Most of us have just had a lovely break over the Easter weekend and some of us attended church to celebrate and commemorate the resurrection of Christ, or the Passover – recalling the history of the Jewish people in Egypt, as recorded in the book of Exodus. Sitting in church, I started wondering why this festive time is called ‘Easter’ in English – only to discover that over the years there has been some controversy surrounding the name.
Controversy around using ‘Easter’ as the name for this most central of Christian festivals – theologically at least as important as Christmas – raged particularly in the early 20th century.
Perhaps under the influence of the Roman practice to wean new Christians off their pagan gods, associated rituals and festivals by replacing them with Christian ones, some scholars developed a similar explanation for the origin of the name ‘Easter’.
Certain scholars claim that ‘Easter’ has its origin in the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eostre (also spelled Estre, Estara, Eastre or Ostara, and similar spellings in various sources). In one instance, it is claimed that Eostre was originally a Babylonian goddess by the name of Astarte.
But it is generally accepted that Eostre was the name of the widely attested Indo-European goddess of the dawn, worshipped in the spring by pagans in northern Europe and the British Isles.
However, there are those who propose that Eostre might have meant "the month of opening" or that it arose from the designation of Easter Week in Latin.
But there are other scholars who – more than likely correctly so – argue that the word ‘Easter’ has its original root in the German language.
It is argued that since English Anglo/Saxon language derived from the Germanic, many similarities are often found between German and English. And therefore the English word ‘Easter’ is probably German and the equivalent of ‘Oster’.
The modern German ‘Oster’ derives from the older ‘Ost’, meaning “the rising of the sun”, or simply “east” in English.
And, for me at least, the convincing evidence is that the word ‘Oster’ comes from the old Teutonic form of the word auferstehen or auferstehung, which means “resurrection”. The clincher being that auferstehen, in the older Teutonic form, comes from ester, meaning “first”, and stehen meaning “to stand” – in combination forming the word erstehen, which in modern German became Auferstehen, or “resurrection”.
Finally, in reference to the origin of the term ‘Easter’, the fact that both Martin Luther and William Tyndale in their translations of the Bible used the designations Osterlamm and Esterlambe for Christ as the sacrificial lamb, is a compelling argument that, even 500 years ago, Easter had no association with a pagan goddess.
It is interesting, though, that among modern languages, it is just about only English that has stuck to the term ‘Easter’ for this time of the year. All others, including German, use words or terms that derive from the Greek and Latin word Pascha, which in turn derived from the Hebrew term Pesach, known in English as ‘Passover’.
Since I am blessed to celebrate my birthday among family and friends almost on the eve of Easter, just before the winter rain in Cape Town usually arrives, I became curious about this ‘celebration’ thing and from where it originates.
Turns out that the word ‘celebration’ arrived in the English language in the late 15th century from the Latin word celebratus, the past participle of celebrare, which originally meant “attend in great numbers” or “assemble to honour”.
Personally, however, I developed some doubts about the whole celebration thing when the first text message I received at around seven o’clock on my birthday to wish me well for the next year, was from the people who had sold me a funeral policy. And, when I switched on my computer, the first email with good wishes was from my medical aid!