by Jay Jamison
Last year about this time I wrote a column about Maundy Thursday. I was curious about the name. Before doing any research, I speculated as to its meaning and derivation. Maundy sounds like it may be derived from maudlin, and a quick surreptitious glance at a dictionary led me to believe I was on the right track. Among other definitions, maudlin refers to the practice of depicting Mary Magdalene as a weeping penitent sinner. I delved into the meaning of the term even further only to discover that I was completely wrong. Maundy is not derived from maudlin. As I wrote last year, maundy is ultimately derived from the Latin mandatum, which refers to a command or order.
In previous years I’ve mused about Good Friday, and I tackled Maundy Thursday last year … so that leaves only Easter. From where did this term come? Once again, I tried to employ my less-than-perfect etymological knowledge to the problem. Let’s see, Easter contains the word east; maybe that has something to do with the name of the most import holiday on the Christian calendar. However, then the nagging question arises, what does a particular compass direction, east, have to do with the passion and resurrection of Jesus?
By now you might be thinking that I have too much time on my hands and that I “should get a life.” Still, I largely deal with words — it is what one does when writing columns. Also, I studied and taught philosophy for many years, and one of the most irritating habits of philosophers is to ask, “What do you mean by that?” Adding precision to the words we use also helps clarify in our own understanding the ideas we hope to convey through the words we use.
There would be no commemoration of Maundy Thursday, nor of Good Friday, without Easter. Alas, the name remains confusing. According to Brent Landau, who describes himself as a religious studies scholar specializing in early Christianity, Easter is traceable back to the pre-Christian goddess Eoster, in ancient England.
Landau writes, “The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century.” Apparently, the festival of Eoster was a celebration of spring. The name Easter is used in the English-speaking world and in Germany, but not in much of the rest of the Christian world, which lends credence to the notion that the word evolved from ancient, pre-Christian England.
English is a mongrel language, the mish mash of many ancient languages. So, it should come as no surprise that an ancient holiday name celebrating spring should be adopted by Christians to commemorate the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Such borrowings have been the norm in the history of the English language.
Bruce Forbes, another Christian studies scholar, cited by Landau, writes, “Bede wrote that the month in which English Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus had been called Eosturmonath in Old English, referring to a goddess named Eostre. And even though Christians had begun affirming the Christian meaning of the celebration, they continued to use the name of the goddess to designate the season.”
The story of the Christian holiday is well-known, but now we know the origin of the name. Happy Easter.