"Madonna with Rabbit" by Titian
Yesterday I offered information about Easter Eggs, today we can read more about the Easter Bunny...
The Easter Bunny is not an Easter symbol. Bringing Easter eggs seems to have its origins in Alsace and the Upper Rhineland, both then in the Holy Roman Empire, and southwestern Germany, where the practice was first recorded in a German publication in the early 1600s. The first edible Easter Bunnies were made in Germany during the early 1800s and were made of pastry and sugar.
The Easter Bunny was introduced to America by the German settlers who arrived in the Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700s. The arrival of the "O_ster Haws_e" (a phonetic transcription of a dialectal pronunciation of the German Osterhase) was considered one of "childhood's greatest pleasures," similar to the arrival of Kriist Kindle (from the German Christkindl) on Christmas Eve.
According to the tradition, children would build brightly colored nests, often out of caps and bonnets, in secluded areas of their homes. The "O_ster Haws_e" would, if the children had been good, lay brightly colored eggs in the nest. As the tradition spread, the nest has become the manufactured, modern Easter basket, and the placing of the nest in a secluded area has become the tradition of hiding baskets.
More from Wikipedia:
Eggs, like rabbits and hares, are fertility symbols of extreme antiquity. 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.
The saying "mad as a March hare" refers to the wild caperings of hares as the males fight over the females in the early spring, then attempt to mate with them. Since the females often rebuff the males' advances before finally submitting, the mating behavior often looks like a crazy dance; these fights led early observers to believe that the advent of spring made the hares "mad." This bold behavior makes the hares, normally timid and retiring animals, much more conspicuous to human observation in the spring.
Rabbits and hares are both prolific breeders. The females can conceive a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first. This phenomenon is known as superfetation. Lagomorphs mature sexually at an early age and can give birth to several litters a year (hence the sayings, "to breed like bunnies" or "multiply like rabbits"). It is therefore not surprising that rabbits and hares should become fertility symbols, or that their springtime mating antics should enter into Easter folklore.
Some of the confusion is dispelled by looking at the origin of the very word, "Easter." For all the pagan traditions associated with it, "Christmas" is at least easily recognizable as a Christian holiday, from its name alone. But Easter is named after Eastre, a pagan Saxon goddess!
Eastre (earlier, Eostre, derived from the Saxons' Germanic heritage) was the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of dawn, spring and fertility. Our word, "east" is related to this deity's name. Her male consort was the Sun god, and the sun does rise, after all, at dawn and in the east. Rites of spring were celebrated in her honor at the vernal equinox (first day of spring). The first Sunday after the first full moon succeeding the vernal equinox was also sacred to her, and this pagan holiday was given her name -- Eastre. The full moon represented the "pregnant" phase of Eastre -- she was passing into the fertile season and giving birth to the Sun's offspring.
Eastre's symbols were the hare and the egg. Both represent fertility and, consequently, rebirth. Since rabbits are more common in most lands than hares, over time the rabbit has been substituted -- not without merit, since rabbits are notorious for their fertility. Thus was born the "Easter Rabbit" tradition.
And since we are all rather familiar with Jacob Grimm, you can read more about his writings about Eostre on Wikipedia, too, which I'll blockquote here:
In his 1882 Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm cites comparative evidence to reconstruct a potential continental Germanic goddess whose name would have been preserved in the Old High German name of Easter, Ôstarâ. Grimm is willing to take Bede's account at face value with the reasoning that "it would be uncritical to saddle this father of the church, who everywhere keeps heathenism at a distance, and tells us less of it than he knows, with the invention of these goddesses. There is nothing improbable in them, nay the first of them is justified by clear traces in the vocabularies of Germanic tribes."
Specifically regarding Eostra, Grimm continues that:We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (temp. Car. Mag.). The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG. remains the name ôstarâ [...], it is mostly found in the plural, because two days [...] were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.
Grimm notes that "all of the nations bordering on us have retained the Biblical 'pascha'; even Ulphilas writes paska, not áustrô, though he must have known the word [...]." Grimm details that the Old High German adverb ôstar "expresses movement towards the rising sun", as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon eástor and Gothic áustr. Grimm compares these terms to the identical Latin term auster. Grimm says that the cult of the goddess may have worshiped an Old Norse form, Austra, or that her cult may have already been extinct by the time of Christianization.
Grimm notes that in the Old Norse Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, a male being by the name of Austri is attested, who Grimm describes as a "spirit of light." Grimm comments that a female version would have been Austra, yet that the High German and Saxon tribes seem to have only formed Ostarâ and Eástre, feminine, and not Ostaro and Eástra, masculine. Grimm additionally speculates on the nature of the goddess and surviving folk customs that may have been associated with her in Germany:Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian's God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy [...]. Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing [...]; here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess [...].