Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter and aurora

Spotted on facebook:

Really? The name of the Akkadian deity Ishtar sounds a bit like Easter, so they're related? What about the German word for the holiday, Ostern? How is that related to Ishtar? Why do most other European languages use a completely different word for the holiday? (Italian Pasqua, Swedish påsk, Welsh Pasg, Greek Πάσχα, etc, all borrowed from Hebrew פֶּסַח pesakh)

The truth is that Easter is related to east. It's from Old English Ēastran, probably from Proto-Germanic *austrōn- "dawn", whence German Ostern, Old Dutch ōstermānōth "Easter-month", Old Saxon ōstarfrisking "paschal lamb".

east is from Proto-Germanic *aust-. Both *aust- and *austrōn- are from Proto-Indo-European *heus- "to shine" (the form is written a few different ways; this is how it's cited in Fortson's Indo-European Language and Culture).

Austria is related; it seems to be a Latinized form of German Österreich "Eastern Kingdom".

*heus- also became Latin aurōra, Vedic uṣas, Avestan ušah-, Greek ἠώς (ēōs), Irish Gaelic fàir, Welsh gwawr, Lithuanian aušrà, all meaning "dawn". In Germanic languages it came to mean "east", since that's where the dawn is.

Another idea that gets circulated about Easter is that there was a deity named Eostre who was worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons at the vernal equinox. This comes from Bede:

a735   Bede De Temporum Ratione xv,   Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

"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." (translation)

Says the OED: "This explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede's. However, it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one."

The Vedic, Greek and Latin derivatives (Uṣā́s, Ēṓs and Aurōra respectively) were used to refer to a goddess of the dawn, according to Fortson. So the idea that there was a Germanic equivalent doesn't seem too far-fetched.

Further: There is also talk of a Germanic goddess Ostara, from Old High German ōstara which is cognate with Easter. But as far as I can tell, we have no direct evidence of a deity named Ostara. Everything we know about her is from speculation by Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie.


Tory Anderson said...

Thanks for the enlightenment!

Nelson said...

Nice post! That Isthar thing really is ridiculous . . .

There's also the Latin word auster 'south wind, south' (with a bit of semantic shift), which is from the same 'dawn' root. This has a derivative austrālis 'southern', whence Australia.

Phil said...

The cult of Ishtar was mediated into Europe by the Phoenicians and then the Greeks, who called her Astarte. Although there were few if any contact points between the Greek and Germanic worlds at this time, there was certainly enough time, more than a thousand years, for this very popular goddess to get around. (Asherah, one of many variants of her name, was the consort of Yahweh in very early times.) said...

Ostern doesn't mean holiday in German. Ostern just means easter.

Kind regards *

Lia *