Every year around this time, plenty of stories come out about Eostre, the pagan goddess of spring, whose consort was a hare. This image is said to have inspired the more familiar imagery of the Easter bunny.
However, if we turn to historical sources, there is only one passing mention of “Eostre” in the Venerable Bede’s Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, AD 725), in which he suggests that the lunar month of Eosturmonath was named after a goddess called Eostre. There are no images, carvings or written legends about Eostre, or a hare, to be found anywhere else.
Many now think that the legend of Eostre has been discredited.
Of course, others suggest that it seems unlikely that an historian would just invent a goddess. They point to Ostara (or Austra), a spring goddess celebrated in northern Europe, who may refer to the same figure.
Either way, there are a few symbols of Easter which have some interesting associations with folklore.
The hare occurs throughout numerous myths and legends in Britain.
They are particularly associated with fertility, making them an obvious symbol of spring. For centuries, they were believed to be hermaphrodites; this has now been disproved, but hares are almost unique in that they are able to both be pregnant and conceive at the same time, producing many litters in a year.
Eggs have always been associated with fertility, rebirth, and new life across the world.
Eggs are painted at Easter in many cultures, but some of the most beautiful are pysanka eggs in Ukraine. This stems from a pre-Christian tradition in which eggs were decorated in honor of the sun god Dazhboh, celebrated during the spring season, but now is associated with the story of Christ’s resurrection.
Closer to home (for me at least!), there are British stories about discovering your true love by placing an egg in front of your fire in a storm – and the person you will marry will appear and pick up the egg. As a child, I was always told to crush the shell of my boiled egg so that faeries couldn’t use them as boats to sail here from Faerieland.
There are even creation myths which see the egg as the beginning of the world – we find these stories in some Native American tales, and in some Chinese folk tales.