Posted on April 20, 2014
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, like this one, and this other one, and this third one, Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the tradition that Jesus died and was resurrected just after the Jewish holiday of the Passover. I've also mentioned that the holiday is celebrated with spring-and-fertility symbols such as bunnies and eggs. But I haven't yet explained the name for the holiday, Easter.
Most historians think that Easter got its name from Eostre or Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess. How did a Christian holiday get named for a pagan goddess?
Back in the day, the Romans conquered vast territories and managed to rule an empire for hundreds and hundreds of years. We're talking more than two million square miles (more than six million square kilometers) of lands in Africa, Asia, and Europe. How did the Romans hold on to so much land and so many people?
The Romans were pretty smart about allowing people to keep their beloved customs and beliefs. Instead of trying to foist their own gods and holidays on people, the Romans tended to absorb the gods and goddesses from every other religion into their own, and they often integrated the holidays of others' with their own celebrations. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the Roman Catholic Church continued to absorb everybody else's customs—but of course modified them with Christian characters and meanings.
In languages other than German and English, the holiday we English speakers call Easter (and German speakers call Ostern) is derived from the Latin word for Easter, which is Pascha. And that, in turn, is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, which means Passover. Here is the name of Easter in some other languages:
Spanish – Pascua
Italian – Pasqua
French – Paques
Dutch – Pasen
Danish – Paaske
Bulgarian – Paskha
Swedish – Pask
Icelandic – Paskar
Why would Easter have a name unrelated to all these other names in England and Germany? Perhaps it's because Eostre (Ostara) was already being celebrated in those places during the time of the year of the Christian celebration of Jesus's death and resurrection—so in the typical Roman fashion, the pagan holiday became absorbed and modified.
Another thing to notice is that Easter is related to the word east (and the German Ostern is related to the German word for east, osten). What does the holiday, or the goddess Eostre, have to do with the direction east?
If you think about it, no matter where you are in the world, “east” is defined as the direction of the dawn, of sun up. So it is the direction of the rebirth of day, the resurrection of the sun (when viewed with an ancient lens). It makes some sense to name a goddess of fertility and birth with a word connected to dawn and rebirth.
According to Jacob Grimm (yes, he was one of the Grimm Brothers), Eostre was the goddess of “radiant dawn, of upspringing light,” and of springtime resurrection and rebirth. In many places in the world, in the spring, the land seems to come back to life after being dead and bare during the winter months. Leaves give forth new leaves, flowers bloom, grasses sprout, and in many cases new babies are born. Eggs and bunnies are obvious tie-ins to this springtime / fertility motif.
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International Dark Sky Week begins (April 20 - 26)
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