Easter, Origin of the Word

Easter, Origin of the Word

Many European languages derive their word for Easter from Pascha, the ancient Greek term for the festival used by the early Christians. The word Pascha in turn came from Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. By contrast, English speakers call the festival "Easter," a word totally unrelated to the early Christian term for the observance. Where did this word come from?

Eostre and Other Explanations

Most writers assert that it came from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre. They base this assertion on the writings of a scholarly monk known as St. Bede (672 or 673-735). Bede proposed that the Anglo-Saxons, the ancestors of the English people, named the month of April after a pagan goddess. According to Bede they called it Eøstur- monath, after the goddess Eostre, also spelled "Eastre." Bede explained that since the Easter festival fell in the month of the goddess, the people called the festival by the same name. What's more, the AngloSaxons also used the word eastre for the season of spring. English speakers eventually changed the word to "Easter," which came to refer solely to the holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

German and English appear to share the same ancient root word for Easter. Modern German speakers call the festival Ostern. In the eighth and ninth centuries German speakers used a similar but longer word, Ostarstruopha, for the Easter festival.

While most writers support Bede's theory about the origins of the word Easter, a few researchers question his ideas. They point out that scholars have not found any other mention of Eostre in ancient or medieval documents. They believe that this lack of corroborating evidence may mean that Bede, who was raised and educated in a monastery and therefore may not have been conversant with folklore and pagan religious beliefs, was presenting his readers with an educated guess rather than solid facts. They offer several other theories to explain the origin of the word Easter. One proposal suggests that the word Easter comes from Eostur, an old Norse word for spring. Another asserts that it comes from an old Germanic and Anglo-Saxon word for "east." Early Germanic languages offered many variants of the word for east which appear to be related to the Anglo-Saxon term for east. These include ôstana, ôsten, and austen. Some researchers argue that the English term "Easter" has its roots in these old words.

Finally, other writers contend that the word Easter arrived in the English language via a mistaken interpretation of a Latin phrase. Early Latin-speaking Christians called the Easter festival hebdomada alba, or "the week of albs," a name that refers to the white robes worn by baptismal candidates during the Easter Vigil and the eight days following (see also Baptism; Easter Week; Low Sunday). Although in this context the word alba serves as the feminine form of albus, meaning white, some thought it was the word alba meaning "dawn." According to this theory, Old High German speakers called the festival eostarun, or "dawn" in their own language. The word eostarun evolved into the contemporary German Ostern and the English "Easter."

Some early scholars delved even further back into the history of the word Easter. For example, nineteenth-century folklorists discovered striking similarities between the Germanic root words for "dawn" and the name of the goddess Eostre. They noted, too, that the names for the ancient Roman, Greek, and Indian dawn goddesses, Aurora, Eos, and Ushas, evolved from the same root word. On the basis of these similarities nineteenth-century German folklorist Jacob Grimm, who accepted Bede's account of the word "Easter," declared that the goddess Eostre must represent the dawn. These linguistic similarities led Grimm further to claim that Bede's Anglo-Saxon goddess must also have been known to the Germanic peoples. He therefore assigned her a German name, Ostara. Grimm's interpretation stuck and many contemporary sources refer confidently to Eostre/Ostara as a dawn goddess in spite of the fact that Bede neither identified what she represented nor gave her a German name.

Early Christian and Biblical Connections

These associations with the names of pagan goddesses and natural phenomena make some Christians uncomfortable with the word Easter. Nevertheless, both the dawn and the direction east figure into the Easter story as recounted in the Bible and reflected in the devotional practices of the early church. For example, according to the Bible, Mary Magdalene and several other followers of Jesus, discovered his empty tomb at dawn on Easter Sunday. Many Protestant churches commemorate this dawn discovery by holding sunrise services on Easter morning.

The mystical significance accorded to the direction east by the early Christians also connects it to the Easter festival. The Resurrection occurred, or was discovered, at dawn, a time of day associated with the east. The early Christians believed east to be the direction of paradise. They also expected Jesus to return to them, an event described in the Bible's Book of Revelation and known as the Second Coming, from the east. Medieval Christians thought that the Second Coming would occur on the night before Easter, a belief that may have motivated participation in lengthy Easter Vigil services.

The early Christians incorporated the notion that east is the direction of the divine into their liturgy and architecture. In the ritual of baptism, newcomers to the Christian religion faced west to renounce the devil and east to declare their belief in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Early churches were built with doors along the western wall and the altars near the eastern wall so that worshipers faced east as they prayed.

Christians inherited this association between God and the east from their Jewish predecessors. Both Solomon's Temple and the Israelite tabernacle faced east. Hebrew scripture, which Christians call the Old Testament, furnishes many stories in which God sends blessings and relief from the east. Some scholars have suggested that in drawing an association between God and the east the ancient Hebrews echoed the spatial orientation of the sun-worshiping cultures that surrounded them. These people assumed that the home of the sun god lay in the east, in the direction of the dawn. Scholars have also detected a biblical tendency to assign positive meaning to movement from east to west, the direction in which the sun itself appears to move. In the Old Testament in particular, people and groups who move towards the east, or against the direction of the sun, are out of alignment with God's purposes (see also Sin). For example, when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden they journey to the East (Genesis 3:24). Conversely, characters who move towards the west, following the movement of the sun, have aligned themselves with God. In that portion of Christian scripture called the New Testament, the Magi, or Wise Men, associated with the story of Jesus' birth exemplify this principle (Matthew 2:1-2). They come from the East, the divine direction, and journey towards the west to find the Christ child. Similarly Jesus' star, which guides the Magi to his birthplace, rises in the east.

Conclusion

St. Bede's explanation of the word "Easter" remains the most widely recounted version of the word's origin. He asserts that the English word for this Christian festival came from the name of a pagan goddess. Some researchers believe, however, that the word is more likely to have evolved from ancient root words meaning dawn, east, or springtime. Most of these themes also play a role in the Easter story as recounted in the Bible. These concepts also find expression in the customs of the early Christians.

Further Reading

Baldovin, John F. "Easter." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Billson, Chas. J. "The Easter Hare." Folk-Lore 3, 4 (1892): 441-66. "East." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Johnson, E. "Easter and Its Cycle." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 5. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Kselman, John S. "Easter." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Skeat, W. W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth edition, revised, enlarged, and reset. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1958. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002