Easter Bunny

easter bunnyYou’ll often see the explanation of Easter as the Christian replacement for a previous pagan festival devoted to a fertility goddess, Eostre. While the general idea is plausible enough, given that other festivals certainly were taken over, the name of the actual goddess was not remembered in any folklore, and is mentioned only once in surviving written material.

That one mention was by the chronicler and monk Bede, in his Latin document “On the Reckoning of Time”, published in 725. After explaining the origin of the Anglo-Saxon month name “Hreth-monath” by reference to pagan worship of the goddess Hretha, he goes on to say that “Eostur-monath”, Easter month, was similarly derived from the name of the goddess Eostre.

The 19th century linguist and folklorist Jacob Grimm decided that Bede, as a clergyman, would not have invented material (a rather weak argument, if you ask me) but admitted that neither goddess was known from tradition or other sources. He tried to use etymological methods to guess what the original names would have been, and suggested *Hrouda and *Austro (linguists put an asterisk at the beginning of hypothetical constructions).

Only English and German use this name for Easter (Ostern in German). All the related Germanic languages — Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and so on — plus Romance languages, Celtic languages, and most of the rest of Europe, have a name that derives from the Latin “Pascha”, which itself comes from the Hebrew “Pesach”, the Passover. (Slavic languages are the exception. Apart from Russian, which uses “Paskha”, their term usually translates as “Great Night”, for example, “Wielkanoc” in Polish.)

There must be some historical reason for the deviant terminology in German and English, but I’m not totally convinced by Bede’s account. It sounds rather like “folk etymology” to me, where the origin of a word is given a plausible, but unsupported derivation. A counter-argument to his theory is that none of the other ten months have a name in Anglo-Saxon pomlazkawhich refers to a god or goddess, but their names do have obvious meanings in Bede’s own Anglo-Saxon (such as “Hærfest-monath”, Harvest Month). Perhaps he felt he had to suggest meanings for the two which he didn’t understand.

On the other hand, there are obvious pagan aspects to the traditional Easter celebrations. Something to do with the Spring, fertility, bunnies and eggs. To my mind, one of the funniest traditions is the practice in parts of Eastern Europe of spanking young women to ensure beauty and fertility. No, really. Czech out the Czech Easter card featuring a happy girl in traditional dress and a whipped bottom. I suspect I’ll have to make do with a chocolate egg though.


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