In Defence (Sort of) of the Bunny!

Easter: to judge by the shops, it’s all about hot–cross buns, fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs.

Jolly pagan stuff, huh? Especially those bunnies. Symbolic of an ancient fertility rite and the revivification of the earth at springtime, they just reek of goddess worship. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or not—one thing we’re agreed on: the bunny is an iconic pagan image.

About this time last year, I started to become excessively suspicious about this academic collectivism. In researching threshold covenants, it’s not possible to pass over the ultimate type: the Passover itself. That means returning to the original word—Pesach—and finding out what it means.

Now, scholars aren’t entirely sure about pesach. They think it means to leap, to spring, to hop, to pass over.

God leaping, springing or hopping isn’t an image that fits immediately and comfortably into my brainspace and I can see why the more dignified ‘pass over’ is the verb of choice.

Perhaps I might have been less suspicious about the bunny had I not, some years ago, spent considerable time trying to discover the meaning of ‘eo’ in Anglo–Saxon and Middle English (and its relationship to old words for giant). In the course of these investigations I had inevitably crossed paths with Eostre, the name of a goddess from which the word ‘Easter’ is said to come.

In reading very old books on the subject, I realised they lacked the academic collectivism* of today: they didn’t assume the bunny was connected with Eostre when there was absolutely zero evidence to connect the two. In fact, they found it to be quite mysterious and baffling—as well they should have. After all, the bunny with the basket seems to have started as a hare in the sixteenth century while Eostre has been around for about a millennium longer.

I’d put down the appearance of the bunny as quite perplexing too, even while deciding there was a strong possibility in my view that ‘Easter’ was actually a coined word. It might have been vaguely related to Eostre but it basically meant the angel who passes over or the star that passes over. It was therefore a reference to the events of the Exodus and a translation of ‘Pesach’ into Anglo–Saxon.

You know, those possible roots—to leap, to spring, to hop, to pass over—are still not sitting especially serenely in my grey matter but it’s occurred to me that, if you wanted a symbol of leaping, springing and hopping, the choices are seriously limited. Fleas, toads, frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, antelopes, rabbits and hares. And of course kangaroos, wallabies and various hopping mice from Australia.

Discounting the Aussie animals because only rumours of the Great Southland were circulating across Europe in the sixteenth century, we’re left with very few kosher options: antelopes, rabbits and hares. Dismiss the antelopes: there’s not enough of them imported from Africa.

Hey presto, we’re left with the… bunnies!  Hmmm… have you joined me in suspicion yet?

This still leaves a really good question: why did the bunny only emerge in the sixteenth century?

It appears the original symbol was the Osterhase: the Easter Hare. First appearing in Alsace on the French–German border, it quickly ignited the imaginations of many people until today it is a ubiquitous symbol of Easter.

The sixteenth century is the age of Reformation. I don’t know about Germany but I do know about England and what was happening there. For centuries, poets (and authors were almost universally that, in those days) had been able to write about God, Jesus and salvation in their works.

But—suddenly!—it was against the law. These subjects were too sacred to allow free rein to any scruffy individuals who fancied their ability with a quill. The law was meant to ensure proper reverence would be maintained.

It resulted in a disaster. Poets naturally still wanted to talk about the meaning of life, so they cast about for obvious representations of God: transparent symbols their audiences would immediately recognise. Zeus, for instance! The emergence of the Greek gods as significant motifs in sixteenth century English poetry is partly in response to the law forbidding specific mention of God.

So, back to the Osterhase.  From Ostern, Easter and Hase, hare. Both Ostern and Hase contain syllables that sound like Os, the old Germanic word for god.

Is this an obvious representation of God, a transparent symbol anyone who knew the Lord of the Passover was a leaping, springing, hopping God would instantly recognise? I have to suspect so.

And I have to suspect the bunny has no pagan connotations at all, unless we give them to it.

 

* Obviously this is my new favourite term. It comes from David Barton and refers to the nature of scholarship today: writers who quote each other’s secondary documents, rather than primary sources.


14 Comments

  1. Ken Rolph

    Leaping, hopping — obviously the Easter Bilby is the fulfilment of this. Perhaps we needed the emergence of the Great South Land to complete the symbolism. Rabbits are after all a plague animal and need wiping out.

    • Hi Ken

      It depends very much where you’re from as to whether the rabbits are a plague or not. Our Kiwi cousins feel the sort of sentiments towards the possum (protected here) that you feel about the bunnies!

      • Ken Rolph

        That is the point. International readers may not be aware that it is illegal to keep rabbits in most Australian states. Our government scientific organisations engage in continual biological warfare against rabbits. So that image of the fluffy bunny which is occupying our advertising at present represents the way culture can operate in a vacuum. Perhaps it displays the separation of the city from everything else.

        You are questioning whether the bunny is a pagan symbol. You delve into the span of the past culture of (mostly) Europe and the Middle East. That’s fine. That’s the past. That’s where we came from. I’m questioning whether the bunny is an adequate symbol. That’s the present. We have already seen the way Christmas unravelled into its elements and moved around in the year in the southern hemisphere. But it’s not only a Christian problem. I read of an attempt to recast the Celtic Wheel of the Year for Australia. They ran into problems when they realised that Hawthorn was a declared noxious weed in Victoria.

        You dig into the past where they only knew rumours of Australia. We live in a time where we have first hand knowledge of it. Augustine did not believe there were people in the Antipodes because when Christ came again every eye would see him. But here we are. So what are we? Just uncritical inheritors of a northern hemisphere culture? Some people seem to believe that Christianity is a local northern religion that we can (and probably should) leave behind.

        What to do with symbols when they move in time and space and develop mis-matches. Looking into the past provides understanding of what has been. But what do we do then? Life is a dangerous business, like crossing the road. You need to look both ways.

        • Hi Ken

          I think we do tend to look to the northern hemisphere, even today. In all sorts of areas. We absorb the ethno-centric culture of the north (is there a world like culturo-centric?) and go along with the worldview that history all happened north of the Equator.

          My personal favourite in this kind of orientation is this statement from NASA about the formation of the youngest crater on the moon (found here: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast26apr_1/): Such an impact would have triggered a blizzard-like, week-long meteor storm on Earth – yet there are no accounts of such a storm in any known historical record, including the European, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean astronomical archives.

          The quote doesn’t make much sense out of context but it’s worth reading the article and noting this is a discussion that goes back as far as Isaac Newton and refers to a twelfth century observation of the moon by five monks of Canterbury. Note how the researcher’s focus is so completely oriented to the north - any known historical record, including the European, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean - and that, moreover, NASA has fallen in with it. If there was any organisation that should know the earth doesn’t stop at the equator, you’d think NASA would be it.

          I make this point because the Maori have talked for centuries about the Mystic Fires of Tamatea – they fall in the right time period at the right time of year. And their laments at their New Year (Mataarika) preserve an almost identical wording to the description of the five monks of Canterbury.

  2. Awesome article Annie. Thank you for your thorough research on this subject. We have a number of friends who look askance at us for celebrating Easter — but the fact is, we’ve looked into it, we’ve prayed into it and we’ve never sensed for a moment that we weren’t to celebrate the day our Lord revealed he’d beaten the stuffing out of death.

    Our kids are getting old for bunnies anyway so chocolate is usually a little less creatively formed, but still, I’ve never been able to get excited about the issue. If I was living a murder mystery… I’d call the Easter controversy a red herring — one that keeps God’s children divided and failing to focus on that new commandment he gave us during his last passover week.

    Thanks again!

    • Herrings are an Easter thing too, you know! Well, at least – fish are. All 153 of them. I find it so cool that this is the very first number that can be ‘resurrected’ from the cube of its own digits. I wonder how long it took the disciples to realise what a masterly mathematical joke it was.

      And although the idea of a hopping God still isn’t a comfortable one, Jesus thinking, ‘What surprise can I spring on them next?’ and jumping for joy works quite well for me!

  3. As usual Annie, your ability to research and find stuff that most people would never consider amazes me :-)

    With regard to the Easter Bunny, when my kids were growing up, I always bought them an Easter Egg, and told them the egg was the same shape as the stone that covered the tomb where Jesus was buried. Who knows, maybe that’s where the Easter egg rolling came from.

    • Ahhh, the rolling stone… now there’s a Hebrew word for rolled away which is also about stones, thresholds and memory: it’s gilgal.

      Interestingly, I’ve also found it in a couple of old books as an English word for a stone circle.

  4. Annie, this was fun and instructive. In the years just prior to the German Reformation (1502), Albrecht Dürer painted the most wonderful watercolor of a hare. I have a plate with a copy of this painting on it.

    I must admit that saying Happy Easter bothers me. For a while I couldn’t do this, and it is still hard to; I would say Happy Resurrection Day. However, I’ve gone back to Happy Easter, because Happy Resurrection Day is clunky and uncertain, too. I like greetings that keep a sense of the Hebrew – Pesach, but I live among mostly English speaking people to which this means little.

    Joyeuses Pâques (French)
    Buona Pasqua (Italian)

    Greek, from Vivet at Yahoo! Answers:

    to a male :
    Kalo Pascha ( kai Kali Anastasi ), file mou tempeli
    Καλό Πάσχα ( και Καλή Ανάσταση ), φίλε μου τεμπέλη

    to a female:
    Kalo Pascha ( kai Kali Anastasi ), fili mou tempela
    Καλό Πάσχα ( και Καλή Ανάσταση ), φίλη μου τεμπέλα

    You wish “Kalo Pascha” especially when the Holy Week starts. You wish “Kali Anastasi” when Easter Sunday is very close, especially after Holy Thursday and Friday. However you can use Kali Anastasi only before midnight of Saturday.

    After Anastasi ( Resurrection ) at midnight you say ‘Hristos Anesti’ – Χριστός Ανέστη and ‘Chronia Polla’ – Χρόνια πολλά.
    And the other answers ‘Truly he is risen’ (‘Alithos anesti’- Αληθώς ανέστη ).

    here’s the link for this:

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090417111901AA3Hlef

    Truly, the Greek (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!) is the most meaningful.

    My cousins taught me about this, and when I searched, I remembered… They also roasted a lamb whole, for the the Church to enjoy.

    Happy Easter! Christ is risen indeed!

    Maria

    • Thank you, Maria! These are such cool greetings!

      One of my favourites is Annie Herring’s Easter Song with all those excessively high hallelujahs. It would be great to be able to hit those notes! I couldn’t find Annie singing it herself but I did discover a slightly lower setting sung by Matthew Ward (also from 2nd Chapter of Acts)at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9Re4kRY5II

      • And I forgot to say – yes, I loved that hare of Dürer’s and had a print of it for many years. I also found an interesting rendition of Easter Song by Kim Hansen. I guess I noticed it because I’m hoping to go to the Faroe Islands in two years and he’s from there.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF1UpewrBAQ

        • Annie, this is a lovely joyful song. The piano accompaniment echoes the ringing of the bells.

          Guess what? A surprise from the Lord: Two weeks in a row our congregation sang “Be Thou My Vision.” We hadn’t done this before, that I know of.

          Happy Resurrection Day/Remembrance/Reality, and Bon Voyage – have a wonderful time in the Faroe Islands!

Leave a Reply

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.