HAVE you ever wondered how a mythical egg-carrying rabbit became the symbol for Easter, the Christian festival celebrated around the world this weekend?
Symbols it appears have a life of their own and, like human beings, have the ability to adapt and evolve to suit their current or changing surroundings.
Paleoanthropologist and tour leader of one of the tours managed by the Maropeng visitor’s centre, Dr Christine Steininger, confirms that the use of symbols date back thousands of years in our evolutionary history.
“From the time ancient man started making marks in the sand or on cave walls, symbols have come to represent anything from a real entity to ideas and beliefs”, says Steininger.
Through the centuries these symbols may lose their original meaning even though the use of the symbol remains.” She suggests that the Easter Bunny is one such example. “What we have here is an example of how various symbols from different time periods and belief systems converged into a new accepted and widespread symbol and tradition.”
When we unravel this symbol’s history we discover that even the word “Easter” has little or nothing to do with Christ or the resurrection.
Easter is actually a derivative from the name “Ishtar”, an ancient goddess of fertility from Babylonian times. The Easter bunny is a little more recent on the timeline, although the link between rabbits and the Christian church go back thousands of years.
Rabbits and hares are ancient symbols of fertility and were a popular motif in medieval church art. These little creatures were believed to be hermaphrodites, meaning that they could reproduce without loss of virginity, thus a symbolic link to the Virgin Mary.
The Easter Rabbit or Easter Hare started as a German Lutheran tradition where, like Father Christmas, the Easter Hare would reward children who had been good at the beginning of Eastertide (the period of 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday) by giving them brightly painted eggs. Eggs are in themselves an ancient symbol of fertility and were often used as gifts or offerings to celebrate the rising fertility of the earth at the March equinox – the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Interestingly the day we know as Easter Sunday is generally calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox ( March 21).
This means that the church chose the March equinox, a symbol of renewal and rebirth, to represent the resurrection of Christ.
“There is a strange logic to it all, and it would not be the first time in our history that a symbol’s meaning was changed,” Steininger says.
“Just think of the swastika, a religious Hindu symbol that was taken over and used by the Nazis.”
The joyous and inspirational peace sign is another great example of how a symbol and its original meaning are easily parted.
The creator of this sign, Gerald Holtom, originally designed this symbol as a protest against nuclear weapons. It was supposed to represent a man who had lost hope in a world gone mad, stretching his arms out and downward in desperation and defeat.