Easter gets its name from the goddess Ostara, also known as Eastre. Ostara is a fertility goddess. Her annual arrival in spring is heralded by the flowering of trees and plants and the arrival of babies, both animal and human.
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.
The Origin of Ostara
Some sources suggest that Ostara originated from Eostre, a pagan deity worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. While Ostara doesn’t seem to be a Norse goddess, a few scholars claim that she is a hypostasis of Freyja. Under that consideration, Ostara could be a Vanir deity. Yet, the true origins of this mysterious figure are not clear. Therefore, nothing certain can be derived from what is known.
Saint Bede, in his work ‘The Reckoning of Time,’ describes the worship of Eostre during the Paschal month. Eostre/Ostara was a revered goddess by the Anglo-Saxons and the Germanic peoples.
The Goddess Ostara and the Easter Bunny
Ostara is the goddess of spring. She is the divine maiden that brings forth the first light of day and springtime. Ostara is responsible for resurrecting the world after winter’s frozen grip has been withdrawn.
She blows the warm winds of springtime over the lands. Fields and trees become green again, and flowers blossom. However, one year, Ostara came a bit too late.
Already feeling a little bit guilty for arriving late, the Goddess Ostara was appalled when the first thing she encountered was a little bird who lay dying on the forest floor, his wings frozen by the snow.
Filled with compassion, Ostara took him as a pet or, as some versions of the tale have it, her lover. Feeling sorry that the poor wingless bird could no longer take flight, she turned him into a snow hare and gave him the ability to run rapidly so he could evade all hunters. Honoring his earlier life as a bird, she also gave him the ability to lay eggs in all the colors of the rainbow.
Eventually, the decision backfired when the goddess became enraged with his numerous affairs. In a fit of anger, she threw him into the skies, where he, unfortunately, landed under the feet of the constellation Orion (the Hunter). He remains there to this day and is known to us as the constellation Lepus (The Hare).
Softening her attitude a bit, Ostara allowed the hare to return to earth once each year to give away his colored eggs to the children attending the Ostara festivals that were held each spring. The tradition of the Easter Bunny had thus begun.
More Easter Bunny Beliefs
The Hare was sacred in many ancient traditions and was associated with the moon goddesses and the various deities of the hunt. In ancient times eating the Hare was prohibited except at Beltane (Celts) and the festival of Ostara (Anglo-Saxons), when a ritual hare hunt would take place.
In many cultures, rabbits and eggs were considered to be valuable remedies for fertility problems. Pliny the Elder prescribed rabbit meat as a cure for female sterility, and in some cultures, the genitals of a hare were carried to avert barrenness.
Bunnies And Christianity
Medieval Christians believed the hare brought misfortune, saying witches changed into rabbits to suck the cows dry. It was claimed that a witch could only be killed by a silver crucifix or a bullet when she appeared as a hare.
Given their wild leaping and boxing displays during mating season, not to mention their ability to push out dozens of bunnies each spring, it is understandable that they came to represent lust and unbridled sexuality.
Medieval Christians thought the rabbit was an evil omen, believing that witches transformed themselves into hares so they could sneak into the fields to suck the cows dry of their milk. It was claimed that such a witch appearing as a hare could only be killed by a silver crucifix or a bullet.
Much later, depictions of a white Hare sitting at the feet of the Virgin Mary signified Christianity’s triumph over lust or the flesh. The speed displayed by a rabbit symbolizes the need to flee from sin and temptation and a reminder of the rapid passage of life.
Resurrection And The Rabbit
And there is also the touching tale about a young rabbit who patiently waited in the Garden of Gethsemane for three days and nights for his friend Jesus to return, worried about what had become of him. At dawn on Easter morning, Jesus returned to the garden and was welcomed by the loyal little friend.
That night when the disciples arrived at the garden to pray, unaware of the resurrection, they discovered a clump of beautiful larkspurs, each blossom reflecting the face of the rabbit in its center as a remembrance of the little creature’s hope and his faith.
Easter traditions serve to remind us of the cycle of rebirth and the need for renewal in our lives. In the history of Easter, Christian and pagan traditions are delicately interwoven with grace and beauty.
If you enjoyed this post we are sure you will enjoy getting to know some of the other goddesses we also write about. You can find the complete list of goddesses sorted across regions and religions here.
Featured Image Credit: Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons