Is the Christian holiday of Easter named after a pagan goddess?
Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods depicts a goddess named Easter who, living in 21st century San Francisco, notes that while most of the Old World pagan deities have been forgotten in the modern era, “on my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.” The implication is that Christians are unwittingly keeping the name of an ancient goddess alive through the name of the holiday celebrating Christ’s resurrection.
We owe this explanation of the name of the Christian holiday to a single source: the Venerable Bede, an English monk writing in Latin during the 8th century. He claimed that the word Easter came from the name of a goddess called Eostre, whose festival was celebrated by pagan Anglo Saxons at the time of the vernal equinox. Bede’s mention of the goddess (an aside in his description of the Old English names of the months) is the only record of her existence, and some scholars have suggested that she may have been the product of his own invention. Nonetheless, as the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology points out “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one”.
Whether it was originally the name of a goddess or not, the English word Easter and its German cognate Ostern are most likely derived ultimately from the same Germanic word as the cardinal direction east, which in turn is cognate with the word for dawn in many ancient languages (including Classical Latin aurora), by association with the direction of the rising sun. The word for Easter thus has metaphorical links with the ideas of dawn, spring, and rebirth (as do the holiday’s traditional symbols of eggs, rabbits, and flowers).
Amongst the Germanic languages, English and German are exceptional in not using a word related to Passover as their usual word for the Christian holiday of Easter. The crucifixion is strongly associated with Passover, and Christian writings often equate Jesus to a “paschal lamb”, in reference to the traditional Passover sacrifice. The English adjective paschal can mean either “relating to Passover” or “relating to Easter”, and it is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesaḥ (compare Pesach). In most European languages, this is also the origin of the word used for Easter: French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Icelandic páskar, Dutch Pasen, Swedish påsk, etc. There is a similar English word, Pasch, which dates back to Old English and has been used to refer to both Passover and Easter, but it is comparatively rare, surviving primarily in the English regional and Scottish form Pace.