March 20, 2012 by Lain
Northern Tribes is proud to present another instalment of Ali Ravenwood’s eight part series, which began with ‘First Foot‘ on the modern roots of New Year’s Eve celebrations
Here is part 2 of Folkways, the Equinox installment.
Hunting Eostre’s Hare
By Ali Ravenwood
The festival of Easter is the only moveable feast day in the Christian faith, meaning that its date does not conform to any calendar. Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox, so that both the moon and earth phases must be considered in its calculation. This Pagan influence on Christianity’s most important festival illustrates the Church’s willingness to adopt some Pagan traditions as part of their theology, in an effort to smooth the process of Christian domination. But the sheer volume of Pagan references visible in modern Easter celebrations, arguably more numerous than any other Christian holy day, suggest that extra effort was required to persuade the people to abandon their Goddess of Springtime.
Eostre is the Saxon goddess of fertility, springtime, and the dawn. Her feast day is the vernal equinox. Her symbol is the egg, and her totem animal, the hare. She has been portrayed in artwork as a beautiful woman, surrounded by flowers and wildlife. Details of her worship have been lost in antiquity, as the only historical reference to her dates back to the 8th century. However, folk customs later developed which illustrate the Church’s fear and hatred towards Eostre, and its desire to eradicate her from popular consciousness by any means. One example of a traditional ritual of “killing the goddess” was practiced in Leicester right up until the end of the 18th century. It was called “The Hunting of the Hare”.
On Easter morning, the Lord Mayor and all the townspeople would make a grand procession to a cave in the Dane Hills known as “Black Anna’s Bower”. The site was considered sacred to the Goddess in earlier times, but by 1791 it had acquired a sinister reputation as the home of an evil crone. She was reputed to have long black hair, bony arms, sharp teeth and claws, and to eat children. (It is interesting to note that the charge of “eating children” has been leveled at nearly every unpopular regime from the Huns to the Nazis. Witches have frequently been accused of eating children, as have other socially reviled groups deemed evil or perverse. The accusation seems to represent the worst possible evil of which the human psyche can conceive, and to direct the charge against another is the ultimate condemnation.)
Once the villagers had assembled at the mouth of the cave, the festivities began with the slaughter of a hare, Eostre’s totem. (If hares were in short supply, a stray cat was an acceptable replacement.) The corpse was then tied with a long rope to the back of a horse, which led the procession on a merry chase throughout the countryside. Finally, the revelers wound their way through the streets of town until they arrived at the Lord Mayor’s house, where a great feast was held and the praises of God were sung amidst much dancing and drinking.
We can only imagine how deeply the people once loved their Goddess, that her conquerors were compelled to create a such a gruesome spectacle in order to denounce her. Ultimately, they failed; the Christian feast day still bears her name, and her totem still holds its place of honour as the whimsical Easter Bunny.