Friday, 10 April 2009

The curse of the chocolate lagomorph

Around this time of year, rabbits begin to pop up in the strangest places. In TV and newspaper ads; on greetings cards; on the sea-cliffs near my home; and as small chocolate representations in the supermarket. Why, I even saw one for sale in our local pet shop, just last week. Now, someone told me that their appearance coincides with, and apparently has something to do with, Easter, but I'm not sure why. Easter is, of course, a Christian festival and, at the end of the forty days of fasting that precede it, Christians have prepared themselves spiritually for the death and resurrection of Christ. So where does the rabbit (and here I include the hollow chocolate bunny) come in?

The truth is, of course, that he shouldn't. Easter is associated with new life and fertility, and they don't come much more fertile than a rabbit. Your average female rabbit (rabbitess?) can, in theory, produce around eight hundred offspring during its nine month breeding period. This is probably why, in the middle ages, the rabbit was seen as a symbol of promiscuity, sexual pleasure, and (let's not beat about the bush) downright sin. Is this really the kind of example the church was looking for?

Well, no, because over the years we've got our rabbits mixed up with our hares. In the medieval bestiary, the hare was a symbol of purity. Unlike the rabbits, who were 'at it like knives', hares were thought to reproduce asexually, changing gender in order to do so; a belief which started in ancient Egypt and carried through to eighteenth century Europe. A single hare in church art represented the Virgin Mary, and a trio of hares (sometimes seen as carved roof-bosses) were symbolic of the Holy Trinity. In the middle ages it was believed that hares were in a permanent state of alertness, never closing their eyes, and being incapable even of blinking; this perhaps explains why they were thought to spend all night staring up at the moon. But, if hares were this alert, one wonders how the Romans were ever able to catch them; because Pliny the Elder wrote that eating hare meat was a cure for sterility, and a means of enhancing sexual attraction for nine days. Why nine, I wonder?

Some think that the rabbit has been associated with Easter since the inception of Christianity. In fact, the Easter Bunny doesn't make its first appearance in written sources until 1682. In that year, German Professor Georg Franck von Franckenau wrote an essay De Ovis Paschalibus (On Easter-Eggs) in which he stated:

In Alsace and the neigbouring regions those eggs are called rabbit-eggs because of the myth that is told to make the simple-minded and children believe that the Easter Rabbit was laying and hiding them in the grass of the gardens, so the children search them even more eagerly, for the delectation of the smiling adults.

So, for reasons we've already seen, it's inappropriate for the naughty little rabbit to represent Easter. But in some cultures, the bunny was highly regarded. The Aztecs apparently had a pantheon of four hundred rabbit gods known as the Centzon Totochtin, that were effectively 'patrons' of drunkenness and partying; in Korean mythology, rabbits live on the moon and make rice cakes; and likewise in Japan, the lunar surface is their abode, but these particular bunnies are engaged in producing sticky rice. However, closer to home, on the Isle of Portland (which is, incidentally, very close to Middenshire) the rabbit is regarded as unlucky, and even speaking its name is likely to offend the locals. This is because their burrowing was likely to cause potentially fatal landslips in the stone quarries that provided the island with most of its income. Portland islanders even now would rather refer to the creatures as underground mutton or furry things. In deference to this belief, posters displayed on the island for the Wallace and Gromit film The curse of the were-rabbit, omitted the 'R' word, and read The curse of the were-bunny instead.

So next time someone mentions the Easter Bunny to you, be sure and point out the error of their ways. Tell them that it's a hare. And then prepare to be condemned as a hopeless killjoy and pedant. But you can always blame me.

19 comments:

Stevyn Colgan said...

Oddly enough I was researching this very subject a year ago, I also turfed out this stuff (though there are so many conflicting stories):

The egg is a potent symbol of fertility, birth and renewal in pagan myth. It is also a powerful symbol of femininity. Therefore, the church made eggs ‘forbidden food’ during Lent, so that enjoying them at Easter would be seen as a wholly Christian treat. A good dippy egg with soldiers must have been a real luxury after 40 days of abstinence.

Traditionally, hardboiled eggs were dyed red (to represent Christ's blood) and given to children for good luck. This custom evolved into a tradition of ‘Pace Eggs’ where eggs were wrapped in onionskins and boiled, giving the shells a golden, mottled effect. Later, they were painted and decorated instead. The word ‘Pace’ comes from the Latin Pacha, which means ‘Easter’. There may also be a link with the Latin passio meaning ‘passion’.

In Lancashire, the tradition of the Pace-Egger's Procession was revived recently. It features such extraordinary characters as the Noble Youth, Lady Gay, Soldier Brave, Bold Slasher and a drunk with a straw tail stuffed with pins called Old Tosspot.

Chocolate eggs are a recent innovation, only turning up in the 19th century. As painted eggs became more and more artistic and complex, they acquired a value. And it wasn’t long before people started making artificial eggs as gifts. They retained the egg shape but were often hollow cardboard, wood or porcelain shells filled with presents. The ultimate in gift eggs were the fabulous gold and jewel-encrusted eggs made by Carl Faberge for the Czars of Russia.

Chocolate was a luxury too and, at one time, cost as much per pound as gold. Therefore, solid chocolate eggs – often pulled from moulds made from real eggs – were given as expensive gifts. The fad started in Germany and France but soon spread across Europe. It wasn’t long before improved manufacturing methods and recipes led to the 20th century appearance of the modern hollow chocolate Easter Egg.

So there. Stop yawning at the back.

chris hale said...

Excellent stuff!

Cheers, Stevyn. I can always rely upon you for a plethora of fascinating facts.

Forty days sans eggs? What did our ancestors do with all the eggs their chickens were producing during Lent? Perhaps they just used them to pelt miscreants during that time, or consumed them surreptitiously...

Raph G. Neckmann said...

What wonderful customs you earthlings have! We must try them here - I wonder if Girth will make us some chocolate bunnies?

Madame DeFarge said...

I'm afraid that I read your title as 'iago' rather than 'lago' at first and wondered why we were going to read about melting Shakespearean villains. Which is what everyone does on Easter Sunday.

Anyway, to add to this cornucopia of stuff, I always thought that 'pasch' came from the Hebrew for 'passover' - them having got there first. And 'Easter' from 'Eostre' some pagan/germanic thing - them having got there first too.

Never a fan of rabbits. Too twitchy by half.

Madame DeFarge said...

And there's something for you over at mine. Not quite as exciting as an Easter egg, but richly deserved nonetheless.

chris hale said...

Raph - Do you have bunnies (or a close equivalent) on your planet? Or something like Easter?

MDF - Shakespearian villains as chocolate treats? I think you've just discovered a huge gap in the market. Just imagine: Cadbury's Creme Richard the Thirds (that's not Cockney rhyming slang, BTW) or Caramac-Beth (Thou art too full of the Dairy-Milk of human kindness); or Edmund The Chocolate Bar-stard. Think the last one needs work.

Thank you for the award. I shall have to put my thinking head on; the one that isn't stuffed with chocolate!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

I had read previously over at 'A Woman of No Importance' all about the Easter hare, bunnies, chicks, eggs etc., though you present it in a more scholarly fashion! And I think you and MDF may well have a hit on your hands with the chocolate rotters! Happy Easter.

Comedy Goddess said...

My friend's last name is Hare. She looks like one. I think she is bummed out about that fact. She tends to keep a low profile on Easter Sunday. I can't say I blame her.

chris hale said...

Derrick - Chocolate Rotters! Now there's a brilliant marketing name! Would you be willing to sell them in the shop?

CG - What? She has long ears, a fluffy little tail and a penchant for boxing with gentlemen? I think I may have met her at some point...

Happy Easter all!

Jimmy Bastard said...

As much as I wouldn't dream of admitting this to her face, Madame Defarge was correct about this blog.

Excellent reading material indeed.

chris hale said...

Thanks JB; please feel free to drop by again any time!

Lulu LaBonne said...

Hello - I'm here on recommendation from the banana boat lady too and what an mine of information - I've just learned more than I ever did at school.
x

chris hale said...

Thank you, Lulu!

Actually, this is school. Now, sit up straight and throw that chewing gum in the bin...

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

We don't sell any sort of confectionery in the shop but might be persuaded for quality merchandise!

chris hale said...

Derrick - I shall give you first refusal on the Chocolate Rotters - heck, you invented the name!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

We have girabbits here, Chris!

I've now, at last!!!, done your 'Choses ordinaires' tag!

chris hale said...

Raph - been there, seen it...and it's brilliant!

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Great post.

Chris, you have been awarded an award, please call over to The Tomus Arcanum to pick it up.

AV

chris hale said...

Thanks AV, you are most kind! I shall pick it up after my post-prandial constitutional.