, the account of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven, has many layers. But at its core I would say it is an historicized version of a very ancient myth from Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, the land we today call Iraq.

What does that mean?

Nugent: Some stories speak to people in a deep spiritual way. These sacred stories are what are called “myths” in the field of religious studies. Despite our common usage, a myth traditionally is not just a false tale. Rather, it is a story that, at least at one point in time, had a very powerful spiritual resonance. The story of death and resurrection is one such story. In the Sumerian tradition, in which much of the Bible is rooted, the story is called, “From the Great Above to the Great Below” or  “The Descent of Inanna.”  There is also a Babylonian version of the myth, which is called “The Descent of Ishtar,” and she is known elsewhere as Astarte.

Let’s hear the story!

Nugent: The Sumerian goddess Inanna is the personification of the planet Venus the “Queen of Heaven” and a major deity in the Sumerian pantheon. A long, long time ago, before humans are even created, Inanna, takes a journey to the Underworld, a realm under the control of her sister Ereshkigal. Before heading out Inanna gives instructions to her assistant about rescuing her if she runs into trouble, which she does. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed.  “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display.

I can’t help but notice that the number seven is a sacred, just like it will be later in the Bible.

Nugent: Yes, the numbers three, seven, twelve are sacred throughout ancient Mesopotamian writings including the Hebrew Bible (seven days of creation, twelve tribes of Israel) and subsequently Christianity (three days in the tomb, twelve apostles, twelve days of Christmas).  They have their roots in universal human perceptions of the movements of the heavens (e.g. twelve signs of the zodiac).

To return to the story, the result of Inanna’s death is that the earth becomes sterile. Plants start drying up, and animals cease having sexual relations. Unless something is done all life on earth will end. After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help.  Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and resurrecting her.  She then prepares to return to the upper realm.

So Inanna is the prototype for Jesus in the Easter story?

Nugent: Not quite. She is part of the prototype. After Inanna gets out of the underworld we are introduced to her husband Dumuzi. When mythic stories get passed from one culture to the next, sometimes one character can split into two or two characters come together. In this case, the Jesus of the resurrection story blends parts of Inanna and Dimuzi.

Ok, let’s hear about Dumuzi.

Nugent: The Underworld has a number of names, including “the Great Earth” and “the Great City”, and it is also called the “Land of No Return.” If, by extraordinary chance, someone is resurrected or escapes from there, a substitute must be provided. So when Inanna returns to the upper realm she searches for a substitute. She doesn’t want to send anyone who has been missing her and mourning her down there, but she finds her husband Dumuzi on his throne and totally unconcerned about her being gone.  She decides that he will be her substitute.

He protests vigorously and is helped to escape by his brother-in-law Utu, the Sun-god. But then a compromise is agreed upon, whereby Dumuzi will spend six months of every year in the Underworld, and for the other six months his devoted sister will substitute for him. Life and fertility thus return to the earth. And that’s how the story ends.

Six months up and six down. Now I am reminded of Persephone.

Nugent: Yes, and many other dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. In Christianity one way the story changes is that it is detached from this agricultural cycle. The dying happens just once.

But this story of Inanna/Ishtar is the oldest, the prototype?

Nugent: It is one of the earliest epic myths recorded. We know this story because it has been found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dug up from the sands of Iraq by archaeologists, and because linguists have deciphered the Sumerian language and provided translations in English. This was a popular myth, and so we have multiple copies of it, or of portions of it. The earliest tablets inscribed with this story date to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, and it is thought to have been originally formulated about 2100 BC, i.e., 4200 years ago.

Lay it out for us. How do you see this being a prototype for the story of Christ’s death and resurrection?

Nugent: Let’s start with the first part of the myth. Inanna and Jesus both travel to a big city, where they are arrested by soldiers, put on trial, convicted, sentenced to death, stripped of their clothes, tortured, hung up on a stake, and die. And then, after 3 days, they are resurrected from the dead. Now there are, to be sure, a number of significant differences between the stories. For one thing, one story is about a goddess and the other is about a divine man. But this is a specific pattern, a mythic template. When you are dealing with the question of whether these things actually happened, you have to deal with the fact that there is a mythic template here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that, if there was, the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.

So what about the 2nd part of the myth?

Nugent: The 2nd part of the Inanna myth really focuses on her husband Dumuzi. Dumuzi is the prototype of the non-aggressive, non-heroic male; he cries easily; he is the opposite of the warrior-god in the ancient pantheon. The summer month which corresponds to our month of July is named after him in both the Babylonian and Hebrew calendars, and during this month each year his followers, mostly women, mourn his death. From this myth we are talking about, and from a few other references, we also know that he is resurrected. But unlike Jesus, who dies and is resurrected once, he is imagined to die and be resurrected over and over, each year. There are other major differences. However, there really are a lot of similarities between the personalities and the stories of Jesus and Dumuzi. They both are tortured and die violent deaths after being betrayed by a close friend, who accepts a bribe from his enemies. They both have a father who is a god and a mother who is human. Dumuzi’s father, the god Enki, also has many similarities to Yahweh, the father of Jesus.

Other than this gospel story, are there any other signs of Inanna’s influence on Christianity or on Easter?

Nugent: There are a few points I would mention. Inanna becomes known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. She is a personification of Venus as an evening star, and there is also a male aspect of the deity who is usually the morning star. At the end of the Book of Revelation when Christ speaks to John he says, “I am the bright morning star.” In ancient Canaan Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians got around to identifying the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. So they tore it down and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest church in the Christian world.

Also, our holiday of Easter was traditionally called ‘Pascha’, and still is in many languages, named after the Jewish festival of ‘Pesach’ or Passover. In the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon world we have, however, come to name the holiday ‘Easter’. In the pagan spiritual traditions of Germany and England during the medieval period, the goddess Easter who is a deity of rebirth became strongly associated with the season of springtime and ultimately gave her name to Christianity’s main holy day.

No rudeness intended, but how can you call yourself a Christian? Mark Driscoll, rising Evangelical star, told his Seattle congregation: “If the resurrection of Christ didn’t literally happen, there is no reason for us to be here.”

Nugent: Well, many Christian theologians see the crucifixion and resurrection as a spiritual story rather than a literal one–a story about hope beyond despair, redemption and new life.  But they are not the ones who get the media attention. I consider myself to be a Christian in a spiritual sense, not in a doctrinal sense. This means my Christianity is defined by values, spiritual practices, and faith rather than belief in a specific set of doctrinal agreements. Before the 4th Century, when orthodoxy was established, Christianity was characterized by heterodoxy — many different forms of belief.

If the resurrection of Christ didn’t literally happen, that shouldn’t have any bearing on whether life now is worth living or how we live. From my vantage point, where values and practices are the heart of Christianity, the contradiction lies in people like our recent president who think it’s ok to practice torture and yet call themselves Christians. Who would Jesus waterboard? Christ’s torture and execution remind us that we are called to put an end to such practices in human affairs. From the standpoint of my Christianity, right-wing Evangelical fundamentalism is really the opposite of what Christ was about. Those who subscribe to an intolerant, arrogant, inhumane form of Christianity are following a religion that is literally antichrist.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Subscribe at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com

More from Dr. Tony Nugent:
Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story 
Was Jesus Married?  A Religion Scholar Decodes the Clues
The Same God? Twelve Beliefs the Mormon Church Might Not Want You to Know About

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Easter: Ancient Sumerian Roots of the Resurrrection Story

  1. Jim says:

    I am not sure that I understand his reply regarding his belief or lack thereof. Does he believe in a single god as the creator of everything or is he saying that christianity is really about a moral and ethical structure?

    Very interesting article thanks for the post.


  2. mikespeir says:

    We’ve lost sight of these tales in this day and age, so we can no longer see the relation. Two thousand years ago they were part of the air people breathed. It was inevitable that Christian (and other) beliefs evolved from them, and probably largely inadvertently.


  3. Priya says:

    good article..but would like to highlight 2 things
    1.how ever the resurrection of christ happened only once because its the FINISHED work of god that is only once…
    2. the reference to morning star n venus… isnt venus an evening star – so how can the correlation of ishtar n jesus be drawn here?
    irrespective its a new dimension to read n absorb.. thanks much


    • Good questions. I don’t know how a scholar would respond to Question 1. Here is a partial answer to Question 2 (from Wikipedia): The Ancient Egyptians believed Venus to be two separate bodies and knew the morning star as Tioumoutiri and the evening star as Ouaiti.[138] Likewise, believing Venus to be two bodies, the Ancient Greeks called the morning star Φωσφόρος, Phosphoros (Latinized Phosphorus), the “Bringer of Light” or Ἐωσφόρος, Eosphoros (Latinized Eosphorus), the “Bringer of Dawn”. The evening star they called Hesperos (Latinized Hesperus) (Ἓσπερος, the “star of the evening”). By Hellenistic times, the ancient Greeks realized the two were the same planet,[139][140] which they named after their goddess of love, Aphrodite (Αφροδίτη)(Phoenician Astarte),[141] a planetary name that is retained in modern Greek.[142] Hesperos would be translated into Latin as Vesper and Phosphoros as Lucifer (“Light Bearer”), a poetic term later used to refer to the fallen angel cast out of heaven.[b] The Romans, who derived much of their religious pantheon from the Greek tradition, named the planet Venus after their goddess of love.[143] Pliny the Elder (Natural History, ii,37) identified the planet Venus with Isis.[144]


    • mriana says:

      There is also the explanation that Jesus symbolizes sun on the Southern Cross, or Crux that sits just below the Southern hemisphere for three days, rising again (or around December, Winter Solstice, born) around the Spring Equinox. I forget how the evening star plays in that explanation, but Acharya S explains it well in her books, with very well documented sources for readers to refer to, if they want to check on her sources.


    • Jeff Jones says:

      Venus is both the morning and evening star. You can see it just before dawn in the morning and just before dusk in the evening


  4. mriana says:

    I think if we look closely we can see the similarities between previous mythical stories and the Christ myth and I agree, the dying and rising god stories were/are a template for the Christ myth. The more I studied the other myths, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, I saw the solar mythology in the Christ story. It all started to make sense, but only in the realm of solar mythology. The Egyptian Book of the Dead has many astounding verse that read very much like those found in the Bible. If you take the stories in the Bible literally, they make no sense at all, but if placed into the realm of solar mythology, relating to the seasons, the rising and setting sun, etc. it all starts to fall into place.

    However, I must disagree with Nugent on the story not being circular, esp if the 4 Gospels are to represent the four seasons or the four corners of the earth or four pillars. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the congregation response with “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”, suggesting it all repeats itself, and the jest of this is noted in the Bible. This cycle of seasonal dying and rising is represented in the Church calendar, in which you even noted (Valerie) concerning how Easter falls every year, but it goes beyond just Easter. The Church incorporated many Pagan holidays and claimed them as theirs. IMHO, it is the Fundamngelicals who strive hard, if not desperately, to remove any idea that the story is related to the seasons or even agriculture, but if you look in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or the Lutheran Book of Worship, or even the Catholic worship book, one can see this seasonal relationship, but seeing the solar mythology might be a little harder. The LBW and the EBCP both explain how Easter is dated every year, which should give one a clue that even the Crucifixion is related to the older solar mythologies, suggesting that Jesus is yet another sun god who conquers the underworld, and encourage them to dig deeper, instead of taking the stories literally or at face value.

    Learning these things and placing Biblical stories in the realm of solar mythology, makes them more interesting. Removing any thought that the Biblical stories are mythical stories related to the sun, the seasons, etc, makes the stories less interesting and more horrific, if not even barbaric. Making Jesus/Horus/Osiris/Ishtar/Inanna/etc a symbol for the sun, who concurred the underworld/hades/hell/death, during the dead of winter or the long night, bringing back new life to the earth as the sun resurrects again (even symbolically), makes for a rather exciting story related to spring. For me, it all began when an Episcopal priest told me that the stories in the Bible are just stories and cannot be taken literally. After that it was a matter of exploring and researching, before it hit me that the Bible stories are just more of the same mythology, just told slightly differently.


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  6. A reader elsewhere asked whether this article was simply and outdated universalist approach to comparative mythology from the early 20th Century a la Fraser. Here is Dr. Nugent’s reply (and the original question below).

    What I am proposing for the relationship of the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection to the Mesopotamian Inanna-Dumuzi myth-complex is not “comparative mythology,” ala Frazer, but “connectional mythology.” The biblical tradition inherits and transforms Inanna-Dumuzian themes, and becomes itself an extension of this myth-complex. Like with the biblical flood myth, which is a version of the earlier Mesopotamian flood myth, the myth of the passion and resurrection of Jesus is a version of this earlier Mesopotamian mytheme. I am not recounting the numerous, close parallels between these stories to argue that they are instances of a common “universal” mythic theme, but rather to argue that there is a direct, genetic link between them. The Hebrew Bible, with its many literary figures which also carry Inanna-Dumuzi imprints (Lot, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David, Jonah, to name some), also provides a primary “missing link” between the New Testament and ancient Mesopotamian worlds.

    On another point, regarding the transition from woman-centric to male-centric thought, Yes! Ishtar, the Babylonian-Semitic link between the Sumerian Inanna and various Biblical-Semitic figures, demonstrates the transition, for she is androgynous, with some, mostly earlier, myths reflecting the female side and some, mostly later, myths the male side of this deity. And it is important to remember that both Dumuzi and Jesus represent mythic figures which run counter to the masculinization current running so strongly through the biblical tradition, for they are both very “feminine” men (or, mythically, “god-men,” for both combine the human and divine).

    “Dionysius” is also incredibly important, but he’s not really a “dying-rising” god, contrary to what Frazer says. Yes, he is a big part of the Hellenization of the biblical tradition, especially, of course, when it comes to the sacral drinking of wine (Dumuzi is also an alcoholic, but his drink is beer). But the Hellenic-Hellenistic contribution to the Judeo-Christian tradition, like the Egyptian contribution, comes about later than, and is mostly separable from, the Mesopotamian contribution.

    Finally, regarding “dubious philology,” not “holding up to the archaeological record,” and “generous extrapolation.” The philological links don’t hold up the argument by themselves, but they add to it—given the sharing of such major themes (such as death-and-resurrection and sacred marriage), as well as specific details (the “3-day period”, etc.), the philological link between Ishtar/Ashtar/Astarte—Esther—Eostre/Easter, for example, doesn’t look too shabby. For philological connections of god-names in the ancient Near East & Eastern Mediterranean regions, see work by John Pairman Brown and Michael Astour.

    Regarding the “archaeological record,” I find it interesting that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site of Hadrian’s Temple of Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess, like Inanna/Ishtar, of the planet Venus, but I don’t think of this as a pillar of the argument.

    “Generous extrapolation”: I think the sheer amount of data relating to ancient Mesopotamia and other early cuneiform cultures (3/4 of a million cuneiform tablets written over a 3300 year period, thus far recovered through archaeological excavations), as well as the increasing understanding, translation, and publication of these texts (knowledge completely unknown 150 years ago) gives us many more “knowns”, so that extrapolation, while always necessary on the cutting edge of knowledge, can yield more and more to interpretation. The less one knows about a subject, of course, the easier it is to outright reject, or uncritically embrace, what someone proposes about that subject.

    ORIGINAL COMMENT/QUESTION: This kind of comparative mythology was really popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (James Frazer, Robert Graves, etc.). Frazer and others tie the Jesus resurrection more closely to Dionysus – the authors of the Gospels would not have known anything about Ishtar – which makes more immediate sense given the quick Hellenization of Christianity, and the Greek cults that coexisted with it in the early centuries. Graves went as far as to argue that the progression of Judeo-Christian thought was to transform the ancient woman-centric ritual into male-centric ritual, which is why some of these archetypes get rewritten with different cast members.
    I think this sort of thing is out of fashion now, though, in large part because these arguments rest on some dubious philology. There’s a bit of creative paralleling that often sounds good but doesn’t hold up to the archaeological record without some generous extrapolation.(Not my area of expertise, though.)


    • mriana says:

      I don’t know. I’m convinced that there is a relationship between the Osiris-Horus mythology and Xianity. Early Egypt seems to be the hot spot for other religions evolving into the modern religions we see today, including Judaism.


  7. Pat Phagan says:

    I sure am glad that I am an atheist and only have to remember that the Solstice is in the winter and that the Equionox is in the spring and both are confirmable by science and observable all over the world. Also it is nice to live by the numbers when 12 equals a dozen and 3 equals a long week end and 7 equals a weeks vacation. You know if someone named Christ woke up after three days so what. I was also in a coma for 3 days and woke up in the ICU and asked the doctor what was wrong with me and he admitted that he did not know. I do know 2 things from this experience, the doctor was a good scientist by not making up a desease and I still can not walk on water.


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  9. April Rose says:

    Love your approach iand the way you ‘re-mystify’ religion from a more rational perspective. Love the way you empower women-beyond the hysterical chest thumping angst of a male dominant culture increasingly incapable of maintaining sexist control of a global society-by virtue of the powerful lens of the internet. Unfortunately, like so many of those you critique, you omit a very relevant perspective which I find much more inclusive and revealing. Forgive the arrogance of this self proclaim heathen, heretic and general infidel but I beg of you to give thoughtful consideration to the very distinct possibility that…
    GOD IS A TRANSEXUAL! Indeed, how could it be otherwise since Adam must have been ‘Trans’ if he was born with a woman’s rib?
    A radical bone on which I invite you to chew. For more ranting and raving by this Mad Transwoman feel free to visit my blog. Thanks!


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  13. bbnewsab says:

    Reblogged this on bbnewsblog and commented:
    Many ancient religions, including early Hebrew and European pagan traditions, evolved in part out of star worship. That is, the stars up in the sky were seen as gods and goddesses (cf. the zodiac and astrology).

    Did you know that our Easter holiday is named after an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess alternately known as Estre, Eostre, and Ostara.

    The story of the Sumerian goddess Inanna (in the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian regions that same goddess was called Ištar or Ishtar) can be seen as sort of a prototype or model for the formation of Bible-Jesus.

    Read more about all the similarities in this article. (You’ll find more information on Wikipedia, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishtar .


    • technogiz8 says:

      The actual Easter feast name is Paschal. It is derived from Passover. The Eostre connection likely came from a mix-up during the dark ages as the Germanic tribes and their languages overtook Europe. By right Easter should always be on the same dates as Passover, but both cultures have different date reckonings, all of them by the moon. It is not a fertility festival at all. Not in the pagan sense. It is about overcoming death of the soul and cleansing the soul which is a completely different thing. As for for original sin, it isn’t quite what many good protestants believe. Eve did something terrible, something she shouldn’t have done and womankind have paid the price since.


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  21. Endre Polyak says:

    The existence of He who declared “I am the Alpha and the Omega” does not change to non-existence because somebody denies Him.


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  30. RichJ says:

    Mark Driscoll has it right. Without the resurrection Christianity is a farce. I don’t care what kind of “do good” or “feel good” facades you put on you life. At the core of it either the resurrection is truth or there is nothing substantially different, and on top of that Judaism has no messiah.


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