I decided to go hunting… At the beginning I really didn’t mean to. I thought that finding an explanation to the “Easter Bunny” would be easier. However, I’ve come across the most interesting things.
The first thing that caught my attention is the fact that sometimes rabbits were used to symbolize “Christ” in early Christian times. This convention was continued and was even used in the decoration of some churches, e.g. the three hare window in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Paderborn, Germany, where three rabbits or hares are united in a triangle with only one ear of each showing. They are meant to symbolize the Trinity.
If you’re interested in this topic you may want to take a look at The three hares project of Chris Chapman. He shows different versions of the motive and its depiction in Medieval Europe basing its origins in Asia.
In the late 15th century and beginnings of the 16th some famous painters included rabbits or hares in their religious painting, such as Albrecht Dürer on his woodcut The Holy Family.
He also created the most detailed painting of a hare, his famous Young Hare (German: Feldhase) in 1502 in watercolors.
A very informative page is http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=28531 where you can read a very interesting, however personal view of Easter and its symbols.
Going back to the “Easter rabbit”, that by the way was a hare, like Bugs Bunny and not a sweet fluffy rabbit, it is usually seen as a symbol for fertility. Hares and rabbits are very prolific and can give birth to several litters a year. They are very early sexually mature and can conceive the second litter while still pregnant with the first!
In the early 19th century, Jakob Grimm, tried to explain the myth of Easter, the eggs and the bunny. The idea of the German goddess Ostara became popular with his version. She wasn’t really well known or popular before that. Grimm based his version in some medieval writings, some from the British Isles, and word semantics from German and other northern languages. However, up to now nothing has been scientifically proven.
Another interesting fact I found in my hunt was this image:
It has been sometimes used to portrait the goddess Ostara and his mate, the rabbit or hare! If you look very carefully, especially for those of you acquainted with Mesoamerican art, you will recognize some facial traits… Yes, indeed! This is a Mayan sculpture representing the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ix-Chel. She was the goddess of fertility, motherhood, the moon and the menstrual cycle. She was mother of all. In other representations she holds a rabbit in her hand as a symbol of fertility while sitting on the crescent moon. On this image she is standing with the rabbit at her side to symbolize fertility.
As you now know, this image has nothing to do with Ostara, the Old German goddess!
The Aztecs, another Mezoamerican culture, used the rabbit for the name of a day: “tochtli”. http://www.azteccalendar.com/day/Tochtli.html
Are there any other rabbit or bunny versions? Many for sure…
In conclusion, the version of Easter as we know it, with colored eggs and bunnies, is the one transmitted from German and Swedish cultures to other European countries and brought to the US of America in the 18th century mostly by German immigrants, many of them Lutherans. This tradition has now extended to many parts of the world without really knowing what it stands for.
Does it really matter? Enjoy your chocolate eggs and rabbits… though I prefer chocolate hares as they have longer ears 😉