What are the historical roots of Easter? More specifically, the bunny, the eggs, and the place of religion in it. (self.AskHistorians)

AskHistorians

15 ups - 4 downs = 11 votes

I was sitting at the dinner table tonight, and I thought to myself, what the heck do a bunny and eggs have to do with anything of the holiday. Any help would be awesome. Thanks.

20 comments submitted at 02:03:39 on Mar 27, 2013 by minivanman

  • [-]
  • Flubb
  • 9 Points
  • 11:23:25, 27 March

Uh, no, it doesn't come from the Germanic goddess :P

Our main source for the word 'Easter' is Bede, writing around 730AD in On the Reckoning of Time who says:

> 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 observance.

The problem is the existence of the said goddess, who outside of Bede doesn't really exist. Bede has his own historical problems, and recognizes in this instance that he's not really sure about it and it's Bede's interpretation, rather than being supported from outside evidence.

The other linguistic issue, is that Anglo-Saxons named their months agriculturally, not according to deities (see the list here). So it's rather strange that Eostre should suddenly pop up and be a month name. You also see the problem with Hredmonath - outside of Bede, there's no knowledge of the goddess (if that is indeed what it's referring to). Philip Shaw recently published a monograph on this and attempts to link 'Easter' with the Old Norse 'austr' the "East". The problem is that it's one thing to show a linguistic link - it's another to show that there actually was something called Eostre that was worshipped.

Yet another issue is that Charlemagne is responsible for renaming all the months of the year, and April is turned into 'Ostarmanoth' - considering that Charlemagne has been waging war on the Saxons and converting them somewhat by force, it's a bit strange that he'd suddenly name the month after a pagan goddess.

So it makes much more sense that Eostermonath to be translated as 'the month of opening' - which fits with the time period (spring), rather than the goddess.

  • [-]
  • Riagu
  • 3 Points
  • 14:05:54, 27 March

I simplified it a bit, as I was simply disproving that it would have to do anything with eggs.

The scholarly consensus is that it is more likely that Eostre existed than not. It's one thing that Hréð didn't -- since in her case Bede is the only attestation -- but in the case of Eostre, there's etymological evidence that it's connected to "east" and and "light" (through Ēarendel). We also have a lot of English place names, personal names, and most crucially, quite a lot of inscriptions dedicated to one matron Austriahenea -- Shaw notes in his work: "much of this debate, however, was conducted in ignorance of a key piece of evidence, as it was not discovered until 1958. This evidence is furnished by over 150 Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to deities named the matron Austriahenea, found near Morken-Harff and datable to around 150-250 AD".

The work by Shaw seems to be the best available source for the controversy -- according to a review in the historical journal Early Medieval Europe: "Through his systematic and painstaking analysis, Shaw concludes that Eostre is most probably a genuine goddess (and not an ‘etymological fancy’ as supposed by one modern school of thought), but that she may have originated in local cult-worship, that is as a patron deity of a particular community or district. Hreda proves less tractable to decisive linguistic analysis, but Shaw ultimately leans towards a similar interpretation that ‘Hreda could relate to a group name’ (p. 97)" (from p. 111/13 in the PDF).

From what I can see, it's more likely that Eostre was only a goddess in modern-day England than a pan-Germanic one, but it's hard to say as you can't really tell if something is a reference to natural phenomena or a goddess -- or if they should even be separated concepts in the context of Germanic paganism.

>Anglo-Saxons named their months agriculturally, not according to deities

Sól as in Sol-mónað is a deity. Indeed, her situation is probably similar to Eostre's as she stopped being venerated by Germanic peoples long before some of them started speaking Old English.

The same is likely true of the Saxons' calendar -- neither they nor Charlemagne would have recognized Óstara as a deity, since she seems to have been most popular around 150-200 AD. The Anglo-Saxon form Eostre might have lived on longer.

"To open" in Proto-Germanic is "*ūpanan", and in Old English it's -- you guessed it -- "open". If you can find anything connecting Eostur to "open", I will be rather impressed.

  • [-]
  • koine_lingua
  • 3 Points
  • 12:22:06, 1 April

>"To open" in Proto-Germanic is "*ūpanan", and in Old English it's -- you guessed it -- "open". If you can find anything connecting Eostur to "open", I will be rather impressed.

I know I'm a bit late to this, but I was also puzzled when I saw the claim of Hutton (1996) - who's otherwise skeptical of the existence of *Austra - that

>[i]t is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Estor-monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings’

The only element of ‘Estor-monath’ I could conceive led to such an assertion was a connection with OE ór, ‘beginning, origin’. But then whence est-? Surely not something from Germ. **esti*, right?

Also, I've been working on a short little study that presents some new evidence for the existence of an *Austra. Hopefully I'll post it soon.

  • [-]
  • Flubb
  • 6 Points
  • 16:22:08, 27 March

>The scholarly consensus is that it is more likely that Eostre existed than not

Sorry this just isn't true, from those who don't agree (Hutton), those who argue against pagan survivalism (Stanley), and those who argue about the veracity of Bede's accounts (Page, Church, Tille).

>but in the case of Eostre, there's etymological evidence that it's connected to "east" and and "light"

So now you've got to prove that it's connected to the Goddess and not just a cognate of 'east' or 'light'. I can conceivably argue that it's connected to those and not to a goddess.

>We also have a lot of English place names, personal names, and most crucially, quite a lot of inscriptions dedicated to one matron Austriahenea

I know this is all a summary from Shaw on Wikipedia, but you've got to understand that this is all an argument from Shaw on linguistic grounds. You're asserting Shaw is the best available source for the controversy, but that's not argued at all in the review that you used to support it, simply that Shaw presents a linguistic case for it. His 'poke' at the 'etymological fancy' is a direct attack on Page who he disagrees with.

>From what I can see, it's more likely that Eostre was only a goddess in modern-day England than a pan-Germanic one, but it's hard to say as you can't really tell if something is a reference to natural phenomena or a goddess -- or if they should even be separated concepts in the context of Germanic paganism.

This is from the review of Shaw again, but if you want to argue that it's a local goddess, then you'll have to explain why it is that Bede is talking about continental Saxons and how that relates to a local English deity in Kent (according to Shaw).

>Sól[3] as in Sol-mónað is a deity. Indeed, her situation is probably similar to Eostre's as she stopped being venerated by Germanic peoples long before some of them started speaking Old English.

I'd like to see some citation on this. Firstly, the question of 'Sól' is highly problematic principally because in the majority of cases, the word is produced as 'Sol' which means mire or mud, hence the usual translation of 'Mudmonth'. Even if it is 'Sól' we're back to the problem naming months after gods. You can argue that the Saxons of the 770s had forgotten all their pagan associations but I'd like to see some evidence on that loss.

> If you can find anything connecting Eostur to "open", I will be rather impressed.

The fourth month of the year is April. Ovid translated it as such to say:

>They say Spring was named from the open (apertum) season, Because Spring opens (aperit) everything and the sharp Frost-bound cold vanishes, and fertile soil’s revealed

Which is the traditional understanding of the etymological basis for 'April' and fits with an agricultural theme. As the proto-Germanic form of Eostre is linked 'dawn' and a variety of dawn-goddess, it fits that the arrival of spring via the equinox (as per Hutton) gets linked with the OHG ostarum and into English as 'easter'.

  • [-]
  • Riagu
  • 1 Points
  • 17:55:01, 27 March

I initially used *Austrō in my comment and then rephrased it, looking at Shaw's theories. I think it's more correct to say that it is very likely that there was a relatively common Germanic concept of deifying the Dawn inherited from Indo-European religion, and this was connected to the cardinal direction, and it is also likely that there was a few local deities related to this.

>Bede is talking about continental Saxons

"Anglorum" isn't continental.

I admit that I was probably in error about Sol-mónað, although I haven't been able to find a credible source explictely supporting "soil" -- Bede weirdly links it to "placenta" for some weird reason. I concede that it likely has nothing to do with the sun.

I don't really see why you're talking about April, because April is simply the Latin name of the month, and is etymologically completely unrelated to Easter.

Thank you for making me aware that it's such a contentious issue, but I didn't really try to make enlightening theological commentary in my original comment, merely noting that the accepted source of the word "Easter" is often linked to the concept of the goddess, who may or may not have existed in that exact form, at any rate coming from the attributes associated with her.

  • [-]
  • Flubb
  • 3 Points
  • 22:38:38, 27 March

>>Bede is talking about continental Saxons

>"Anglorum" isn't continental.

~~My foot > my mouth, I'm thinking of his other section on the absence of Saxon kings :(~~

Edit: I was right the first time. The votive-inscriptions are found in Germany. Shaw argues for a local deity. Therefore the continental vs Kentish Eostre issue is still valid

>I don't really see why you're talking about April, because April is simply the Latin name of the month, and is etymologically completely unrelated to Easter.

It's not an etymological borrowing, it's a conceptual borrowing. Both refer to the 'dawn' of something new. I don't think it's insignificant it's the same month, and refers to the same time of year ('new beginnings') (this is straight from Hutton).

There is another theory that the Latin church's phrase for the first sunday after Easter in albis ("in white", referring to clothes) gets adopted into OHG. The problem is the proof of borrowing - we know the Germanic tribes did, but it's hard to prove this one.

>Thank you for making me aware that it's such a contentious issue

If you want more ammunition against me, try Audrey Meaney or David Wilson.

I'm not necessarily looking for theological commentary either, but the linking of 'Easter' with 'Eostre' is to use your word, contentious and only attested so far in 1 place (Bede) and not confirmed by anything else unless you want to extrapolate linguistics. At best, Eostre has connotations of dawn and sun and that's it - it might refer to a goddess but we haven't got that evidence (yet).