The Origin of the Easter Egg & Bunny
I mentioned the “World Egg.” Few Christian historians seem to have any clear ideas about the origin of the Easter egg. Some say that it was traditional to bless and eat eggs at Easter because they were not allowed to be eaten during the fast of Lent, which Easter brings to an end. But the fact is that there are no records of the use of Easter eggs in Western Europe before the 15th century. So there must be another way to make sense of this symbol. Symbolically speaking, an egg is a beginning and Easter is a feast of beginnings, of the emergence of life from darkness and death. The egg in religious iconography is accepted as a symbol of fertility and immortality, so it is easily seen why it goes with Spring when things sprout back to life. Yet, the Easter egg takes us back—way, way back—to some of the oldest known civilizations on earth; to ancient Egypt and India, where the symbol of an egg plays an important part in mythical accounts of the creation of the world. According to religious scholars, the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Hindus and others believed that the world was a cosmic egg. Hindu mythology also tells us of the World Egg which was formed in the “waters of chaos” before the universe and time had begun. We can find the World-Egg symbol in Western mythology also. The egg appears as one of the main symbols in Orphic mythology of ancient Greece and a major symbol in Gnosticism, representing rebirth and gnosis. (See the picture of the Gnostic Mary Magdalene holding up an egg on the ToS website “Playlist & Images” page.) Eggs are a result of being fertile and a life source, as well as a holder of mystery. In the Greek Orphic tradition, the Goddess of Night became pregnant by the God of the Wind and the world was hatched from the egg she laid. In this tradition the egg is a symbol of the mystery of life, creation and resurrection. The Celtic Druids have the cosmic egg of the serpent, Egyptians the cosmic egg that belonged to the sun god Ra. An egg represents potential, because what’s within can’t be seen; yet the secret life inside continues to grow until it’s ready to be born. Eggs are also the food with a round sun suspended in the middle. In the Middle Ages eggs were dyed red to represent the color of life. Thus, the egg is a symbol of death and life alike. It is a symbol of death in so far as it is a shell or tomb in which the life-germ is imprisoned; it is a symbol of life in so far as it is the source of a new creature.
Thus it is by no mere flight of private fancy that we associate our Easter egg with this mysterious World Egg, this original germ from which all life proceeds, and whose shell is the firmament (the ancient word for the limits of space, which our own scientists believe to be curved). But why should Easter, the Feast of Resurrection, be connected with a symbol having to do with the creation of the universe? The answer is because there is an obvious parallel between the rising of Christ from death and the rising of the universe from the original darkness of chaos and nonbeing. Eggs in popular tradition have long been associated with Easter as a symbol of new life and Jesus’ resurrection. From the Christian perspective, Easter eggs are said to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection. One explanation for this custom is that eggs were formerly a forbidden food during the Lenten season, so people would paint and decorate them to mark the end of the period of penance and fasting, then eat them on Easter as a celebration.
Easter is, of course, a religious holiday, but some of its customs, such as Easter eggs, are linked to earlier pagan traditions. The egg, an ancient symbol of new life, has been associated with pagan festivals celebrating Spring. Eggs have been viewed as symbols of new life and fertility through the ages. Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of antiquity. It is believed that for this reason many ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Romans, used eggs during their Spring festivals. Since birds lay eggs and rabbits and hares give birth to large litters in the early Spring, these became symbols of the rising fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox.
Familiar as the Easter Bunny now is, its beginnings are unknown to most people. Today we assume that for Easter Christ is primary and the Easter Bunny was a modern addition for the children, perhaps a marketing gimmick to commercialize the holiday. Some have said that a rabbit emerging from his burrow is a symbol of Christ rising from his tomb on Easter morning. But whatever the association is between the savior and a rabbit or hare, most people believe that the savior figure of Christ came first. Actually, the reverse is the case—the Easter Bunny is older than Christianity; but it wasn’t originally a bunny; it was a hare, a very different kind of creature. First of all, it should be pointed out that hares are not rabbits. Hares are the cousin to rabbits, who have shorter ears and longer hind legs. Hares do not burrow, but live precariously on the surface in “forms” with strong hind legs as their main asset, in that speed is their best defense against foxes and dogs. Their mad courting behavior is related to March because that is when they are most visible although they continue their mating activities through most of the year, hidden by darkness or long grass. (Hence the popular “Mad as a March hare.) The hare has deep mythological significance and is known in Chinese, American Indian, as well as European stories. The hare was originally the symbol of Ēostre (or Aestre), the pagan goddess of rebirth, before Christianity became prevalent, and as the old religion was overturned so its gods and symbols became associated with the devil and hares were thought to be witches “familiars.” Thus, the Easter bunny is a mutated descendant of the fabled hare. Secondly, there has never been any Christian symbol pertaining to rabbits. It is said that the Easter Bunny came to the United States via German immigrants, who called him “Oschter Haws.” (“Hase” means “hare,” not rabbit, and in Northwest European folklore the “Easter Bunny” is a hare, not a rabbit.) The Moon Hare was sacred to the Goddess in both eastern and western nations. Relying on the myths of Hathor-Astarte who laid the Golden Egg of the sun, Germans used to say the hare would lay eggs for good children on Easter Eve. Thus, in German folklore, the goddess Ôstara, the Spring Festival goddess, was always accompanied by a fabled hare.
Folklorists give us some information as to the origins of the Easter Bunny. Because the word Easter comes from the ancient celebrations of Ēostre, the coming of Spring, rebirth and fertility of new life, some folklorists hold that the story of the fabled hare is historically tied to the Mother Goddess of Ancient European lore, and came to be associated with the Northern European Goddess of Spring, Ēostre. Her symbols were the hare, egg, bird and flower, representing the fertility of Spring. The hare (or rabbit) is known to be most commonly associated with the moon (“the hare in the moon”), rebirth, rejuvenation and resurrection. In Celtic lore, hares are associated with lunar deities and are shape-shifters traveling easily between the worlds. Hare bones and figurines were buried in ritual pits as they represented rebirth and immortality in the Goddess. It has been said that this hare was once a bird whom Ēostre, the Anglo Saxon dawn goddess, changed into a four-footed creature. It is easily possible that hare may have been a symbol of fertility, being notably prolific. (Being prolific breeders, it’s therefore not surprising that hares and rabbits should become fertility symbols, or that their springtime mating antics should enter into popular Easter folklore.) The hare or rabbit is also a representation of the female reproductive cycle in Western culture. The hare may also be connected with the corn-spirit, because in many parts of Europe the last sheaf of corn to be cut is called the “hare,” and the cutting is sometimes called “cutting the tail of the hare.”
There is also a connection of the hare with Christian iconography, which may have gradually filtered into the Easter theme. The hare was a popular motif in medieval church art. In ancient times it was widely believed (by Pliny, Plutarch, Philostratus and Aelian) that the hare was a hermaphrodite. The idea that a hare could reproduce without loss of virginity led to an association with the Virgin Mary, with hares sometimes occurring in illuminated manuscripts and Northern European paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child. It may also have been associated with the Holy Trinity, as in the three hares motif, representing the “One in Three and Three in One,” of which the triangle or three interlocking shapes such as rings are common symbols. The interlocking hares are also a symbol of the ancient Celtic Triple-Goddess. (See “Playlists & Images” webpage for images of this.) In England, this motif usually appears in a prominent place in the church, such as the central rib of the chancel roof, or on a central rib of the nave. This suggests that the symbol held significance to the church.
Furthermore, an Easter hare hunt was observed in parts of England from quite early times, and in Hungary and South Germany it has long been the custom for children to put the effigy of a hare in the basket prepared for the Easter eggs. Thus the inclusion of the hare into Easter customs appears to have originated in Germany, where tales were told of an “Easter hare” who laid eggs for children to find. In European legend and folklore, the Easter Bunny carries colored eggs in his basket, candy, and sometimes also toys to the homes of children. It was first mentioned in Georg Franck von Frankenau’s About Easter Eggs in 1682, referring to an Alsace tradition of an Easter hare bringing Easter eggs. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter. In 1835, Jakob Grimm wrote of long-standing similar myths in Germany itself and suggested that these derived from legends of the reconstructed continental Germanic goddess Ôstara. It appears that German immigrants to America (particularly Pennsylvania) brought the tradition with them and spread it to a wider public. They also baked cakes for Easter in the shape of hares, and may have pioneered the practice of making chocolate bunnies and eggs.
As for the association of the Easter Bunny and eggs, there are found innumerable European folk customs, since the fifteenth century, in connection with the Easter Egg. According to German folklore, the Easter Bunny lays them and hides them in gardens. In modern American folklore, the Easter egg is the production of a hare or rabbit, which is a tradition brought to this continent from Central and Western Europe. Decorating eggs for Easter is a tradition that dates back to at least the 13th century, according to some sources, but no one is sure how this got started. Sometimes the eggs are left white; sometimes they are dyed in plain colors. The most elaborate Easter egg traditions appear to have emerged in Eastern Europe. In parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries they are elaborately painted with symbols. Many Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red, the color of blood, in recognition of the blood of the sacrificed Christ (and of the renewal of life in springtime). Some also use the color green, in honor of the new foliage emerging after the long dead time of winter. This green egg, then, clearly seems to be a symbol of rebirth.