The celebration of Easter is unfortunately marred with what can only be regarded as a silly debate over whether Easter was originally a pagan holiday derived from the worship of the Teutonic Eostre or even the Babylonian Ishtar. This argument is proffered by neo-pagans with an insufficient knowledge of history and linguistics, or sometimes by fundamentalist Protestants eager to show that the Catholic Church’s most solemn festival originated in pagan idolatry. As we shall see, this does not stand up to historical of linguistic scrutiny.
The Easter-Eostre theory is that the English word “Easter” is derived from the old English word “Eostre”, which is taken to be an Anglo-Saxon or Celtic fertility goddess. This etymology suggests that the Easter celebration was originally a pagan celebration which the Church merely Christianized sometime in the early Middle Ages. Ostensibly about the Resurrection of Christ, the feast retains many of its pagan characterizations: eggs, rabbits, baby chickens, and so on are alleged symbols of Germanic paganism associated with the Eostre fertility cult. It is essentially one argument in the larger pseudo-historical “Christianity is essentially pagan” school of thought.
Proponents of the Easter-Eostre connection will sometimes take the argument a step further by suggesting that Eostre itself is derived from the ancient Babylonian goddess Ishtar (“Astarte” in the Old Testament). This more extravagant version of the argument can be found in the tracts and websites of Protestant fundamentalist apologists. The attempt to link Easter with Ishtar is meant to discredit the Church by connecting the most important Catholic holiday with the detested “Queen of Heaven” whose worship was condemned by the prophets (cf. Jer. 7:18, 44:17-18, Ezk. 8:14-17).
We will begin our study of this question with this alleged Babylonian connection because it is the most outlandish. From there we will proceed to the more scholarly question about the Germanic Eostre and its connection, if any, to the Christian Easter.
Who was Ishtar? Ishtar was a moon goddess worshiped in ancient Mesopotamia, and to a lesser degree, Palestine. She was originally invoked in Sumeria as Innana, meaning “Lady of Heaven.” Under the Akkadians (2400-2150 BC) her name was translated into Akkadian as Ishtar. Akkadian is a Semitic language—that is, it shares common roots with languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. It was the language of Akkadian Empire and was widely spoken in the old Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, which flourished from around 2000-1000 BC It eventually morphed into Aramaic in the 1st millennium BC
Keeping in mind the argument that Easter is actually derived from Ishtar, one must be able to explain how the ancient Akkadian managed to influence the old Anglo-Saxon language, from which Easter is ultimately derived. Languages do not spread in a vacuum; lingual transmission requires culture to culture contact—a linguistic paper trail, so to speak. For the Easter-Ishtar theory to be valid, we must demonstrate a real cultural connection between ancient Akkadian Mesopotamia and early medieval England.
It should be immediately apparent what nonsense this is. Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) is a very long way from England. There were simply no cultural, political, or commercial connections between Mesopotamia and England to make such linguistic transmission possible. It would be as absurd as claiming that the certain Inuit words were influenced by ancient Greek.
This is not to suggest words cannot travel over great distance through many intermediate steps. Words and ideas certainly can travel over long distances; Christianity itself eventually spread from Palestine to Britain—but it spread in an organic manner with a discernible diffusion, a “paper trail”: first in Palestine, then to the Greek cities of Asia Minor and Greece via the work of St. Paul, then later into Rome and the various coastal cities around the Mediterranean. Then, in the 2nd century, into North Africa, and then Gaul and into Britain sometime during the reign of Trajan, possibly earlier. There is archaeological evidence, liturgical evidence, and a clear lineage demonstrating how Christianity spread from Palestine to Britain.
But what sort of “trail” or evidence can be offered for the spread of Ishtar from the Akkadian Empire to the Anglo-Saxons? We should see forms of Ishtar cropping up in Rome, Gaul, Germany, etc. But of course we do not. This is because there was no meaningful cultural exchange between Akkadia and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The geography doesn’t line up.
Furthermore, the chronology would not allow for an influence by Akkadian on Anglo-Saxon. Akkadian ceased being used as a spoken language sometime in the 8th century BC during the second Assyrian Empire (it was replaced by Aramaic); true, Akkadian survived as a written and liturgical language for several more centuries, but the last known inscription we know of in ancient Akkadian was made in the 1st century AD Scholars agree the language was totally extinct by 100 AD Anglo-Saxon, meanwhile, did not emerge as a distinct language until the 5th century AD By the time the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were established, Akkadian as a spoken language had been extinct for over a thousand years; it had not even been written down for almost four centuries. Chronologically there is no way Akkadian could have influenced the Anglo-Saxon tongue. The Anglo-Saxon culture simply did not exist during the time when Akkadian was being spoken.
This means that not only would proponents of the Easter-Ishtar theory need to show a clear cultural link between Akkadia and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, but they would need to explain how Akkadian influenced the Anglo-Saxon language that did not emerge until a thousand years after Akkadian ceased being spoken. Again, in the absence of any intermediary instances of the word between Akkadian and Anglo-Saxon that could serve as a bridge in space and time between the two civilizations, no such direct influence of one upon the other is feasible.
Finally, we must note that English and Akkadian derive from two entirely different linguistic families. As we have mentioned, Akkadian is a Semiticlanguage; English and Anglo-Saxon are Germanic languages. Typically, when one language influences another, it is because they are part of the same broader language family. Grammatical structure and word usage are often similar between two languages in the same family, which facilitates a greater fluidity between the languages. For example, Latin and Greek were both Indo-European languages, which allowed many Greek words to pass easily into Latin and vice versa. Anglo-Saxon and Akkadian, however, are not from the same language family. The fact that Anglo-Saxon belongs to the Germanic family (Indo-European) and Akkadian to the Semitic family (Afroasiatic) means there are substantial, additional barriers to the direct transference of vocabulary from the latter to the former.
To explain it another way, it is not difficult that a word used in Spanish could be picked up by the French, but it would be much more difficult for a word in Mandarin Chinese to find its way into the English language.
The cultural geography does not make sense. The chronology does not make sense. The linguistics do not make sense. There is simply no way that a phrase from old Akkadian could make its way into medieval Anglo-Saxon and thence to English. And there is no philologist or etymologist who takes the Ishtar-Easter theory seriously. It is simply nonsense.
Awareness of False Cognates
We must be careful with reading too much into the way words sound, for one can run into false cognates—pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning but have different etymologies. It is admitted that Easter and Ishtar have a similar phonology, but this is deceiving. A splendid example of a false cognate is the English word day and the corresponding Latin, dies. Given the similarity in sound between day and dies, and the identical definition, we might naturally assume the English day is derived from the Latin dies. In fact, the words have no relation. The English day comes from the proto-Germanic dages, itself from the Indo-European root, agh, meaning “day.” The Latin dies, on the other hand, goes back through the proto-Italic to the old Indo-European word dyḗws, which means “heaven” or “sky.” With day and dies we have a case with two words of identical meaning and very similar sound, but which nevertheless have no etymological relation to one another.
Another example is the word niggardly, meaning stingy, and the racist epithet nigger. These two words are often assumed to be related, but in fact there is no etymological relation. Niggardly comes from the Middle English word nygart, which probably came from the old Norse, hnøggr, meaning “stingy.” The racial slur nigger, on the other hand, is related to the Spanish word negro, which of course means black. It should be evident that the connection between the words nigger and niggardly is only apparent; there is no etymological link.
Similarly, what we have with the Akkadian Ishtar and Easter is simply another case of false cognates. There is no real etymological connection, despite the similar sounds of the words. The presumed relation is illusory.
The Anglo-Saxon Eostre
As we mentioned above, not all proponents of the “Easter is pagan” theory latch on to the spurious Ishtar connection. Many point not to Ishtar but to a Teutonic pagan goddess Eostre. Having dealt with Easter-Ishtar, now let us proceed to Easter-Eostre.
Eostre is said to be the name of a pagan Germanic goddess of the early Anglo-Saxons. The first thing that should give us pause is that the only place the name Eostre is mentioned in the entire corpus of ancient or medieval literature is in one single passage from St. Bede the Venerable (672-735). This comes from one of Bede’s lesser known works, De tempore ratione, in which Bede describes the names of the various Anglo-Saxon months and offers explanations for why they are thus named. In Chapter 15, Bede discusses a month called Eosturmonath, which corresponds roughly with our month of April. Bede suggests the name of this month is taken from the worship of a goddess name Eostre. He says:
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.
This passage is the sole reference in all classical and medieval literature to any goddess named Eostre. Given that St. Bede was writing in the 8th century, over two centuries since Christianity came to Britain, his knowledge of the pagan rites of pre-Christian Britain comes from legend, hearsay, and speculation. This has led many to suspect that there may never have been any goddess named Eostre, and that any connection between Eostre and Easter is mere conjecture on Bede’s part. And any student of history knows that ancient or medieval etymologies are generally the product of fanciful speculations whose historical value is usually nil.
There are plenty of Celtic and Germanic deities. Thor, Odin and the Norse gods. Cerunnos, Dagda, Nerthus and the Celtic gods. These gods are all well attested; they show up in multiple written sources as well as epigraphical inscriptions and in Celtic and Germanic art. But there is not a single contemporary reference to any goddess named Eostre. The only reference to her is the solitary passage from Bede, penned almost two centuries after the end of English paganism. Eostre does not even show up in the Edda, which purports to be a voluminous compendium of lore on Teutonic deities.
In modern times, the Eostre theory was actually popularized by none other than the famous author and folklorist Jakob Grimm. This can be traced back to Grimm’s 1835 work Deutsche Mythologie. In that work, Grimm begins with the working hypothesis that the name of an ancient Germanic god is preserved in the name Easter; he offers no evidence for this, but simply assumes the validity of the hypothesis. If this were true, then, what would that goddess have been called? He goes on to suggest Ostara as the original pronunciation of Bede’s Eostre. He never bothers to question whether Bede was right or wrong; he assumes Bede is correct and goes from there to examine what the named Eostre might have looked like in other Germanic dialects. Hence Ostara.
Essentially, Ostara was conjured out of thin air; there has never been any evidence of a goddess by this name. It was merely a philological speculation of Grimm—if Easter was named after a pagan goddess, what would that goddess’s name have been? Grimm himself was convinced of the veracity of his theory. But, though knowledgeable of German customs and language, Grimm seemed to have been woefully ignorant of Christian traditions that in fact disproved the Ostara-Eostre theory. For example, in his second volume of Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm suggests the custom of Easter eggs as evidence of a long-forgotten pagan custom that had survived into Christian times. He wrote:
The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate: I allude especially to the custom of Easter egg…(1)
Grimm here seems ignorant of the fact that the custom of the Easter egg dates to the Patristic era and Eastern Christianity, from whence it passed into Germany by way of the Slavic countries and reached Western Europe and Britain by the Middle Ages. The decoration of the Easter egg began as a Christian custom of dying eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ during Lent. Yet Grimm hypothesizes a pagan origin in order to connect it to Ostara, a goddess he freely invented based on a preconceived assumption that Easter hides the name of some pagan deity. It is mere speculation not grounded in history.
Even if not strictly provable, the Oxford English Dictionary, the foremost authority on English etymology, affirms the theory of Grimm at least as hypothesis, stating that “it seems unlikely that Bede would invent a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one”. (2)
We could object that admitting Bede could have been wrong is not to suggest that he fabricated or “invented” Eostre out of thin air, as the OED would have it. Ancient and medieval etymologies are rife with false patronymics (attributing the origin of a thing’s name to a mythical founder). False patronymics were extremely common in the Middle Ages. Most likely, St. Bede was sincerely repeating an incorrect etymology he heard elsewhere. His Eostre is a freely invented false patronymic used to explain a month whose origin he had no firsthand knowledge of. He may have recorded this in good faith on the testimony of other Christian monks, but given the lack of even a single shred of additional evidence for the existence of Eostre, it seems safe to regard this as a fiction—and if Eostre is a fiction, even more so is Grimm’s Ostara theory.
But for the sake of argument, let us grant that Bede may be correct. Let us even say that Grimm is correct and the name of some pagan deity survives in the name Easter. Even if this were all true, it would only prove that the word Easteris of pagan origin, not that the entire feast is essentially pagan. Even if the word Easterwas invented in pagan England, did Easter itself originate in England? Absolutely not. On this question, history is absolutely clear.
Christians were celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection since the beginning of Christianity. Melito of Sardis, writing around 160 AD, composed a homily for Easter in which he states that the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection was already well-established in his day. It was universally commemorated almost from the beginning, such that as early as 190 AD during the pontificate of Pope Victor the East and West came into conflict over the correct date of its celebration. The celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus is well attested throughout the Christian world from the 2nd century onward—and the writers of the 2nd century insisted it was already quite an ancient custom in their day. The Church has always held that this feast is apostolic in origin, and there is no historical reason to suggest otherwise. Clearly, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is bound up with the very origin of Christianity and predates any sort of early medieval Anglo-Saxon considerations.
Ultimately, then, we are talking only about the name of the feast, not whether the feast itself is pagan in character. This becomes even clearer when we look at the name of the feast in other languages, where it is more closely rooted to the Greek word Pascha, itself a form of the Hebrew Pesach, “Passover.” In Latin the Feast is Pascha. In French it is Pâques, in Spanish Pasuca, in Italian Pasqua, in Romanian Pasti, in Portuguese Pascoa. Even in England in the High Middle Ages certain monastic writers referred to it as Pascan and Pasches. The ubiquity of names derived from Pascha demonstrates that the feast itself is firmly rooted in the Paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus. The name Easter is unique to Germany (“Ostern”) and England.
And ultimately, even if the name of Easter were derived from Eostre, so what? St. Bede the Venerable, the most eminent churchman of the age, sees this not as something to be ashamed of, but as something extremely fitting, “calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance.” Given what we have examined, it seems there is no reason to suppose there ever was a goddess named Eostre; but even if there was, it no more signifies some sort of sinister residual pagan influence any more than the named Thursday signifies the continued influence of crypto-Thor worship.
Where Did the Word “Easter” Come From?
This leaves only one question unresolved. If there was no possibility of an influence from Babylon—and if there probably was never a pagan goddess named Eostre—then where did the name Easter actually come from? The idea of the survival of an obscure pagan goddess from the Anglo-Saxon dark ages hidden in plain sight in the name of the most beloved Christian holiday is certainly an intellectually titillating prospect. The truth, however, is less exciting but much more plausible.
When Bede speculated on the origin of the word Eosturmonath, he assumed it to be named for some goddess. In reality, the prefix eostur probably has more to do with the Indo-European root word aus, which means “to shine.” In Germanic languages, this morpheme has always had a connection with the dawn; the Indo-European word for dawn is in fact austron. This obviously has connections to geography and direction, and hence we see aus denoting the direction of east in Old Germanic. For example, Austria (Ger: Österreich), designating the eastern portions of the Carolingian Empire. To this day in Germany the word for “foreigner” is Ausländer, literally an “out lander”, where “out” is equated with the east, recalling the ancient days of the barbarian migrations when foreigners constantly poured in from the east. The German word for east, Ost, is also related to aus.
The season Eosturmonath, which is at the heart of Bede’s speculation, might very simply mean “dawn month”, “month of rising” or “month of shining” to denote the advent of the spring and the return of longer daylight hours once the Spring Equinox is passed, usually around March 20th.
Themes such as dawn, light, and east should call to mind our Lord’s Resurrection, in which the Light of the World rose. The Easter Mass was a liturgy facing east, which was celebrated at dawn. It is uncertain exactly what sort of connotation words like aus and austron would have had in 5th century Anglo-Saxon, but given that the Easter liturgy was long ago celebrated shortly before dawn, the word Easter may mean nothing more than “Dawn Mass”, “Mass of the Rising”, or something similar. This would be very plausible, since we know several other feasts obtained their names in this manner (Whitsunday because of the white robes of the neophytes, Tenebrae because of the extinguishing of candles and the celebration after midnight, etc.).
The origins of other Easter customs are most likely of similarly dull and non-scandalous origins. We have already mentioned the custom of dyeing Easter eggs came from the east. But how did the egg get equated with Easter? Remnant of some long forgotten pagan fertility god, perhaps? A lost Anglo-Saxon duck goddess, maybe? Unlikely. In the old days, people used to give up eggs and dairy during Lent. However, chickens do not regulate their laying according to the liturgical calendar. Chickens continue to lay throughout Lent, leading to an abundance of eggs. By the time Easter arrived, most households would have a surplus of eggs that needed to be consumed. Thus, eggs became a prominent feature in Easter feasts. It is as simple as that. Of course, this may not be readily apparent to peoples who do not celebrate a Lenten fast.
Rabbits are associated with Easter because they are a spring animal and Easter occurs in the spring. Lilies have always signified purity and been associated with our Lord’s Resurrection. In short, these symbols are associated with Easter because they are spring symbols and Easter occurs in the spring, just as we would expect a summer festival to contain summer symbols or a fall festival to contain fall symbolism. This is common sense.
Let us summarize this argument, which has strayed far afield: The name Eostre is attested in a single reference from St. Bede. It is very likely that this is a case of a false etymology, since no such goddess is attested anywhere else. Other etymologies, such as the Babylonian Ishtar or the invented Ostara, are pure nonsense. More likely than not, the name Easter has more in common with the old Germanic Indo-European root austron for dawn, corresponding to the celebration of the Easter Mass at dawn. But even if we are incorrect and Easter was named after a pagan goddess, this would only mean the name Easter is of pagan origin, not that the character of the feast itself is pagan. Hence, in no sense can it be said that Easter is a “pagan holiday.”
This article is taken from Chapter 5 of the book The Feasts of Christendom: History, Theology, and Customs of the Principal Feasts of the Catholic Church by Phillip Campbell (Cruachan Hill Press, 2021).
(1) Grimm, Jacob (James Steven Stallybrass Trans.) (1883). Teutonic Mythology: Translated from the Fourth Edition with Notes and Appendix Vol. II. London: George Bell and Sons., pg. 780-781
(2) “Easter, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. 1 April 2015
Phillip Campbell, “Is Easter Pagan? The Easter-Eostre Connection,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, March 29, 2015. Available online at http://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/11/is-easter-pagan-the-easter-eostre-connection