By The Lore Keeper
The Easter Bunny is one of the mainstays of the Easter Holiday. The mascot and blatant reminder of the pagan origins of the holiday much like Santa Claus is for Christmas. Many tales are told of Eostre or Ostara and the hare. Diverging quite a bit from one to the other. While these tales are often thought to be fabrications and more than likely many of them are modern tales. The most notable legend is already known to be more than 100 years older than originally believed. This idea that the story is a complete fabrication comes from Jacob Grimm theorizing that The Hare must once have been a bird to be able to lay Easter Eggs. The story may have existed before Grimm published his Teutonic Mythology and theorized about the transmogrified bird. With the bias being towards the likelihood of Grimm’s theory being found to be true after his book had been published and released to the public.
So before we get into the Myths and folktales involving the Easter Bunny it would be wise to discuss what the Easter Bunny/Hare even does and where he comes into play. In the tales collected/written by Margaret Arndt the Easter Hare is labeled a Fairy and in at least one tale appears alongside Mother Holle, Oberon, and other powerful spirits. Here his eggs are a gift for the Altkonig or the Old King. Though the tale involving these figures is likely predominately a literary fairy tale, it draws from the folklore of the German forests. In these same tales he is described as shy and that he hides the eggs outside while the children are in bed, the young ones being sure to shut the doors and shutters of the house so he isn’t seen while he does his work. The children also make a nest for the Hare. For him to lay the eggs and sweets in. The Easter bunny’s offspring are also said to hatch from Easter eggs, marking the Easter Bunny perhaps as the progenitor of a Fairy Race. Though this is perhaps a more fanciful view it is not dismissed by the folklore at hand. The Easter Hare is also definitively male, though he at times is said to have a companion, a Mrs. Easter Hare. This is important and will be mentioned later.
The Easter Hare similar to Belsnickel was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch and just as Belsnickel morphed into Santa Claus, The Easter Hare (Oschter Haws) became the Easter Bunny. The sweets and eggs stuck around though the nest became the Easter Basket. The tradition of hiding Easter Eggs for the children to find also continued in America. Though similar to Christmas the holiday’s prominence in America was not widespread until later dates. Being predominately celebrated by the European groups that had celebrated it in the old country. The prominence of Easter and its lovable mascot has grown considerably. What was once a Continental Germanic tradition, has come to dominate the season, and in doing so the Easter Bunny has changed once more getting a catchy song with his new American name “Peter Cottontail” and in one of the more interesting developments having antlers tacked on to the whimsical Easter Jackalope that has slowly been making its way into the holidays imagery. Now that the Easter Bunny’s function has been explained perhaps it is time for the myths to be discussed.
The most well known tale and the most derided as being modern is that of Ostara and the bird. Where Ostara or Eostre changed a bird into a hare. There are many versions of this tale. One involves the bird longing to be with a hare in a case of forbidden love and Ostara wishing to give them their hearts desire, changed the bird into a hare, and as thanks the Easter Hare delivers eggs on Easter to this day. Since it was once a bird it maintained it’s ability to lay eggs. Though this tale like all of the ones of the Easter Hare “Laying eggs” has the problem of the Easter Hare being male. Though who among us is the one to judge Fairy biology!!? All joking aside it is something that throws a wrench in the idea of this tale being the origin. Despite this it remains a well liked tale and there are many more variations of it.
Another version tells that Eostre had her carriage or chariot pulled across the sky by a bird. What kind of bird has never been specified though Ostara and Eostre are associated with Spring so swallows and storks are both possibilities, a cuckoo is also possible as the Easter Cuckoo fulfills the same role as the Hare for the Swiss. Regardless of species Ostara’s bird is unable to handle the freezing temperatures of Europe’s winter and dies. Ostara horrified at her mounts death revives it in the form of a hare so that it will have the warmth to survive the winter. The Hare than continues to serve as the goddesses mount and pack animal, in some versions of the tale even becoming the lover of the goddess, this is where the Mrs. Easter Hare comes into play.
Perhaps this female Hare and consort of the Easter Hare was the only refuge for Ostara under the church and this is the form she retains in the folklore. Especially when a common folklore motif in England was that witches could turn into hares. Eostre and Ostara are both Saxon goddesses. So the English motif of the Hare as a witch familiar comes into play here, as many goddesses were relegated to witches, even more notable is that the Hare is said to consume cows milk and make it dry for the farmer. Eostre as a goddess of fertility and of the Springtime would have some association with milk and other important fertility symbols. So perhaps both of these are remnants pointing to more aspects of the goddess surviving than at first thought.
However, the story does not end up going well for the Hare. His lustful nature causes him to cheat on Ostara which she does not take well. Throwing him into the sky as a constellation beside the hunter. Though she eventually recalled all the good times they had had together and let him return to earth once per year. That day was Easter. Here I’d also like to point out that a figure of German myth, The Eternal Hunter, is said to collect plant spirits at the onset of Winter perhaps it is him that the Hare is forced to sit below. Until he is released at springtime with the other spirits protected by the Eternal Hunter from King Frost in Germanic myth. Either way this is one of the ones I’ve found that has the most detail regarding the legend.
A third one and final tale regarding the Easter Hare’s origins as a bird is that of a small girl finding a dead bird in the snow. She prayed to Ostara and the goddess appeared atop a rainbow and as she walked across the land the earth erupted with life and flowers. She brought the bird back to life as a hare and as thanks to the goddess the Easter Hare would give out eggs, sweets, and treats on Easter Day every year.
There is one more tale I found involving both the goddess and the Hare that is of note. In this one the origin as a bird is completely absent. Instead the animals were awaiting the arrival of the goddess Eostre and were overjoyed that she was coming to visit them. They all began to gather gifts for the goddess. Though not all the animals were rich some were very poor. The Hare was one of them and when it went home it found it had nothing to give to the goddess but an egg. The only possession it had, it lovingly decorated it and brought it to the party and presented it to the goddess, embarrassed that his gift was so simple in comparison to the others. However the goddess loved the gift, Eostre knew the Hare had given her everything it had. So she named it her sacred animal from that day forward. From then on the Hare, the goddess, and the egg were linked.
One more tale I wish to bring up does not involve the goddess at all. But instead involves the Hare finding a nest of eggs. A fox had eaten their mother and knowing the eggs would not last throughout the cold stormy night alone, the Hare sat on the eggs and they hatched the next morning, which was Easter Sunday, and the chicks all thought the Hare was their mother. From then on the Hare was The Easter Hare. This last one has much less mythic charm though it serves just as well as an origin of the Easter Hare. All these tales tell varied legends of the Hare’s origins. Though they contradict it can be seen via the tales that the rabbit is hard working, caring, giving and a rather “romantic” fella. The Easter Hare in the modern day has become tied into the Holiday of Easter more than Easter herself. Though as the legends move forward the two are becoming closer and closer linked.
It is certainly possible that any or all of these tales may be a modern story but that is not important. The Easter Hare or Easter Bunny or Peter Cottontail or whatever we choose to call him “is” a part of Easter. If the Hare was not originally tied to Eostre or Ostara than he most certainly is now. Both are intrinsically tied to the Holiday, and as such are joined at the hip regardless of the legitimacy of the legends. Just as Santa Claus is to his reindeer. The legend of The Easter Hare has continued to this day despite attempts to replace the hare with a Bilby or Fox in some countries. The Easter Hare lives on. This fairy in his red coat serves a similar role to the animal companions of gods such as Sleipneir for Odin or Rollegaul for Holle. A sacred animal and mount of a goddess who can be felt in the crisp air of a spring morning. Spirit, legend, fairy, god, myth the origin of the Easter Hare is less important than his presence to this very day. He and his many many progeny deliver eggs and smiles to the children in a time of new life. In all the hustle and bustle of the modern day, the egg and the hare are still there. Reminding us of the potential of the future and of the hope in the blooming horizon.
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