- English and German are the only major languages that use a cognate of the term Easter for the Christian festival surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Most other languages use a cognate of the Greek πασχα (pascha), which is itself derived from the Hebrew פסח (pesach), the festival of Passover. This is because the biblical narratives place Jesus’ crucifixion as occurring over Passover (albeit not all on the same day), and because the symbolism of the Passover sacrifice was used by early Christians to contextualize the crucifixion.
- The English word Easter derives from the Old English Ēostre, which was the name for the month of April. There is a single reference in late-antique Christian source claiming that the month was named for an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Ēostre,¹ but we have no primary references to this goddess, and we know nothing of any festivals in her honor.
- The word Ēostre may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *aus- (or *h₂wes), meaning “to shine,” which is the root of the names of several other Indo-European dawn-goddesses, including the Greek Eos and the Roman Aurora and Venus.²
- The idea that Germanic Easter practices might derive from the festivals of the goddess Ēostre comes primarily from the romantic speculations of Jacob Grimm (who, on top of being a founding figure in Germanic philology, was prone to spreading fairy tales).
- None of this has anything to do with the East Semitic goddess Ishtar. The word Ishtar derives from the Semitic root *ʿṯtr, probably meaning “star,” and has no connection the Indo-European root of Easter.³
CORRIGENDUM: In the eternal circle of pedantry, you can't correct anyone without yourself being corrected. In a parallel discussion on the Facebook page of a rock-star friend of mine, a fellow named Joseph Hopkins took issue with my dismissal of Bede's account of the goddess Ēostre, pointing out that inscriptions from numerous second- and third-century CE German votive statues mention "matron Austriahenea," which seems to derive from the same root as Ēostre (see, for instance, Philip A.Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic Goddess: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons, 2011). I remain skeptical, especially in the absence of a cognate North-Germanic goddess, but this is obviously outside my bailiwick. Still, no bunnies, no eggs, no Ishtar.