Sunday, April 16, 2006

Gesælige Eostre?

Two days ago, on Good Friday, I posted Matthias Grünewald's crucifixion scene from his Isenheim Altarpiece and talked about the origin of "Good" in "Good Friday." Today, I've posted the resurrection scence from the same work, and I want to talk about the word "Easter."

First, though, just a brief word about Grünewald and the Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald's real name, it seems, was Mathis Gothart Niethart, but he was mistakenly identified as Matthias Grünewald by Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688), a 17th-century painter and art historian. Grünewald's life has been made the subject of an opera, Matthias the Painter (Mathis der Maler), by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who structured his opera according to the Isenheim Altarpiece, naming the opera's three movements after the altarpiece's three panels.

Now about Easter.

For a long time, I thought that our word "Easter" was related to the word "east" and that its use in the Christian holiday derived from the fact that Christianity came to the West from the East. On the day of the resurrection, I imagined, we look to the East.

But that was just folk etymology (though further back etymologically, they really do link).

Later, when I learned about Ishtar, an eastern Semitic fertility goddess, I imagined a link between her and our Easter fertility imagery (eggs and rabbits, that sort of thing) by wondering if our term "Easter" had come from "Ishtar" since Christianity had often borrowed pagan terms and images in its early and Medieval period.

But that was equally wrong, despite Wikipedia's claim that:
In Acts 12:4 of the King James Version of the Bible, the word "pesach" (passover) is erroneously translated as "Easter" which is an Anglicized spelling of Ishtar.
Somebody ought to correct that. Indeed, Wikipedia gets "Easter" right elsewhere:
The English and German names, "Easter" and "Ostern", are not etymologically derived from Pesach and are instead related to ancient names for the month of April, Eostremonat and Ostaramanoth respectively. According to the 8th century Christian monk and historian the Bede, this month was dedicated to the pagan fertility goddess Eostre. The Easter Bunny is often identified as a remnant of this fertility festival, although there is no evidence of any link.
I only discovered this etymology of "Easter" about a year and a half ago, when I was writing an article on Beowulf, "Praeparatio Evangelium: Beowulf as Antetype of Christ," and encountered the information provided by Bede (ca. 672-735).

Just to clarify for those who haven't studied older forms of English or German, the words "Eostremonat" and "Ostaramanoth" both mean "Easter-month" (Eostre-monat and Ostara-manoth).

Bede discusses only "Eostremonat," for he's writing in England, not Germany. Here's what he writes in Chapter 15 of De Tempore Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), which I again borrow from Wikipedia:
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.
Bede identifies Eostre as a goddess, but as Wikipedia notes, some have questioned this because nowhere else do we find mention of this deity:
In recent years some historians have suggested that Bede may have made her up because there are no known references to her preceding his work.

I haven't looked into this issue very far and don't have time to do so right now, but I do wonder what motive Bede would have had for inventing a goddess whose name was lent (pun unintended) to the holiest of Christian holidays, Easter. Bede's aim doesn't seem to be that of forbidding Christians to use the pagan term. Indeed, if I recall from my research, he seemed to think that the Church had acted prudently in taking over pagan names and practices by Christianizing them, for this smoothed the transition from paganism to Christianity for new converts.

The Online Etymological Dictionary seems to accept Bede's report of her existence:

Easter: O.E. Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from P.Gmc. *Austron, a goddess of fertility and sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *austra-, from PIE *aus- "to shine" (especially of the dawn). Bede says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices for their Mass of Christ's resurrection.

I suppose the jury is still out, but anyway -- if this is the proper Old English expression for "Happy Easter" -- "Gesælige Eostre."


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

My own research has found zero linkage between Eostre (whom I think was an Anglo-Saxon goddess, not simply Bede's error) and the holiday we call Easter. So far as I can tell, in English Easter is named for the month, which is in turn named for the goddess. I think Bede is linking the name and the holiday after the fact, when more likely early Anglo-Saxon Christians probably used Latin and called it "Pascha," and started referring it to "Easter" after the month, without considering (or perhaps even knowing) the connection of that month's name with a pagan goddess.

In other words, the connection between Easter and Eostre is exactly the same as that between the Fourth of July and Julius Caesar.

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I had wondered if our word "Easter" derived from the month's name rather than the name of the goddess. I took Bede at his word since he was 8th century and thus only about a hundred years after Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons.

By the way, how did the Anglo-Saxons greet each other on Easter?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:59 AM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...


Dunno. Probably with something like: "Wes thu hal! Dang, this sunrise service comes early in the mornin', don't it?"

That would be my guess, anyway.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Wes thu hal!" ... hmmm, now if I recall my rusty Anglo-Saxon, that means "What the hell!"

I expect they were expressing surprise at the resurrection every Easter:

"Wes thu hal! Guy come outta the tomb! Didn't the same thing happen this time last year?"

Jeffery Hodges

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