Depressed this morning to see that Fr. Al Kimel has bought into the idea that the word "Easter" is a horrible pagan holdover that ought to be junked. As fans of Alexander Hislop, Jack Chick, and the endlessly churned-out empire of fake history know, the word Easter is proof that the holiday is actually worship of the fertility goddess Eostra/Austron, who is one and the same as Astarte, and before her, Ishtar, and ipso facto Catholics and all affiliated churches (i.e. nearly everyone) are, despite their protests, engaged in Babylonian Mystery Religion.
Now when I first was told all this many years ago, I foolishly thought I'd just check it out and see if there was any reason to think that it was true, and that that would settle the matter; I mean, the historical record is there for everyone.
The first thing I found is that the crucial passage is in the Venerable Bede's De tempore ratione, where he says that "Eosturmonath," the spring month in which the Paschal celebration fell, was named originally after the goddess Eostre:
"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month,' and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honored name of the old observance."
The second thing I found is that there is no second thing. That one sentence is it. We have no useful information from anywhere (the Brothers Grimm apparently made some Osterfest goddess guesses, but they're several centuries too late to be useful) about the original meaning of "Easter," where it may have come from, or how the pre-Christian English really spent those cold spring days.
Here's what I ended up with, after my toils:
1. Other than one reference in Bede, there’s no record anywhere of “Easter” being derived from the name of a pagan goddess. No such goddess appears in the (fairly thorough) info we have on pre-Christian northern European pagan beliefs, such as the Eddas. German has a similar word for that time of year, but we have no more reason to link it to a goddess in Germany than in England. We have some reason to link the words to the Old Teutonic for "dawn," but disappointingly that doesn't get us to ancient Babylonian fertility goddess babes. Or even to ancient Teutonic goddess babes.
2. Even in Bede, who was writing well after any living memory of such pagan god/goddess worship in England, the word “Easter,” whatever its derivation, is assigned to the season, and only subsequently to the Christian celebration occurring in that season. So linking the putative goddess-worship to the Christian celebration is exactly like linking Ascension Thursday to Thor-worship.
3. There is extensive discussion elsewhere in Bede about Easter; in none of these discussions is there any suggestion of a link to goddess worship. However there is much testimony to the enthusiasm with which the converted English stamped out every vestige of pagan worship.
Neopagans often use Bede to show that the pope okayed permitting continued pagan worship under Christian guise; but the passage appealed to (it's in Ecclesial History) only shows the pope giving permission to leave standing buildings that had been used for pagan worship if they could still be used for something else. (Bede records that the English nevertheless destroyed the buildings.)
4. The name “Austron” for the putative goddess, which supposedly preceded the name "Eostre" and links it to the word for "dawn," occurs nowhere, not even in Bede. It was a guess made by the editors of the OED, who accordingly place an asterisk next to the word. So in fact we have no etymological source whatsoever for the name "Eostre."
5. Bede doesn’t give any particular province to the goddess he posits; that she might have been a goddess of spring or of fertility are guesses made much later. For all we know, if there really was such a goddess, she might have been a goddess of war, or mushrooms, or egg-delivering bunnies. If the OED guess is right, she would be a dawn-goddess; but your guess is as good as theirs.
My conclusion was that there is good reason for thinking Bede to be in error on this point; and even if his information (which he got from others, who themselves were not alive during pagan times in England) is correct, at most it shows that a season of the English year--like several of our days of the week and months of the year--was named for an obscure and long-forgotten pagan deity.
Unfortunately, I also discovered that once people are determined to believe even counterintuitive "history," such as the strange but popular idea that early Christian missionaries were happy to "baptize" pagan practices and even deities by giving them Christian names and trappings as a means of spreading the faith, it's simply impossible to disprove it. Demonstrating the utter lack of evidence is insufficient in the face of the desire to believe "what everyone knows." Everyone knows that Easter and Christmas were once pagan holidays that had a thin veneer of Christianity overlaid; and nothing will ever change that belief.
Finally, I became aware of an odd feedback cycle that keeps such a strange and ahistorical idea alive. Neopagans want to believe it, because it means that their beliefs weren't just made up day before yesterday, but are really ancient and still around. Certain fundamentalistic Christians want to believe it, because it proves the Catholic Church and all its depraved offspring and practices really are pagan at the core. Mainstream Christians want to believe it, because it shows that Christianity really was never intolerant of other cultures and their beliefs, and can accommodate anything with infinite elasticity. And then each group can appeal to the "evidence" of the others' statements and made-up research, with nobody having any motivation to actually check out the facts for themselves, nor question the underlying assumptions.
But it seems, alas, real history continues to disappoint. Pre-Christian paganism died out a long time ago. Putative ancient pagan customs surviving into the modern day prove, again and again, under examination to be of recent origin. The study of folklore, having recovered from its early, giddy days of finding faeries under every rock and Bridgit-worship in every sacred well, is becoming a respectable branch of the humanities as it sheds wishful thinking as a research tool. Only the popular culture that keeps Snopes.com in business can hope to keep the fun alive.