Easter is considered one of the oldest and most sacred Christian holidays; thus it would seem that a symbol as iconic as the Easter bunny (or, in some countries, the Easter hare) would carry a pedigree deeply rooted in the Bible. Yet there is, perhaps surprisingly, no mention of the rabbit or his relatives in the ancient canon except in the context of food. Other early sources, however, show that rabbits/hares and eggs did play a role in the pre-Christian rituals and festivals that were later absorbed into the celebration we know as Easter.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Easter eggs: “The custom may have its origin in paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The egg is the emblem of the germinating life of early spring. . . . The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.”
Accordingly, the earliest histories of Europe and Asia include allusions to rabbits and eggs as fertility symbols in the spring festivals of rebirth embraced by ancient polytheistic religions. Beliefs centered around this season of new life, renewal and regeneration spawned religious ceremonies and rites to ensure the fertility of flocks and fields. Some of the earliest written records of these rituals come from ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians’ cosmogonic beliefs were complex and full of mystery. Attempts to explain the origin of the universe often included the idea of the world springing from an egg; half of the shell became the sky, the bottom half became the earth, and the yolk symbolized the sun. Similar tales have the god Ra (or Re) emanating from an egg and rising as the sun, with his offspring procreating to form the sky (Nut) and the earth (Geb). Osiris, the slain and resurrected god of the underworld, shared symbolism with his great-grandfather Ra. According to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, “the hare was a divine creature called Weni, or Wen-nefer . . . an insignia of Re’s rising as the sun and also of the resurrective powers of Osiris.”
Written records of these symbols—a convergence of hares, eggs, death, sunrise services and resurrection with striking similarities to today’s Easter celebrations—date from as early as 2300 BCE, though the oral tradition behind the writings began even earlier.
One such record is the Book of the Dead, important Egyptian funerary papyrus scrolls. These were indispensable in the elaborate funeral rites of monarchs and menials alike throughout centuries of Egyptian history. The scrolls refer to Ra, Osiris and Horus in conjunction with eggs, hares and resurrection.
Some of the spells from the Book of the Dead show just how strong the connections were between the symbols and the gods: “I have arisen from the Egg which is in the secret land. . . . I am Osiris” (Spell 22). “I seek out that great place which is in Wenu, I have guarded the Egg of the Great Cackler. If I be strong, it will be strong; if I live, it will live; if I breathe the air, it will breathe the air (Spell 56).”
The city of Hermopolis was near an ancient religious center known as Wenu (or Wenut), devoted to worship of the hare god Unnu (Weni, Wen-nefer, “the Springer-up”) and his consort, a hare goddess. Worship of this hare god, the animal form of the creator god Ra, involved resurrection and the rising of the sun. Both rebirth and the rising sun related to the god Ra, who according to legend was born of a golden egg laid by a celestial goose (“the Great Cackler”). According to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, “the hare was an insignia of Re’s rising as the sun and also of the resurrective powers of Osiris.”
The stories of Osiris (the sun god and judge of the dead, who granted life and rebirth) and his sister/wife Isis (the moon goddess) are some of the best known among tales of the Egyptian pantheon. The murder of Osiris, Isis’s role in stitching together the body, the post-mortem conception of Horus and the subsequent resurrection of Osiris come together in a tale that remains an important part of Egyptian cosmology. Variations of the Isis and Osiris courtship, death and rebirth tales have danced around the globe through the ages with similar divine couples, including Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Tammuz, Aphrodite (Astarte) and Adonis, Cybele and Attis. Themes and symbols from their earliest worship rituals reappear in new guises, usually linked with fertility, rebirth and renewal of life. (See “Cupid’s Disheartening Past.”) Some of these are evident in symbols and practices (eggs, hares, sunrise worship services), others in names (Astarte, Ishtar, Easter).
Bede, the eighth-century monk and historian, wrote of the origins of the term Easter when describing the Old English words for the months of the year in his De Temporum Ratione: “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month [April]. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” Eostre (Anglo Saxon), or Ostara (Teutonic) is often pictured with a hare at her feet, as her symbols were the hare and the egg.
The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges Bede’s contribution and adds a caveat: “The English term, according to the Ven[erable] Bede (De temporum ratione, I, v), relates to Estre, a Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and spring, which deity, however, is otherwise unknown.”
Eleven centuries later, Jacob Grimm acknowledged some debate over the veracity of Bede’s assertions yet felt they were accurate enough for him to build on Bede’s foundation. In Grimm’s 1835 Teutonic Mythology, he connected long-standing Germanic traditions with the Teutonic goddess and Easter celebrations.
Grimm also commented on an earlier discussion of eggs, a hare and Easter. In 1682, physician Georg Franck von Franckenau wrote an essay titled “De Ovis Paschalibus” (“On the Easter Egg”) in his Satyrae Medicae XX, describing the Alsatian tradition of the Easter hare leaving colored eggs in “nests” and explaining how to help children who became ill from eating those eggs. Grimm posited that this was the first known written account combining the two symbols.
Jacob and his brother Wilhelm are best known as the romantic nationalist story collectors behind Grimms’ Fairy Tales, their phenomenally successful venture to preserve Germanic culture via folklore. Jacob’s later work (Teutonic Mythology) delved even deeper, exploring the mythologies and religious beliefs of their ancestors. He linked their ancient traditions with those of his contemporaries, deducing from the similarities that the Roman Catholic Church had readily adopted deeply-rooted ancient practices to encourage participation in their own newly created religious festivals. Ostara, like Eastre, wrote Grimm, “must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.”
In the early 1800s, as Grimm was telling his tales of Germanic Easter traditions, German immigrants were bringing those traditions to the United States.
The Oschter Haws (Osterhas), or Easter hare, arrived on the shores of the New World with the Pennsylvania Dutch (who were not actually Dutch but Deutsch, or German). This hare supposedly left gifts of colored eggs in hats, bonnets, plates, nests or around the home of well-behaved children on the eve of Easter. Over the next century, the hare became a more familiar rabbit as Easter celebrations gradually caught on throughout the country. By 1878, Easter celebrations in the United States had become commonplace enough that President Rutherford B. Hayes allowed egg rolling on the White House Lawn—separation of church and state notwithstanding. This tradition continues today under the watchful eyes of both the president and a giant Easter bunny as children race their eggs and search the grounds for special wooden souvenir eggs.
Today’s furry Easter bunny seems to be an important cultural element of the annual festival for those who celebrate it for religious reasons as well as for those who believe they celebrate it as a secular tradition. Although traditional Christianity adopted other pre-Christian symbols in their religious festivals, the Easter bunny and its predecessors have been kept at arm’s length by the religious mainstream (possibly because of the blatant connections with fertility). But the tenacious creature has managed to hop down the bunny trail from its early hare-god origins in ancient paganism to the chocolate, faux fur and paper bunnies of today’s Easter celebrations throughout the world.