Until |history of art
From lust to Bugs Bunny, the rabbit has taken on different meanings throughout history, in world folklore and artistic symbolism. But how did he become the poster child for Easter? Matthew Wilson finds out.
Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion on Good Friday. And yet we see him everywhere symbolized by a lop-eared, buck-toothed, egg-laying lagomorph. Where exactly does the tradition of the Easter bunny come from?
Finding an answer isn't as easy as it sounds: the search will take us down a few rabbit holes, not much else.Alice on her journey through Wonderland. Three themes about rabbits run through mythology and religion around the world: the perceived sacredness of rabbits, their mystical connection to the moon, and their connection to fertility. The chase will include rabbits and hares; When researching folklore and art history, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. Both are part of the taxonomic order.Lagomorfo, and the familyleporides, and are often treated equally in religions, fables, and visual culture.
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Are rabbits tied to Easter because they are often considered sacred? Revered in Celtic mythology, hares are portrayed as cunning tricksters in the myths of Native American tribes, including the Michabo and Manabush. Similar stories are found in Central African fables and the related figure of Br'er Rabbit, the supreme hero of cunning. It's impossible not to see cartoon rabbits, including Bugs Bunny, also following this age-old tradition of animal cunning. According to British folklore, witches can transform into rabbits and hares, and in many cultures they are considered omens of both good and bad luck. Hares are fast and agile runners, which may explain the common perception of them as cunning or mysterious and dark.
The 'three hares' symbol has been found around the world for over 1,300 years (Credit: Alamy)
This view is supported by the fascinating transnational phenomenon of the "three hares" symbol. It shows three hares running in an endless circle with their ears touching to form a triangle. You can find it in many medieval churches in the UK: in South Tawton (Devon), Long Melford (Suffolk), Cotehele (Cornwall), St David's Cathedral in Pembrokeshire and Chester Cathedral. Long considered an indigenous icon to British scholars, it was subsequently discovered throughout Europe, in cathedrals and synagogues in Germany, parish churches in France, as well as artifacts made in Syria, Egypt and Pakistan's Swat Valley dating back to of the ninth century. century century AD
The oldest example can be found in the Dunhuang Caves in China, a sacred Buddhist site established in the 6th century AD. Part of the appeal of the "three hares" symbol lies in its central optical illusion: each hare individually has two ears, but there appear to be three in total. The reason it spread so widely is probably due to international trade in the first millennium AD. Along with many other widespread artistic symbols, it probably appeared on objects bought, sold, and exported along the Silk Roads that connected Europe with Asia. The symbol is believed to imply prosperity and regeneration through its cyclical composition and overlapping shapes. The themes of renewal and rebirth seem to be related to the Easter message. Could the Easter Bunny be derived from this ancient Buddhist symbol?
The "three hares" symbol is believed to come from a story in the Jatakas (stories from the life of the Buddha) about the "hare of selflessness". In this story, the hare is a previous incarnation of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. He is so generous and pious that when he finds a starving priest, he sacrifices himself to go up to the fire and feed him. As a reward for his virtue, the image of the hare was thrown to the moon. This story, and the lunar associations of hare in general, probably have their origins in much older religions in India. The moon actually has a mark on its surface that looks (with a little imagination and squinting) like a hare.
A mystical hare inhabits the moon in Japanese folklore, as seen in Mori Ippo's Rabbit Pounding the Elixir of Life Under the Moon, 1867 (Credit: New Orleans Museum of Art)
Rabbits that inhabit and contemplate the moon proliferate in the visual cultures of China, Japan, and Korea. Taoist traditions in China tell the story of a rabbit that lives on the moon by mixing the ingredients of the elixir of life. Native North and Central American cultures have very similar myths associating hares and rabbits with the moon, presumably because they also discovered lagomorphic markings on the lunar surface. It seems that the rabbit is an honorable creature, synonymous with heavenly powers and rejuvenation, not only for Christians at Easter, but throughout the world.
bunnies and fertility
While animal symbolism and fables from the East found their way into European iconography, the Easter Bunny's origins may be closer to home. Most Christian symbols come from biblical sources, although some survive from the artistic cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Bible offers a mixed attitude towards rabbits. In the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus they are called unclean animals. However, in Psalms and Proverbs, they are described as possessing some intelligence, although they are condemned as weak.
What fascinated ancient Greek and Roman writers most about our cleft friends was their fertility. For example, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) observed how rabbits could reproduce at lightning speeds. Another influential writer, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), mistakenly believed that their rapid reproduction was due to the fact that hares were hermaphrodites and that birth was shared between males and females. Could the Easter Bunny be linked to this classic idea of fertility, used to express the rejuvenation and fertility of spring?
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, rabbits could be symbols of unlimited chastity or sexuality, depending on the context.
These amazing abilities in biological reproduction undoubtedly influenced European symbolism. In medieval and Renaissance art, rabbits were often depicted alongside Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of love and sexuality. Lust is one of the seven deadly sins, and when depicted in allegorical form by artists ("Lust"), it sometimes takes the form of a woman with a rabbit.
Rabbits are sometimes a symbol of lust, as in Piero di Cosimo's Venus, Mars and Cupid (1490) (Credit: Alamy)
The Roman author Aelian (c175-c235 CE) suggested that hares were capable of superfetation, the ability to generate an embryo while already pregnant. For a long time this was ridiculed, but recent science has proven it.hares are really capable of such a feat. Aelian and other observers of this phenomenon believed that hares and rabbits could give birth without mating. So, interestingly, in the medieval and renaissance periods, rabbits could be symbols of chastity or boundless sexuality, depending on the context.
In Titian's Madonna with the Rabbit (1520-30), a rabbit symbolizes chastity (Credit: Getty Images)
This can be seen when we compare Titian's serene and radiant Madonna with the Rabbit (1520-30) with Pisanello's fascinating Allegory of Lust (1426). In Titian's painting, the pure white rabbit is a symbol of Mary's celibacy. In Pisanello's drawing, the rabbit symbolizes lust.
While in Pisanello's Allegory of Lust (1426) a rabbit takes on a completely different meaning (Credit: Alamy)
These biological characteristics of rabbits and hares have also led to their association with fertility in otherwise unrelated cultures. In Aztec mythology, there was a belief in it.Centzon Tōtōchtin– a group of 400 devoted rabbits who reportedly hosted drinking parties to celebrate abundance.
Even within Europe, various societies used rabbits as an icon of fertility and associated them with gods of reproduction. According to the writings of the Venerable Bede (673-735 AD), an Anglo-Saxon deity named Ēostre was accompanied by a rabbit, as it represented spring rejuvenation and fertility. The festival celebrations took place in April and it is believed that we got the name Easter through Ēostre, as well as her rabbit helper. If this is correct, it means that Christian iconography long ago appropriated and adopted symbols from older pagan religions, mixing them with its own.
Does this close the case on the origin of the Easter Bunny? The problem with trying to give a definitive answer is the lack of evidence. Other than Bede, there is no clear connection between Ēostre and Pesach, and Bede cannot be considered a direct source for Anglo-Saxon religion because he wrote from a Christian perspective. Although it seems very likely, the connection can never be proven with certainty.
Just like in Alice in Wonderland, the white rabbit can never be fully understood. Throughout history, rabbits and hares have been considered sacred and the epitome of cunning. They have been associated with the enigmatic purity, chastity and superlative fertility of the moon. It is with some justice that this enigmatic animal continues to elude meaning. The more we hunt down the origins of the Easter Bunny, the more he disappears into dark mazes, making us desperate for a logical answer to a surprisingly complex puzzle.
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