Various vloggers, like the Amazing Atheist, column writers, like Heather McDougall, and countless memes and books claim the following:
- The use of rabbits in Easter celebrations is an inherently pagan tradition which was co-opted by early Christians
- Rabbits are in fact the symbol of various fertility goddesses, such as Ishtar or Ēostre
- Rabbits have nothing to do with the resurrection story
To assess whether this is true, let’s scrutinise each of these points individually.
The use of rabbits in Easter celebrations is an inherently pagan tradition which was co-opted by early Christians
- This idea – that rabbits were pagan fertility symbols – first arose from Jacob Grim during the 19th century in his book Deutsche Mythologie. He had no evidence to assert this and only ever suggested it could be the case.
- The first account we have of bunny-like creatures being linked to Easter is actually from 1572, not during the early centuries of Christianity.
- According to A dictionary of English Folklore, by J. Simpson and S. Roud, it was at this time that the tradition of the Easter Hare first began in Europe. It is problematic linking this to pagan practices for the main reason that the last country to embrace Christianity in Europe was Lithuania in 1387, almost a full 200 years before the Easter Hare. Furthermore, Lithuania is based far away from western Europe where the practice began and in those countries paganism had been extinct for at least 400 years!
- The suggestion, therefore, that the practice was stolen from an earlier culture seems incredibly unlikely, as there were no pagans still around to adapt the tradition from.
- This said, it could still be argued that it was a revived older tradition, so we shall look deeper into these claims next.
Rabbits are in fact the symbol of various fertility goddesses, such as Ishtar or Ēostre
- Ishtar was the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex, but rabbits have nothing to do with her. Ishtar’s symbols, according to Symbols: Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms by Carl G. Liungman, are firstly an eight-pointed star, followed by her symbolic staff and a gate guarded by lions. The only place you can find reference to rabbits being associated with her are the memes or books claiming it with no actual evidence.
- We don’t even know what Ēostre was meant to be goddess of, let alone if she is linked with rabbits! There is only one passing mention of her by St Bede in his 8th century work De temporum ratione where he talks about how she was once worshiped but is not anymore. There is no other account of her in either Christian or pagan literature, which makes it staggeringly unlikely that any of her traditions have been adopted. There is no artwork or shrines ever found dedicated to her and, considering she was practically forgotten by the time of St Bede, the idea that any of her traditions were revived over 700 years later is impossible.
- While these are the normal claims encountered regarding the Easter Bunny, let’s cast the net wider to see if there is any other possible pagan grounding.
What did cultures around the world actually believe about rabbits and could this have led to the creation of the Easter Bunny?
- Most pagan accounts of rabbits representing fertility come from Native American and Aztec mythology. In Aztec mythology, a pantheon of four hundred rabbit gods known as Centzon Totochtin, led by Ometotchtli or Two Rabbit, represented fertility, parties and drunkenness. The other group who relate rabbits to creation are some Native American groups, like the Ojibwe. These people believe in Nanabozho (Great Rabbit) who is an important deity related to the creation of the world. While they show a link between fertility and rabbits, it is clear they have no impact on Christian use of them in Easter. This is clear because, if they did, the tradition of the Easter Bunny would have begun in America during the missionary efforts in that area.
- The most commonly associated belief in rabbits is that they are a sign of luck. According to The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture by Bill Ellis, this belief dates all the way back to about 600 BC. It is prevalent across almost all of Europe and Asia and even to this day many still believe that wearing a rabbit’s foot amulet brings the wearer good luck.
- The only time it has ever been linked to fertility in Europe was during Greek Antiquity, where the rabbit was linked to Aphrodite and often given as a lover’s gift. This has no link to Christianity, however, as the practice and association were long dead by the time of Christianity. By the time of late antiquity the Greeks had changed to using rabbits as a symbol of good luck and in connection with ancient burial traditions.
- Outside of these beliefs, rabbits do appear, but their attributes are so different that there can be no argument for their linking to Easter. My personal favourite is in Korean and Japanese folklore, were rabbits live on the Moon and make the popular snack of mashed sticky rice called mochi.
Rabbits have nothing to do with the resurrection story
- In a literal sense no they do not. There is no account in the bible or early Christian tradition of rabbits being involved with the resurrection.
- Rabbits do, however, breed like crazy, especially during spring/Easter season. In T. Gulevich’s book Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival and Lent she suggests that this is likely the reason they became so tied up with Easter. In Easter, we celebrate the new life we gain through Christ. While this celebration is happening, rabbits who would not have been seen during the winter period are now out in abundance creating abundant new life. Gulevich summarises that just as early Christians used the distinctly Christian symbols we see in the Easter Liturgy to symbolise new life, 16th century Europeans used things prevalent in their own lives as an additional symbol they could relate to.
It is clear that the Easter Bunny, and the association of rabbit symbolism with Easter, is not pagan.
Jacob Grim’s suggestion in the 19th century fired the imaginations of many who wanted to discredit Christianity, but has no factual grounding. It is easy to think of nature symbols as purely coming from the realm of paganism, but this is a romanticised concept.
Nature symbols can be found in almost any religion, as people have always had a relationship with nature and will always try and use what is easily graspable to explain concepts that are not.
Christianity is awash with these and while some do have pagan roots, the dating of Easter hare/rabbits clearly shows that this is not the case here.