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Easter a pagan feast?

Many realise that for Easter, languages such as Russian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Hungarian, Latin, French, Italian, Dutch and Portuguese use a word sourced in “pascha”, the Greek for passover. There are some who suggest the English word “Easter” derives from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.

Venerable Bede (673-735 AD), said that the English word “Easter” originates from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre/Ostara, the goddess of the spring, venerated at the vernal equinox.

Eosturmanath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. (De temporum ratione Ch. 13)

But there is a theory different to Bede’s.

The word “Easter” is equivalent to the German Oster which is related to Ost, the rising of the sun, “East”. Oster is related to the Teutonic auferstehen, resurrection.

Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible uses the word Oster for the Passover before and after the Resurrection. He used Osterfest for Passover/Easter and Osterlamm for Passover lamb:

Eg. Luke 22:1 Es war aber nahe das Fest der süßen Brote, das da Ostern heißt.
Luke 22:7 Es kam nun der Tag der süßen Brote, an welchem man mußte opfern das Osterlamm.
John 2:13 Und der Juden Ostern war nahe, und Jesus zog hinauf gen Jerusalem.
John 2:23 Als er aber zu Jerusalem war am Osterfest, glaubten viele an seinen Namen, da sie die Zeichen sahen, die er tat.
1 Corinthians 15:7 Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.

John Wycliffe made the first English Bible in 1382. He translated from the Latin. He transliterated pascha to pask or paske. Tyndale, after him, introduced the word ‘Ester’ into the English Bible. He introduced many popular words and phrases into English and created the word “passover”. The King James Version revised Tyndale’s work, keeping about 90% of its wording. It uses Easter only for Acts 12:4; elsewhere it used Tyndale’s neologism “passover”. Contemporary translations generally use only one word, passover, to translate pesach/pascha.

Does it matter?
Do you have or know about other theories?

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12 Responses to Easter a pagan feast?

  1. What I’ve seen is that it comes from the name not of an Anglo-Saxon but of a much older Germanic goddess, whose name in turn derives from the Indo-European root meaning “to rise” (e.g. of the sun). This site, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=Easter&searchmode=none, which gets most of its etymologies from the OED, shows off the complete etymology as I’ve heard it – and also those of some vaguely Easter-related terms.

  2. Correction: Hungarian is NOT a slavic language (does not fit into the list above). It’s Finno-ugric. The word for Easter, “Húsvét” has nothing to do with Pesach. The word is a compound of “hús” meaning “meat” and “vét” being a shortened form of the verb “to take”. So literally it means “to take meat”, denoting the end of Lent, when you are free to eat meat again.

    Also, I don’t think Easter is a pagan fest, and actually the Germanic root sounds plausible while the “Ister” thing has, IMO, nothing to do with the English word. The Germanic tribes have to my knowledge never crossed ways with ancient Babylonians, so there was no way for them to take loan words from their language. Loan words come in a language when there’s a close geographical proximity, or when one culture takes over another. So for Germanic languages to have a word like that they should have been dominated by the Babylonians or they should have lived very close to them in both time and space.

    The germanic goddess mentioned above is Freya I think. When the Germanic / Anglo-Saxon tribes were Christianized, missionaries had to build on a given set of words and concepts, and explain the gospel in terms the tribes understood (see the Lord’s Prayer in Old English for examples, “middangeard” is a concept in it that testifies for this). Same happened with festivities – they had to use words that existed in the language.

    So my question is this – even if the words for these festivities have pagan roots, what effect does that have on the death and resurrection of the Lord? Nothing, unless you start worshipping and praying to the Sun and Moon and bunny rabbits.

  3. Aaaargh – does it matter? No and yes. I want it not to matter for I figure that we’re trying to mark the turning of life seasons and who cares where it came from or, where it will end up. Then I figure it does matter if some people want their version to be top of the pops, to be THE one and as a result marginalise others who have a different view.
    On balance? I’m getting to the point where it so doesn’t matter.

    • I had tended to the view that the English tradition was a positive building on the earlier experience of the sacred. I do not see people reacting to the English calling the days of the week after pagan gods and calling for the naming to conform to the Portuguese titles; or being hassled that next month is called July.

      • Portuguese titles? Now you got me curious. 🙂

        We could change next month from July back to Quintile, or whatever the appropriate Anglicization would be.

        I’m actually pretty impressed by the history and legacy of that old Indo-European word (it’s also probably the ultimate source of the names Austria and Australia – both being toward the south/southeast, the direction of the rising sun). It seems that day, and the Sun, have always been important to the Europeans, and always a focus of the sacred (the word “day” and “deity” have the same origin, for example). It’s not surprising to me that Christian missionaries would have chosen a sacred (non-Christian) festival to mark the resurrection of the Christ, and totally unsurprising that that sacred event would have celebrated the rising of the Sun – which is an occasion for prayer even in today’s Christian world.

          • And of cousre the Portugese are just copying Latin ecclesiastical usage: Dominica, feria secunda, feria tertia, feria quarta, feria quinta, feria sexta, Sabbato.

            We should rejoice in “passover” as a partner with that other contribution of English to theological jargon: “atonement”!

  4. I’ve been curious about the proliferation of urban legends about Easter and Christmas and other Christian festivals, most of which stem from the Puritans and their heirs, the Protestant Fundamentalists. I blogged about it a few years ago (Notes from underground: Eostre: The Making of a Myth).

    The explanation for the German use of the term is probably simpler. The Germans were evangelised by the English (whose ancestors had emigrated from Germany a couple of generations earlier, so the language was probably sufficiently similar to be understood), and I suspect that the English passed their name for the festival on to the Germans. And in German the term probably mutated into something more resembling the word for “East”, perhaps under the influence of the “Orient from on High”.

    That’s pure spectulation, of course, but so is a lot of the stuff about the origin of Easter.

  5. In Afrikaans the name for Easter is “Paasvees” (Paschal Feast) and is derived from the Dutch for Passover/Pesach (And of course, Amsterdam had a large Jewish population at the time the Dutch East India established the settlement that became Cape Town) It also reflects the Calvinist background (Dutch and French Huguenot) of many Afrikaans speaking South Africans – white and coloured (mixed race)

    So much Easter imagery reflects Passover – the unleavened bread and red wine symbolizing the blood of the passover lamb, the lamb itself (cf Jesus unbroken leg bones with those of the unblemished lamb’s shankbone on of the seder plate, the hyssop soaked in wine that was given to Jesus, when he washed the feet of the disciples (cf the washing of the hands at the seder) And of course, in Western Christianity, the dating of Easter to usually coincide with Pesach.

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