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Easter bunnies and Eostre’s hares

I wish you all a belated Happy Easter, during this dreadful time of lockdowns and bad news.

Easter bunnies

We were all sad not to have our usual bounty of  eggs exchanged with free-to-roam family members disguised as  Easter bunnies and baby chicks. So I thought I would give you a virtual seasonal present instead.

I have to confess, this blog was inspired, not only by thoughts of bunnies as Easter approached. It was an article I happened to read in the “papers” that week – online of course. ( Note to self: I wonder if future generations will use the phrase “ I read it in the papers”, and wonder where the hell the phrase came from?).




The Guardian – Leap of Faith

Hares and Chickens

Archaeologists have found the remains of Iron Age burials of hares and chickens. Their bones showed no signs of being gnawed, or of being slaughtered for food, and they were buried ritualistically. This has led the archaeologists to surmise that these animals were treated as sacred in Iron Age culture.

So, where could I go from there? Lockdown, cabin-fever  and an impending long Easter weekend: the hunt began…..

Celtic hares

First stop, what do we know about these creatures in Iron Age, celtic Britain? Well, neither species was native to the British Isles. Most likely they were introduced here by the Celts on their trek westwards across Europe.

Regarding the celts, Julius Caesar took a pretty scathing tone when talking about non-Roman barbarians. He almost smirks when he describes (in De Bello Gallico – my doom in GCE Latin), how the British celts would not eat these animals, but instead appeared to venerate them:

“Leporem et gallinem et anserem gustare fas non putant; haec tamen alum animi voluptatisque causa”,

Or roughly:

“They consider it unlawful to eat the hare, the hen or the goose; but instead breed them for amusement and pleasure”.

We know hares played a key role in divination for the celts.  The Roman writer Cassius Dio described the eve of a battle against the Romans. The celtic warrior queen Boudicca let loose a live hare which was wrapped in her dress, to observe which way it ran. Her troops cheered, when the hare was seen to run in a direction predicting a victory for Boudicca.

The Anglo Saxons arrive

Fast forward a few hundred years. The Romans in Britain, having scoffed at the celts for their veneration of hares, (and having in turn scoffed the rabbits which they had themselves introduced for food), departed these shores to defend Rome from other barbarians, never to return. As they departed, Germanic tribes – commonly known as the Anglo Saxons – drifted here to settle, and so entered into Britain’s history.

The Saxons had a pantheon of deities that rivalled the Romans.  You are probably familiar with some of their names, (or at least their Norse equivalents) from the names of some of the days of the week:

Tuesday – Tiw’s day

Wednesday – Woden’s day

Thursday – Thor’s day

Friday – Freya’s day

Eostre greetings

Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts

Now, there was apparently a goddess in the Anglo Saxon world called Eostre,alternately Ostara. She was the dawn goddess, who was responsible for the coming of spring. Feasts were held in her honour during “Eostremonath”, or Easter month, the equivalent of our month of April.   I say “apparently”, because we have only one written source for the existence of the worship of this Anglo-Saxon goddess here in Britain. It’s is by a monk named The Venerable Bede. And we have a slight problem with our monkish friend.

George or Mary?

The Venerable Bede

Bede was, I’d say  the George R. Martin, rather than the Mary Beard of his day. Let me explain…. Bede was a monk based in Northumbria in the 8th century.  He was one of a few literate folk in a population where history was generally passed on through an oral tradition, not a written one.

So, Bede wrote histories about what he had heard, what he had gathered. He did not apply any tests of rigorous scientific validation to his writings, as Mary would do today. Indeed, the concept of the scientific method wouldn’t come into play for almost another thousand years. Instead, like George he wrote beautiful stories, based on oral tales, anecdotes and opinion.

Bede was a Christian monk, and so he was describing a religion that was pagan and alien to him. It  had been efficiently suppressed by successive waves of Christian missionaries. There were probably remnants of the old religion hanging on in Bede’s time, but it was gradually receding into folk memory.

History or romance?

Can we believe that what Bede has written is true? Well, it is certainly feasible that the Germanic goddess gave her name to the feast we now call Easter.

For myself, I can’t see why Bede would invent an imaginary goddess. Unless it happened to be a rainy, windy day in Northumbria with nothing else to do. I think that Bede was reporting what he had heard from an oral tradition that was describing stuff from days just at the edge of folk memory.

And intriguingly,  scholars of Germanic and British folklore have suggested an interesting link. Eostre the goddess was closely connected with – yes, hares as her sacred animal!  There is even a piece of Germanic folklore that recounts that Eostre changed a bird into a hare, which continued to lay eggs after its metamorphosis.

The sources for these tales are oral, nebulous, even dubious in some cases. But, perhaps like with the stories of Bede,  all folk memories contain somewhere a grain of truth.

Hunting the hare – in Wales

And now  more hare hunting with  a diversion – bear with me.  Let’s take a trip over the border to Wales – to a town called Pennant Melangell. Where the parish church is dedicated to Saint Melangell. (No, I hadn’t heard of her either).

Hare gravestone, Lladnblodwell church

Legend has it that she was an Irish princess who, escaping an unwanted marriage, established a hermitage in Wales. A Welsh prince was out hunting hares, and chased one of them into a bush. When he parted the bush, there was Melangell, protecting the hare. He tried to blow his hunting horn to rally his pack of hounds, but it stuck firmly to his lips. Realising he was in a holy presence, he called off the hunt, and granted Melangell the surrounding lands, on which to build an abbey. Incidentally, just over the border in Shropshire, in the very Welsh sounding village of Llanyblodwell, you can see incorporated into the church door a gravestone with a running hare. Some folklorists think there is a connection between the two churches.

Shrine, with hares. Saint Melangell church in Pennant Melangell

Cultural appropriation?

Now, I wonder if we have here another case of “cultural appropriation”. One similar to how Brig was transformed into Saint Bride, in the Christian community of saints.

“Who”, you ask?  Well, shame on you for not doing your homework – go back and read my blog entitled Swan Songs, and take a hundred lines…..Anyway, I wonder if Melangell might be a Christian adoption of the Anglo Saxon Eostre?

Three-headed hares

Stained glass from Long Melford church

The Christian church certainly adopted symbols of hares with enthusiasm. You often find carvings of them in churches, in wood, stone and glass. One common symbol found across Europe is of the three-headed hare. In this,  three hares share three ears between them, and this is of course supposed to represent the holy trinity. There is a lovely stained glass example at Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford in Suffolk.

From Padenborner church

It’s common in Devon churches, where the hares changed into “tinners’ rabbits”

There is a lovely glass window at Paderborner in Germany, where incidentally the picture of the hares was described charmingly in German as “dreiharenfenster”.

But it’s also a symbol that’s found far beyond the reaches of Christainity and the geography of Europe, as can be read in this interesting article:

New Scientist – The Three Hares Motif

Hiding in plain sight

The more I ponder, the more I think it an error to view history as separate little packets of cultures: “ first the stone age, then the bronze age, then the iron age, then the  Romans, then the Anglo Saxons, then the Danes” etc.

I think it  has been more or a blending.  A bit like a rainbow where each colour blends into the one next to it.  One period didn’t abruptly end, and another then another begin. Instead, people borrowed the stories and myths and customs of those who had gone before, without always understanding why.

A bit like our appropriation of Easter bunnies and eggs. We have the hallmarks of sacred hares, which  have morphed over a thousand years into Easter rabbits. Probably because rabbits are now a far more an everyday sight in the countryside than a hare. We have discovered hares laying eggs. That’s  not a million miles away from Easter bunnies bearing gifts of Easter eggs. Make up your own minds, that’s the fun with history.

Happy Belated Easter!

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