In light of the almighty fuss about Easter, The Church of England, Cadburys, The National Trust and chocolate eggs which erupted yesterday (see here) I thought I should re-visit a story I learnt about a few years ago – the derivation of Easter, bunnies and eggs.
There is a ‘boss’ on the roof in Chagford church depicting three rabbits which was the symbol used by the people involved with tin mining on Dartmoor who in the Middle Ages were wealthy people and funded the building of the church. There are 28 churches on Dartmoor and in Devon where this symbol is found – it is known as the ‘Tinners’ Rabbits’.
The image / logo is a clever illusion – each of the three animals has two ears but there are only three ears and these animals are not rabbits – they are hares. It emerges that this ‘logo’ was not created by Dartmoor Tinners but has a lineage which dates back at least 1600 years to pagan times and is not just found in Devon but also in China, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Europe ……
If we step back to Pagan times the hare was a magical / mystical beast. It was associated with female fertility – hares have a gestation period of 28 days – the same length as the cycle of the female period which also coincided with the lunar cycle of 28 days. In Saxon times there was a cult of the hare and there was a Goddess Oestara (thus the oestrous cycle) or Eostre (Easter) who was said to rule over spring and the dawn.
With the coming of Christianity to England, Paganism declined and was suppressed – the cult of the hare became known as Easter and the hare transformed into a rabbit – the Easter Bunny was born and the Easter Egg was created.
The fortunes of the hare also took a downturn – it was not longer portrayed as a magical beast – instead it became a partner of the devil. This was all driven by the early Christians who wanted to eradicate Paganism. There are many Dartmoor legends which tell that witches could transform themselves into hares: Bowerman’ Nose, the Witch Hare and the Witch of Dendles Wood.
(Thanks to Legendary Dartmoor for the legwork- a great web site for all things Dartmoor – check it out)