The Ancient Origins of the Easter Bunny | Story

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In 51 BCE, Julius Caesar noted that the Britons did not eat hares due to their religious significance.
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The Easter Bunny is a very famous character in American Easter celebrations. On Easter Sunday, children search for special hidden treats, often chocolate Easter eggs, which the Easter Bunny might have left behind.

As a folklorist, I know the origins of the long and interesting journey that this mythical character has made from European prehistory to the present day.

Religious role of the hare

Easter is a celebration of spring and new life. Eggs and flowers are fairly obvious symbols of female fertility, but in European traditions the rabbit, with its incredible reproductive potential, is no exception.

In European traditions, the Easter Bunny is known as the Easter Hare. Hare symbolism has had many tantalizing ritual and religious roles over the years.

Hares received ritual burials alongside humans during Neolithic times in Europe. Archaeologists have interpreted this as a religious ritual, with the hares representing rebirth.

More than a thousand years later, during the Iron Age, ritual burials of hares were common, and in 51 BCE Julius Caesar mentioned that in Britain hares were not eaten because of their religious significance.

This painting of Venus, Mars and Cupid by Italian artist Piero di Cosimo features a white hare.

Piero di Cosimo Venus, Mars and Cupid (circa 1490) features a white hare.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Caesar would probably have known that in classical Greek tradition, hares were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. During this time, Aphrodite’s son, Eros, was often depicted carrying a hare as a symbol of unquenchable desire.

From the Greek world to the Renaissance, hares often appear as symbols of sexuality in literature and art. For example, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with a hare or a white rabbit, symbolizing that she has overcome sexual temptation.

Hare meat and the misdeeds of witches

But it is in the folk traditions of England and Germany that the figure of the hare is specifically linked to Easter. Tales from the 1600s in Germany describe children hunting Easter eggs hidden by the Easter Hare, much like in the United States today.

Accounts written from England around the same time also mention the Easter hare, particularly in terms of traditional Easter hare hunts and the eating of hare meat at Easter.

A tradition, known as the “Hare Pie Scramble”, took place in Hallaton, a village in Leicestershire, England. This involved eating a pie made from hare meat and people were “rushing” for a slice. In 1790, the local pastor tried to stop the custom due to its pagan associations, but he was unsuccessful and the custom continues in this village to this day.

Albrecht Dürer, Young Hare, 1502

Albrecht Durer, young hare1502

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Hare eating may have been associated with various long-standing folk traditions of scaring witches at Easter. Throughout Northern Europe, folk traditions record a strong belief that witches would often assume the form of a hare, usually for causing mischief such as stealing milk from neighbors’ cows. It was said that witches in medieval Europe were able to suck the life energy of others, making them sick.

The idea that winter witches should be banished at Easter is a common European folk motif appearing in several festivities and rituals. The vernal equinox, with its promise of new life, stood symbolically in opposition to the exhausting activities of witches and winter.

This idea provides the underlying rationale for various festivities and rituals, such as the Osterfeuer, or Easter Fire, a celebration in Germany involving large outdoor bonfires intended to scare away witches. In Sweden, popular folklore says that at Easter, the witches all fly away on their broomsticks to feast and dance with the devil on the legendary island of Blåkulla in the Baltic Sea.

Pagan origins

In 1835, folklorist Jacob Grimm, one of the members of the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale team, argued that the Easter Hare was related to a goddess he imagined called “Ostara” in Old German. He derived this name from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who Bede, an early medieval monk considered the father of English history, mentioned in 731 CE

Bede noted that in eighth-century England, the month of April was called Eosturmonath, or month of Eostre, after the goddess Eostre. He wrote that a pagan spring festival in the name of the goddess was equated with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

While most European languages ​​refer to the Christian holiday with names that come from the Jewish holiday of Passover, such as Easter in French or Pass in Swedish, German and English retain this older, unbiblical word: Easter.

Titian, Mary and the Child Jesus with a Rabbit, circa 1530

Titian, Mary and Baby Jesus with a Rabbitaround 1530

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent archaeological research seems to confirm the worship of Eostre in parts of England and Germany, with the hare as the main symbol. The Easter bunny therefore seems to recall these pre-Christian spring festivals, announced by the vernal equinox and personified by the goddess Eostre.

After a long, cold northern winter, it seems quite natural for people to celebrate themes of resurrection and rebirth. Flowers bloom, birds lay eggs and baby bunnies hop.

As new life emerges in spring, the Easter Bunny returns once more, providing a long-held cultural symbol to remind us of the cycles and stages of our own lives.

Tok Thompson is an anthropologist at the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2017, he was editor-in-chief of Western folklore. Recent books include The truth of the mytha world mythology textbook (with Gregory Schrempp) and a casebook titled Posthuman folklore.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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