Easter is upon us. It is of course the greatest of the Christian festivals, celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ. In most of the non English speaking world the word used for this festival is one form or another is “Passover”. For of course the death of Christ occurred at the time of the Passover and the Apostle Paul even refers to this in Ephesians. ”Christ our Pascha has been sacrificed for us.” Pascha here meaning passover.
Yet in the English speaking world the title for this festival is Easter. What is curious about this is that this is another example of where in the incoming Augustine mission and their successors did not abandon the pagan past but adopted it and built upon it.
Bede (672-735), the monk and great chronicler of the English Church talks about this in his work De ratione temporum (The reckoning of time). He works through the months of the Anglo Saxon year commenting on them and the pagan rites associated with them.
When he reaches April he says this: “Eosturmonath 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. “
So then. According to Bede, Easter is named after the goddess Eostre. Now some historians pour doubt upon this and say that ONLY Bede mentions this. There are two main arguments for saying that Bede did not make it up. First very few documents survive from this period and so just because nothing else is written down does not mean it is not true. Bede had an agenda of his own – mainly trying to prove that that the Roman Augustine Christian church had authority and that the Welsh church should bow to it. So often you have to take what he says as a bit of propaganda BUT he has no particular reason to lie here.
Secondly whilst Bede is the only ENGLISH reference, the Old English goddess Eostre is replicated across the Germanic, Norse world and further in forms like Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur. She is a Fertility goddess and there are associations with new birth and the dawn. If we dig further back we find that the origins of the name Eostre is indeed a word for dawn or new light.
What do we know about her? Well, traditional symbols associated with Ostara, the Germanic equivalent to Eoster are eggs, lambs and bunnys - not surprising as these are all symbols of new life and fertility. So a celebration of the return of the sun at the Spring Equinox is what seemed to go on. When the length of the day equals the length of the night our ancestors thanked the gods with festivals involving these symbols. So giving and receiving of eggs replicates an ancient tradition. Chocolate versions are of course much more modern.
The name though is possibly even more ancient. The is much speculation at this point but the Indo-European languages of course originate in the Fertile Crescent. So this same word can probably be traced back to something like 2000 BC to the Babylonian goddess of Sexuality, fertility and birth Ishtar which is pronounced in a way very close to the English word Easter. Again her festival was celebrated at the Spring Equinox, and celebrate her return from the land of the dead where she went in an attempt t bring back her lover. Possibly then a theme of resurrection and new life can be seen there but this may be stretching the point. Certainly her festival is at this point in the year, she was a fertility goddess and Eostre can maybe be traced back to her.
So then some aspects of Easter do have elements of our Anglo-Saxon, Germanic pagan past with echoes perhaps of something older. Now when we look at England in around AD 597 and the years thereafter we see that the Augustine mission had two choices. It could ban Eostre/ Easter or as it coincided with the Passover adopt and absorb it. A similar process and challenge faced Christianity as it moved into Germany. Jacob Grimm, one of the Brother’s Grimm, and not just a fairy tale writer but an academic, comments on this as it occurred in ancient Germany:
“We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth. The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of old high German the name ôstarâ …. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.”
Elsewhere Grimm says:
“Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he (the worshipper) gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy
It is clear that the Church, as it moved into Anglo-Saxon and Germanic regions just adopted these celebrations in the same way as they did the pagan Yuletide. Not by banning it but taking elements that they could accept – symbols of life and light and joy and purity and incorporating them into their own festivals. A pragmatic approach that works. So much so that it can be hard sometimes to separate Christian elements from Pagan elements.
So then. Happy Easter, glæd Eosturmonath !