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Fundamentalist Etymologies

04/07/2013 Comments (28)

A reader writes:

As happens each Easter, I find friends posting the supposed pagan origins, rooted in the worship of Ishtar. Any help in this would be appreciated.

“Easter” is the anglicized version of “Eostre” a Germanic deity whose feast fell around the same time as Passover and therefore the celebration of the Passion.  Likewise “Lent” is just the Old English word for Spring.  Many English-speaking Fundamentalists (both Christian and atheist) are big believers in a sort of uncritical “science” of folk etymology which imagines that because the word “Easter” is etymologically related to “Eostre”, Easter is therefore “really” the “worship” of Eostre.  These same people, however, do not regard themselves as Moon worshippers merely because they say, “Today is Monday.”  Similarly, they don’t seem to think the derivation of names for the other days of the week commits us to the “worship” of a pantheon of Norse and Graeco-Roman deities (Tewes, Woden, Thor, Freya, Saturn, and the Sun to be precise). Nor do they think calling January by its name makes them Janus worshippers, nor that calling March by its name commits them to the cult of Mars, the god of war.  But that is because they regard themselves as extremely bright and assume that non-fundamentalists--and most especially Catholics--are preternaturally stupid.

In reality, of course, this sort of folk etymology is rubbish and much more common sense approaches to the matter suffice.  Easter is called “Easter” because speakers of the proto-German/proto-English language that eventually forked off to produce modern English and German continued calling that time of year “Eostre” just as they continued calling Monday “Monday” even when they had stopped believing the Moon worthy of worship.  Now their Engish and German-speaking descendants call it  “Easter” and “Ostern” respectively.  But Romance language speakers (and even the Germanic Dutch) don’t call it by any name related to Eostre.  They call it “Pasch/Pasqua/Paques/Pasgua/Pasen/Paasfees/Pashket” etc.  In other words, they call it by the name of the Hebrew feast from which Easter is derived: Passover.

English-speaking fundamentalists need to get out of their language group more often before making these solemn pronouncements on the “real” origins of foundational Christian feasts.  Merely sharing a linguistic link with some aspect of paganism does not make Christianity “really” pagan in origin any more than Jesus was “really” a pagan because he walked around and talked with people—just like Socrates did! The question that must always be asked when you run across such folk etymologies is “Did the pagan take a Christian form and fill it with pagan content or did the Christian take the pagan form and fill it with Christian content?”  What you will find is that every time you look at some pagan form lingering around into Christian times, the form stops being pagan and gets filled with Christian content.  So we see such things as Easter eggs (fertility symbols) “repurposed” as symbols of the Empty Tomb. That's not because Christianity is "really" a fertility cult.  It's because Christians believed Jesus Christ rose from the dead and did not believe in fertility cults.  Mistletoe and Holly, once sacred to Druids, become symbols of eternal life (since they are green in winter) and of the blood of Christ.  And so forth.  Likewise, sites that were once pagan shrines became consecrated to Christ and churches were built there.  But exactly the point of such actions is not that Christianity is embracing paganism.  It’s that pagans are embracing Christ.  That’s why the pagan Egyptian obelisk that stands before St. Peter’s basilica in Rome has a cross on top of it.  Christ has called people from every nation, language, tribe and tongue.  The last thing ancient pagans did was not "infect the Church with paganism."  The last thing they did was ask for baptism, a point frequently lost, not only on Christian and atheist fundamentalists, but on modern neo-pagans who busy themselves inventing pretend ancient histories and even more pretend modern neo-paganism.

Hope that helps!

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.