The Easter Bunny arrives – all the way from Egypt

As symbols of fertility go, it’s hard to beat a rabbit.  But the cuddly sanitised version of the Easter Bunny we know today bears little resemblance to the wild spring hare of ancient times.

Long before the introduction of Christianity, the ancient Pagans had their own festivals to celebrate spring as a time of birth and rebirth, as the world began to bloom again after the harshness of winter.

It is believed this productive mammal first appeared in ancient Egypt, as a symbol of new life, fertility and the moon.  A sacred hare is associated with both the sun god Ra and the moon god Toth and became a messenger between them, charged with transporting the sacred egg of life.

The hare also signified the resurrective powers of the afterlife god Osiris, who was sometimes portrayed with the animal’s head.

Osiris was sacrificed to the Nile each year, a few months before the flood, in the form of a hare to guarantee the annual flooding upon which Egyptian society depended.

This link between hares, eggs and the moon is also found in Hindu mythology where the moon is called Cacin or Sasanka which translates as Marked with Hare.

In northern Europe, the Goddess of Fertility was known as Eostre and her consort was the hare. Legend has it that Eostre would cast the hare into the Heavens, creating the constellation we know today as Lepus the Hare.

Some tales even claim that Eostre, from whose name Easter is believed to have evolved, gave Lepus the ability to lay eggs once a year.

As Christianity swept through Europe, the new priests attempted to incorporate pre-Christian ideas and rituals into the Christian calendar.

These traditions co-existed for some time and there is much dispute over exactly when the rabbit first became part of this most important Christian celebration.

The first written record of the Easter Hare is found in Germany in the 15th century but it was to be another 400 years before he emerged in biscuit form at the hands of some inventive pastry chefs.

He was introduced to American folklore by the German settlers who arrived in the Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700s.

The arrival of the Oschter Haws was considered childhood’s greatest pleasure, next to a visit from Christ-Kindel on Christmas Eve. The children believed that if they were good the white Oschter Haws would lay a nest of coloured eggs.

Over time this tradition grew, and soon Osterhase (or the Easter Bunny as he is known today) began to arrive with chocolates and sweets as well as eggs.

Today the Easter Bunny has become a central figure in the commercial aspect of the Christian calendar’s only lunar festival and has evolved into characters embedded in our literature.

So as you tuck into your chocolates this Easter, take a moment to think about its history, the lunar symbolism and dead gods with hare ears.

And if you have time, take a look at the western night sky in the early evening and you just might see the Easter Bunny as he slips below the western horizon to journey into the underworld in the hunt for more of those precious eggs.

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