The Myth and History Behind the Easter Bunny and Its Eggs

Hans/Wikimedia Commons
Hans/Wikimedia Commons

As Easter approached at the end of March 2024, we looked into the many origin theories of the Christian holiday. The occasion celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion, and in many countries including the United States, a rabbit or bunny symbolizes the holiday.

On Easter Sunday, children across the U.S. often search for hidden treats, usually in the form of chocolate Easter eggs, which the Easter bunny may have left behind. Shops also sell chocolate rabbits in abundance, and decorations of the long-eared creature abound over the holiday.

But where did this connection between eggs and the rabbit/bunny come from? We went down a number of rabbit holes to find the connection, but discovered archaeologists and experts have been unable to find a definitive connection.

Below, we outline our research roadmap, which started with looking at the animal's significance over centuries, as well as the earliest possible references connecting it to Easter, and then to the pagan mythologies that may have surrounded the holiday.

The Rabbit's Evolving Symbolism

Rabbits and hares — often mistaken for each other but representing different species within the Leporidae family — have been included in religious iconography for centuries. According to Leviticus 11:6 in the Bible, hares are "unclean." The historic churches of Devon, U.K., some of which date back to 1450, carry the symbol of a circle of three hares joined at the ear. The symbol was also discovered all the way in China's Buddhist cave temples, and in the Middle East.

According to Folklorist Tok Thompson in the Smithsonian, the hare has appeared as a symbol of sexuality in art since the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The Virgin Mary was often depicted holding a white hare or rabbit, symbolizing how she overcame sexual temptation.

Thompson noted that hares were part of ritual burials with humans during the Neolithic age in Europe, and such ritual burials continued into the Iron Age a thousand years later, often as representations of rebirth. In Greek mythology, they were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her son, Eros, was often depicted carrying a hare as a symbol of unquenchable desire.

What Tied the Rabbit to Easter?

Thompson connects the hare to Easter through the folk traditions of Germany and England. He reported accounts from 1600s Germany in which children searched for eggs hidden by an Easter Hare, as well as written accounts from England, detailing egg hunts and the consumption of hare meat at Easter. He also described Northern European beliefs about witches taking the form of hares, so eating the hare was part of a tradition of scaring witches away. noted the Easter bunny came to the U.S. in the 1700s with German immigrants who brought traditions of an egg-laying hare to Pennsylvania, calling it "Osterhase," or "Oschter Haws."

A 2018 article in the World Archaeology journal, titled "Celebrating Easter, Christmas and their associated alien fauna," noted that in England the "origin of the association between rabbits and Easter is unclear, although rabbits have a widely reported connection with Lent. Historians reported the French monks in the late 6th century domesticated rabbits as they were given a special dispensation to eat uneviscerated foetal or newborn rabbits during Lent. Such rabbits were considered to be fish rather than meat due to coming from the "watery" womb.

The article detailed their eventual popularity as an "elite feast food" in England particularly over Christmas in the 13th century. Their appeal grew in subsequent centuries, but over time as the rabbit population grew, the cost of obtaining them dropped, and they began to be considered pests; the wealthy eventually began to replace them with other species, like the turkey. The same paper described the earliest reference to the Easter hare and egg hunts as occurring in 17th-century Germany:

The earliest reference to the Easter hare (later the Easter bunny) does not appear until 1682 in Georg Franck von Franckenau's "De Ovis Paschalibus" ('Concerning Easter Eggs'). von Franckenau describes a tradition of Easter egg hunts (albeit with hens' eggs rather than chocolate eggs) in Heidelberg and surrounding Protestant areas of Germany which is readily recognizable as the antecedent of present-day Easter egg hunts.

Stephen Winick, a folkorist at the Library of Congress, in 2016 analyzed a key origin story behind the Easter hare pertaining to Ostara, the ancient Germanic goddess of the spring, who transformed a bird into a hare, and the hare responded by laying colored eggs for her festival. Winick noted:

Ostara herself is a shadowy figure in Germanic folklore. Her story begins with Eostre, an early medieval English goddess who is not documented from pagan sources at all, and turns up in only one early Christian source, the writings of the English churchman Bede. Bede may have been right that there was such a goddess, or he may have been spreading the received wisdom of his era, and scholars have debated this point for years. Jacob Grimm [part of the Brothers Grimm literary duo], the brilliant linguist and folklorist, is one of many scholars who took Bede at his word, and in his 1835 book "Deutsche Mythologie", he proposed that Eostre must have been a local version of a more widespread Germanic goddess, whom he named Ostara. It's impossible to tell if Ostara as a goddess ever existed outside Grimm's proposal. As for Eostre, there's no evidence of her worship except in Bede's book, and possibly in place names (which could, however, just mean "east"). There are certainly no ancient stories in which she transforms a bird into a hare.

We found a copy on the Internet Archive of Volume 1 of Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology" (translated from "Deutsche Mythologie") published between 1882 to 1888, and Grimm described Ostara thus:

Ostara, Eastre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the christian's God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter, and according to a popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, he gives three joyful leaps, he dances for joy (Superst. 813). Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing (Superst. 775. 804) ; here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess.

However, Winick said the earliest connection between Ostara and the hare occurred in an 1874 text also titled "Deutsche Mythologie" by Adolf Holtzmann, which stated: "The Easter Hare is inexplicable to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara; just as there is a hare on the statue of [the Celtic goddess] Abnoba." (Winick's translation)

Winick found an 1883 note in the English journal "Folk-lore" by H. Krebs that offered another connection between the goddess and the hare, the idea of which, he argued, was traced back to Holtzmann:

Easter-Eggs and the Hare.—Some time ago the question was raised how it came that, according to South German still prevailing folk-lore, the Hare is believed by children to lay the Easter-eggs. I venture now to offer a probable answer to it. Originally the hare seems to have been a bird which the ancient Teutonic goddess Ostara (the Anglo-Saxon Eàstre or Eostre, as Bede calls her) transformed into a quadruped. For this reason the Hare, in grateful recollection of its former quality as bird and swift messenger of the Spring-Goddess, is able to lay eggs on her festival at Easter-time (r. Oberle's Ueberreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, 8vo, Baden-Baden, 1883, p. 104.)

2020 archaeological research found evidence showing the worship of Eostre in England but none connecting hares to the goddess. The research, conducted by archaeologists from the University of Iceland and University of Exeter, however, found that the existence of "Eostre" in pre-Christian England was controversial:

We [...] accept Ēostre as a historical deity, and as a tutelary goddess her semantic centre would have been focused not on a particular function or role, but on her congregation: she was a local goddess, for local people. However, despite the clear link between lagomorphs [referring to the biological classification of rabbits and hares] and contemporary British Easter traditions (Lauritsen et al., 2018), there is no evidence whatsoever to link Ēostre to hares, and popular suggestions to the contrary appear to be based on misunderstanding or projection. How long the Easter Hare may have existed before it was recorded in seventeenth-century Germany is unclear (von Franckenau, 1682, p. 10); as are its relationships with the early twentieth-century Osterfuchs (Easter Fox) recorded in north-western German folklore (Schnitzler, 1959) and the seemingly Victorian Easter Bunny in Britain.

A 2008 article in The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture by Richard Sermon, the archaeological officer for Bath and North East Somerset, suggested another way in which the term "Easter" entered the German language (emphasis, ours):

More recently it has been suggested that Bede was only speculating about the origins of the festival name, although attempts by various German linguists to find alternative origins have so far proven unconvincing. Nevertheless, there may be a more direct route by which Ostern could have entered the German language. Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface (C.AD 673–754), who could have introduced the Old English name Eastron during the course of their missionary work. This would explain the first appearance of Ostarun in the Abrogans, a late eighth-century Old High German glossary, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.

Ultimately, the rabbit hole led us nowhere, and the real reasons for a connection between the bunny, Easter, and eggs remain hare-y and as hotly debated as ever.


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The Folk-Lore Journal. Folk-lore Society, 1883. Accessed 28 March 2024.

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Grimm, Jacob, and James Steven Stallybrass. Teutonic Mythology. London : G. Bell and sons, 1882. Internet Archive, Accessed 28 March 2024.

Lauritsen, Malene, et al. "Celebrating Easter, Christmas and Their Associated Alien Fauna." World Archaeology, vol. 50, no. 2, Mar. 2018, pp. 285–99. (Crossref), Accessed 28 March 2024.

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Winick, Stephen. "Ostara and the Hare: Not Ancient, but Not As Modern As Some Skeptics Think | Folklife Today." The Library of Congress, 28 Apr. 2016, Accessed 28 March 2024.