Who owns the easter bunny?
It wouldn’t be Easter if there wasn’t a bun-fight (or possibly a hot-cross bun-fight) going on in relation to a mysterious chocolate delivering bunny. There is a popular belief that hares were associated with the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre/Ostara, and that traditions associated with her gave rise to the Easter Bunny. However, this story has been challenged by authors like Adrian Bott, who suggest that it originated with some wild speculation from the German folklorist and fairy-tale collector Jacob Grimm. Bott even goes as far as to cast doubt on the existence of Eostre herself, pointing out that the only textual evidence for worship of this figure comes from the Venerable Bede in his ‘Reckoning of Time’. Bede himself attests that by his own lifetime in the eighth century, festivals in honour of Eostre had died out in favour of the Christian celebration of Easter. Furthermore, linguistic clues suggest that the word ‘Eostre’ could relate to East or opening, giving plausible alternative origins for the name of the Anglo-Saxon month.
Moreover, rabbits and hares did have genuine associations with purity in Medieval Christian tradition, and ironically their fecundity led to a belief that they could reproduce without sex, leading them to be linked with the Blessed Virgin. The grace, gentleness and vulnerability of hares may also have encouraged them to be associated with what were deemed positive feminine attributes. For instance, the virgin St Melangell protected a fleeing hare from a hunting prince and his baying hounds, and most early accounts implicitly invite the reader to draw parallels between the girl and the helpless creature. All things considered, the symbolism of the hare in a Christian context is not a weird anomaly which requires an explanation.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be too quick to simply shrug off the Easter bunny and associated Pagan goddess as nineteenth century romanticisation of the past. Bede was close enough to the events he described to render his ascribing a festival to a non-existent goddess rather unlikely. Furthermore, there is now some additional academic support for the figure of Eostre, which is drawn from studies of English place names. The truth is that very little has come down to us about female deities in the Germanic pantheon in general, we have been left with only a few tantalising scraps about Frigga and Freya, and there is less about their more shadowy sisters. Against this backdrop, our lack of knowledge of Eostre is not at all surprising.
It is also a fairly safe bet that Anglo-Saxon peoples had a spring festival of one sort or another, given that this is a near universal feature of human societies. And in England the spectacle of ‘Mad March Hares’ boxing in fields is an impressive one, and must have always been a welcome sign that the winter was losing its bitter grip on the world. The turning of the seasons and the cyclical natural landscape would have been watched by different generations, and each would have found meaning derived from the religion and culture they knew. Eostre was probably a real goddess, and leaping hares were part of the new life exploding as her festival was celebrated. Arguably, perhaps, no more or no less than other creatures like fluffy chicks and ducklings, but then again, they appear on our modern Easter cards too.
Bearing all this in mind, trying to achieve purity in symbolism is a futile exercise, and duking it out over whether the Easter Bunny is a Christian or a Pagan symbol is to miss the point, as beliefs evolve and change, whilst traditions have different meanings to different people. We are certainly not suggesting that Easter is nothing more than a festival of spring and new life, and those of us who identify ourselves as Christians believe in Easter as an acknowledgement of the Resurrection of Christ and the eternal liberation of Creation. Our festivities, and the ideas which underlie them, are indeed distinct from those of our Jewish friends celebrating Passover/Pesach (although we honour the Jewish roots of what we do) and neo-pagans keeping Ostara at around this time.
However, when religions and cultures share physical and intellectual space, conscious and unconscious cross-pollination of practices and signs is inevitable, and people are undoubtedly drawing upon the same surroundings for inspiration. It is no coincidence that most religious traditions feature trees somewhere along the line, not to mention those celebrating evolution and biology, and it was precisely for this reason we adopted a Tree of Life as the logo for Balancing Beliefs. Consequently, nobody gets to own the Easter Bunny, because far too many streams feed into pervasive cultural phenomena. This is why legal protection of religious beliefs needs to be individual in nature, as whether and in what context something is a religious symbol depends entirely on the person wearing, displaying or otherwise using it. Equally, it is impossible to designate any zones religiously neutral or free from sacred symbolism. Therefore, rather than seeking to claim icons, or define what our neighbours’ symbols mean to them, perhaps we would do better just to listen respectfully and be grateful for what we have in common.
UK Pagans respond to questions on the origins of Easter and Ostara The Wild Hunt (14/3/17)
The surprising origins of the Easter bunny: it’s not what you think Catholic Online (4/4/2017)
Ostara and the Hare: Not ancient but not as modern as some sceptics think Folklore Today 28/4/16
The very strange history of the Easter bunny The Conversation (24/3/16)
The pagan goddess behind the holiday of Easter The Times of Israel (5/4/15)
5 Great Historical Myths and Traditions about hot-cross buns: a pre-Easter pastry The Smithsonian (17/4/14)
Mad March Hares are a sign that spring is here The Guardian (25/3/13)
A Bott The modern myth of the Easter bunny The Guardian (23/4/11)