18 April 2011

The Myth of the Easter Bunny

In the Northern Hemisphere of course Easter and the Spring Equinox occur around the same time - unlike here in the Southern Hemisphere, however as much of the symbolism used in the Christian festival actually stem from this older Pagan festival, this rather lengthy article investigates the origins of such rather fully.

 
The Myth of the Easter Bunny
by Joan Katherine Webster

Rabbits dont lay eggs. Particularly male rabbits, the traditional gender of the Easter Bunny. Yet every Easter we buy bunnies with eggs. We send children to find hidden eggs laid by the Easter Bunny. Why?

The Easter Bunny is the remnant of a symbol once worshipped as the highest God, the Great White Hare, creator of all life, alchemist of immortality and saviour. When we crunch his now-chocolate body, we repeat an aeons-old sacrificial rite. Once you realise the connection of the mythological hare with the moons wane/dissolution symbolism of death and its waxing/renewal symbolism of rebirth, and add to this the Moon's connection to the fertility cycles, you will begin to understand the ancient power of this psychological archetype of the egg-laying white hare and why he still compellingly endures with us at [northern] Springtime.

It is too easy to interchange hares prolific fecundity to provide a ready symbol of the new beginnings of this season. Hares special Spring Equinox sacredness was awarded for more subtle symbology. Hare was holy for personifying the dawn, east, whiteness, the Moon, opening, becoming and for his characteristic of leaping. Rabbits and hares move differently when idling along. This harbinger of spring springs! Hares Latin name "Lepus" means leaper, a word synonymous with spring, from which we get offspring, the Old English spelling of which was of Spring. Hare was said to have his house at the eastern edge of the earth, from the door of which he sent Sun, Moon and stars on their daily journey. Each east-born dawn, New Moon and Spring Equinox announces that light is becoming more powerful than darkness: a reclamation, a redemption another chance. His dawn symbolism from darkness into light is therefore very much connected with this meaning of spring and the redemptive Christian message of Easter.

For at least six thousand years, the hare was a sacred animal over most of the world: in Ancient Egypt, Africa, China, Tibet, India, Ceylon; to the Hottentots, Aztecs, Greeks, Celts, Germans, Norse, British, Saxons, North American and Canadian Indians. Earliest manifestation was the Lower Egyptian hare-headed Goddess Un-t, or Unnu-t. She was known from at least 2,686 BCE, the time of the building of the first pyramids. Her city Unnut, meaning Moon City, still exists as the modern Eshmunein, approximately 135km south of Cairo, and she can be seen in the famous Upper Egyptian Dendera temple. When from 2,000 BCE the god Osiris became popular, he was depicted wearing a hares ear headdress, its shape identical in silhouette with the White Crown of Upper Egypt. Greek Hecate, Artemis, the Norse Goddess Freyja and German Harek were said to have been attended by hares. The British Icini tribes Queen Boudicca displayed the Moon-hare logo on her banner, its power believed strong enough to dissolve the courage of any enemy who dared to look at it, and the Saxons worshipped a hare-headed Goddess Oestra, or Ostara.

The Ancient Egyptian verb to be, un, was represented by a heiroglyph of a hare. In "The Lady of the Hare", John Layard says: The Hare sign un can be written to mean hare, rise, spring up, open up or the rising sun. Layard explains that the sound un did not actually mean hare, just as our word understand does not mean to stand under something. Un defined the concept of being and becoming. A picture of the Egyptian god Osiris at Karnak is titled Osiris Unnefer. Nefer means beautiful, bright, glory; Osiris Un-nefer thus meaning Osiris the glorious hare.

The word "Unnefer" is very close to our word Universe. In fact, the name of the hare-headed Goddess Unnu-t links with that of the Celtic Great Mother Goddess Uni, whose name was given to the uni-verse, which she created. From Hares name also comes the word one [French un] as well as that of the sacred isle of Iona, the Goddess names Io and Juno, the Alexandrian year-god Aion, modern womens names June, Joan, Una and even the male John. Our word hare, from the Anglo-Saxon hara, comes from the Sanskrit sasa, meaning equally the leaping one, hare, and the spots on the Moon, and is part of the word for moon, sasin.

The Moon
When many people look at the Full Moon they see a face. Yet most people in ancient times saw a hare on the face of the Moon. Its easiest to see at full Moon rising. The whole picture is there on the eastern horizon, just after sunset. When next you look, see the horizontal mouth as hares body. Then look up to the left. The two elongated marks there gradually register as ears and the large spot beneath as head. Over to the bottom right a smaller spot becomes his tail. The hare in the Moon was the son, servant or hero of the Great Mother Moon-Goddess. His saga as animal reincarnation of the archetypal hero was known, loved and used in most of old world religions as far back as these things have been recorded.

An Indian myth from Hinayana Buddhism tells that, in one of his incarnations, the Buddha, in the form of a hare, leapt into a fire as an act of self-sacrifice. The flames turned out to be a spiritual fire that did not kill but transformed him into the moon. Europe had its Saxon hare-headed goddess, Eostre, Oestra, Ostara or Lucina, whose Sabbath was Moon-day and at whose festival on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (our Easter)[Northern Hemisphere] a hare was sacrificed. She helped women in childbirth. A Dutch publication of 1605 depicts her statue. She wears a hare-eared headdress and holds to her abdomen a new-moon-like disc with ghostly fullness, giving the appearance of a belly pregnant with the Moon. A 12th century CE Japanese Buddhist painting shows their Moon Goddess Gwatten holding a hare cupped in the shadowy part of a crescent Moon.

Messenger of the Gods
When the Son-Hero-God who lived with his Moon mother went below with her each day for three mysterious nights each month, he gained special access to her knowledge. Having lived on earth, he also knew the ways of the upperworld. So each Moon-hare God, in turn, became a guide of souls to the underworld and licensed courier between Heaven and earth. Encyclopaedias say a hares white under-tail is a communicating device for guiding the lepus community. As it leaps about in the dark, the shining white disc seems mini-Moon-like.

In an Indian myth, hare says "I am the ambassador of the moon and this is what the Gods say to you by my mouth." As male Gods gradually performed Divine takeovers from Goddesses, in Egypt the ibis-headed secretary God Thoth replaced Unnu-t and became lord of the moon and the city of Unnut became Khmunu. When Alexander the Great conquered Khmunu in 332 BCE, he called it Hermopolis, the city of Hermes. So Unnu-t the hare-headed Goddess evolved to Thoth the secretary, who became the Greek Hermes, who became the Roman Mercury with wings on his feet, each holding communion with two worlds. Like them, Osiris Unnefer, glorious hare, was an escort of souls and messenger of the Gods. This role came to mean an imparter of inspiration, light-bearer, raiser of consciousness. The darkness-into-light attribute is also seen in the Sanskrit title for holy messenger, guru: gu, dark ru, light. A message from the gods can be interpreted as intuition. Here hares qualities still fit. Intuitions leap into consciousness unexpectedly, bringing messages from the Underworld, the darkness of our unconscious. This is the sacred leap of hare, the light-bringer.

Taboos and Sacrifice
Pliny wrote that, in Britain, the penalty for hunting hare was to be struck with cowardice. In Ireland, to eat hare was analogous to eating ones grandmother. A taboo on eating an animal usually points to its sacredness. Tabooed, sacred animals were, however, usually eaten on their festival day after their ritual sacrifice. As Robert Graves points out in "The White Goddess", hare killings on Easter Friday were recorded up to 1620 CE. The track winding back from this to the ancient springtime sacrifice and communal eating of the gods flesh can readily be seen. We still eat a very special hare at Easter a chocolate one.

The hare myths tell how he sacrificed himself for the good of humankind, then went to live with his goddess-mother, from where he dispenses spiritual healing for all people. Hare, Osiris, Dionysus, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, the Buddha, the Christ and all other hero gods were sacrificed that humankind may be spiritually healed. The Indian story of the Buddha-as-hare leaping into a fire comes from a curious characteristic of field hares: when threatened by a crop or grass fire hares do not flee but sit transfixed until they leap into the flames and burn to death. The Buddha-hare did not die because his was a spiritual fire. In all cultures, spiritual fire transforms but does not consume: transforms base instinct to soul matter; translates a lower level of consciousness to a higher. In the moon, the deified hare made medicine to heal and rejuvenate the soul.

Elixir of Life
The sacred hare was not only believed born from the vital essence of the moon but to live there eternally compounding this magical potion, the ground of our being called by the Chinese Tao, the ancient Egyptian Sa, the Hindu Kundalini or Shakti or simply That. It was the Persian Amrita, the Irish hares of Naas and the Polynesian Mana. In iconography, hare is depicted either crouching or standing in the Moon-disk where he pounds in a mortar the Herb of Immortality. Elixir of life, life force, cosmic energy the moon-substance was believed to be the cause of planting fertility, womens menstrual/pregnancy cycles and the resuscitation of the dead Moon at its New Moon. It was the source of both the sacred menstrual blood from which women grew new life within their bodies and the divine sacer that gave immortal life to gods. The cupped New Moon was seen as the crucible from which the creation and re-creation emerges. In this aspect, the hollowed mortar of the Moon is synonymous with the opened cave-grave and the moon-hares return to life with the resurrection of Jesus and other saviour Gods.

And what is the elixir of life, the essence of immortality? The ability for perpetual renewal. This is what the Moon does. It dies and comes back to life. The Moon is a container of perpetual potential new life. A round white container. The egg is also a round [frequently white] container of potential new life. Out of an egg steps fully functioning life. Life emerges. So the hare-in-the-Moon mixes in his crucible the magic elixir of life and by this exertion lays in the Moon its capacity for eternal creation of life. The elixir of life is in all eggs. As it is latent in all death. When organic life dies, it is absorbed back into Earth where it becomes the material from which new life grows. Out of the yearly absorptions of Autumn come the rebirths of Spring. Out of the monthly death of the Full Moon and hares image with it comes his rebirth at New Moon. Moon and egg are synonymous symbols of life after death.

A further connection of hare-egg myths with the Easter resurrection is that hare cannot lay the Moon-egg afresh until he dies. The sacred hares Spring Equinox death empowers its great Moon-egg-laying effort that triggers all the re-creativity of Springtime hatching and becoming. The restorative egg-laying symbolism of the Easter hare is irretrievably entwined with the symbolism of the Moon and is the reason the date of Easter is made to coincide with the perfect-and-about-to-die phase of the Moon.

Psychologically speaking, hare lays his eggs, his messages of immortality, in the hidden recesses of our minds, from where they leap up into our conscious awareness as gems of intuition and higher understanding. The Moon, the light in the darkness, has ever been a symbol of intuition. And through the milling and distilling performed by its inner hare [the self], the Moon [psyche] is in the myths a vessel for the transformative process as intuition brings about psycho-spiritual transformation. And so the sacred moon-hare delivers the Moon-eggs containers and gestators of potential spiritual rebirth and soul-healing to us on Earth.

God to Bunny
When new religions conquer old, their icons are either taken over and used in the victors rites or demonised. Goddesses are turned into saints or loathsome gorgons, priestesses into Wytches, rulers of the underworld into devils. Medieval Christianity turned Europes once-sacred hares into witchs familiars and burned them alive. Faded reflections of sacred hare amulets excavated from ancient Egypt and China can be glimpsed today in a rabbits foot dangling for luck.

British Queen Boudicca's royal hare, so awesome that if hunted it drained away the hunters courage, and Anglo-Saxon goddess Oestra/Lucinas, so powerful he made her pregnant with the Moon, is degraded to our funny-bunny with his chocolate eggs. It can be a challenge to learn that our festive customs are not always what they seem. But an understanding of why we do what we do is important to our holistic wellbeing. There can be healing in the knowledge that the Easter Bunny is not just a silly fad but has an underlying archetype so powerful it has persisted since religious symbolism began. That is why we still love him.
 

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