Words in translation: Påske and Easter
M. Michael Brady
Aside from being the names of the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church, the words for Easter have intriguing linguistic derivations, both in Norwegian and in English. The story of their differing derivations starts with Norwegian, the other language with which this newspaper is concerned.
The Norwegian word for Easter is Påske, a cognate of the French word Pâque. Via the Old Norse word páskar, Påske comes from the Greek páskha and Aramic pasha to the Hebrew Pesah, meaning “Passover: paschal lamb,” that in turn is believed to refer to the biblical 10th plague of Egypt, the death of the firstborn, which spared the homes of the children of Israel (Exodus 11: 4-6).
That straightforward connection was confirmed at the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325). The council also set the date of Easter according to the lunisolar calendar as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. From a linguistic viewpoint, that brought in doubt as to the origin of the word.
Coincidentally, the date determined by the council coincided with the pre-Christian pagan spring festivals, called éastre in Old English and ôstara in Old High German, respectively the roots of the modern words, Easter in English and Ostern in German.
History then suggests that the word for Easter in Norway might well have had a Germanic root, not a Romance Language root. During the Viking Age, Norwegian and English mixed freely. After the Reformation, there was a strong German influence in religious matters. The country’s dominant faith is Lutheranism, the Christian faith that identifies with the theology of Martin Luther, a German friar, and as elsewhere in Protestant Europe the most admired Easter themes in works of art are by German masters, such as “The Resurrection” by Albrecht Altdorfer, which shows a forested, mountainous landscape, not unlike that of Norway.
A likely candidate for a Norwegian Germanic-heritage word for Easter then might have been derived from the root of the English and German words for Easter, the Old Teutonic word Eostre, the name of the goddess of dawn, and hence the root of the Norwegian word Øst (East), the direction from which the sun rises.
This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.