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I’ve heard claims that the word Easter has the same Bronze Age root as east, Ishtar, Astarte, and ultimately star.

Is this the correct etymology of the word Easter?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There is actually strong evidence for pagan festivals marking the coming of the Spring and taking place at the time of year of present day Easter. This is the root of the etymology of Easter.

For Christians Easter marks the commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. However, one should note that the Gospels tell us that Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Passover. In other words Easter was already one of the most important Jewish festivals long before Jesus was crucified.

In theory the Jewish Passover itself celebrates the return of the Jews from Egypt, but it always takes place in Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) in the Month of Nisan which is the first month of the Jewish religious calendar. Similarly you may know that March used to be the first month of the Latin calendar (which BTW explains why September is the 9th Month of the year, not the 7th).

The truth is that many pagan cultures have considered for centuries the Spring equinox as the start of the year and marked the event with important celebrations.

The word Easter itself is a good indication of this: whereas many other Christian cultures use a name cognate of the Hebrew Pasḥa (Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish), German uses Ostern, and English uses Easter. This indicates that the Anglo Saxon already had such a feast at this time of the year.

Also note that the Welsh use Pasg and Irish use Cáisc. Why not Easter ? Simply because Wales and Ireland were Christianised during the Roman domination, a few centuries before the Anglo Saxons pagan migrations.

Now about the link with the East then ?

All indications point at the fact that the arrival of Spring was celebrated at the equinox and that the precise date of this event was determined by the position of the sun on the horizon at dawn. What I mean is that during Winter the course of the sun in the sky is a smaller arc and conversely a larger one in Summer. So let's consider the position of the sun on the horizon at sun rise. In Summer it will be further on the left and in Winter further on the right for an observer in the Northern Hemisphere. The medium position will determine the Equinox.

Since the sun rises in the East, to know the date for Easter you would have to look East. That might seem like a far fetched explanation but the German for Easter is Ostern and the German for East is Osten.

Also look at the etymology of the Ostrogoths: "Ostrogothi" means "Goths of (or glorified by) the rising sun". This has been interpreted as "gleaming Goths" or "east Goths".

Links with Ishtar and Astarte. Well these are the Godesses of fertility that were celebrated at these feasts in Assyria/Babylon and in Archaic Greece respectively. But there are many other variations: Rhea, Demeter, Hathor and in Ancient Germanic mythology: Ostara.

As for the star, I can't help noticing that Ishtar and Astarte/Aphrodite are also the goddesses of the planet Venus. Hence the name of the planet even today. Remarkably the astronomers have recognised the fact by naming some of its continents after the Goddesses.

EDIT
Trying to determine whether there was a link between the position of Venus and the Spring Equinox, I came across this article. The whole article is relevant to the question but there are two excerpts I'd like to quote:

1/ About Venus

The English word "Friday" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Frigedaeg, meaning "Venus day" (Friga = Venus + dae = day), and many other languages also trace their names for Friday from root words meaning "Venus day" [...] So it is shown by many histories that Venus is strongly associated with the Spring Equinox

2/ About the computation of the date of Easter the Germanic/Pagan way vs the Roman Catholic way.

The German fertility Goddess was Ostara, who was associated with fertility of both humans and crops. Ostara mated with the solar god on the Spring Equinox and nine months later she gave birth to a child around the Winter Solstice at 21st/22nd of December. The Saxon name for the Germanic lunar goddess Ostara was Eostre. Her festival was held at the full moon after the Spring Equinox and the Catholics adopted this determination for their Easter.

That was before the Synod of Whitby in which the computation of the date of Easter passed from the German/pagan way to the Roman Christian way (see Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Book III/Ch. iii):

Bishop Aidan, [...] was wont to keep Easter Sunday according to the custom of his country, [Scotland...] from the fourteenth to the twentieth of the moon; the northern province of the Scots, and all the nation of the Picts, at that time still celebrating Easter after that manner,

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I know it's a long post. I actually left many things out ;-) –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 25 '11 at 15:48
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The only widely-quoted etymology is from the Venerable Bede's The Reckoning of Time, in a section where he lists the Anglo-Saxon months, calling April Eostur-monath, and suggesting that this was derived from the name of a goddess who was no longer worshipped. No other convincing evidence for this has been found, and if he wrote it today then it would be regarded as a folk etymology.

Linguistics has suggested that this may be related to other Indo-European words for dawn or shine, suggesting that perhaps Eostur-monath was simply something like Spring-month, and so Easter is named as the festival in Spring. But this is speculation too.

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This is what I found on the OED, it seems it is related to "a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal (=spring) equinox":

[OE. éastre wk. fem. = OHG. ôstara; more freq. in plural éastron, corresponding to OHG. ôstoron (MHG., mod.G. ostern pl.); the strong forms occas. appearing seem to have been derived from the combining form éastor-.

Bæda Temp. Rat. xv. derives the word from EOSTRE (SEE EDIT) (Northumb. spelling of Éastre), the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.

Her name (:—OTeut. *austrôn- cogn. w. Skr. usrā dawn) shows that she was originally the dawn-goddess.]

  • EDIT: I found something more here.

"In chapter 15 of his work De temporum ratione, Bede describes the indigenous month names of the English people. After describing the worship of the goddess Hretha during the Anglo-Saxon month of Hrethmonath, Bede writes about Eosturmonath, the month of the goddess Eostre

  • Plus, I found something about the Months' name derivation (see APRIL, it has a "EOSTUR" part):

In olden time the English people calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. ...

It's easy to see the composition: Eostur + monath (month) = Month of Eostre.

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There is no other evidence for a god or goddess Hretha either. Bede may have invented both. –  Henry Apr 23 '11 at 14:40
    
@Henry: Yeah but some don't dismiss the question just saying "he invented them", but point out some details, like Ronald Hutton. –  Alenanno Apr 23 '11 at 14:57
    
@Henry and @Alenanno, the common spelling of that Goddess is Eoster but it varies a lot: Old High German uses Ôstarâ. Have a look at that Wikipedia entry for insights into the OP's question. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 24 '11 at 6:35
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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

O.E. Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from P.Gmc. *Austron, a goddess of fertility and spring, probably originally of sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *austra-, from PIE *aus- "to shine" (especially of the dawn). Bede says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices for their Mass of Christ's resurrection. Ultimately related to east. Almost all neighboring languages use a variant of Latin Pasche to name this holiday. Easter egg attested by 1825, earlier pace egg (1610s). Easter bunny attested by 1909.

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A small correction, "pasche" is not the correct Latin word, which would be "pascha"; furthermore, the etymology can be easily traced to the Hebrew "pasàch", passover, in the Bible. –  Sklivvz Apr 23 '11 at 15:39
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The NOAD reports the following note, about the etymology of the word.

Old English ēastre; of Germanic origin and related to German Ostern and east. According to Bede, the word is derived from Ēastre, the name of a goddess associated with spring.

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