Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Easter Bunny- Christian, Pagan? Probably Both.

Is the moon a face of a man or a shadow of a hare?

I was always told that the hare on the moon is pounding rice cakes with a mortar and pestle (Korean folklore). In Chinese folklore, the hare is mixing the elixir of life.

Hare symbolism is featured very prominently in many cultures, stretching from East to West. In a Buddhist legend, Buddha was traveling in the form of a hare with an ape and a fox, when the god Indra came disguised as a beggar to test their hospitality. The animals went out in search of food but only the hare came back with nothing in his hands so he threw himself into the fire so that his flesh would become a meal. Indra rewarded this noble act by casting a shadow of the hare over the moon. [http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/rrRabbits.html] In the Greco-Roman culture, the hares symbolized fertility so eating the parts of the hare could cure sterility. It was also customary for lovers to present each other hares as gifts. The hare was also the sacrificial animal most favorably looked upon by certain goddesses.

The hare is also associated with Easter in many ways. In Billson's "The Easter Hare," a South African myth says "the moon sneds the hare to men to preach this Easter gospel: "Like as I die and rise to life again, so you shall also die and rise to life again." Ironically, the hare tells men the opposite, that they shall not rise again, so the moon strikes the hare's lips with a hatchet. Thus, the hare still bears that mark of punishment. In Western mythology, some scholars believe that many Easter customs have origins as sacrificial rites in connection with the worship of Anglian goddess, Eostre, who was also the Celtic version of Ostara. The idea that hares were sacred to this deity can be supported by writings from Charles Isaac Elton and Jacob Grimm. Elton writes in his Origins of English History that the existing Easter customs "are survivals of sacrificial rites connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre." Grimm, by tracing the etymology of the terms "Easter" and "Oestre," identifies the goddess as 'the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, and whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.' (also quoted in Billson's article) However, she is only mentioned by Bede in a single passage, leading others to reject this hypothesis since it solely relies on Bede's credibility as a historian.

The list of all the known connections and associations between hares, Easter, and paganism would by very long. In a similar manner, my attempt to connect these three items to reflect a direct cause-and-effect relationship would also be futile and too messy. With that in mind, would it be sound to argue that the Easter Hare (Bunny) is a Christianized element of pagan symbolism? That the symbolism behind the renewal of spring and the lunar cycle were adaptable to Christian amendments and were easily incorporated into Christian mythology, traditions, and customs?

Of course, this is just the Easter Bunny I'm talking about, which is (or should be) totally overshadowed by the theological and religious meanings behind Easter.

I'm writing my final paper on rabbits AND hares now so just wanted to see if you guys had any opinions on this topic.


  1. I've always heard that many Christian customs (including the Easter bunny and the timing of certain festivals) sprang from pagan ones. It seems to be pretty well accepted in certain cultures, so you can probably find lots of support for it!

    It's worth mentioning, however, that one could also argue that these borrowed traditions complement that religious meanings of Easter (rebirth, for instance, is an easy complement to fertility). If these early Christians were picking and choosing, presumably they chose the symbols that were most in line with the theology.

  2. Although we have seen rabbits have important Christian symbolism in the Middle Ages (e.g. the rabbits of the resurrection or the Trinitarian rabbits), my suspicion is that the tradition of the Easter Bunny as such is rather more recent, probably 19th century. Have a look at Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (1997), p. 222. He talks about the ways in which a number of our current traditions took shape over the course of the 19th century, including those associated with Easter. By this point, worrying about whether something was pagan had gone through a long history of forgetting and (re)remembering. The 19th century was particularly enamored of all things "folk," eager to invent them (e.g. tartan clan patterns, fairy tales, witches) if they didn't already exist. The same seems to have been the case with the Easter Bunny, as well as other current "Christian" icons, like Santa Claus.