Today is Easter, dear readers, which is a bit of a complex holiday. It encompasses resurrection, ascendance, rebirth, magic bunny rabbits that lay eggs, baby chickens, and chocolate. Given this complexity of beliefs and themes, I got to wondering about where the word Easter comes from. It’s interesting, so I thought I’d share what I learned with all of you.
The word Easter comes from the Old English word Easterdæg, which came from the Northumbrian word Eostre, which in turn came from the Proto-Germanic word Austron. Austron was a goddess of fertility and spring whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. Her name came from the root austra-, which can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root aus-, both meaning to shine, with particular reference to the sunrise.
This reference to the sunrise can be seen in the etymology of the word east, which comes from Old English and refers to the direction. East can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root aus–to-, meaning toward the sunrise.
So how did Easter come to be associated with Christ’s resurrection? The story, according to the English monk and scholar, Bede, is that Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted both Austron’s name and many of the celebratory practices of her feast for their Mass of the resurrection. Interestingly, most of the other European languages use a variant of the Latin word pascha to refer to Easter. In fact, Pasche was the word used for Easter in early Middle English. Pascha comes from the Greek word with identical spelling, referring to Passover, which can be traced back to the Aramaic word pasha, meaning pass over.
It’s fascinating—at least it is to me—that the origins of the word Easter are as complex as the holiday itself. No wonder we find ourselves contemplating death and rebirth while we nibble on chocolate bunnies! Easter is truly a holiday for heathens, the pious, and chocolate-lovers alike.
Happy Easter everyone!
Etymological information comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary. and the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological English.
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