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On the Bunny Trail: In Search of the Easter Bunny

Puck-1899-1900-1901

These covers from Puck Magazine, from the Easter issues of 1899, 1900, and 1901, were the first to feature Easter Bunnies. Notice the development of the bunnies from regular rabbits in the grass on the margins of the first picture, to a pet rabbit in the second, to the strange anthropomorphic rabbits in the third cover, walking on their hind legs and carrying Easter eggs in their paws. Click for a larger view. See the originals with their bibliographic information here [1899], here [1900], and here [1901].

Note: Some of this research, and an interview with the author,  is being included in a report on CBS Sunday Morning, which should air Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.

The Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, is the bringer of gifts on a popular American holiday. Throughout the country, the swift little creature is said to deliver decorated eggs to children on Easter. In some variants of this story, the bunny is even said to lay eggs, presenting a challenge to biology teachers everywhere!

So what’s the story on this odd tradition? Let’s take a look.

Is the Easter Bunny Associated with a Pagan Goddess? Probably Not.

Easter1902

In 1902, the evolution of Puck‘s Easter Bunny continued: he was given clothes to wear and a basket for his eggs! Puck also seemed to subscribe to the “fertility goddess” idea, often showing the bunny with a beautiful young woman. See the original here.

One story about the Easter Bunny, which you often encounter on the internet, says that the idea goes back to pagan, pre-Christian Europe, when a rabbit or hare was a companion to a pagan fertility goddess. In one example, a helpful website explains:

Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny both featured largely in the spring festivals of the goddess Ostara. The rabbit (famous for its skill at rapid reproduction) was her sacred animal and brightly colored eggs, chicks, and bunnies were all used at festival time to honor this goddess of fertility and abundance.

Similarly, the Telegraph newspaper states:

It is thought that the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Eostre, had a hare as her companion, which symbolised fertility and rebirth.

As appealing as these stories are, though, there’s really no evidence for them. Eostre herself is only known from one written reference, which occurs in the book De Temporum Rationae [The Reckoning of Time] by the medieval cleric known as the Venerable Bede (672-735). Speaking of the Anglo-Saxon name for April, Bede tells us:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Easter1903

Puck‘s 1903 Easter cover replaced the beautiful woman with a young girl, and eliminated the disapproving monks. The Easter Bunny’s clothes became even more whimsical. See the original here.

That’s all the evidence there is that explicitly concerns Eostre. Although place names and other evidence suggest Bede may have been right that such a Goddess once was worshiped [1], there’s no hare, fertility, or rebirth associated with Eostre in the only ancient account of her—just the Old English name for April and the word “Easter” itself.

For the goddess known as Ostara, there’s even less to go on. In fact, a goddess called Ostara isn’t known from ancient sources at all: her existence was proposed by Jacob Grimm (1735-1863) in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Grimm, best known as a folklorist and member of the famous “Brothers Grimm,” was also a linguist and mythologist. Working backwards from Bede’s claim about Eostre, Grimm observed that Easter appeared to be called Ostara in Old High German, and conjectured:

This Ostara like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eostre must in the 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.

There is no actual record of such a goddess—no shrine or ancient writing refers to her. Moreover, a much simpler origin for the Old High German name of Easter has since been proposed: much of Germany was Christianized by Anglo-Saxon priests, who (as Bede tells us) already called Easter by a variant of the name, so they probably just brought the name for Easter with them, where it was adapted by Old High German speakers. [2]

So the existence of Ostara’s cult in Germany was a conjecture made by a folklorist. But her connection to rabbits or hares was even more of an academic stretch. Specifically, in 1874 the mythologist Adolf Holtzmann (1810-1870) (in a book also called Deutsche Mythologie) wrote:

The Easter Hare is inexplicable to to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba.” [My translation from German.]

Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts

“Ostara,” by Johannes Gehrts, was apparently created in 1884, and published in 1901. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below.

So in sum, Eostre was worshiped in England before Bede’s time, in the 600s—if she ever was worshiped at all. Ostara was invented in 1835 as a possible but unproven German version of Eostre. Finally, the connection between Ostara and a hare wasn’t made until 1874, as a way to make sense of an already popular Easter Bunny tradition.[3]

We probably shouldn’t be too hard on websites that retell old tales about Eostre and Ostara, because such stories were once widely accepted. (Here is one example each of a respectable book, newspaper, and magazine that told versions of these stories in the period after Holtzmann’s 1874 book.) But elsewhere on the Internet, in religious tracts or websites about ancient history, you might encounter other claims that were never accepted by scholars: specifically, that Easter is named for Near Eastern goddesses such as Ishtar and Astarte. These claims are based entirely on the superficial resemblance between these names and the word “Easter.” There is no evidence these claims are true, and the languages involved are not related, so such resemblances are very likely to be coincidental. These sites tend to misquote the evidence I gave above from Bede, Grimm, and Holtzmann, making the association between Ostara, Eostre, and hares genuinely ancient instead of a 19th century conjecture. Most of the other claims made on such sites (for example, that hares or bunnies were associated with Ishtar) are pure invention.

This isn’t to say that hares, rabbits, and eggs haven’t been symbols of springtime and fertility for thousands of years…of course they have. But rather than explain their association with fertility and their connection to Easter with conjectures about fertility goddesses, it would be simpler and more accurate to say that these connections arise from common observations about eggs, rabbits and hares. Rabbits and hares have large litters in the spring, and eggs likewise become more abundant, so all these symbols are naturally associated with springtime. All of them are, likewise, obvious fertility symbols, rabbits and hares because they are among the most fertile mammals, and eggs because of their role in reproduction. These observations surely underlie any customs involving eggs, rabbits, or hares in the springtime, whether ancient or modern. The association is based in everyday lived experience, not religion, so these symbols of springtime can attach themselves to any spring holiday, no matter its religious import. In short, we don’t need a pagan fertility goddess to connect bunnies and eggs with Easter—springtime makes the connection for us all by itself. [4]

Is the American Easter Bunny Pennsylvania Dutch? Almost Certainly!

Obviously, for Holtzmann to be looking for an explanation for the “Easter Hare” in 1874, such a tradition must have existed in the German-speaking world at that time. In fact, the first clear reference to the tradition comes from Georg Franck von Franckenau’s academic essay De ovis paschalibus [About Easter Eggs] from 1682. This Latin work refers to the German tradition of an Easter Hare:

Franckenau small

In Germania Superiore (comprising the contemporary Palatinate, Alsace, and neighboring regions) and in Westphalia, they call these eggs “di hasen-eier” [hare’s-eggs] from the story, told by children and the simple-minded, that a hare (der Oster-Hase [the Easter-Hare]) laid the eggs to hatch hidden in the garden’s grass, bushes, etc., where they are eagerly sought out by the children to the delight of the smiling adults. [My translation from Latin and German.]

paschalibusVon Franckenau, a noted physician and scientist in his day, goes on to recount how the eggs were often devoured in great quantities without salt, butter, or any other condiment, and how such a feast was bad for the children’s health!

We don’t know exactly when the Easter Bunny came to America, but it was surely in Colonial times, and the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (as the State’s German-speaking residents have long been known) were certainly the first Americans to welcome the Easter Bunny. Alfred Shoemaker, the pioneering Pennsylvania Dutch folklorist, wrote in his book Eastertide in Pennsylvania that that “the Easter rabbit is perhaps the greatest contribution the Pennsylvania Dutch have made to American life.” He further says that the tradition of the Easter Bunny in the U.S. goes back to “the very first [Pennsylvania Dutch] settlement at Germantown in the late 1680s,” but this was likely an educated guess.

The earliest hard evidence of an American Easter Bunny includes two drawings by the fraktur artist Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734-1812), each showing a leaping hare with a basket of Easter eggs. Winterthur has a detailed blog post about one of these drawings online–read it here.  Gilbert immigrated to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1757, and it’s likely he knew of the Easter Hare in Europe, which would place the arrival of the tradition in Pennsylvania at 1757 at the latest. [5]

As Gilbert’s artwork makes clear, the early Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, like that of Germany, typically featured a hare, known as the “Oschter Haws” or “Oster Haas,” rather than a rabbit. In Pennsylvania, the word “haws” or “haas,” was mostly translated as “rabbit” rather than “hare,” so when speaking in English, the Pennsylvania Dutch often referred to the “Easter Rabbit.”[6]

Winterthur

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Fraktur drawing: Easter bunny with eggs by Johann Conrad Gilbert, 1800-1810, Berks County, PA, Watercolor, Ink, Laid paper, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle, 2011.10

So what do we know of the “Easter Rabbit” tradition among the Pennsylvania Dutch?

Shoemaker explains the basics of the tradition, in which children prepared a nest for the rabbit on Easter Eve, and found it filled with colored eggs on Easter morning, “provided the child was well-behaved”:

Sometimes the children built their nests in the house (usually hiding the nest in a secluded spot, the egg-laying rabbit being somewhat on the shy side) or out in the yard, even sometimes, in the country, out in the barn. Generally speaking the children set their headgear as a nest for the Easter rabbit, the boys their woolen caps or hats and the girls their bonnets. In some families the Oschter Haws was less timid and laid his nest of colored eggs on the child’s plate set at the table. And the boldest of Easter rabbits merely deposited his eggs on the window sills.

What if the child had been naughty, or greedy? Shoemaker quotes informants who recall rabbit droppings, coal, or even horse dung being left in the nests of the undeserving.

Shoemaker also explains that the beliefs about the Easter rabbit differed from sect to sect and family to family:

In the Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Easter rabbit always lays the eggs. The “rationalists” among us tell the children that the bunny “brings” them. Among our strictest religionists, especially the Plain People, children are sometimes not told about the Easter bunny, just as they are not told about Santa Claus, “because,” as they say, “this would be lieing (sic).” [7]

Easter Lore 1950s detail

These stories about Easter ran in the April 1950 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman. Click for a larger view–or come to the Folklife Reading Room in the Library of Congress to see the complete issue!

This tradition, complete with variable in levels of belief in the bunny, seem to go back well into the 19th century. A 1950 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman featured childhood reminiscences of Joseph H. Dubs (1838-1910), which would date to about 1850:

Easter was the time for colored eggs, and children were told that a rabbit laid them. Though I was present when the eggs were colored, and had no faith in the rabbit, I always insisted on preparing a nest in the garden among the currant bushes; and when I went there next morning I was sure to find what I expected.

Phebe Earle Gibbons, in the 1882 edition of her book Pennsylvania Dutch, provided more details:

If the children have no garden, they make nests in the wood-shed, barn, or house. They gather colored flowers for the rabbit to eat, that it may lay colored eggs. If there be a garden, the eggs are hidden singly in the green grass, box-wood, or elsewhere. On Easter Sunday morning they whistle for the rabbit, and the children imagine that they see him jump the fence. After church, on Easter Sunday morning, they hunt the eggs, and in the afternoon the boys go out in the meadows and crack eggs or play with them like marbles. Or sometimes children are invited to a neighbor’s to hunt eggs.

Easter Rabbit

This rather terrifying little girl and her poem appeared in the March 22, 1913, Easter Edition of the Daily Capital Journal from Salem, Oregon. I feel duty bound to say: do not treat a rabbit this way! Find the original here.

In place of real eggs dyed in festive colors, nowadays it’s more common for the Easter Bunny to bring candy. Often this takes the form of chocolate eggs, candy eggs, or jellybeans, which are egg-shaped. The candy-egg tradition probably started in Germany too, but came to the U.S. early on, as shown by another 1882 passage from Gibbons:

At Easton a lady spoke of making nests for her two boys by taking plates, ornamenting them with cut paper in the form of a nest, putting into each a large candy egg and colored eggs, and placing a rabbit in one and a chicken in the other, and hiding them for the boys to find. [8]

How did the “Easter Hare” and “Easter Rabbit” become the “Easter Bunny?” Interestingly, throughout the 19th century it was common for English-language American newspapers and magazines to refer to the “Easter Hare” instead of the “Easter Bunny” or “Easter Rabbit.” In the newspapers presented in the Library’s Chronicling America presentation, “Easter Hare” predominates until 1893, and “Easter Rabbit” becomes more popular thereafter. “Easter Bunny” does not appear at all until 1883, and remains quite rare until the 20th century. Most likely, these changes in the character’s name simply reflect its becoming more integrated into American culture, in which rabbits are more common than hares, and both are often called “bunnies” by children.

Whatever we call him (or her), it’s not difficult to see why the Easter Bunny would find a place in America’s heart. Easter is, by some accounts, the most important holiday of the Christian year, and as such can be a very serious holiday for Christians. Like Christmas trees and Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs introduce secular, seasonal symbols that all Americans can enjoy, whether Christian or not. At the same time, these elements introduce whimsy and the spirit of gift-giving, allowing children even in many religious households to have more fun during serious holidays. Not all Christian denominations, and not all parents within any given denomination, approve of the Easter Bunny.  Still, at least some American children will no doubt continue to have fun looking for the Easter Bunny out there on the Bunny Trail.

Read more about the Easter Bunny at my next post!

Notes

Easter1904

Puck‘s 1904 Easter issue dressed the Easter Bunnies in the red costume usually worn by the magazine’s titular character, Puck. The beautiful woman was given a mandolin-like instrument. See the original cover here.

[1] The 2011 book Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World by Philip A. Shaw (London: Bristol Classical Press) suggests that Eostre may well have been worshiped by people in Kent. Shaw finds it unlikely that there was a pan-Germanic goddess like Ostara, however.

[2] See, for example, Sermon, Richard. “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture 1 (2008): 331-44.

[3] Another variant of this story, included on this German travel site, holds that Ostara is the name of a festival dedicated to Eostre. That’s likely to be confusion based on the fact that Grimm believed Ostara was both an old name for Easter and a name for a pagan goddess related to Eostre.

[4] A more academic way to express this is that, semiotically, eggs, hares, and rabbits are connected to the springtime indexically rather than symbolically—they are actually present during springtime rather than arbitrarily associated with it.  (See this article for more on indexes, icons, and symbols.) This is important because it means the connection is not merely one of cultural convention, but rather exists in nature independent of culture. Thus, two cultures both observing that “rabbits” mean “spring” does not imply any influence of one culture on the other. Even if both pagans and Christians use rabbits as a sign of spring, this does not imply that the pagan religion had any influence on the Christians’ use of the sign.

[5] The drawings are in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and Winterthur, respectively.

Easter1905

Puck continued its run of Easter covers featuring the bunny, a young woman, and monks in 1905. See the original here.

[6] Although “hase” is sometimes used colloquially to mean “rabbit” in German, we know the German tradition featured a hare because Von Franckenau named the animal in both German and Latin. We have hares in the continental U.S., but they are rare in Pennsylvania, so translating “hase” as “rabbit” among the Pennsylvania Dutch makes sense.

[7] By “Plain People” Shoemaker means Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, and other Anabaptist sects that dress in unadorned or “plain” clothing.

[8] Gibbons also provides a very amusing (but thoroughly unsupported) description of the Ostara myth, showing that less than a decade after Holtzmann connected the Easter Hare and Ostara, elaborate and fanciful versions of the story circulated among German academics. Gibbons wrote:

Prof. Wackernagel, of Allentown, has kindly pointed out to me the antiquity of the myth. The old German goddess of spring was called Ostara (whence Easter). She rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares.

12 Comments

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    March 22, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Sehr schön gemacht! Danke vielmals. Carl

  2. J. H. at Mimisbrunnr.info
    March 22, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    While I love the Puck illustration, I have some qualms with some of the content in the article itself. My background is in ancient Germanic studies.

    First, it’s seems the article is a little too dependent upon Shaw’s recent book. In his book—if memory serves—Shaw completely avoids the massive discussion regarding the Proto-Indo-European ‘dawn goddess’ complex, from which Eostre is linguistically descended, and instead proposes a “local” explanation. Within the Germanic branch, this isn’t the sort of explanation that the corpus generally offers. Compare the situation with Old Norse Fulla and Old High German Volla, just as one example. When we do get a comparative glimpse of the Germanic record, it can be surprisingly consistent despite time and place.

    This is also important because of what else the Old English record mentions. Since the Old English corpus offers likely reflexes of the Indo-European horse brothers in Hengist and Horsa and also a reflex of the Indo-European ‘sky father’ (OE Tīw), it’s no surprise to find the ‘dawn goddess’ in the corpus as well.

    Second, the article seems to imply that Grimm simply “invented” *Ostara out of thin air, which is definitely not the situation. While the field has certainly advanced since Grimm’s time, Grimm’s importance in the development of historical linguistics cannot be overstated. For example, Grimm’s Law is still a fundamental to the understanding of the development of the Germanic languages to this very day. To imply to a general audience that Grimm wasn’t using a discerning, comparative eye and drawing from comparative data when he proposed a continental form is unfortunately misleading.

    Third, the article makes no mention whatsoever of the matronae Austriahenae, Germanic goddesses who we now know appeared very commonly on the continent, far before the Bede attestation. In fact, these inscriptions were discovered after Grimm’s death, and because of them, we know for certain that a goddesses with names containing the same root as “Ēostre” were venerated by the early Germanic peoples on the continent.

  3. Stephen Winick
    March 22, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! There was no intention on the blog to denigrate Grimm, whom folklorists and linguists (including me) universally revere. If anything, his brilliance and importance are underrated by people who mostly know his folktale work. Still, his statement about Ostara was certainly a conjecture, and that is the word I used for it. Although I did use the word “invented” once, that does not necessarily imply “out of thin air”: indeed, I said she was “a possible but unproven German version of Eostre,” and explained that he worked backwards from Bede’s Eostre and the name for Easter in Old High German, which is a fair statement of the case. In any case, I didn’t intend to make a strong case for the non-existence of Ostara’s cult, but to point out that the existence of her cult is not a certainty, which I think most Germanic scholars would agree on. In this sense the popular accounts of the Easter Bunny quoted in the blog post are overstated.

    Grimm, of course, was never the main culprit in any case. The conjecture that implicates the Easter Bunny is Holtzmann’s later one about hares. It is not necessary to make a strong case that Ostara’s cult did not exist in order to point out that there’s no evidence of a connection between her and the Easter Bunny, which was after all the main point. To assume the Easter Bunny has a connection to Ostara, even if her cult existed, requires us to believe that the Easter Hare was a tradition which left no evidence for over a thousand years.

    As for the Matronae Austriahenae, again since this blog is about the Easter Bunny rather than the possible existence of a cult of Ostara, they were a little outside the scope. If I knew of evidence connecting them to hares or rabbits, that would have been a different story. Shaw explicitly states there is no reason to think Eostre and the Matronae Austriahenae are connected, except that their names both refer to somewhere east of the place where the worshipers live. “These are deities with local importance, whose names developed in parallel ways to refer to an area or group that was in some way identified as eastern.” Although I don’t agree with him on every point, I do agree with him on some points that lead me also toward this conclusion: for example, since “Matronae” were a wider phenomenon than “Matronae Austriahenae” it would seem “Matronae” in general were more likely connected to English Modranecht (in December) than to Eosturmonath (April). Leaving Shaw aside, and proceeding from a non-linguistic perspective, the Matronae Austriahenae are triple goddesses for whom it was customary to leave votive inscriptions on stone, while Eostre is a single goddess to whom no inscription has ever been found, but whom it was customary to celebrate in April. In other words, these two goddess concepts have no known attributes in common, and therefore don’t seem to be closely related. For all these reasons, the Matronae seemed outside the scope of an Easter Bunny discussion!

    Incidentally, Shaw does not avoid the etymological discussion of the dawn goddess, at least as regards Eostre. Indeed, it takes up ten pages of his 100-page monograph. His argument is that the “r” in Eostre derives not from the “r” in Proto-Indo-European *aus-r, which is part of such dawn words as “aurora,” and would suggest the interpretation “dawn,” but rather from an “r” that had later been added to words meaning “east” in Old English long after that Proto-Indo-European “r” had been lost. Specifically, he mentions an Old English cognate of Old Norse austr, *eastor (which has long been assumed to have existed), or indeed the well-attested Old English adjective eastra, either of which instead suggest the interpretation “east.” In general, Shaw believes that the Germanic languages do not behave like Latin in using words like oriens for both “dawn” and “east,” and states that there is “little reason to suppose that the Germanic languages usually treated ‘east’ and its relatives and derivatives as related to dawn.” Of course, in the end words meaning dawn derived from PIE *aus-r would still be related to OE Eostre, if much more distantly. So this directly addresses one’s understanding of Eostre as a dawn goddess, but it is rather far into the linguistic weeds for a blog post on the Easter Bunny to go.

    (Moreover, etymology is unlikely to shed light on whether there was a goddess Ostara, since whether the word referred to a goddess or not, it was definitely related to the word Eostur or Eostre–the only difference would be the exact nature of the relationship.)

    Thanks again for your comment. Your strong defense of Grimm is appreciated!

  4. Patricia Atkinson
    March 24, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Excellently written and well-researched piece. Cogent arguments in the response. My Easter bonnet is off to you!

  5. J. H. at Mimisbrunnr.info
    March 25, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Thank you for your well written and considered response, I appreciate it.

    I suppose my primary concern then would be that Shaw’s proposal has, as far as I know, only been promoted by Shaw.

    The scholarship out there regarding Ēostre as an extension of the Indo-European ‘Dawn Goddess’ complex is massive (and, in my opinion, rightly so). This makes Shaw in this case an outlier. Shouldn’t this be communicated to the reader somewhere along the way?

  6. Stephen Winick
    March 28, 2016 at 11:48 am

    J.H.,

    Thanks for your reply. On my main point, which is that there is no evidence of a connection between Ēostre and hares, there is strong agreement in recent scholarship. Sermon (for example) points out, “two Easter symbols that are often said to be associated with the goddess Ēostre/Ostara are the Easter Egg and Easter Rabbit (originally a hare). However, there is no real evidence to support these claims.” Similarly, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, note: “Nowadays, many writers claim that hares were sacred to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre, but there is no shred of evidence for this….” Since my article is about the Easter Bunny, this is really the central point. The possible existence of cults of Ēostre or Ostara are a side issue.

    That said, all the general theories in Shaw’s work, including that Ēostre was only a local goddess for a small area of England, were already standard in scholarship as reasonable explanations of the evidence before Shaw wrote his book. Thus, in this conclusion, Shaw’s work is not at all an outlier. (Sermon’s work, cited in this post, makes the same suggestion, for example: “If not derived from a Germanic root, was Bede’s goddess Eostre a local deity worshipped only in Northumbria..?) In fact, this post was largely written before I had access to Shaw’s book, and only lightly edited once it had arrived. Thus, I did not rely on Shaw’s book for any of my major conclusions.

    My position is based more on the caution I share with many scholars, summed up by Carole Cusack in an article in The Pomegranate (2007): “It is not possible to say, as it is of Woden, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons definitely worshipped a goddess called Ēostre, who was probably concerned with the spring or the dawn.”

    Most recent scholarship is forced to admit that there is even less evidence for Grimm’s claims about Ostara. See for example Sermon once again, who says, “there is no real evidence to support Grimm’s reconstructed goddess Ostara.” Sermon admits that many of the other attempts to account for the existence of both English and continental versions of the word “Easter” are unconvincing, but he believes one of them is convincing:

    Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface, who were likely to have been celebrating Easter by that name during the course of their missionary work. Did the eighth-century German converts simply adopt the Old English names Eastron and Eastermonað into their native language, which then appeared in Old High German orthography as Ostarun and Ostarmanoth? This explanation would seem to fit the known evidence, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.

    (NB: D.H. Green made a similar suggestion in his 2000 book Language and History in the Early Germanic World, and the idea had been proposed as early as a 1950 article by Karl Helm, so it is neither a new nor a radical idea.)

    The scholarship about a “Dawn Goddess” is indeed massive and complex, but since all we have attesting to Ēostre is the passage from Bede, there is no good evidence she is part of that complex. One may only speculate. A substantial number of scholars have argued that we can’t even assume Ēostre’s cult existed at all based on only Bede’s word. Others, beginning with Holtzmann, wildly extrapolated from Grimm to invent many fanciful stories. Shaw’s work (and Sermon’s) are not in this sense outliers, but compromises between extreme positions, each of which has long been held by many scholars: on the one hand, that Ēostre was a part of what you call the “‘Dawn Goddess’ complex” (so that we can liberally apply evidence of other “Dawn Goddesses” to Ēostre as evidence of what she was like), and on the other hand that the evidence is not good enough to conclude that her cult existed at all. Scholars taking the first of these positions often seem to me too cavalier in their treatment of the other evidence, but those espousing the second are too dismissive in their treatment of Bede. I think most current scholars fall somewhere on a spectrum between these extremes, and since they’re all relying on the same one quotation as evidence, it’s really a judgment call.

    My own judgment is that if we take Bede to be a trustworthy source, still all we have is that Ēostre was celebrated in April. He says nothing about dawn or fertility, which were projected onto Ēostre through the speculation that she is part of the Dawn Goddess complex. Because I recognize that this is a judgment call, I do not take a hard position on the existence of an Ostara-like figure in the beliefs of Germanic peoples, and you will not find such a position in the original post. However, these things are certainly true: Ostara as a goddess, with that name, was proposed by Grimm; there is very little evidence for Ostara per se; and (again, most importantly) there is no evidence at all for a connection of hares or eggs to Ēostre.

  7. Holly B
    March 30, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    What do we know about “the story, told by children and the simple-minded”, beyond this reference? I have been trying to track the origins of Easter rabbit myths, and of course very little primary source material exists for oral traditions. There seem to be two versions of the story of Eostre and the hare: that she found a bird with frozen wings and saved it by transforming it into a rabbit, which retained the ability to lay eggs; and that a bird who laid beautiful eggs was so proud that Eostre was irked and turned it into a rabbit, but she was so moved by the rabbit’s despair that she allowed it to lay beautiful eggs once a year. These stories are attributed to Anglo-Saxon folklore, and so it makes sense for it to appear in Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, but I can find no sources for either story, modern or otherwise. As a librarian, it is driving me batty. This article and the comments have been helpful.

  8. Stephen Winick
    March 31, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Holly B.

    I have traced versions of that story back to the June 8, 1889 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries (the original British Notes and Queries being arguably the first folklore journal). Unfortunately, it was given as an answer to someone’s question, with no source cited. So although I have traced it back over a century, I still don’t know where it came from with any certainty. If I had to guess, I would say it probably came from a German scholar writing in the wake of Grimm. As we have seen, Holtzmann’s speculation seems to be the first direct connection between hares and Ostara, so the story, in a form that includes Ostara, cannot predate Holtzmann (1874). Wackernagel, by 1882, already had a specific story in which Ostara “rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares.” So it’s not too surprising that, seven years later, someone would have come up with a more developed narrative. I’ll continue to look for a more definitive source.

    Here is the text from American Notes and Queries, page 64:

    The Hare and Easter –Whence comes the legend of the Hare in connection with Easter?
    RWH PHILADELPHIA PA

    In Germany and among the Pennsylvania Germans toy rabbits or hares made of canton flannel stuffed with cotton are given as gifts on Easter morning. The children are told that this Osh’ter Has laid the Easter eggs. This curious idea is thus explained: The hare was originally a bird, and was changed into a quadruped by the goddess Ostara; in gratitude to Ostara or Eastre, the hare exercises its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her festal day.

    By the 1920s, more developed versions of this story were known, and they were sometimes told in American newspapers at Eastertime. So, for example, Ohio’s Fulton County tribune for April 13, 1922, includes this story:

    WAS MESSENGER OF GODDESS
    Pretty Legend Which Connects the Hare With the Symbol of the Awakening of Life.

    It appears from a very ancient, but little known tradition, that the rabbit, or rather the hare; sacred to Ostara, was originally a bird, very possibly the swallow. The goddess finding her winged messenger was not fitted to endure all toils and climates, transformed her into a brisk, quick-footed little quadruped with long ears, a warm furry coat, and no tail to speak of, ready and able to summon belated spring from wherever she might be lingering, and to guide her safely’ even among the Icebergs of the frozen north. Thenceforward the hare, the emblem of fertility, was known as the friend and messenger of. the spring goddess; and in memory of her former existence as a bird, the hare once a year, at Easter, lays the gaily colored eggs that are the symbol of the awakening of earth and the renewal of life. This is the mythological explanation of the connection of Easter eggs and bunnies, hut there are many other stories telling why the sportive hare is responsible for the bright-hued eggs at this spring festival.

  9. Chris
    September 9, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    To the Easter bunny
    From Chris
    Hi Easter bunny.and what do I what for Easter this year too i,ll see you well soon also.and I love you as well

    Love chris

  10. Bill Brown
    April 13, 2017 at 12:01 am

    Terrific article, and some excellent discussion in the comments. I _should_ take away some of the fascinating historical data and impressive scholarship, but I’m afraid all I can think about is this sentence fragment, “Ostara ‘rode over the fields in the spring in a wagon drawn by hares.'” Which leaves me laughing hysterically. If there was an Ostara, it’s easy to see why there is no record of her. She probably quit in disgust.

    “&^#$ing HARES?! Why couldn’t I get flying reindeer?”

  11. Roxanna
    August 2, 2017 at 2:25 am

    Hi there.
    Pretty sure the Easter Bunny has to do with the rabbit which can (somewhat vaguely) be seen in the full Moon. This theme is found even in cultures that don’t traditionally celebrate Easter.

    When the Moon is full, it’s like an egg, hence is in it’s ‘fecund’ stage, or pregnant. It stands to reason that the full, ripe Moon around the Spring equinox (with the rabbit in it, at the time when rabbits are doing what they’re famous for) would have had symbolic significance in ancient times, as it later did with the church, who just up-cycled all the existing pagan traditions, anyway.

    This is from space.com:

    “Have you ever wondered how the date of Easter is actually set? It is all based on the moon. The day to be observed as Easter was fixed by a great council of Christian churches, called the First Council of Nicaea, which met at Nicaea (now İznik, in the province of Bursa, Turkey) in A.D. 325. Under the Nicaean rule, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the fourteenth day of a particular new moon — the one that begins on or after the vernal equinox.
    Easter falls on the Sunday that follows the first full moon occurring on or the day after the March equinox. If the full moon occurs on a Sunday, however, then Easter is observed the following Sunday.”

    Commander Chris Hadfield tweeted from space:”It may not be made of chocolate, but it makes for a wonderfully natural Easter egg.”

    There may have been some name morphing of the Goddesses’ names through the ages, but it doesn’t matter – the celebration of life returning has been written about since the dawn of time and will be re-written until the end of time !

  12. Stephen Winick
    August 2, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for your comment, Roxanna. As far as I know, there is no evidence of a connection between the “Moon Rabbit” (which is prominently a feature of Asian and Native American folklore) and the Easter Hare. While it’s true that Easter’s date is based on a lunar cycle, this is because it is based on a Jewish holiday, and the Hebrew calendar is lunisolar. There’s no indication as far as I know that either Jews or Europeans saw the patterns on the moon as a rabbit. The Talmud indicates that Jews believed the moon to show an engraved image of Jacob, while Europeans likewise interpreted the patterns of light and dark on the moon as “The Man in the Moon.” It’s not impossible that Chinese culture or even Native culture affected Germans in the 16th Century, giving them first the “Moon Rabbit” and then allowing that belief to evolve into the “Easter Hare,” but we’d expect more evidence of that evolution in the form of German beliefs in the “Moon Rabbit” itself. I’d love to know of any such evidence, but so far I don’t!

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