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.