Was Easter Borrowed From a Pagan
*The historical evidence contradicts this popular notion.*
By Anthony McRoy
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Anyone encountering anti-Christian polemics will quickly come up against the
accusation that a major festival practiced by Christians across the globe �
namely, Easter � was actually borrowed or rather usurped from a pagan
celebration. I often encounter this idea among Muslims who claim that later
Christians compromised with paganism to dilute the original faith of Jesus.
The argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English
and German names for the celebration (*Easter* in English and *Ostern* in
German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European
languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek
word *Pascha*, which comes from *pesach*, the Hebrew word for Passover.
Easter is the Christian Passover festival.
Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization � expressing
their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people �
that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world
have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of
practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of
"Good Friday," but they are in no way honoring the worship of the
Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.
But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that
neither the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection nor its name
are derived from paganism.
*A Celebration With Ancient Roots*
The usual argument for the pagan origins of Easter is based on a comment
made by the Venerable Bede (673-735), an English monk who wrote the first
history of Christianity in England, and who is one of our main sources of
knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon culture. In *De temporum ratione* (*On the
Reckoning of Time*, c. 730), Bede wrote this:
"In olden times the English people � for it did not seem fitting that I
should speak of other nations' observance of the year and yet be silent
about my own nation's � calculated their months according to the course of
the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months]
take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called *mona* and the month *
monath*. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February
is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath � 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
The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration
of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The
Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative
latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led
by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible
conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if
"Easter" (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to
those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of "Eostre" can have no
significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians
celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not
earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which
originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic
*What's In a Name?*
The second question is whether the name of the holiday "Easter" comes from
the blurring of the Christian celebration with the worship of a purported
pagan fertility goddess named "Eostre" in English and Germanic cultures.
There are several problems with the passage in Bede. In his book, *The
Stations of the Sun*, Professor Ronald Hutton (a well-known historian of
British paganism and occultism) critiques Bede's sketchy knowledge of other
pagan festivals, and argues that the same is true for the statement about
Eostre: "It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to
be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact."
This leads us to the next problem: there is no evidence outside of Bede for
the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in
the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe.
Hutton suggests, therefore, that "the Anglo-Saxon Estor-monath simply meant
'the month of opening' or 'the month of beginnings,'" and concludes that
there is no evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles in
March or April.
There is another objection to the claim that Eosturmonath has anything to do
with a pagan goddess. Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after
gods, such as Wednesday ("Woden's day"), the names of their months were
either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning "wheel," referring to the turn of
the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solm�nath (roughly
February), meaning "Mud-Month"; or referred to actions taken in that period,
such as Bl�tm�nath (roughly November), meaning "Blood Month," when animals
were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the
exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he
claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no
other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.
Another problem with Bede's explanation concerns the Saxons in continental
Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne,
tells us that among Charlemagne's reforms was the renaming of the months.
April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did
the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why
would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to
Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked
the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god
Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely
repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely,
therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.
So why, then, do English-speaking Christians call their holiday "Easter"?
One theory for the origin of the name is that the Latin phrase *in
albis*("in white"), which Christians used in reference to Easter week,
way into Old High German as *eostarum*, or "dawn." There is some evidence of
early Germanic borrowing of Latin despite that fact that the Germanic
peoples lived outside the Roman Empire�though the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
were far very removed from it. This theory presumes that the word only
became current after the introduction of either Roman influence or the
Christian faith, which is uncertain. But if accurate, it would demonstrate
that the festival is not named after a pagan goddess.
Alternatively, as Hutton suggests, *Eosturmonath* simply meant "the month of
opening," which is comparable to the meaning of "April" in Latin. The names
of both the Saxon and Latin months (which are calendrically similar) were
related to spring, the season when the buds open.
So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their
Passover holiday what they did � doubtless colloquially at first � simply
because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth. A
contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to
the December period as "the holidays" in connection with Christmas and
Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening
"around Christmas," usually referring to the time at the turn of the year.
The Christian title "Easter," then, essentially reflects its general date in
the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor
of a supposed pagan deity.
Of course, the Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on
the title of the celebration but on its content � namely, the remembrance of
Christ's death and resurrection. It is Christ's conquest of sin, death, and
Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone "Happy Easter!"
Anthony McRoy is a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and
lecturer in Islamic studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, U.K.
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