By Vexen Crabtree 2015
The Easter Bunny can often be seen delivering (and hiding) Easter eggs during its mid-spring festival. Because of its prolific breeding, the rabbit and the hare have been symbols of fertility and spring since ancient times and the imagery of those two animals has been somewhat interchangeable over the millennia1,2. In the first century, the Roman academic Pliny noted that rabbit and hare paraphernalia were used for magical purposes, and "both were used as charms against sterility or to encourage pregnancy and easy childbirth"1. Although this prominent pagan symbol of Easter and spring continued to be used after Christianity took over Easter, unlike other symbols of Easter it "has never received any specific Christian interpretation"2.
In recent centuries, the Easter Bunny has started to take on some of the features of Santa Claus, in that it is hinted that good children will be gifted more than misbehaved children. Actual belief in the Easter Bunny as a real entity, that really does deliver Easter eggs is typically held by children up to age 8, although disbelief was found to be decreasing at age 6 as children start to discount illogical, unlikely and magical justifications from their worldviews3. But it wasn't always a children's icon, and the phrase "breeding like rabbits" is often used to refer to large human families, reminding us of the sexual side of fertility rites. According to the The Encyclopedia of Religion, in Greek and Roman times, the Hare was "pleasing to Aphrodite and sacred also to Eros [and] especially associated with Dionysos, the god not only of love, fertility and life but also of death and immortality [and] represents the love that will conquer death. [...] Early Christians accepted this rabbit symbolism and depicted rabbits on gravestones. In modern times, the Easter Bunny, whose eggs represent the source of life, seems to be a continuation of archaic religious values"4. An unexpected twist in this is that the moon is also associated with the cycles of nature, and the rabbit and the moon have often been symbolically intertwined, although this rarely features as a part of Easter celebrations nowadays:
“The belief that a rabbit dwells in the moon is widely attested not only in Inner Asia, South Asia and East Asia but also in North America, Mesoamerica, and southern Africa. Among the Turco-Mongol peoples of Inner Asia, the shaman hunts a rabbit in the moon during his ecstatic journey to the heavenly world. In China, as early as the Han period, the rabbit is represented on bronze mirrors as inhabiting the moon, pounding the drug of immortality with a pestle and mortar.
The Khoi and the San of the Kalahari in southern Africa also tell of a rabbit in the moon. In Khoi myths of the origin of death, the hare is represented as the careless messenger. Charged by the moon with bringing a message of immortality to mankind, he mistransmitted the good tidings as a message of death. The San have similar stories. [...] In North America, [...the] Great Hare appeared on earth [and he] reconstructed the earth after the deluge. [...] In ancient Mesopotamia and Syria, about the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the hare was imbued with the symbolism of death and rebirth.”
The word Easter might have derived from a springtime Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess called Eastre (known as Eostre, in German and in Norse as Ostara), whose symbolism included the hare, the moon and eggs5. But that figure is disputed, and others say it derives from the word 'east', 'dawn'6 or from the Norse word for the spring season7. Whichever it is, Easter is steeped in the symbolism of cycle of the sun, which rises in the East, and which in spring fondles the natural world to life. In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs on the 21st of March when the length of the day increases until it is equal with the length of the night8. The sun, growing in power, finally overtakes darkness, and this solar rebirth is celebrated in most ancient pagan religions, where agricultural life depended on the growth of spring. Hence why the images of Easter include two of the most ancient and universal symbols of birth, nature, fertility, life and rebirth: the egg and the rabbit9,10,1,11. We told anthropomorphized stories to explain why the sun, and nature, waxed and waned with the seasons, and thus Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Osiris and many other Greek and Roman cults celebrated the death and rebirth of their gods at this time of year12. Since the very first centuries CE Christian apologists have had to defend themselves against accusations that the Jesus story was a retelling of pagan myths12. The beloved chocolate egg has now come to be the ubiquitous and central image of Easter and the Easter holidays13, and the Easter Bunny can often be seen delivering (and hiding) them, reminding us that Easter is quintessentially a pagan, sun-worshipping festival.”
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(1995, Ed.) New York Public Library Science Desk Reference. Paperback book. Published by The Stonesong Press Inc. and The New York Public Library, New York, USA.
Coleman, J. A.
(2011) The Dictionary of Mythology. Hardback. 2011 edition published by Arcturus Publishing Limited, London, UK. Originally published 2007.
(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hardback book. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles.
(1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Paperback book. 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2006) The English Year. Hardback book. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK. Entries are chronological so I don't give page numbers for references.
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