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.
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 not far behind.
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.
More than a thousand years later, during the Iron Age, ritual hare burials were common, and in 51 BCE Julius Caesar mentioned that in Britain, the hares were not eaten because of their religious significance.
Caesar would probably have known that in the classical Greek tradition, hares were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. During this time, Aphrodite’s son, Eros, was often depicted wearing 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 white hare or rabbitsymbolizing 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. Stories from the 1600s in Germany describe children the hunt for 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 theHare Pie Scrambletook 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 his pagan associations, but he was unsuccessful, and the custom continues in this village to this day.
Hare eating may have been associated with various long-standing folk traditions of scare away witches at Easter. Throughout northern Europe, folk traditions record a strong belief that witches would often take the hare shape, 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 Osterfeueror Easter Fire, a celebration in Germany involving large outdoor bonfires intended to scare away witches. In Sweden, popular folklore says that at Easter, witches all fly away on their broomsticks feast and dance with the devil on the legendary island of Blåkulla in the Baltic Sea.
In 1835, the folklorist Jacob Grimmone of the famous fairy tale team of the Brothers Grimm, argued that the Easter Hare was related to a goddess he imagined it would have been called “Ostara” in Old German. It takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who Bedean 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 Eostre Month, 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.
Recent archaeological research seems confirm worship d’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 festivalsannounced 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.