The name ‘Easter’ and internet misinformation

Suggestions that the word ‘Easter’ represents some syncretic paganisation of Christianity are not new, but seem to be becoming more common, at least on the various social media feeds that I receive. They are unconvincing.

One line seeks to link the word ‘Easter’ with the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. There is a meme circulating that this was some sort of papist plot, replacing the proper link of Easter to the Jewish Passover, and instead linking it to some pagan fertility cult. This is just prejudice. Really straightforwardly, the word ‘Easter’ is English, not Latin; the Church Latin word for the festival is ‘pascha’, which is obviously and directly linked to the Passover. In traditionally Roman Catholic countries, this link is always (to the extent of my knowledge) visible – the French for ‘Easter’ is ‘Pâques’, for example. Amongst major European languages, German and English alone (I believe) use words like ‘Easter’ – if we have to recall the Reformation divides, ‘Easter’ is a Protestant, not a Catholic, usage. The use of the word pre-dates the Reformation, however, so we should see it as a Northern European/Germanic usage.

Where does it come from? Bede offers a theory, which has also become popular: it is a borrowing of the name of an old goddess. So to call the resurrection festival ‘Easter’ is an act of syncretism, trying to make the new Christian religion acceptable by linking it with the old pagan celebrations. Bede advanced this theory in De Temp. Rat. xv.9, where he wrote: ‘Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.’ We should notice two parts to this comment: first, he tells us that in ninth-century England the month in which Easter is (typically) celebrated was called ‘Easter-month’; second, he proposes that this was once in honour of a goddess named ‘Eostre’.

The second point seems unlikely: in all the texts and artefacts that have come down to us, this is the one single mention of a goddess named ‘Eostre’. In the book this quotation is found in, Bede is proposing origins for various English names of days and months. Most of them do refer to pagan deities (in modern English: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, January, March, &c.), so I suspect that, not knowing the origin of ‘Eostre-monath’, he guesses at a goddess named ‘Eostre’.

The first point is more interesting: Bede tells us straightforwardly that ‘Easter’ is so called just because it is the festival that falls in ‘Eostre-monath’ or ‘Easter-month’. This is the origin of the term. So where does the name of the month come from? It is common to Old English (Ēastermōnað), Old Dutch (ōstermānōth) and Old High German (ōstarmānōd). The etymology is uncertain – it is just the word for (roughly) ‘April’ in these various languages. That said, there is a plausible, if not definite, connection with the Germanic roots behind the English word ‘east’, back to a presumed primitive Indo-European root meaning ‘dawn’ or ‘to become light in the morning’. The OED is sufficiently confident to propose this etymology for the word.

‘Easter’, then, is just the festival that falls during ‘Easter-month’ – and ‘Easter-month’ is the month when the dawn becomes earlier, or stronger, or something like that. Nothing pagan, nothing syncretistic; just a descriptive account of when the resurrection festival falls in the year.

2 Comments

  1. Walter Sobchak
    Apr 30, 2015

    “‘Easter-month’ is the month when the dawn becomes earlier, or stronger, or something like that. ”

    The Vernal Equinox is the day on which the Sun rises due east of northern hemisphere observers. Pre-Roman Germanic peoples used a luni-solar calendar. Calling the lunar month within which the Vernal Equinox occurred Easter would have been quite logical. That lunar month would usually contain the Jewish Passover to which the crucifixion of Jesus is linked by the Gospels.

  2. ryan
    May 1, 2015

    So Easter is related to Eostre, which means “related to dawn.” But Eostre can’t possibly be related to Eos, the goddess of dawn?

    I think you’re trying too hard to disparage an argument that is essentially identical to your own, with the exception of the fact that Bede was fairly close to the point of origin, whereas you’re 15 centuries away with nothing other than Bede to guide you back.

    Between someone contemporary with pagans in germanic countries asserting a link to a pagan germanic goddess, and you asserting that no, it can only be linked to the concept that goddess was linked with, but not to the goddess herself … I go with Bede.

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