The name "Easter" originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, the "Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [was] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos." Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: "eastre." Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime.
The goddess of the dawn would be a spirit of fertility - a celebration of the fresh day in the same way that a goddess of spring would welcome the new life this season brings. Which I guess brings us to the rabbits - yet not in celebration of their proverbial fecundity but, it seems, in confusion with their relation, the hare:
In his late 19th century study of the Hare in folk custom and mythology, Charles J. Billson cites numerous incidents of folk custom involving the hare around the period of Easter in Northern Europe. Billson says that “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”
So what is it about hares that brought about such reverence during the onset of Spring? Was it their memorable courtship - we forget that hares boxing is the girl checking out the boy not two boys scrapping over the female:
Hare were - in their mad march way - a great symbol of the explosion of life that occurred each Spring. The active, excitable, aggressive life matched with that other great Easter symbol the egg.
So what of Easter - are you like me witnessing a new summer emerging fresh, scrubbed and new from the dark ground? Are you looking to your family and using the time to eat, drink and make merry with them? This is the message of Easter for me - the joy of new life and the salvation that new life brings. A time to reflect on growth, goodness and the wellspring of ideas.
Above all, Easter, like all our festivals represents a time when the magic of nature comes a little closer. We hesitate to touch that magic, we wrap it up in silver foil, make it from chocolate and surround it with marzipan balls. But it is still there - a spirit of newness, a breath of joyous exuberance in Spring.
I like to think that is why those hares dance - at the joy of Spring.