I am always fascinated when the remnants of Pagan culture are found so obviously woven into the mainstream (and often Christian) celebrations. Major examples of this being Halloween (Samhain) and Christmas (Yule) and of course Easter (Ostara).
The timing of Easter; Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (Ostara) – combining both the Pagan observance of the Moon and the celebration of Ostara. Easter then will always fall between March 22nd and April 25th. This year in the Northern Hemisphere the new moon is on the 17th March, 3 days before Ostara (Spring Equinox) so the next full moon (and therefore the one after the Equinox) is the 31st March – hence Easter Sunday is the 1st April. People often wonder why Easter moves around. The full moon will be in Libra, and it will be the second full moon of March and it will be a ‘blue moon’ – although I believe in the old almanacs, it may be the Lenten Moon, or Lengthening Moon, as blue moons used to be the ‘spare’ moon in a season.
Origin of the name Easter; This is believed to be from the ancient Goddess Ostara or Eostre – and again is a direct link to the pagan festival of Ostara. The names of the Goddess mean ‘Dawn’ or ‘to Shine’ embracing the meaning of Ostara and Easter as the resurrection of light across the land. There is also a link to the Norse Goddess Freyja, whose names means ‘bright one’.
My favorite association to Easter is with Rabbits and Hares. It’s funny isn’t it, how some animals you just feel drawn too, I keep pet rabbits, and I always have, ever since I was little, and my house is full of Rabbit/Hare pictures, clothes and jewelry. It is the Hare that is the most magical for me, because of its association with the moon-gazing hare and the pure wildness you can see in its eyes. A Hare would be my spirit animal, and I wish I lived closer to the countryside so i could see them.
Hares should never be confused with rabbits. They are entirely different species and are, except in physical resemblance, quite unalike. Baby rabbits (kittens) are born hairless, blind and helpless. Baby hares (leverets) are born fully-furred, can see and have independent movement. Hares are generally larger and have longer hind legs and longer ears with characteristic black markings. Only hares change colour in the winter. Hares and rabbits have different diets. Rabbits are social creatures, while hares are mostly solitary creatures. Rabbits generally live underground in tunnels and burrows, but hares are always on the surface.
The symbol of the moon-gazing hare is almost universal and dates to ancient times. It symbolizes fertility. Pagans likely believed moon-gazing hares would bring growth, re-birth, abundance, new beginnings and fortune. To others, the hare symbolized purity, and a single hare was often used to signify the Virgin Mary’s purity, in sharp contrast to that of the fertile common rabbit.
In ancient Egyptian belief, hares were intrinsically linked to the moon’s cyclical movement – being at once masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares would thus be depicted as alchemists making the elixir of immortality or as messengers of the female moon deity.
Since ancient times people have claimed to see the image of a rabbit or hare on the face of the moon. In East Asian culture, the Moon Rabbit or Jade Rabbit lives on the moon and is seen pounding a mortar and pestle. In Chinese folklore, the image is that of a companion to the Goddess Chang’e, who is pounding the elixir of life for her. As the moon waxes and wanes, the common view of the hare has also waxed and waned. Revered in ancient times, the hare was later regarded with contempt and suspicion in early Christianity as a shape-shifting creature serving the interests of witches.
Easter imagery often involves hares and rabbits. The late 19th-century scholar Charles Isaac Elton theorizes a connection between these customs and the worship of Eostre. In his late 19th-century study of the hare in folk custom and mythology, Charles J. Billson cites numerous incidents of folk custom involving the hare around the period of Easter in Northern Europe. Billson says that “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”
My favourite imagery in mythology that I could find to Hares and Rabbits and their link to Easter is that it may have originated in connection with the Norse Goddess Freyja. This is a quote from an etymology dictionary by A.Ernout and A. Meillet “Little else is known about Eostre, but it has been suggested that her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. And she certainly represented spring fecundity, and love and carnal pleasure that leads to fecundity.” I love these old quotes,
Boyle (another Etymologist) responds that nothing is known about Eostre outside of Bede’s single passage, that the authors had seemingly accepted the identification of Eostre with the Norse goddess Freyja, yet that the hare is not associated with Freyja either. Boyle writes that “her carriage, we are told by Snorri, was drawn by a pair of cats — animals, it is true, which like hares were the familiars of witches, with whom Freyja seems to have much in common’
Today in the UK Hares are under serious threat. Numbers are thought to have declined by 80% since the late 19th century and it has become a mammal now seldom seen in many parts of the country. Shockingly, although given priority status under the UK Biodiversity Plan the hare is the only game species in England, Wales and most parts of Europe not protected by a closed hunting season. Consequently hares can be shot throughout the year, including during the breeding season, leaving young hares (leverets) to starve in the fields. This is an unacceptable affront to modern animal welfare standards. If you are interested in supporting this cause, and love the Hare as much as I do, then please visit The Hare Preservation Trust to find out how you can help.
So, I will leave you with that, Freyja or Eostre riding through the Dawn, returning Spring to the land with her light carried by Hares (or cats!) – I also really like cats, so that’s cool too.
The beautiful image above is from the Hare Preservation Trust website and a 1870 Lithograph..