Hiroshige, two rabbits, pampas grass and full moon

As I walk along the river the nearly full moon reflects in ripples on the water and illuminates the night. The equinox–equal day and night–was ten days ago and it will be a blue moon on Saturday the night before Easter Sunday. I have always been curious about the symbolism wrapped up with Easter–as a child thinking mostly about the basket I would find on my bed when I awoke filled with stuffed rabbits, brightly colored eggs and sweets.

Albrecht Dürer, Hare, 1502

The predecessors of the modern European rabbits, wild rabbits were thought to have originated approximately 4,000 years ago in what we now know as Spain. Myths abound about rabbits all over the world–in Asia they were a sign of good fortune, throughout Celtic Europe their feet were thought to contain protective powers and they were used as talismans in Africa.

I came across a book about the ‘three hares’ motif–where the three rabbits each share an ear to form a triangle–called “The Three Hares: A curiosity worth regarding” by Tom Greeves, Chris Chapman and Sue Andrew. The symbol appeared in many different places around the world. One theory is that it may have come from ancient Persia and traveled the old silk road. Although the authors couldn’t find one cohesive meaning or interpenetration, they hope that just as the rabbits go in a never ending circle that “sharing knowledge of beautiful things that connected civilizations across religion and time may help unite disparate peoples of a fractured age.”

Iranian tray, probably from Silk Road trade in medieval times, Chris Chapman, New Scientist

A blue moon is often used to mean incredibly rare, but tomorrows blue moon will be the second this year. When the moon appears blue it is from dust particles in the air, and all “blue” moons do not appear blue. There are two definitions of a blue moon, one is a seasonal blue moon or the third  full moon in an astronomical season that has four instead of the usual three.  The other is a monthly blue moon which is the second full moon in a month that has two full moons. Blue moons are rare, happening every two or three years most of the time.

Ohara Koson, Hare Moon, Japanese Woodblock

I had long heard that Christianity married Easter to solstice celebrations (hence bunnies & eggs)because they couldn’t get people to stop celebrating–but as I looked deeper I think this is an overly simplified explanation. Almost every culture celebrates the solstice or the transition from winter to spring. Rabbits, because of their prolific breeding, were often seen as symbols of fertility, prosperity and abundance. In medieval times, rabbits could also be associated with excess and wanton behavior. In the margins of some medieval texts there are many illustrations of violent acts carried out by rabbits, exactly why no one knows for sure.

images via Dangerous Minds

When I saw these drawings it gave new meaning to the rabbit in Monty Pythons The Holy Grail that was not a regular rabbit, even though to great comic effect–it was a common white bunny.

The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Another reason that people link the Christian festival of Easter to pre-Christian festivals is the name. The word Easter is said to be derived from the anglo-saxan Ēostre, Eastre, or Ostara who was the Germanic goddess of spring. She was mentioned by Bede the monk, but many think she was a fabrication as no other information has been found about her.

From the book “Myths of the Norsemen”, H. A. Guerber

Ēostre is in good company and joined by a long lineage of goddesses archetypes–Ishtar, Inanna, Aphrodite, Diana, Venus, Astarte and the norse goddess Freya. Spring is associated with re-birth, and also with the feminine. The word Freya translates from old Norse to “Lady” and the word for Friday is said to derive from Freya.

John Bauer, Freja, 1905

Freyja Seeking her Husband (1852) by Nils Blommér

Mayan goodess Ixchel and the rabbit

Through religion, art, objects and myth we bring stories with us through time. The context changes, as does the meaning through interpretation. Certainly looking back on symbols we don’t always know the exact meaning because we don’t have the context. Regardless, the symbols that are relevant stay with us and conform to the context of their times.

Tiziano VECELLIO, The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd, known as The Madonna of the Rabbit c. 1525 – 1530

I have always thought that the Easter basket was a modern idea to sell candy and toys, but maybe it is more than that. I was reading about the painting known as the Madonna of the Rabbit and was surprised to see the basket in the foreground, just open to reveal an apple and some grapes. Maybe our concept of Easter is based in much older storytelling than Cadbury.

A basket, a rabbit and colorful treats mirror the painting

Under a blue moon, unwrapping a hollow chocolate rabbit I will reflect on how these ancient symbols are hope that the passage into spring will bring prosperity, plenty and transformation.