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Eostre is generally said to be an Anglo-Saxon goddess goddess of dawn, also associated with various aspects related to the renewal of life: spring, fertility and the hare (quick and numerous reproduction). Though it has been said that she was sometimes depicted with a hare's head, no authentic animal-headed deities appear in Germanic or Celtic cult objects.
According to Bede (died in 735 CE), writing in De Tempore Rationum ('On the Reckoning of Time') Ch. xv, the English months, the word is derived from Eostre, a festival that he connects with an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. The connection is often made without quoting Bede himself, who says,
- 'In olden times the English people --for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations' observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation's-- calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the moon is called mona and each month monath.
- The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath[...etc.]
- 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.'
Mediterranean cultures also reveal traces of a submerged level of riotous renewal at Easter: Encyclopaedia Brittanica 1911, reported "In Corfu, for instance, the people at a given signal on Easter Eve throw vast quantities of crockery from their windows and roofs into the streets, and thus execute an imaginary stoning of Judas" (see (article 'Judas Iscariot' ref:Kirkwall, Ionian Islands, ii. 47).") Lest any actual connection with stoning Judas Iscariot be made, the similar custom, of throwing out the new, has been tranferred in Naples to New Year's Eve, according with the change in the calendar. As recently as thirty years ago, the streets of Naples were filled with broken glass, pottery and unwanted furniture by dawn on New Year's Day.
Her name originated in Old Teutonic, derived from the same root that gave the conjectural *austrôn-, meaning "dawn". Later on, her name was spelled variously as:
- Eástre in Anglo-Saxon language
- Éastre in Northumbrian language
- Other spellings, said to be from 'uncertain sources': Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Estre, Eostre, Eoster, Eostra, Eastre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron, and Ausos, do not appear in the Icelandic Eddas nor in German texts. There is no parallel to Eostre in Old Norse.
The Latin meaning of oestrus comes directly from Greek oistros, originally referring to a 'gadfly'— specifically the gadfly that Hera sent to torment Io, who had been wooed and won in her heifer form by Zeus. Homer uses the word to describe the panic of the suitors in Odyssey ch. 22. The modern technical Latin meaning of estrus became more prominent after it was revived in 1890 to describe the female equivalent of 'rut'.
Oestrus/oistros also meant 'frenzy.' Euripides uses it both to describe the madness of Orestes, and of Heracles (line 1144): Heracles has murdered his own children and cries, 'Where did the madness seize me? where did it destroy me?'
More to the point, Herodotus (Histories ch.93.1) uses oistros to describe the desire of fish to spawn.
Oestrus is an irrational drive: Plato, Laws, 854b:
- “My good man, the evil force that now moves you and prompts you to go temple-robbing is neither of human origin nor of divine, but it is some impulse bred of old in men from ancient wrongs unexpiated, which courses round wreaking ruin; and it you must guard against with all your strength."
The earliest English language sense is of "frenzied passion."
It seems reasonably certain that 'Eostre' refers to the annual Romano-Briton spring celebrations during 'Eostermonat' but Bede, writing in the late 8th century, conflated the festival with the goddess's name. The goddess's original name has been lost, for the name of her springtime 'rising of the sap' festival was translated into Latin, before the Roman legions left in the 5th century, it would be reasonable to suppose.
A distracting apparent early reference to 'Easter' in the Authorized Version translation of the New testament, Acts 12:4, is simply an anachronistic mistranslation of the Greek pascha ("Passover"), in which King James's committee followed such earlier translators as Tyndale and Coverdale. The Acts passage refers to the seven-day Passover festival (including the Feast of Unleavened Bread); "it is reasonably certain that the New Testament contains no reference to a yearly celebration of the resurrection of Christ."