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Word Games: Easter


Happy Easter! Strange, isn’t it, how Easter cowers in Christmas’s shadow. Christmas takes over for months, all jangly and bright but Easter makes do with a long weekend and chocolate eggs. Not for Christians, of course. If you’re one of the faithful, Easter is the real deal, the pinnacle of the calendar and, most importantly, a release from the long old haul of Lent.
But you all know the Christian story, the ultimate tale of betrayal and sacrifice (and fear – my favourite bit as a child was the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes through a major case of the collywobbles while his “friends” keep falling asleep. It’s a perfect depiction of trepidation and human failing – Christianity at its best, in my view, in its kindliness towards the weak and scared). 
Easter, the word, is an ancient term but one that has little to do with religion – or at least not the Christian sort. Hidden in the word is an alternative, pagan story. Eostre (or Ostara) was a German goddess who gave her name to the month of April. Bede, the Northumberland monk writing in the eighth century, explained in his work De temporum ratione: “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.” 
Scholars, being what they are, have disputed Bede’s account, but there seems to be a consensus that the word traces back to “Ausos”, a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn. German artists have painted Eostre as a floating goddess, draped in robes and aloft with the cherubs, beams of light illuminating her flight. Jacob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835) says that she was “the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God”. This seems to be a lovely thing to celebrate, even if your faith is long lapsed (like mine). So, once again, Happy Easter. And here’s to the “radiant dawn, of upspringing light”.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue