The Name of Easter

As Easter approached I began to see a number of Ishtar equals Easter memes roll across my Facebook feed, as friends or acquaintances of mine with pagan leanings decided to spill the hidden truth on the origins of Easter. Indeed, it turns out that a Facebook page from The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) has had over 68,000 shares of its Ishtar equals Easter meme and over 45,000 likes. I wanted to wait until after the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday before I examined this claim so as not to detract from the true meaning – have I tipped my hand too far? - of Easter. As we are still in Easter season, however, it is a proper time to approach the topic.

If you go to the Easter origins page, you will see the meme and the basic claim: Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Eostre” which is related to the Baylonian “Ishtar,” the Hebrew “Ashtaroth” and the Greek “Astarte.” All of these names denote various fertility goddesses. Nothing more is said beyond that, but I suspect that the implication is that the Christian celebration of Easter is also simply the transformed worship of a fertility goddess and so Easter is at root a celebration of fertility, as seen in bunnies and eggs, though we think it is about the rising from the dead of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Richard Dawkins meme is a lot more explicit about this supposed connection, arguing that "Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex." Really?


We need to get to the bottom of this. What is the truth about the name “Easter”? What is its origin? What does it mean? How does it relate to the origin of the Church’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Why did English speakers name the festival Easter? Is Easter just a pagan goddess festival?


1) What is the truth about the name “Easter”?

The truth about the word “Easter” is somewhat muddled. Over at First Things blog, Philip Jenkins has recently argued a position that had held sway for centuries:

Astonishingly in retrospect, English took the name Easter from a pagan goddess. We know this from the work of Bede, who around 725 wrote his De Temporum Ratione. He records that “Eostre-Month” was named after a goddess named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated (quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit).

Bede’s claim has been challenged by recent scholarship, basically because his mention of “Eostre” is the only occurrence from antiquity or the middle ages. Still, many scholarly sources maintain Bede’s reference as the most plausible explanation, including "Easter and its Cycle,” 10-13 in the New Catholic Encyclopedia  (E. Johnson, T. Krosnicki, eds.; 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Apr. 2013) and A. R. C. Leaney, "Easter” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan, Oxford Biblical Studies Online. 02-Apr-2013). Jenkins believes it to be the most likely and best explanation because Bede would still have knowledge of pagan traditions and there would be no good reason to create such a goddess. The other possibility, though, is that he just got it wrong.

A few years ago at First Things, David T. Koyzis noted that

twentieth-century scholarship has called into question Bede’s interpretation. There is still no general agreement on the origin of the word, but it has been suggested that it may come, not from the name of a goddess, but from eostarun, the Old High German word for the dawn itself. (Our word east obviously has similar origins.) In fact there are some remarkable similarities between the words for resurrection, Easter and dawn in several Indo-European languages. The common meaning underlying these words is a rising of some sort.

This explanation has not gained widespread acceptance, even among those who reject Bede’s understanding of origins, and John F. Baldovin writes that “the English name Easter, like the German Ostern, probably derives from Eostur, the Norse word for the spring season, and not from Eostre, the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess”  (“Easter” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2579; Lindsay Jones, ed.. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005).  

On the other hand, Manfred Lurker in "Ostara" (The Routledge Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Devils and Demons.Routledge,2004. Routledge Religion Online. Taylor & Francis.02 April 2013) brings a couple, or perhaps all, of these theories together, writing that Easter is

a Germanic goddess who has given her name to the Easter festival. She is identical with the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostra mentioned by the Venerable Bede. In name and function the goddess parallels the Greek Eos and the Roman Aurora. She is the personification of the rising sun, associated by the Germanic peoples not with a time of day (dawn) but with a season — spring.

In this case, the explanation brings together a combination of the goddess, the rising sun and Spring season theories.

There seem to be four possibilities for the origin of the word Easter:

i) Anglo-Saxon goddess;

ii) The dawn, or rising of the sun;

iii) Spring season;

iv) A combination of two or three of these previous theories.

Lurker might have hit on something here, as goddesses and gods in the ancient world tended to personify elements of nature and aspects of human beings. It is possible that dawn and Spring were aspects of this goddess. This makes me trust even more in the Venerable Bede, that Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon, Germanic goddess, both because he was closer to the source and because I do think that the inculturation of the Gospel  needed to make strong connections among the newly converted to beloved traditions and ways of life. It might be incorrect, but it still makes for me the best sense of the evidence.


2) How does it relate to the origin of the Church’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?

Does this mean that Christian celebration of Easter is pagan?  The basic and most significant answer is a resounding “No!,” with some interesting clarifications and additions. First, it is important to remember that “Easter” and “Öster” are found only in English and German and were necessarily late terms to describe the festival because its origin came much earlier than the conversion of the Germanic and English speaking peoples. 

Second, Jesus understood his own sacrifice in the Gospels in the context of the Passover, whether it took place on the day of Passover (the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:2f and parr.) or the day before Passover (the Gospel of John: John 13; 18.28, 39; 19.23–37). Paul himself interprets Jesus as the Passover lamb for the Christians in Corinth, saying, “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). The festival of Jesus’ passion and resurrection was understood early on, both by Jesus himself in the Gospels and by Paul, as a new Passover.

Third, as a result, most language groups refer to “Easter” with some form of a word related to Passover in Hebrew.  John F. Baldovin (“Easter,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2579) writes,

In Romance languages the name for Easter is taken from the Greek Pascha, which in turn is derived from the Hebrew Pesaḥ (Passover). Thus Easter is the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Passover, a spring feast of both harvest and deliverance from bondage.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 2003) states in “Easter and its Cycle” that

Another ancient name that has become more common with the renewal of Biblical studies and the liturgy is Pasch, from the Greek transliteration πάσχα of the Aramaic word for the Hebrew pesach, passover. In the first three centuries Pasch referred to the annual celebration of Christ's Passion and Death; from the end of the 4th century it designated also the EASTER VIGIL; from the 5th century it was reserved more for Easter itself.

That is, the earliest language used to describe and understand Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection was taken from the Jewish festival of Passover and this language spread to most languages other than English and German. 

Fourth, Easter was the earliest of all Christian festivals and the date of its celebration caused major problems for the early Church, all of which centered on whether the feast should be celebrated on the Passover or on the Sunday.  Leaney ("Easter” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible) states clearly that

Easter is therefore the Christian Passover, celebrated for some time on the night of fourteenth of the Jewish month Nisan (Passover night) on whatever day of the week that date fell. This custom continued long in Asia Minor (as in Celtic Britain), with those maintaining it being called Quartodecimans (“fourteeners”), but in Rome Easter was observed on a Sunday from a date that is difficult to determine but earlier than 154 CE, when Polycarp of Smyrna, a Quartodeciman, on a visit discussed the different observances with Anicetus, head of the Roman church.

Baldovin says that “gradually, however, it was observed everywhere on Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection. The Council of Nicaea (325) prescribed that Easter should always be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox” (Easter,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2579).


3) Why did English speakers name the festival Easter?

It is clear that the origins of Easter are with the Jewish festival of Passover from the beginning, so why did Anglo-Saxon and Germanic Christians use the name Easter? I have hinted at it above by using the word “inculturation.” I think whether one accepts Bede’s attribution of Eostre as a Spring goddess, one must acknowledge that the name, whatever its origin, speaks to something that these peoples felt comfortable with in their own traditions even after conversion to Christianity.  As Allen J. Frantzen says in "Easter" (Anglo-Saxon Keywords. Blackwell Publishing, 2012. Blackwell Reference Online. 02 April 2013), “the pagan origins of the word Easter were not controversial in the Anglo-Saxon period” and “the word itself connects Anglo-Saxon Christianity to the period before the conversion.” Change is difficult for all peoples and the early Christian missionaries might have found it unnecessary to rid a newly converted people of languages and images that made sense of their new religion for them and helped make the reality of the Risen Lord more apparent to them. There was a cultural generosity amongst these Christians and a religious confidence that did not begrudge a welcoming of some of the old culture amid the new religion.

Even more, as it is stated in "Easter and its Cycle" in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 2003), “the Old Testament Passover feast joined these themes {of salvation and deliverance} with those of a primitive spring harvest feast in which the first fruits of grain and flock were offered to the Lord.” So, if the early Christians joined the Christian Passover festival to a pagan Spring festival it was, in some ways, an addition that brought the festival back to some of its early roots.


4) Is Easter just a pagan goddess festival?

As to whether the goddess Eostre is the same goddess in a different name as Ishtar or Ashtaroth or Astarte it is important to keep in mind that we still only have the one citation from Bede which refers to her. Is this enough to make a linguistic connection with the other goddesses? There is certainly a connection among all the near eastern goddesses, as a quick examination will show. Gregory D. Alles and Robert S. Ellwood connect the Canaanite mother of the gods Athirat, also known as Astarte, with the Mesopotamian Ishtar and the biblical Ashtoreth ("Canaanite religion." World Religions Online. Infobase Learning. Web. 2 Apr. 2013). These goddesses were, amongst other things, goddesses of fertility. This goddess does make appearances in the Old Testament, such as in 1 Kings 11:5 and 2 Kings 23:13, and although she might have had some influence upon the Israelites, she was ultimately rejected by the worship of the one God.

There is no way to know, with the scant evidence, whether the Anglo-Saxon goddess is tied to the ancient worship of the near eastern goddesses. Manfred Lurker, cited above, has connected her rather to the Greek Eos and the Roman Aurora. More than that, there is no connection that can be made, beyond being a Spring festival, with Passover and ancient goddess worship. It is Passover which influenced the Christian understanding of what took place in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, not goddess worship. It was the Christian experience of Jesus’ raised from the dead which allowed them to re-imagine Passover in light of the Risen Lord. And, finally, it was the desire to bring this story of salvation to all people, which allowed them to have enough confidence not to crush an indigenous culture but to allow that culture to be transformed by the story of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a story I happily know as Easter.

John W. Martens

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

This entry is cross-posted at Bible Junkies

You might also want to see Rev. Bosco Peters piece The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Misinformation and Confusion?





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