Today Easter seems an explosion of bunnies and gaudily wrapped chocolate eggs, but these are symbols that pre-date Christianity. Johnny Scott discovers more about this ancient spring festival
THE MODERN IMAGERY OF EASTER
The modern imagery of Easter – the eggs and the Easter bunny – pre-dates Christianity and has its provenance in pagan fertility symbols. The bunny was originally a hare; no other animal is surrounded by such a volume of myths, legends, superstitions and omens over so many cultures. Solitary and crepuscular, except in the spring, when the bucks and does perform their elaborate mating rituals, hares are capable of speeds up to 40km, can turn on a sixpence in full flight and jump seven metres with ease. This in itself was enough to command the respect of early people, but their behaviour, which sometimes appears almost humanly irrational as they double back and forth in the dusk, making sudden leaps and 90-degree turns, and their hideously childlike screams when caught or injured, convinced our ancestors that hares were more than mere animals.
For many centuries, there was a belief that hares were hermaphrodites and that both sexes bred; that they had a second set of teats inside their wombs, and that fur grew in their mouths. Although this was eventually disproved in the 19th century, hares are almost unique in their extraordinary ability to be pregnant and conceive at the same time, thus carrying two or more foetuses at different stages of growth; this and their habit of producing four litters in a year made them worthy of deifying and an obvious symbol of fertility and springtime fecundity.
Some folklorists claim that hares carried the light for Eostre as she lit the spring dawn and, although there is not a shred of evidence to support this, it is not unreasonable to agree with the statement written by Charles Billson: “Whether there was a goddess named Eostre or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great spring festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”
Paradoxically, hares, the wildest and most sensitive of all animals, can easily be tamed, if caught young enough, and the Celtic ruling classes liked to keep them in their homes as a sort of living connection to the gods – Boudicca is reputed to have careered into battle on her chariot with the family pet stuffed up her tunic. Caesar remarked that, although the flesh of hares was considered an aphrodisiac by the Romans – Pliny the Elder recommended a diet of hare to increase sexual attractiveness and claimed that the meat had the power to cure sterility – the Celts regarded it as taboo.
This gives rise to the perplexing Easter hare-hunting rituals, which seem to bear the stamp of immemorial antiquity. Once held in various parts of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, these were believed by the antiquary and politician Charles Elton QC, MP (1839 – 1900) to be survivals of sacrificial rites connected with the worship of Eostre. Perhaps strangest of all unexplained connections between hares, paganism and Christianity is the iconography in early medieval churches and cathedrals throughout Britain, depicting three running hares joined by the tips of their ears to form a triangle. This symbolism is found in Chester Cathedral, St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, a chapel in Cotehele, Cornwall, and churches in Widecombe, Devon, and Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as well as in sacred sites in the Middle and Far East, across Europe and in Russia.