Have you ever noticed that in Springtime, the birds wake up earlier and sing louder, the flowers bloom brighter and the new leaves rustle more happily in the trees? I like to imagine that these are expressions of joy and gratitude to the Springtime Goddess Ēostre ( pronounced yow·str) — she who is the very essence of the greening, growing earth and fertility.
This is a short fairy tale that I may have heard or it may have come to me in a dream. It takes place in days of yore and times long gone before in a world where mythic and magical beings such as the Goddess Ēostre still lived openly among the plants and other creatures of the Wildwood. It is a story of how one small rabbit found a way to thank the Goddess by giving her a gift that still influences how we celebrate this beautiful time of year.
The Spring Equinox had come. The day’s light and the night’s dark had reached that magical moment when, for a tiny instant, they were perfectly equal. And as it does at that time every year from that point on, the sunlight began to grow ever stronger and ever brighter. And as the air warmed from the growing sunlight, the snow melted and ran crystal clear as it filtered into the thirsty earth below and the rivers and streams run fuller and faster. The growing light signaled the sap to move up through the roots of the trees into their bare branches, delivering the nourishment they needed to stretch out even further and push their buds into fresh new flowers and leaves.
The birds were always first to welcome Spring with their heart songs at dawn and soon all the creatures in the Wildwood knew that it was time to wake up and grow. The furry ones stretched their arms and legs, the winged ones spread their wings, the amphibians emerged from their long cold sleep, the bees and other pollinators shook themselves awake and set off into the air to begin their important work. Even the grubs and the worms who worked so hard beneath the soil at that time wriggled their tiny bodies joyfully.
Of all the living creatures, it was the rabbits who loved Springtime the most. To a rabbit, Spring is the ringing time—the harmony and singing time. It is the pushing and the pulling and the bringing forward time when babies are born from their mothers into a world where all is fresh and new. To a rabbit, Spring is that bright and beautiful time when love of the earth becomes the most important thing of all because (as all rabbits know) when new life is created and born, the ever-revolving cycles of the earth continue.
The small rabbit was only a few months old when this fairy tale took place, but she already knew how to look after herself quite well. She was born among the first of that Spring’s litters and since that time, her mother had had another litter and was expecting a third! Of course, the small rabbit’s mother and father were extremely busy feeding and caring for their newborn baby kits. The small rabbit tried to help as best she could, but no matter what she did, she just seemed to get in the way.
One bright morning, her mother could see that the small rabbit was restless and not at all happy simply hanging around in the burrow. “Out you go!” she said, as she gently nudged her towards the opening with her nose. “Your father and I have a lot to do here, but we’ve got it covered. Why don’t you go out and find some of your brothers and sisters or play with your cousins? Better yet, why not make yourself useful and find something fresh to eat? Perhaps some tender new shoots of fresh grass, some sweet purple wood violets or some delicious and nutritious nettle tops.”
The little rabbit ventured out of the burrow carefully because that is the way rabbits are. Rabbits are always vigilant—every instinct tells them to be prepared for the possibility of danger. They are constantly sniffing, cautiously observing, always ready with all their senses to know when to spring away in a flash if danger comes their way.
The small rabbit’s nose twitched as she hid under a hedgerow at the edge of the forest, and she looked out across the open meadow. She was watchful, but she was also excited, for who wouldn’t be? It was Spring! As she looked across the open meadow, she could see the bees buzzing among the blooming yellow daffodils and purple and blue violets, and further in the distance she could see newborn calves dance as their delicate hoofs first touched the green grass while their mothers watched with pride. She looked up into the sky and watched as an older crow taught younger ones how to sail in the wind high above the tops of the evergreens and she heard them all caw, caw, caw in delight that Spring is here!
Hesitant, she began to hop along, venturing a little way across the grass, but always staying close to the edge of the woods in case she needed to quickly hide. She sniffed the wonderful smell of clover and paused to nibble on a bit of yummy chickweed and the first of the dandelion shoots emerging from the grass.
As she sniffed and nibbled from one delicious plant to another along the edge of the forest she came across a beautiful unbroken bird’s egg that must have fallen from a nest in the trees above before it’s mother could sit on it and warm it. Although she was sad that the egg wouldn’t have a chance to be hatched, it was such a lovely and unspoiled thing that she wondered that perhaps it would make a perfect gift to her beloved Goddess Ēostre!
But, she thought, surely the great Spring Goddess Ēostre had all the gifts she could possibly want! How could she, a small rabbit make this egg a beautiful and special gift to honour her? She thought and thought about it and then she came up with a wonderful idea, What do you think she decided to do?
Yes, you are right! She decided to decorate it! She carefully pushed the egg back home to the burrow and her mother showed her brothers and sisters how to colour the egg with the beautiful blues, greys, purples and greens of the spring woods. They all worked together on it and before long, the egg was as beautiful as it could possibly be.
When they brought the beautifully decorated egg to Ēostre she was utterly delighted with this perfect symbol of new life that so honoured and expressed the beauty of the natural world during the Springtime. In fact, she was so pleased with it that she showed the egg to all the other woodland beings and eventually news of it spread to the human world. Before long, everyone, especially children (who themselves are symbols of new life) began to enjoy decorating eggs too!
And since that day long ago, the descendants of the little rabbit have continued to bring decorated eggs to children in the Spring. They are called Ēostre’s Bunnies. . . or, as we know them today, the Easter Bunny.
Image credit: Janie Olsen: http://thestorybookstudio.com/
* Ēostre (pronounced yow·str and also known as Ostara), is a possible Germanic goddess of spring and the dawn. In the old Germanic calendar, the month of April was called “Ōstarmānod” – or Easter-month.
We are not entirely sure whether Ēostre was actually worshipped as a goddess in times long ago. The 8th century monk the Venerable Bede wrote that pagan Anglo-Saxons in medieval Northumbria held festivals in her honour, but there is some speculation that he made this up. In 1835 Jacob Grimm wrote in his Deutsche Mythologie that Ēostre seems to have “the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”
Whether or not they are based on actual tales that were told in the past, there are many stories and legends about Ēostre and her association with rabbits and hares. If you are curious to find out about others, check out this article: Ostara and the Hare: Not Ancient, but not as Modern as some Skeptics Think.
And for more on the rich and abundant folklore about rabbits and hares themselves, here is Terri Windling’s post “Into the Woods” 43: The Folkore of Rabbits and Hares.