In an attempt to subdue the probably misogynist import of the statement, putting down female intrusion into holy matters, some modern English bibles translate it as “Do not disturb me” or “Do not interfere with me.” But that is NOT what the Latin means. It is nonsense to imagine that some of the loathing of women that perfused and befouled early Christianity was not a hateful leaking-in from Judaism. Consider only the still-in-use Jewish morning prayer where men are commanded to pray to their deity with the words, “And thank you, God, for not making me a woman.” Modern misogyny? Check out the Vatican and the U.S. Republican party.
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Before offering you choice paschal obscurities (rare Easter words), let’s etymologize the important festival of the Christian Church which commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and corresponds to the Jewish Pesach or Passover.
Easter, our modern English word stems directly from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon word Eastre or Eostre. The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes had no dictionary to standardize spelling and so orthographical variation ran wild, much as Eostre did, sporting nymphlike through the woodlands of spring.
There are several cogent origins of the word Easter. I explain them below.
All Hail, Eostre!
Eostre was a Germanic goddess. In all the lovingly museumed depictions of ancient British, Celtic and European deities, we have no surviving image of Eostre and she is mentioned only once in ancient literature, in the writings of the always pious Venerable Bede. But Eostre’s name tells us she was a Teutonic goddess of dawn. Her name originated in Old Teutonic, from *austrôn- ‘dawn.’ *Austrôn can evolve into Eostre. What we know with certainty is that the Christian Easter celebration took its name from Eostur-monath, the Anglo-Saxon word for the month of April, literally Eostre-month.
Who then was this fair goddess Eostre? A coy and modest damsel tiptoeing in divinely sequined velvet slippers through vernal dells, all the while sprinkling with dew yon awakening posies? Probably not. She was more likely The Wanton Slut of the Spring Rut, a lubricious deity who smiled upon and encouraged the potent surge of returning fertility. The Anglo-Saxons celebrated her lustful advent at the spring solstice, the vernal equinox, as part of the worship of a pagan deity who brought teeming uberousness back to the land and to the groin after a morose winter of vegetal and bodily moping.
Eostre-oid maiden cavorting in springtime?
The name Easter may have been adopted during a time when Christians were attempting to convert new followers by highlighting the similarities between Christianity and pagan religions. The story of Christ’s resurrection, the focal point of the Easter holiday, has much in common with the rebirth stories of pagan tradition.
The most sober and linguistically compelling root word of Easter is however probably a source based on Germanic forms of East, forms like Ost, Osten, the Germanic Easter word Oster and Old High German ostarun which means literally ‘easterly celebration times.’
The sun rises in the East. In many languages the word for dawn, daybreak, even daylight stems from a word meaning ‘east.’ The sun returned in glory during the spring. What better time of year then to celebrate “eastern springy stuff.”
A Proto-Germanic root for east is cognate with many other east/dawn words in other Indo-European languages. For example, all the PIE dawn words like Latin aurora (think of aurora borealis, literal meaning? ‘northern dawn’), Epic Greek ἠώς and Attic ἔως eos ‘dawn.’ Think of English scientific words like palaeozoology’s name for the earliest horse, eohippus ‘dawn-horse,’ or the Eocene era. Sanskrit for ‘dawn’ is usas and Avestan is usah.
Of course, in most modern European languages, the word for Easter was borrowed directly from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesach. Consider Greek pascha, Latin pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua and Dutch pask. English has a technical adjective from theology, paschal ‘of Easter.’ A delightful Old English term named the paschal lamb, ostarfrisking.
Cognate Word Related to Eostre But Less Likely as A Source
This questing etymologist looks at the classical Greek word oistros, not for an origin, but for a cognate, that is, a word born from the same Indo-European root as Eostre then Easter.
Oistros was a large European horsefly whose painful bite drew blood and caused cattle to run wild, even stampede. The insect’s Victorian zoological name was Tabanus bovinus, where tabanus is the Latin word for horsefly or gadfly. Today Oestrus is the genus name of the common botfly, a similarly nasty little insect whose larvae are parasites in mammal tissues and body cavities, mammals such as humans, horses, and cows.
English-speakers know the ancient Greek word in more familiar dress as oestrus or estrus, its Latin forms. In modern physiology, estrus is the female equivalent of the word rut. When a female animal is “in heat” it is in estrus. In Classical Greek oistros meant ‘frenzy,’ ‘sexual rage,’ ‘ravening, slavering female lust.’ It described, for example, the scary maenads, drunken women running wild over the Greek mountains, spring-moon-mad in their ecstatic worship of Dionysus, futtering the night away in unholy orgies of forbidden lust, catching a male “chase animal,” ripping his body apart, and devouring his oozing gobbets of flesh. Hey, girls, beats a slow bowling night!
The Greeks thought you could catch such sexual ardor from being bitten by a gadfly. Oistros meant ‘gadfly’ too. More to the point, Herodotus (Histories ch.93.1) uses oistros to describe the desire of fish to spawn. So its root meaning is probably ‘rage’ with a later semantic overlay of ‘raging, powerful sexual urge.’
That’s something pagan peoples celebrated every spring, the upsurge of sap in tree and plant and human. The Anglo-Saxons Eosturmonath was Sex Surge Month, not as dainty as April perhaps, but much more to the pagan point.
Rare Easter Terms
A suppedaneum was a foot support for someone being crucified. Made of wood, it projected out from the upright, vertical stake of the crucifix. The Italian painter Giotto often shows a suppedaneum as a detail in his paintings of the Crucifixion, like the one shown below.
Suppedaneum is a Medieval Latin compound word from Latin sub ‘under’ + Latin pes, pedis ‘foot’ + noun and adjectival suffix ‘-aneus, -anea, -aneum.’
Our Easter term is cereus paschalis which is the ecclesiastical Latin name for the Easter taper or candle used in paschal ceremonies. The Latin root is cereus ‘waxen’ or its later form cerius ‘made of wax,’ adjectives from the basic Latin word cera ‘wax.’
The same Latin etymon gives Old French forms like cerge and cirge and modern French cierge ‘votive candle,’ longue chandelle de cire que l’on brûle dans les églises, une bougie utilisée dans les cérémonies religieuses.
Also derived from the same Latin word is a greenhouse plant known to growers of succulents worldwide, the night-blooming cereus, from a large genus of tropical American cactuses noted for the translucent silken lushness of their flowers.
Paschal candle depicted in illuminated medieval manuscript
Other English terms from the Latin word for wax include cerecloth, a fabric coated with wax and formerly used to wrap the dead. In anatomy one may study a ceruminous gland, one of the modified sweat glands in the ear that has evolved to produce earwax. Cerumen is the medical word for earwax.
Other Romance languages used the Latin root for candle words too, for example, Portuguese ceri and Spanish cirio. English once had forms like cerge and serge but both words became obsolete at the start of the seventeenth century. The French adjective ciré ‘having a waxed or waxy finish’ is sometimes used in the English of artistic description.
There is a Greek reflex of the Latin form cera ‘wax’ that gives us the English word kerosene, namely keros Greek ‘wax, beeswax’ + -ene chemical suffix indicating an unsaturated compound.
An automatic votive candle dispensing machine at the holy shrine of Lourdes. Let’s pick up the pace of those miracles. Yee-haw! Move that line of crippled penitents along! The sign in the upper left reads «Un cierge c’est une prière qui se prolonge. » ‘A candle is a prolonged prayer.’
To conclude, I wish for all an interval of paschal repose.