Sunday, April 23, 2006

Is It OK to Say "Easter"?

One cannot have been Western Rite long without some Byzantine friend looking askance when you say, "Happy Easter." Some upbraid us that the term "Easter" is a pagan term honoring the goddess Astarte, whereas "Pascha" (Gk. "Passover") is the Orthodox term for the Feast of the Resurrection.

Like our writer below, I'd first encountered this concept from anti-holiday fundamentalists who believe Christmas and Easter are "pagan." But the facts are different. The term "Easter" derives from the Germanic term "Ostern" and probably never referred to any pagan deity.

The article below is a fascinating study into the legitimate history of the word "Easter." I do not know Caedmon Parsons, but his article is worth the read.

The History of the Term Easter
by Caedmon Parsons

Most of us may well prefer to use the word Pascha for Feast of the Lord's Resurrection but, please, let us not be so uncouth as to attack the venerable word "Easter," which is a part of our Orthodox heritage and a genuine survival from the days when Britain was Orthodox in her faith.

There is absolutely no evidence for a Germanic goddess with a name in any way resembling the word "Easter." Rather than the term being derived from a goddess, the supposed goddess is derived from the term. She was postulated by certain 19th century Germanic scholars in an attempt to explain the etymology of the word. These same scholars (foremost among them the Grimm brothers, famous for their folktale collections and less well-known as the discoverers of the "Indo-European" linguistic family) had a very definite nationalist/ethnic agenda in which they were trying to rediscover the "real" roots of German culture. Thus the folktale collection's avowed purpose was to search for "survivals" of pre-Christian Germanic religion and culture.

The later connection of this invented figure to Astarte was sheer fundamentalist propaganda based on a coincidental similarity in sound. Having dismissed Nativity/Christmas because it's timing coincides with a number of pagan solar festivals, those fundamentalist groups which criticise all celebration of "holy days" thereby sought to discredit "Easter," whose general timing is well laid out in the Bible. If there was a connection, it would be the only case of a Sumerian/Canaanite word coming into the Germanic languages without first passing through Hebrew and/or Greek into Latin and then into Germanic via the medium of Christianity.

There is some by no means conclusive evidence of a festival or holy day connected to the spring solstice. However, every recorded instance of the word's usage has clear Christian connotations (i.e., if it ever was a pagan festival, it had effectively disappeared by the time people wrote using the term "Easter"). As to why this word is used in English and German: It is used in German for the simple reason that the pagans of modern-day Germany were missionised by Anglo-Saxon Christians such as St. Willibrord or the two St. Hewalds. The Germans thus got "Easter" the same way the Russians got "Pascha" -- from those who evangelized them.

Although the Grimm Brothers probably did conflate the issue, the goddess Eostre may be a valid concept. However, the only mention of a goddess Eostre is recorded in Bede's 8th century De tempore Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time) - the book which helped popularize B.C./A.D. dating. Since there is no other corroborating evidence, Bede may be mistaken. However the term for Pascha was not named from this doubtful goddess. Instead it is most likely that Easter (Pascha) comes from the Saxon month of Eostre (April) which was used for the spring period.

In other words, the term "Easter" no more honours Eostre than a "Wednesday Night Service" at your local Protestant church honours Odin (Wednesday=Woden's Day).

In England itself, this is the type of theoretical issue Anglo-Saxonists enjoy arguing. There appears to have been a very strong cultural bias among the Anglo-Saxons against other languages. While their Latin missionaries and then their own churchmen obviously knew and used Latin, there was remarkably little borrowing from Latin into English at this time. In almost every instance, the English Church took existing English words to express ecclesiastical terms (thus "sanctus" was translated by "haelig" [holy, healthy, whole] and Old English uses haelige John not St. John, "haeliged" [hallowed] rather than sanctified, etc.) rather than simply borrowing the Latin (the modern preponderance of Latin loan words for ecclesiastical terms is a product of the post 1066 Norman invasion) In addition to Latin books, Old English had the most active vernacular literature (primarily Christian) of any Western area prior to the millennium. There is an extant translation of the gospel of John which is the oldest translation of the Bible into a western vernacular with the exception of Bishop Wulfilas Arian translations into Gothic (itself another Germanic language).

In other words, the presence of the word "Easter" is actually a product of the vibrant "Orthodoxy" of the Anglo-Saxon Church which, unlike later periods, did not suppress the resident culture in favour of an all-embracing Latinism but rather transformed (in accord with the guidelines given to St. Augustine of Canterbury by St. Gregory the Great) the entire language and culture. Although I myself generally use "Pascha" because it is the common usage among Orthodox now, I find attempts to dismiss as "pagan" a true survival of English Orthodoxy very problematic.

Furthermore, there does not seem to be any English form of the word "Pascha"; Orthodox England never called the feast anything but Easter. Word-list (from J.R. Clarke-Hall's A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary):

  • east I. adj. east, easterly. II. adv. eastwards, in an easterly direction, in or from the east
  • eastan from the east, easterly
  • eastanwind east wind
  • eastcyning eastern king
  • eastern quarter, the East
  • easte the East
  • eastende east-end, east quarter
  • Eastengle the East Anglians: East Anglia
  • Easteraefen Easter-eve
  • Easterdaeg Easter-day, Easter Sunday
  • Easterfaestan Easter-fast, Lent
  • Easterfeorm feast of Easter
  • Easterfreolsdaeg the feast day of Passover
  • Eastergewuna Easter custom (appears only in the 9th century sermons ofAelfric where he is referring to Christian Easter practices)
  • Easterlic belonging to Easter, Paschal
  • Eastermonath Easter-month, April
  • Easterne east, eastern, oriental
  • Easterniht Easter-night
  • Eastersunnandaeg Easter Sunday
  • Eastersymble Passover (lit. Easter gathering)
  • Eastertid Eastertide, Paschal season
  • Easterthenung Passover
  • Easterwucu Easter Week

...and then we return to compounds of "east-" [eastern x] except for the nominative Eastre Easter, Passover, (possibly) Spring.

And while I find the etymological connection of Easter and astiehen (to rise up) doubtful, the pun of Eastre, astah (risen) is very obvious in Anglo-Saxon.

Ben's comments: In addition to the arguments related above, one might question whether "Pascha" really takes into consideration U.S. culture. The alleged goal of Orthodoxy is to "baptize" cultures and eventually see Orthodoxy become a part of the dominant national culture. "Pascha" is culturally unintelligible (within mainstream America), and a translation hardly improves comprehension. If Americans were go to out wishing people on the street a "Happy Passover," they would get the wrong idea, indeed.

In other words...Happy Easter!



Blogger Paul Goings said...

For what it's worth, when writing to his various relations in English, Tsar Nicholas always talked about going to "Mass" for "Christmas" and "Easter."

If it's good enough for the Tsar, it's good enough for me!

The "enthusiasms" of various converts notwithstanding...

4:32 PM  

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