From a theological perspective, Easter is the most significant of the Christian festivals and it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In popular belief, Easter is also the classical Spring festival which displays traditional symbols of fertility, such as the rabbit and the egg. However, where the Easter tradition of gifting eggs comes from is as unclear as the origin of the word ‘Easter’ itself. In the run up to the holidays, the question concerning the word’s true origin often arises. But those expecting a concrete scientific answer will be disappointed. Scholars of linguistics are not in agreement when it comes to the etymological problem surrounding the word ‘Easter’. There are at least three theories, which are as follows:
Theory 1: A spring goddess named Ostara
The German scholar of language and literature, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), derived the term ‘Easter’ from the Old High German word ‘Ostara’ (German ‘Ostern’, English ‘Easter’). This term can be traced back to a supposed Germanic spring goddess, who apparently gave the spring festival of Easter its name. Jacob Grimm here referred to the Anglo-Saxon church historian Beda, who told of a Germanic goddess named Eostra. The existence of such a goddess cannot be proven from the available sources, therefore this theory is considered obsolete. However, Grimm’s assumptions were very well received amongst his contemporaries and are still very popular today.
Theory 2: ‘Easter’ comes from ‘east’
The second theory arises from the possibility that the word ‘Easter’ could be linked to the word ‘east’. The compass point at which the sun rises is a symbol of resurrection. The word ‘east’ forms a word family together with the Latin word ‘auster’ (southerly wind), the Old Slavic ‘zaustra’ (morning) and the Greek ‘eos’ and Latin ‘aurora’ (both meaning dawn). According to this theory, Easter was the festival of the morning and the sunrise. This assumption is however being refuted by the theological view that the festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ places the greatest significance on the night, not the morning.
Theory 3: Easter is connected to baptism
Jürgen Udolph, a linguist from Leipzig, took his research in a completely different direction and thus opened up the third theory. He refers to a word family from the North Germanic languages, which in his opinion fits with Easter: ‘ausa’ (to pour water) and ‘austr’ (to douse). According to Jürgen Udolph, the word ‘Easter’ thus instead relates to baptism, which in the early days of Christianity was closely linked to the Easter festival and the central event of the Easter Vigil.
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