Today’s topic is something that’s haunted the Eostre debate for years, dragging in such luminaries as Eddie Izzard and Bill Hicks, and it is this: aren’t eggs and bunnies obviously pagan symbols of fertility, though?
In my experience, you can cite sources and quote Bede and quote Grimm and quote Hutton and point out the limits of what’s known until you are blue in the face and still you will hear the retort ‘yeah well that’s all very interesting, Cav, but at the end of the day, eggs and bunnies are obviously pagan fertility symbols, aren’t they? I mean it just makes sense. Fertility, innit?’
Okay, let’s break it down. First, let’s look at the evidence.
Do we have any historical evidence that eggs or bunnies were used as symbols of Easter fertility by European pagans?
There is precisely jack shit direct evidence that either the Anglo-Saxons who gave us the word ‘Easter’ or any other European pagans used eggs or bunnies as symbols of fertility, or indeed as symbols of anything.
There is a widespread assumption that they did so, but it is not based on evidence.
So where has the extremely widespread belief that eggs and bunnies were pre-existing pagan symbols come from?
In general terms, it has come from people following these steps in their thought:
1. It’s an long-established tradition
2. It’s not obviously Christian
3. Therefore it must have been pagan
4. Therefore the Christians must have stolen it.
In specific terms, the speculative association of the Osterhase or Easter Hare with the pagan goddess Eostre begins with the folklorist Adolf Holzmann in his Deutsche Mythologie (1874) while the speculative association of Easter eggs with pre-Christian pagan rites begins with the folklorist and linguist Jakob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Yes, they are two different books with the same title.
So how long-established are the egg and bunny traditions of Easter?
We can’t say for sure. The Easter Hare is first mentioned in 1682. Easter eggs, in the sense of eggs decorated and/or eaten as part of a Christian celebration of Easter, are first mentioned in 1610. Textual sources from the 17th Century trace their origin to the early Christians of Mesopotamia.
Are there Christian explanations for the egg and bunny traditions that people have overlooked?
Yes. The Osterhase or Easter Hare was a bit of a Santa figure in that he rewarded children for being good little Christians. It’s also worth noting that hares were used to symbolise chastity rather than fecundity.
So far as the egg goes, as well as the Mesopotamian custom of dyeing eggs to represent the blood of Christ, we have to consider the role of eggs as a foodstuff that was banned during Lent: ‘In the medieval era eggs were considered to be dairy products (they were derived from animals without causing harm or the spilling of blood) so they were banned for Lent. This gave them a tinge of luxury when the 40 days of fasting was over… people were eager to eat them again.’ (Historian Greg Jenner.)
But weren’t pagans all about Symbolism?
Here’s what actually went down. Back in Victorian times and for a good while thereafter, a bunch of learned gentlemen were very eager to show off how learned they were. They got it into their heads that the ancient world, including that of their own European forebears, was just awash with Symbols. Tomb walls, monuments, artefacts, ritual costumes… so many juicy, enigmatic Symbols there for the interpreting. And being both learned and male, they decided that it was they who were going to do the interpreting.
There’s a lot to say about colonial attitudes here, in which the pompous white western academics have an Educated Overview which the mere common folk who actually perform the traditions do not. But that can wait.
To the Victorian folklorists, the appeal of 'symbols’ was that you could take the remnants of former civilisations and read whatever narrative you liked into them. This went double when it came to treating folk customs as the remnants of former ritual practices. Nobody was going to tell you you were wrong, after all; the ancients weren’t around to correct you and the commoners weren’t educated like you were. Some of your fellow academics might have variant theories, but that just made for a good back-and-forth in the journals and a respectable debate or two at the club.
So the belief that eggs and bunnies are 'pagan fertility symbols’ is modern.
What people are actually saying when they claim 'eggs and rabbits were obvious pagan fertility symbols’ is 'eggs and rabbits remind us of reproduction, and those pagans were all about Fertility weren’t they, so they must have been fertility symbols’.
Remember, if you’re going to claim that a naturally occurring phenomenon is a 'symbol’, you have to show evidence of its USE as a symbol in a particular context, as verified by participants in the culture in question. In itself, an egg is just an egg. So, 'bats are used in Chinese art to symbolise good luck’ is a coherent & potentially verifiable statement. 'Eggs are pagan symbols of fertility’ isn’t.
As mentioned above, the problem we so often face is that learned men have, for years, decided that they are more equipped to decipher the 'symbolism’ of various folk traditions than are the people who actually practice those traditions. We are thus confronted with a horrendous backlog of prescriptive analyses of alleged 'symbolism’ which, on being investigated, inevitably prove to be the pet theories of some folklorist or other of the last century. Ron Hutton is particularly brilliant in his acid condemnation of these people:
’…it was assumed that the people who actually held the beliefs and practiced the customs would long have forgotten their original, 'real’ significance, which could only be reconstructed by scholars. The latter therefore paid very little attention to the social context in which the ideas and actions concerned had actually been carried on during their recent history, when they were best recorded. Many collectors and commentators managed to combine a powerful affection for the countryside and rural life with a crushing condescension towards the ordinary people who carried on that life.’
Eggs and Bunnies in modern media
When people refer to 'the eggs and bunnies’ of Easter, they don’t generally specify which artistic or other cultural context they’re referring to in which said eggs and bunnies appear.
So what is that modern context? Well, long before chocolate Easter egg packaging and cartoons were a thing, greeting cards played a big part in popularising imagery. Easter postcards are believed to have originated in 1898 or thereabouts and employed the familiar motifs of yellow chicks, eggs and anthropomorphised rabbits. (They also featured cherubic children, lambs, little gnomes, fairies climbing out of eggshells, and a host of other peculiar images such as a child driving an egg-shaped chariot.)
So we have a rich visual heritage of modern Easter imagery that involves eggs and bunnies. This explains why we associate those images with Easter. We’ve been drowning in this iconography since childhood.
It’s worth noting here that the greetings card industry thrives on cuteness. Fluffy chicks are cute. Fuzzy bunnies are cute. Foxes were not seen as cute. This may be part of the reason why the other egg-bringers of Easter, such as the Osterfuchs or Easter Fox, are all but unknown now. The Easter Fox, the Easter Stork and the Easter Cuckoo are all recorded egg-bringers in various parts of Germany, but the bunny has long since eclipsed them all. I believe we can blame the greetings card industry for the bunny’s usurpation of the Easter Hare, too: it was the Osterhase, the Easter Hare, that was the egg-bringer in the earliest recorded mention of an Easter Egg-bringing animal (in De Ovis Paschalibus). Rabbits are cuddly, whereas hares are staring-eyed and a bit mad.
So what did eggs and bunnies symbolise to the people who printed and sold the Easter greetings cards? I think we can safely conclude that they symbolised market appeal, while selectively tapping into familiar pre-existent traditions.
Turning to the actual tradition of a hare bringing eggs, it’s difficult to see how the hare can 'symbolise’ anything, because it’s not being employed in a context in which a symbolic subtext could meaningfully apply. In England, we have a legend that the Devil spits (or pisses, depending on who you ask) on the blackberries in the hedgerows on October the somethingth, so we shouldn’t eat them after this date. The practical purpose of this tongue-in-cheek legend is to prevent us (and our kids) from eating blackberries after a frost. The Devil doesn’t 'symbolise’ anything.
The functional purpose of the Easter Hare is readily apparent: he allows parents to prepare a tasty, colourful treat for children while pretending that they were not responsible. In this respect he is exactly like the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas. Nobody wastes their breath arguing what the Tooth Fairy may 'symbolise’. We just understand.
Let’s remember, too, that Adolf Holzmann considered the Easter Hare tradition 'unintelligible’. The best he could do was to speculate that the hare might have been the 'sacred animal’ of his speculative Goddess. So when the German folklorist who first tied the bunny to the Goddess has nothing more solid to say than that, maybe the rest of us should be hesitant about slapping it with the 'pagan fertility symbol’ label.
Easter Imagery Before The Greetings Card Era
We cannot say whether rabbits, eggs or hares were used to symbolise anything in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon sacred art, because there aren’t any known examples of such a use, symbolic or otherwise (to the best of my knowledge & research). It is therefore seriously pushing it to claim any of these things were 'pagan symbols’. The claim is made not by reference to Anglo-Saxon religion itself, nor to documentary or archaeological evidence thereof, but by reference to activities in an entirely Christian context that were first documented many centuries after Christianization and are imaginatively supposed to be dim and distant echoes of a forgotten pagan past. Such an interpretation, long after the fact, is exactly the kind of learned speculation-from-without that Hutton condemns above.
There is a tradition of rabbits and hares being used in a symbolic manner in Christian art. Wikipedia is pretty good on the subject. Strikingly, we find that rabbits and hares were employed as symbols of virginity as well as symbols of fertility or lust. This should act as a warning against any simplistic, generically 'pagan’ interpretation of perpetuated images.
The Problem With Eggs
It is often pointed out that the decorated eggs from the Zoroastrian New Year celebration of Nowruz 'represent fertility’; indeed, Nowruz is inevitably referred to in discussions of Easter’s alleged pagan roots, as if one non-Christian spring festival somehow set the template for all others to follow, regardless of cultural, temporal or geographic distance. The symbolism does not appear to be universal; other descriptions of Nowruz eggs hold them to represent creativity and productivity. Decorated eggs are only one optional element of a Haft-Seen and do not form one of the seven S-items.
In Easter greetings card art eggs are frequently depicted as freshly hatched, with unrealistically fluffy chicks peeping out. This calls our attention to a singular problem with the notion that eggs represent 'fertility’. It is impossible to tell by looking whether a given egg is fertile or not. In fact, the eggs that are typically eaten are NOT fertile, for a very good reason. Unless you are deliberately trying to breed chickens, you don’t let the cockerel fertilise the hens’ eggs. Fertile eggs run the risk of containing developing chicken embryos, which (at least in western Europe) isn’t something you want to run into. (There are issues about whether fertile eggs are kosher, recalling the inarguable and evident influence of Passover upon the Christian Easter.) So unless you show an egg in the act of hatching or shortly after, there’s no way to demonstrate that what you’re showing is a fertile egg.
The typical symbolism accorded to Easter eggs is that they do not celebrate 'fertility’ but rather new life, a subtly different concept. 'Fertility’ has (entirely non-coincidental) steamy associations, smacking as it does of Summerisle-esque pagans frolicking naked under the full moon, whereas 'new life’ puts one in mind of lambs and fluffy yellow chicks. If we look at what our modern heritage of Easter iconography really depicts, it’s not fertility, which is merely the passive potential to produce life. It’s the actuality of new life. Little lambs, hatching chicks: spring’s busting out all over.
Lambs and chicks, by the way, provide a very useful thought experiment. Why is it that people always mention 'eggs and bunnies’ as 'pagan fertility symbols’ but never mention the other, equally common symbols of Easter, namely fluffy yellow chicks and white lambs? The obvious answer is that fluffy yellow chicks and white lambs do not make us think of pagan fertility rites. They’re too innocuous, too cute. They don’t put us in mind of sex. So to harp on about 'eggs and bunnies’ and ignore the other, incompatible imagery is disingenuous, focusing selectively on only those Easter images that pander to our preconceptions of pagans.
Next time you hear the 'eggs and bunnies’ argument trotted out, try saying 'So fluffy chicks and white lambs make you think of sex, do they?’ while stroking your chin thoughtfully. You may see some surprising results.
So What Is A 'Pagan Symbol’ Anyway?
Glad you asked. 'Pagan’ is bloody useless as a cultural signifier, because it’s exclusive, not descriptive. It describes what something is NOT, not what it was. It’s like claiming something was a 'barbaric symbol’ or a 'gentile symbol’.
Which specific pre-Christian faith do we mean when we say 'pagan’? Norse? Celtic? Saxon? Greek? And which time period are we talking about? Neolithic? Bronze age? Early mediaeval?
The moment we begin to speak of 'pagan symbols’ we inevitably invoke the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy, i.e. the delusional belief that there was such a thing as a common 'pagan’ identity in which the various pre-Christian faiths shared, and that there are fundamental factors common to them all. 'Pagan symbolism’ means thinking of 'pagan’ as a mindset; a naive, scary but oddly appealing, fertility-obsessed, nature-worshipping, openly and frankly sexual way of seeing the world. If this seems familiar, it’s because the Victorians created it (and dreaded it) while the neopagan movement embraced it and tried to identify with it. It may be compelling, particularly when it’s used as a stick to beat Christianity with, but it’s not real. It’s nothing but the exaggerated, idealised contrary to urbanised humanity; what we needed our ancestors to represent back then, rather than who they actually were.
Yeah But Fertility Though
The same woolly-minded thinking that tends to cludge all diverse pre-Christian beliefs into 'paganism’ also tends to posit 'fertility’ as one of the pagans’ prime concerns. This is because such an image was the very antithesis of the modern post-industrial society that produced Frazer et al. To the Victorian and post-Victorian folklorists, the bestial primitivism of the 'pagans’ produced a sort of horrified fascination. They spoke of 'fertility rites’ as a sanitised way of discussing the phallicism and ritualised sexual behaviour that they believed was going on.
In Margaret Murray’s case, the belief in an underground pagan 'fertility cult’ ran so deep that she attempted to connect it with historical accounts of witchcraft. This in turn led to Gardner’s creation of Wicca, which was nothing more than an attempt to make Murray’s theory into reality. Murray’s work has of course been long debunked, but the intrusion of flawed theory into real-world practice helps to perpetuate the misconceptions; self-indentified pagans are now asserting that 'their’ traditions really do reflect an ancient preoccupation with fertility, now construed as healthy and natural, in the face of censorious Christian prudery.
'Fertility’ is such a darkly evocative term, isn’t it? This is especially true when it is used in the context of pagan religion. Whose fertility is being implied? The fertility of the land? Of the beasts? Or of the people? Or, most likely, some generic boundary-crossing 'fertility’ in which land, beasts and people are blent together in a piquant, sweaty, atavistic fug.
To speak of 'pagan fertility symbols’, then, is to perpetuate an ignorant and condescending view of the past that said a lot more about the respectable scholars who created it than it does about the people we seek to understand.
It’s illuminating to look at the frequency with which the term 'fertility symbol’ occurs in published works over the last couple of centuries. As you can see, a phrase (and concept) we take completely for granted has only come to prominence very recently.
The pagan Anglo-Saxon culture that gave us the word 'Easter’ (from Eosturmanoth, as Bede attests) has one known 'fertility symbol’ of which I am personally aware, and that is a cake. Cakes were placed into ploughed, barren fields in order to restore fertility to them; see the Acerbot, a (barely) Christianised ritual.
What you will not find are eggs and rabbits.