The Etymology of “Easter”

Fact of FaithRisen Christ
by Rev. Larry Rice, CSP

The origin of the English name for the Christian feast of Easter is kind of difficult to trace. People that are etymologists, who study word origins, have a number of different theories. The most commonly cited account of why the feast of Christ’s Resurrection is called Easter comes from the seventh-century English monk, the Venerable Bede. In his book explaining calendars and the reckoning of time, De Temporum Ratione, Bede wrote that the month of Eostremonat, now known as April, was named after the goddess Eostre. The problem is that other than the writings of the Venerable Bede, there is virtually no other evidence of a goddess with this name. In 1835, Jakob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, published a collection of German myths and folk tales that mentions a goddess called Ostara, which he connect to the similar-named Eostre. It’s from the German Ostara festivals that we get the Osterhasen, or Easter bunny, and traditions involving eggs and sunrise services on hilltops. But how does this connect to Easter, the feast of Christ’s Resurrection? Venerable Bede’s other famous work, the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, contains a letter from Pope Gregory I to St. Mellitus, a missionary sent to the Anglo-Saxons of England. In it, Pope Gregory encouraged Mellitus to use and adapt the pagan festivals and reorient them toward Christianity. Perhaps this is the reason that Easter is called Easter. Some have suggested a connection between Easter and the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, but that’s a difficult argument to make stick. The fact is, in nearly every other language in the world, Easter’s name is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach. In Greek, that becomes Paskha, in Italian, Pasqua, in Scots Gaelic, An Casca. Even in English, the holiday wasn’t called Easter until probably the eighth century. Tracing these linguistic clues is very convoluted, because we don’t always have good documentation. So, when it comes to the name of Easter, we owe it to the Venerable Bede and his writings, but before him, it’s very tough to document. But no matter how we got the English name of Easter, the mystery it celebrates remains the same—Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and the world will never be the same.

Father Rice is Vocations Director for the Paulist Fathers.
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