Welcome, Word Nerds! I hope you had a blessed Easter! In fact, we’re going to talk about the word Easter in just a moment, but first, last week’s word: Widdershins.
Widdershins – in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction; counterclockwise
Congratulations to kathyscottage, who used it in a sentence to mean counterclockwise! You get a gold star!
Now, what better word to feature this week than the word Easter?! If you’ve ever looked into the origin of this word (or have atheist friends who love to argue that Easter is actually a pagan festival that the Christians appropriated for their own purposes), you may have come across something like this explanation:
Easter – Old English, from Eastre, the goddess of fertility and spring, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox.
On the surface, there’s a lot going for this explanation. There’s the rabbits and the eggs, two things that seemingly have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with fertility and spring; there’s the similarity between the words; and perhaps most convincing of all, the fact that the source of this explanation is the 7th-8th Century monk, the Venerable Bede. “There, see,” says your friendly naysayer. “The early Christians even admitted it.”
There’s plenty I could say on those points alone, but suffice it to say, none of them stand without contention. So let’s look at a few other less widely known possibilities.
Did you know that English is one of the only languages to use the term ‘Easter’ to refer to the celebration of the resurrection? (Stick with me, here. I’m not getting off track!) Most languages use a word derived from the Greek word Pascha, which is in turn derived from the Hebrew word for passover: Pesach. German and English are the exceptions. In German, the word Ostern is used.
But here’s what’s cool about the word Ostern. Similar to the first part of our word Easter, Ost refers to the place where the sun rises (east). Now, isn’t that an interesting play on words?! Sure, you could argue that that’s what the spring equinox festivals were all about—worshipping the rising sun—but I can’t help marvelling at the themes and the timing here. Is it really just a coincidence that our Lord and Saviour rose again, giving us the gift of new (eternal) life at a time when that’s exactly what nature reflected (and people therefore celebrated)? Perhaps the early Germans saw the symbolism in the beginning of a new day—of light and new life entering the world.
An alternative explanation is that the German word for resurrection, auferstehen, is derived from the combination of two older Teutonic words: Ester meaning ‘first’, and stehen meaning ‘to stand’. The first to stand. The word erstehen is the old German form of auferstehen, and still means ‘to stand’ today.
It’s also interesting to note that in the earliest translations of the Bible into English and German, Wycliffe (late 1300s) simply transliterated the Greek word pascha (passover) as pask, Tyndale (early 1500s) translated it as ester, and Luther (also early 1500s) chose the German word Osterfest. It was the King James Version (1611) that first distinguished between the pascha celebration prior to the resurrection and the pashca celebration after the resurrection, by coining the new word Passover for the former and using the word Easter for the latter. Translators prior to that used the same word to refer to Passover and the celebration of the resurrection – in Tyndale’s case, ester, and in Luther’s case, Osterfest or Ostern.
So where did our word Easter come from? It’s impossible to know for sure, and certainly beyond the scope of this post! But in any case, I think it’s interesting that, no matter which way you look at it, Easter is the celebration of new life. The only question is, are you celebrating the Giver Himself, or merely a dim reflection?
He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!
* For a more detailed discussion of the points raised here, see the article Is the Word “Easter” of Pagan Origin? at Answers in Genesis.