For me, a good word origin is like discovering an Easter egg, hidden in plain sight yet holding a sweet surprise inside. What surprise might the word Easter hold in its shell?
Any hunt for the origin of Easter points back to the Venerable Bede (~672-735). He was an English monk, scholar, and translator. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a critical and primary source of knowledge on Anglo-Saxon history. Inter alia, his work did much to elevate the English language as a vehicle of scholarship.
Bede also scratched much velum on cosmology, astronomy, and chronology, and it is on these topics in his De Temporum Ratione, or The Reckoning of Time (ca. 735) where we see the earliest attempt to derive Easter. In a passage attempting to explain the Anglo-Saxon names of the months of the year, Bede writes, as translated from the Latin by Faith Wallis:
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.
According to Bede, Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. The problem, though, is that we can’t find confirmation of this pagan Eostre elsewhere. But as the Oxford English Dictionary asks, why would Bede invent a god to account for Christian one?
Only German and English use “Easter” to name the Christian festival. European languages–including manyScandinavian ones–use terms derived from Jewish Passover, such as Pascha. You may recognize this in the derivative paschal. This passed into Romance languages from the Latin, before that Greek and Aramaic, and ultimately from the Hebrew, pésakh (or pesah). The root–the triconsonantal root, if you’re familiar with Semitic verb structures–is p-s-ḥ (פסח) and means, in essence, “to pass over”–to jump, to skip (Wiktionary).
Nevertheless, Jacob Grimm–whose impressive and influential career included a comprehensive dictionary of the German language; groundbreaking linguistic research, including his formulation of Grimm’s law; and editing what we refer to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales–puts a lot of eggs in the basket of a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, *Ostara. He based much of argument on the grounds of linguistic reconstruction and etymological cognates.
While *Ostara is dubious yet possible, Grimm’s hunt doesn’t exactly turn up empty-basketed. For, the Easter cognates point back to a Proto-Germanic *austra-, source of the English east (as in the direction), and further back to Proto-Indo-European *aus–, “to shine” or “clear” and “bright.” They live on in words like Australia, aurora, and the chemical symbol for gold, Au (from aurum), all from Latin iterations.
We see, then, at root of Easter, a shining sunrise in the east. For the Easter believers, this Eostre was goddess of spring, of dawn, of fertility, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.
New beginnings: That’s what all the Easter symbolism–Christian or pagan–is about, isn’t? With its old root, Easter preserves a new dawn, literal and symbolic.