The Easter Bunny is female: How our Easter traditions began

The feast is named for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, the prototypical Easter Bunny

We’re going on an egg hunt

We’re going on an egg hunt

 

We finally seem to have emerged from the dreariest winter since...well, the last one anyway. Lambs are prancing on the hillside, daffodils are rioting in the verges and calves are cavorting in the fields. Magpies are mating so there is less chance of seeing a single one – which can only be a good omen – and last night, in a brief patch of clear sky, I caught a glimpse of a shooting star. Things are really looking up.

I am the walking embodiment of GK Chesterton’s remark that if you don’t believe in something, you’ll believe in anything. I have often looked for signs among the fruit trees we planted a few years back: plentiful plums foretold plum jobs to come and ripening cherries meant life was to be a bowlful. Throughout history humanity has often believed in odd, arbitrary things and many of our rituals, despite a foundation in some sort of sense, seem quite bizarre. As Easter approaches there are some doozies to pick from: “Whipping the Herring” for example.

In small Irish coastal towns a herring was hung from a pole on Easter Saturday and ceremoniously marched along Main Street. People followed with sticks and beat the bejaysus out of the innocent fish whilst onlookers mocked and jeered. When a bridge or quay side was reached, the battered herring was flung into the water to general laughter. Then, in place of the destroyed fish, a quarter of lamb festooned with brightly coloured ribbons was hung from the pole and marched back to universal singing and dancing. Utterly weird but totally natural because the procession was usually organised by butchers, bitter and impoverished by 40 days of Lenten fast, and the rejoicing crowds – thoroughly sick of fish – were thrilled at the prospect of meat on the table the following day.

Sadly, the custom has withered away. Detractors of this indecorous ceremony saw a burlesque of Christ carrying the cross and to sanctimonious minds the crowd mocking a blameless fish blasphemously evoked the Passion and the road to Calvary. Defenders claimed that delightedly cheering a leg of lamb was a joyous celebration of the resurrection but perhaps they were more influenced by salivation than salvation.

Communal traditions evolve out of earlier ones and often modify them: Whipping the Herring had multilayered meaning and Easter itself is a coastal shelf of accumulated symbolism. When Jesus brought his disciples to spend Passover in Jerusalem – where he was subsequently crucified then rose again – he went to observe an old religious ritual and initiated a new one.

In Ireland, the Dance of the Sun was another phenomenon in which Christian and pagan elements inextricably combined. At dawn on Easter morning, the sun could be seen dancing with joy at the resurrection. Clearly it was not a good idea to look with the naked eye – it was safer to watch the reflection in a tub of water. A discreet adult nudge created a ripple to make the sun actually dance and thereby avoid disappointing the children – or assist in their indoctrination – depending on your point of view.

The sun is still integral to Easter which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Ancient spring feasts from many cultures were inevitably calculated on the same basis. Ritual acknowledgements of the equinox dictated the architecture of Irish passage tombs and were recorded in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. The Jewish people during their Babylonian captivity there would have witnessed and perhaps been influenced by these ceremonies. After all this was when the setting of the date of Passover was formalised: Peshach, as it is more properly called, begins with the dusk following the first full moon after the equinox. They must also have encountered the Babylonian God Tammuz who suffered death and was reborn annually with the circuit of the sun. And perhaps a race memory from their Egyptian enslavement still lingered: that of Osiris drowned in the Nile by his brother Set and resurrected in spring by the devotion of his sister Isis.

A god rising from the dead with the rebirth of the sun was a widespread notion. It still is. Since the Council of Nicea in 325AD the church continues to set Easter’s date according to the spring equinox; the rising of Christ from the tomb is the definitive demonstration of his divinity and bearing witness to it is the central tenet of Christianity. Of course the first person to whom Jesus revealed his risen self, the person who first witnessed the resurrection and encountered both his human and divine natures, was Mary Magdalene. I would have thought that any subsequent religion based on his words and actions would honour the centrality of women, but I trust in shooting stars and count magpies – what do I know?

A sacred female presence hovers behind most ancient festivals and Easter is named for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. She was associated with rejuvenation and the waxing moon – she too was celebrated at the first post-equinoctial full moon. Symbolised by the Hare and the Egg representing fertility and plenty she was the prototypical Easter Bunny! A few years ago my older boy asked if such a creature truly existed. I replied I had no other explanation for where all the eggs came from. Maybe I should have said “HE doesn’t but SHE does.” The boy knows his own best interests and has since kept quiet. He and his brother still expect to hunt for eggs on Easter morning.

One Easter Saturday past I stopped for a break while mowing the grass. In the sudden silence I heard birdsong from the hedgerows; fat bumblebees buzzing lazily in the fruit trees; and high above, in the clear air, the song of an invisible lark. The boys were at the bench under the cherry tree, shirtless and studious in the sunshine, and thoroughly engrossed in some art work. It was a detailed map of our acre, marked with all the spots where, historically the Easter Bunny has been known to leave eggs – amongst the herbs, by the log pile, in the hen house – I remember the younger boy grinning as he reached for the glinting coloured eggs nestling in the straw with that morning’s clutch. Every year we put a few in unmapped spots to keep them guessing if not believing then we cough and “accidentally” gesture at the Bunny’s new hiding place. They raise sceptical eyebrows but play along, doubting and believing simultaneously. Schrödinger’s bunny exists and doesn’t – and a tradition is still a tradition.

In Sight of Yellow Mountain: A Year in the Irish Countryside by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books

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