Puddle Jumpers

Enjoying life, off the hamster wheel

The Origin and Memes of Easter


With Easter around the corner and the Ishtar/Easter meme making its rounds, I did a little search for the origins of the word. In Swedish it’s “Påsk,” and in German it’s “Ostern,” which got me thinking about the etymology of the different words in various languages for this religious observance.

I found this quote interesting: “The word Easter does not appear to be derived from Ishtar, but from the German Eostre, the goddess of the dawn—a bringer of light. English and German are in the minority of languages that use a form of the word Easter to mark the holiday. Elsewhere, the observance is framed in Latin pascha, which in turn is derived from the Hebrew pesach, meaning of or associated with Passover. Ishtar and Easter appear to be homophones: they may be pronounced similarly, but have different meanings.” (It’s from Scientific America Blogs – Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter)

In this case, the origin of the English word “Easter”, and the origin of the observance “Easter” are not entirely related. It’s much more complicated than that. Given the confluence of cultures, observances, societies, etc., over spans of time that influence, shape and re-shape all these things, it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to pin point the origin of Easter/Påsk/Ostern/Passover… etc.

Besides, it doesn’t really matter. What I know is that I’m going make an Easter “tree” by getting some branches, putting them in a vase and decorating them with eggs, feathers, Easter witches and black Easter cats – a Swedish tradition my Mom did every year – and I’ll think about the stories she told me about Blåkulla, a mountain in Sweden where the witches would go at Easter to fornicate with the Devil. And I’ll think about the Swedish tradition that kids still do today, where they dress up as boy and girl witches and go from door to door in their neighbourhoods to get candy and treats, not unlike our Halloween tradition here. And I’ll think about how even the un-observant Swedes around the country will visit churches and listen to beautiful pastoral hymns sung under the high ceilings of cathedrals or within the quaint, cozy spaces of old, stone parish churches while candles flicker their warm glow of hope and renewal, and how afterwards, people will gather around huge bonfires, and dance and sing and make merry. And I’ll remember Easter last year, when I spent time with my dear friends at their cabin, and the kids and I patiently blew the yolks out of eggs and then carefully decorated them and hung them on an Easter tree we made. And I’ll look outside at our balcony and watch the birds flying to and fro from the feeder, pairing off, nesting in the trees that are quickly budding and flushing out, clouds of flowers and leaves bursting from their branches.

Oh, and then there’s Semlor, delicious pastries that were traditionally eaten before Lent, to sustain you through the fast. They’re delicious. Mmmmm… I’m very sensitive to gluten and found a gluten-free Semla recipe online that I’ve attached below. I haven’t tried it yet, so if you do, please comment and let us know how it turned out. (Semla is singular, semlor is plural, like “bun” and “buns.”)

Whatever the origins of the formal observance of Easter may be, to observe life at Eastertide kindles a sense of renewal, another turn of the wheel, a reminder of the fluidity of time – past, present and future – and our place in it.

Happy Easter musings! Glad Påsk!


Easter in Sweden: http://sweden.se/culture-traditions/easter/

Semla recipe (docx file): Gluten Free semlor



2 comments on “The Origin and Memes of Easter

  1. Wulf
    March 29, 2015

    I haven’t heard this nonsense about “Easter” being derived somehow from “Ishtar”, but I’m surprised anyone has given it any consideration at all! The interesting thing about the Germanic etymology is that apparently the sole reference to the goddess Eostre in English is The Venerable Bede. He’s generally considered pretty reliable as a source, but it’s odd that he knows about her but no other historians or other commentators of the time do.

    I love the business of the witches and cats. Of course Easter is often quite close to Walpurgisnacht, April 31, which is (like its seasonal counterpart Hallowe’en) a very witchy night.

    The Ukrainian celebration of Easter is equally interesting. As Catholics, it’s THE big religious festival, but many of the trappings are unmistakably Pagan. The famous eggs, pysanky, rarely include overtly Christian symbols. They’re mostly decorated with images of deer, trees, roosters and stylized suns, and were believed to possess magical healing and protective powers. On Easter morning, a basket is filled with pysanky, salt, hard-boiled eggs, horseradish and paska – bread decorated with flowers, suns and spirals with a lit candle in it – and is taken to the church to be blessed by the priest.. The sanctified food is then divided among the family after Mass, to ensure health and prosperity for the coming year. It seems pretty likely that rituals very much like these were taking place long before Ukraine was Christianized ten centuries ago!

  2. ingridandneil
    April 2, 2015

    Wulf, the Ishtar/Easter meme has been making its way around Facebook, of course.

    As for Walpurgisnacht, the Swedes celebrate Valborg on May 1, and while they’re at it, students graduating from Gymnasium gather on May 1 and toss their caps in the air. And of course, it’s another great excuse for a bonfire, food, song and dance.

    I love the Ukrainian Easter celebrations and decor. So steeped in history. Thanks for the comment.

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This entry was posted on March 29, 2015 by in Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


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