Names of Easter

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

The Christian holiday Easter has several names. The names differ depending on languages, but most are derived from Greek and Latin "pascha". The modern English term Easter developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre (Old English pronunciation: [ˈæːɑstre, ˈeːostre]), which itself developed prior to 899, originally referring to the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre.[1]

English Easter, German Ostern, and related

Main article: Ēostre
Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts

Old English Eōstre continues into modern English as Easter and derives from Proto-Germanic *austrōn meaning 'dawn', itself a descendent of the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning 'to shine' (modern English east also derives from this root).[2]

Writing in the 8th century, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede describes Ēostre as the name of an Old English goddess: "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."[3]

Since the 19th century, numerous linguists have observed that the name is linguistically cognate with the names of dawn goddesses attested among Indo-European language-speaking peoples. By way of historical linguistics, these cognates lead to the reconstruction of a Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess; the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997) details that "a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn is supported both by the evidence of cognate names and the similarity of mythic representation of the dawn goddess among various [Indo-European] groups” and that “all of this evidence permits us to posit a [Proto-Indo-European] *haéusōs 'goddess of dawn' who was characterized as a "reluctant" bringer of light for which she is punished. In three of the [Indo-European] stocks, Baltic, Greek and Indo-Iranian, the existence of a [Proto-Indo-European] 'goddess of the dawn' is given additional linguistic support in that she is designated the 'daughter of heaven'"[4]

The first to propose this theory was Jacob Grimm, who in his Deutsche Mythologie, first published in 1835, linked Bede's Eostre with the Old High German for Easter, ôstarâ, and wrote: "This Ostarâ, like the Anglo-Saxon Eástre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being". He linked the word with Latin auster (meaning "south") and with Austri, the male spirit of light mentioned in the Edda, who if thought of as female would be called Austra. Grimm concluded: "Ostara, Eástre seems to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light."[5]

John Layard, quoting Billson, cites several authorities both for and against the existence of the postulated goddess and himself concludes in favour.[6] The contributor Lincke to the Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens also cites scholars on both sides, but himself draws a negative conclusion.[7] One German scholar describes Ostara as a "pseudo-goddess", the result of a misunderstanding.[8]

As of 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary has described alternatives to this etymology as "less likely", adding that "it seems unlikely that Bede would invent a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one".[9] Of course, given how common false patronymics and false etymologies were in classical and medieval histories, it is possible that Bede was sincerely repeating an etymology he heard elsewhere without having to implicate Bede in intentionally inventing a fictitious pagan festival.

The name for Easter in Old English, including West Saxon, is usually not the singular feminine noun Ēastre, but instead the plural noun Ēastrun, -on, also -an. The neuter plural noun Ēastru, -o is also found.[10]

In 1959, Johann Knobloch proposed a different etymology.[11] Writing of "the relationship between dawn and springtime, between night - or early morning - and daybreak in the Christian Eastern rituals of the East and the West",[12] he proposed that the Old High German name for the feast, Ōst(a)rūn, as a Gallo-Frankish coinage,[13] drawn from Latin albae in the designation of Easter Week as hebdomada in albis and in the phrase albae (paschales).[14] The Germanic word is connected with an Indoeuropean word for the dawn (uşás-, Avestan ušab-, Greek ἠώς, Latin aurora, Lithuanian aušrà, Latvian àustra, Old Church Slavonic za ustra), and Knobloch links this derivation with the word albae in the phrases in Church Latin, with which are associated the French and Italian words for the dawn, and connected it with the dawn service of the Easter Vigil in which those to be baptized faced east when pronouncing their profession of faith.[14][15][16][17] Jürgen Udolph, himself a proponent of a different view, says that, although the theory that the words "Easter" and "Ostern" come from the name of a Germanic goddess reconstructed by Jacob Grimm as Ostara is the most widespread at a popular level, Knobloch's proposal enjoys most support,[14]

A still more recent theory connects the English and German words not with the dawn but with a word associated with baptism. Jürgen Udolph published in 1999 his Ostern: Geschichte eines Wortes,[18] in which he argued for an origin from the North Germanic verb ausa, "to pour". A pre-Christian rite of "baptism" and name-giving was referred to as vatni ausa, "to pour water over". Since baptism was the central event in the Easter celebration in the first centuries of Christianity, it was argued that this background explains the name given to the feast.[19]

In some West Slavic languages the words for Easter – Jastrë in Kashubian, jutry in Upper Sorbian, jatšy in Lower Sorbian – apparently derive from a Germanic word related to English Easter and German Ostern.[20]

From Greek Pascha

The festival that early Christians celebrated was called in Greek Πάσχα (Pascha), a transliteration of the Aramaic word פסחא, cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally designated the Passover feast of Exodus 12.[21] Paul writes from Ephesus that "Christ our Pascha (Passover) has been sacrificed for us", doubtless not the first interpretation of Exodus 12 as referring to the crucifixion of Jesus.[22] In the Roman province of Asia, second-century Christians known as Quartodecimans continued to celebrate this feast in coincidence with the Jewish feast, but by then Christians elsewhere celebrated it on the following Sunday, the day on which in every week the resurrection of Christ was celebrated.[23][24]

Latin adopted the Greek term for the feast, and in most European languages, notable exceptions being English, German and the Slavic languages, the feast is today called Pascha or words derived from it.[25][26][27]

In Old English the form Pascan was used by Byrhtferth (c. 970 – c. 1020) and the form Pasches in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1122.[28] Although now limited to specialized uses, the terms the Pasch or Pascha are sometimes used in Modern English.[29] Pace, a dialect form of Pasch, is found in Scottish English[30] and in the English of northeastern England,[31] and used especially in combination with the word "egg", as in "Pace Egg play.[32]

In nearly all Romance languages, the name of the Easter festival is derived from the Latin Pascha. In Spanish, Easter is Pascua, in Italian and Catalan Pasqua, in Portuguese Páscoa and in Romanian Paşti. In French, the name of Easter Pâques also derives from the Latin word but the s following the a has been lost and the two letters have been transformed into an â with a circumflex accent by elision. In Romanian, the only Romance language of an Eastern church, the word Înviere (resurrection, cf. Greek Ἀνάστασις, [anástasis]) is also used.

Albanian, although not a Romance language, borrows the Latin Pascha as Pashka. The holiday is frequently referred to in the plural, Pashkët.

In all modern Celtic languages the term for Easter is derived from Latin. In the Brittonic languages this has yielded Welsh Pasg, Cornish and Breton Pask. In Goidelic languages the word was borrowed before these languages had re-developed the /p/ sound and as a result the initial /p/ was replaced with /k/. This yielded Irish Cáisc, Gaelic Càisg and Manx Caisht. These terms are normally used with the definite article in Goidelic languages, causing lenition in all cases: An Cháisc, A' Chàisg and Yn Chaisht.

In Dutch, Easter is known as Pasen and in the North Germanic languages Easter is known as påske (Danish and Norwegian), påsk (Swedish), páskar (Icelandic) and páskir (Faeroese). The name is derived directly from Hebrew Pesach.[33] The letter å is pronounced /oː/, derived from an older aa, and an alternate spelling is paaske or paask.

In Russia, Pascha (Paskha/Пасха), is a borrowing of the Greek form via Old Church Slavonic.[34]


  1. Barnhart, Robert K. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology (1995) ISBN 0-06-270084-7.
  2. Watkins 2006 [2000]: 2021.
  3. Wallis, Faith (Trans.) (1999). Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 0-85323-693-3
  4. Mallory & Adams (1997:148–149)
  5. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1 (Courier Dover Publications 2004 ISBN 978-0-48643546-6), pp. 289–291
  6. John Layard, The Lady of the Hare (Routledge 2012 ISBN 978-1-13618317-1), p. 178–179
  7. Eduard Hoffmann-Krayer, Hanns Baechtold-Staeubli (editors), Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (Walter de Gruyter 1974 ISBN 978-3-11006594-7), coll. 1311–1316
  8. Jürgen Udolph, Ostern: Geschichte eines Wortes (Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1999 ISBN 978-3-82530866-7), p. 12
  9. "Easter, n.1." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 23 April 2014.
  10. K. Brunner, Altenglische Grammatik, 3. Aufl., § 278. Anm. 3, cited in Die Sprache, vol. 30 (Vienna, 1984), p. 61
  11. Johann Knobloch, "Der Ursprung von nhd. Ostern, engl. Easter", in Die Sprache 5 (1959), 27-45
  12. Georges Dumézil, Camillus (University of California Press 1980 ISBN 978-0-52002841-8), p. 176
  13. Wilhelm Havers (editor), Die Sprache, vols. 30-31 (1984), p. 61
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Jürgen Udolph, "Ostern" in Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, Volume 22 (Walter de Gruyter, 2003 ISBN 978-31-1017351-2)
  15. D.H. Green, Language and History in the Early Germanic World (Cambridge University Press 2000 ISBN 978-0-52179423-7), pp. 351–353
  16. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in zwanzig Bänden, Volume 14 (ISBN 978-37-6530000-4), p. 15
  17. Karl-Heinrich Bieritz, Das Kirchenjahr (C.H.Beck, 2005 ISBN 978-34-0647585-6), p. 90
  18. Jürgen Udolph, Ostern: Geschichte eines Wortes, Indogermanische Bibliothek, Series 3, vol. 20 (Universitätsverlag C. Winter, Heidelberg, 1999, ISBN 978-38-2530866-7)
  19. Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache, "Fragen und Antworten"
  20. Muka, Ernst (1911–15). Słownik dolnoserbskeje rěcy a jeje narěcow / Wörterbuch der nieder-wendischen Sprache und ihrer Dialekte. 1. Prague: Verlag der russischen und čechischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. S.v. jatšy. 
  21. Karl Gerlach (1998). The Antenicene Pascha: A Rhetorical History. Peeters Publishers. p. XVIII. The second century equivalent of easter and the paschal Triduum was called by both Greek and Latin writers "Pascha (πάσχα)", a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic form of the Hebrew פֶּסַח, the Passover feast of Ex. 12. 
  22. Karl Gerlach (1998). The Antenicene Pascha: A Rhetorical History. Peeters Publishers. p. 21. For while it is from Ephesus that Paul writes, "Christ our Pascha has been sacrificed for us," Ephesian Christians were not likely the first to hear that Ex 12 did not speak about the rituals of Pesach, but the death of Jesus of Nazareth. 
  23. Kenneth A. Strand, "Sunday Easter and Quartodecimanism in the Early Christian Church" in Andrews University Seminary Studies, Summer 1990, vol 28, No. 2, pp. 127-136
  24. Roger T. Beckwith, Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian (Brill 2001 ISBN 978-0-39104123-3), chapter 3: "Easter and Whitsun: The Origin of the Church's Earliest Annual Festivals"
  25. Norman Davies (20 January 1998). Europe: A History. HarperCollins. In most European languages Easter is called by some variant of the late Latin word Pascha, which in turn derives from the Hebrew pesach, passover'. 
  26. Lisa D. Maugans Driver, Christ at the Center (Westminster John Knox Press 2009 ISBN 978-0-664-22897-2), p. 151 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church (Eerdmans 2009 ISBN 978-0-8028-2748-7), p. 351 or Pascha
  27. Nelson, Thomas (28 February 2008). The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today's World. Thomas Nelson Inc. p. 1408. ISBN 9781418576363. Thus, Pascha is the primary term by which we refer to the death and Resurrection of Christ, known in the West as Easter. 
  28. "pasch, n.". OED Online. Oxford University Press. March 2014. Retrieved April 23, 2014. 
  29. Vicki K. Black (1 July 2004). Welcome to the Church Year: An Introduction to the Seasons of the Episcopal Church. Church Publishing, Inc. Easter is still called by its older Greek name, Pascha, which means "Passover". 
  30. The Online Scots Dictionary
  31. Bill Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (, Limited 2010 ISBN 978-1-45878484-1)
  32. The Chambers Dictionary (Allied Chambers 1998 ISBN 978-81-8606225-8). p. 1163
  33. Room, Adrian (1988). A Dictionary of True Etymologies. Routledge & Kegan Paul Books. ISBN 978-0-415-03060-1. Retrieved 5 April 2009. 
  34. Max Vasmer, Russisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Heidelberg, 1950–1958.