Photo by Erich Kuchling/Getty Images
Every Spring around the United States, children visit the Easter bunny for their annual photo. Much like Santa, the Easter bunny can be found at a number of venues: malls and garden nurseries are popular in my area, but friends have posted photos from organized community events, schools, museums, firehouses, and daycares. He’s one of more recognizable symbols of Easter but he is a contradiction. How does he lay eggs? Why does he bring them? Where does he come from? We can’t dismiss him as a random image of the holiday. The Easter bunny exists—and has survived—because he does connect with the holiday. A closer look, however, offers an alternative to the popular fertility and birth associations more commonly assigned to him.
The Easter bunny as we know him doesn’t have a clear origin. He seems to have been transported to the Americas in the latter part of the 1800s. Most histories trace him to Germanic traditions. One story tells of an poor woman who didn’t have money for gifts as Easter approached. She decorated some eggs and hid them for her children. When they found them, they saw a rabbit hopping away, and so believed the rabbit had brought them the eggs. Others link him to the goddess Eostre/Ostara, the supposed pagan namesake for the Easter festivals. For her, he is a fertility symbol: his arrival signals the reawakening of the northern hemisphere, or rebirth, following the long, cold, dark days of winter.
In the days when myths reigned supreme, totems were fairly widespread. These were a class of items with which people had a special, somewhat supernatural relationship. Anthropologist James George Frazer identifies three types of totems: the clan totem, which is based around descent—groups are said to have originated as an animal or other item, and can only be linked to this totem if they are born into the clan; the sex totem, which is an item that is common to either all the males or all the females of a tribe; the individual totem, which is a personal item that is only meaningful to an individual. The connection between the two is protection. If the totem is respected and cared for, it provides help and protection. Totems that are dangerous animals will not hurt the clan—scorpions or snakes would not bite. For example, among the Snake clan of Asia Minor, if you were bitten by an adder, and you put the snake to your wound, it would draw out the poison.
And if the totem is not respected it can bring ruin. In these cases, some tribes would offer a ritual sacrifice: Frazer tells us that if a visitor caught and cooked a cuttle fish in the Cuttle Fish clan, a council would select a man or a woman who would have to go thru the pretense of being baked. The oven could not be used unless this had occurred or it could be fatal to the family. Eating the totem was largely tabooed this ritual sacrifice would offset some of the offense caused.
Frazer categorizes these experiences and expectations as social tests. Descendancy tests kinship. In Senegambia, a python is expected to visit every child of its clan within a week of its birth. One leader said he would kill the children who did not receive such a visit. The totem’s acceptance of the individual clearly defines who belongs and who does not—who is entitled to the group’s resources and who is not. Similarly whether the totem would attack or would heal you is a judicial test, which could determine if you would be driven from the clan. For some, regardless of the seriousness of the attack, if a totem singled you out in this way, you were to be shunned. These relationships helped us organize our social groups.
If we reach into our collective histories and consider our ancestral relationships with totems, the Easter bunny may take on a slightly different shape. In both European folktales and American lore, the hare figures prominently. The difference between a hare and a rabbit makes a world of difference when you start to ascribe meaning and intent to the animal. Hares are larger and live above ground; their fur may change in accordance with the seasons (perhaps for camouflage—more on this later); and they’re fast, powered by large hind legs. They’re also largely independent and tend to be solitary. This is in contrast to rabbits who are smaller, gregarious, and spend the majority of their time in burrows (with the exception of the American cottontail). Of the two, the hare is is more present as a totem, both in terms of its own physical sense and in our imaginations, as we have more opportunities to interact with and observe it.
There’s an interesting twist to the hare, however: he tends to fall into the trickster class of supernatural entities.
In the Americas, the hare is connected to several tribes but seems to occupy a special relationship with the Algonquin-speaking tribes of the northeast. Manabush, Nanabush, and Michabo (the “Great Hare) are regarded to be the same entity—one is more of a trickster while the other is a culture-hero, a figure who makes society possible. Tricksters operate toward two ends. First, they are self-absorbed and will go to any lengths to satisfy their own needs, particularly when it comes to sexual desires. Second, as a totem, the trickster makes the world habitable. He rids it of monsters or employs deceit or self sacrifice to award mankind some additional benefit that aids with their social progression.
If we go back to Europe, where the Easter bunny is said to have originated, we find traces of this duality in the rabbit-lore. He is the messenger to Artemis, a Grecian goddess of the hunt and protector of wild animals. He delivers her messages by moonlight which helps him traverse the human world and the realm of the gods. In this role, he must negotiate challenging encounters constantly and move swiftly. Elsewhere the hare offered himself as a meal to the hungry Buddha. who transports him to the moon as a token of gratitude. In the Taoist tradition, the hare lives on the moon where he is a slave to the genii who have tasked him to pound the drugs that compose the elixir of life. In this instance, he is the culture hero, who works for the people, albeit in captivity. He’s making a sacrifice on our behalf.
His other nature emerges in a South African tale, where he is sent by the moon to preach the Easter gospel. He is instructed to say something to the effect of “Like as I die and rise to life again, so you also also die and rise to life again.” As you may have guessed, the hare says, “Like as I die and do not rise again, so you shall also die and not rise again.” When he returned to the moon and reveals what he as done, the moon is so angry, she splits his lip (and it has remained that way since.)
If we assume this hare crosses the Atlantic and meets with Nanabush, and the other versions that exist throughout First Nations, we have the blueprint for B’rer Rabbit, the ultimate trickster figure. He is constantly using his wits to escape tricky situations, but also rarely neglects those smaller than him. He fools B’rer Fox into throwing him into a briar patch so he can escape fitting with the trickster model that looks to its own survival. But he also concocts a scheme for the benefit of smaller animals who are starving to help them gain access to the resources guarded by B’rer Tiger in keeping with the culture-hero model.
If the Easter bunny descends from the Artemis or Eostre or the moon-hare or Nanabush or Michabo or B’rer Rabbit or some meeting of all of these variants, how did he get so tame? Hares are wild animals, while rabbits—bunnies—can be domesticated. In almost all of the American myths that reference a rabbit, it can be argued that the traits discussed are relevant to hares. For example in the stories that talk of how Rabbit steals fire, his success is dependent on his speed. In another myth, his ears are stretched, which is a feature of hares. And in another myth, rabbit and his descendants are destined to always be thin because he went without food for days—slimness is, you guessed it, better assigned to the hare than to the rabbit, which is known and shown as being fuller. Perhaps he has been rounded and softened as part of the commercialization of the holiday to appeal to families and children. Perhaps rabbits are simpler easier to find, breed, and display than hares.
With this history, the Easter bunny is more than a fertility symbol. He brings eggs—that he has not laid but perhaps has created—that symbolize life because he is the keeper/maker of the elixir of life. His gifts are strewn about randomly and generate a frenzy as youngsters try to capture as many as they can as a nod to his chaotic, trickster nature. After all, you don’t know what you’re getting in that egg. It could be something sweet or something else. Indeed the popular rabbits of the season, such as Peter Cottontail, Benjamin Bunny, the Flopsy Bunnies have an element of mischief about them. The Velveteen Rabbit narrowly escapes death through the mercy of a fairy.
Perhaps he shares those eggs as part of his punishment for getting the message wrong all those years ago when the moon sent him and is so negotiating mortality on our behalf.
Maybe the idea of the Easter bunny allows a long-forgotten totem a chance at resurrection.
Krystal D’Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook.
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- Leslie, Annie Ruth. "What African American Mothers Perceive They Socialize Their Children to Value When Telling Them Brer Rabbit Stories." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 29, no. 1 (1998): 173-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41603554.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.