Dr. Philip Shaw, a lecturer in English Language and Old English at the University of Leicester in the U.K., just wrote an interesting article about the origins of the Christian holiday of Easter. Without engaging in any pedantic arguments over whether Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the simple fact of the matter is that the word “Easter” itself is not part of the Christian tradition. Most Christians are shocked to discover that the word “Easter” only appears once in the Christian Bible (in Acts 12:1-4), where many believe the reference is to the Pagan festival of Eastre, not Passover.
We do have some ideas about where the word “Easter” came from thanks to Bede. In the first quarter of the eighth century AD, the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and scholar, composed a text called “On the Reckoning of Time”. This work described how to calculate the date of Easter – a vexed theological question of the time – and along the way it also gives us some clues to the names that pagan Anglo-Saxons gave to the months of the year, before their conversion to Christianity.
According to Bede, one of these months, which roughly corresponded with April in our calendar, was called Eosturmonath, after the pagan goddess Eostre (or Ostara).
Naturally, many Pagans and Christian scholars refuse to believe that the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons named the most important festival of the Christian year after a pagan goddess. Many scholars have suggested that Bede simply invented the goddess Eostre. But this contradicts the general perception of Bede in other regards, where he is considered to be a careful researcher who was not prone to inventions of this sort.
As Dr. Shaw reports, we also now know that there were a group of minor goddesses with a related name worshipped by continental speakers of a Germanic language. In 1958, more than 150 votive inscriptions from the second or third century AD were discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany. These inscriptions must mark the site of an important cult centre, and the goddesses to whom these inscriptions were set up were called the matronae Austriahenae, loosely translated as “the eastern matrons” or “the matrons of the easterners”. The name Austriahenae comes from the same Germanic root as Eostre, suggesting that this was a root used in naming goddesses.
Dr. Shaw believes there is also evidence of its use in English place names and in the names of Anglo-Saxon individuals. He states; “There is every reason to trust what Bede says about Eostre: she was a goddess whose name was attached to a month by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the name of the month in which Easter usually fell was transferred to the name of the festival itself.”
“Eostre also provides us with clues to the way in which Anglo-Saxon paganism worked. The word from which her name derives means ‘eastern’, and is found in place names in England, which suggests that she may well have been a local goddess.”
This Easter, spare a thought for the word “Easter”.