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Word of the Day: EASTER

Word of the Day: EASTER

The ironies of faithlessness — that it should lead to such heights of credulity, a willingness to believe anything and everything. The medieval peasant tucked in a valley north of Trondheim, who still looked over his shoulder warily when he had to cross an unknown forest, in case one of the earth-folk should appear, was a regular skeptic as compared with our contemporaries who have lost their faith in God and picked up faith in anything and everything else. I mean, I can understand somebody who believes that Thomas Jefferson was a bad man; I don’t agree, but I can see where such a person might come from, and when it comes to the fight between Jefferson and Adams, my mind and even my heart are with the sour elder from Massachusetts. But who the heck are our heroes now? Grubby politicians, ill-educated journalists, celebrities who can’t sing or act …

Our word EASTER is a case in point. We have exactly one early medieval guess as to its provenance. Bede the Venerable says that it came from the name of a goddess, EOSTRA, associated with the spring equinox. That is possible. It is also possible that Bede was mixing things up, because there wasn’t any science of etymology at the time, and because we have absolutely no independent evidence of any such goddess in other Germanic lands, or in the other Germanic languages. So on a hint dropped by Bede — who gives us entire letters, more than a hundred years old, back and forth between England and Rome, as to how to cleanse the pagan shrines, for example, and which calendar to use for determining when EASTER would fall — my contemporaries, who don’t read Latin, who know nothing about the evangelization of England, all at once are certain that EASTER was a pagan feast before the Christians got to it. They “know” it, as other people know that aliens landed in New Mexico.

EASTER was celebrated all over the Christian world, from the beginning of the Church. Its date was tied to the Jewish Passover, because that is when the event occurred. Passover is set in spring, after the vernal equinox. EASTER has been settled, in the west, as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. There never was any controversy over whether the Resurrection of the Lord ought to be celebrated in June or October or something. It was always a matter of computation, and getting all the churches (in the west) on board together, first as to whether to celebrate it on the Passover day or rather the day after the Sabbath of the Passover, and then how to calculate which moon was to be taken as the paschal — with a 19 year cycle or an 84 year cycle or whatnot. What some pagans in Northumbria centuries after the fact were or were not doing had absolutely no relation to anything. They weren’t coloring eggs and looking out for bunnies, anyhow.

As to the word: It is extremely rare. Almost all of the rest of the Christian world simply uses a derivative of Hebrew PESACH, Septuagint PASCHA, Latin PASQUA > Welsh PASG, Portuguese PASCOA, Danish PASKE. Polish and a couple of the Slavic languages (but not most, and not Russian) express the feast as the GREAT NIGHT. The only languages I can find with a cognate of EASTER are German (OSTER) and Luxembourgois (OUSCHTEREN). That the word has anything to do with Babylonian ISHTAR is, frankly, about as likely as that there ever was a kingdom in China whose counselors were named PING, PANG, and PONG. It’s a current pseudo-etymology, for ideological purposes. ISHTAR is a Semitic name from a Semitic language; the word has nothing to do, that I can find, with dawn. She’s a fertility goddess, and those were everywhere. The Persian name of the Jewish heroine is ESTHER, not related to the name of the pagan goddess; Persian STARA, STAR. (Persian is an Indo European language, like English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Hittite; Uriah the Hittite spoke a language related to English, but his name, URIAH, is Hebrew, suggesting a devotee of the one true God. Persian is not related to Hebrew, Babylonian, Phoenician, Egyptian, or Arabic.)

Anglo Saxon already had the word EAST, with various suffixed forms, such as EASTERRA, meaning FARTHEST EAST. The word comes from the Indo European root AUS-, having to do with the shining of the dawn: Greek EOS, Latin *AUSOSA > AURORA. What would you name the great feast having to do with the RISING of the Lord in the EAST? And everything in the world was basically EAST of England. Churches were often ORIENTED toward the EAST, “ad ORIENTEM,” because Christ was the RISEN one, the one whose asterism the magi saw rising in the EAST, the one who is called in Revelation by the appellation of the MORNING STAR. EAST, EAST, EAST.