When we use the word Easter, we think first and foremost of the Christian festival. But the word itself is not part of the Christian tradition. In the first quarter of the eighth century AD, the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and scholar, composed a text called On the Reckoning of Time.
This work describes how to calculate the date of Easter – a vexed theological question of the time – and along the way it also gives us some clues to the names that pagan Anglo-Saxons gave to the months of the year, before their conversion to Christianity.
According to Bede, one of these months, which roughly corresponded with April in our calendar, was called Eosturmonath, after the pagan goddess Eostre.
But can the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxons really have named the most important festival of the Christian year after a pagan goddess?
Many scholars have suggested Bede invented the goddess Eostre. I disagree: Bede was a careful researcher, and not prone to inventions of this sort, as far as we can tell.
And we also now know that there were a group of minor goddesses with a related name worshipped by continental speakers of a Germanic language.
In 1958, more than 150 votive inscriptions from the second or third century AD were discovered near Morken-Harff in Germany.
These inscriptions must mark the site of an important cult centre, and the goddesses to whom these inscriptions were set up were called the matronae Austriahenae, loosely translated as “the eastern matrons” or “the matrons of the easterners”.
The name Austriahenae comes from the same Germanic root as Eostre, suggesting that this was a root used in naming goddesses.
There is also evidence of its use in English place names and in the names of Anglo-Saxon individuals. There is every reason, then, to trust what Bede says about Eostre: she was a goddess whose name was attached to a month by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the name of the month in which Easter usually fell was transferred to the name of the festival itself.
Eostre also provides us with clues to the way in which Anglo-Saxon paganism worked. The word from which her name derives means “eastern”, and is found in place names in England, which suggests that she may well have been a local goddess.
We are accustomed to think of pagan gods as having roles – war god, fertility god – but Eostre suggests that Anglo-Saxon goddesses may have been defined instead by their relationship to a local community.
This Easter, spare a thought for the word Easter – a precious window on the past.
Dr Philip Shaw is a lecturer in English Language and Old English at the University of Leicester.