The Tale of The Hare

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 11 minutes

If you're ever lucky enough to come across the captivating sight of a hare loping through pasture, you’ll be impressed by its elegance and swiftness. It's an elusive creature, active mostly at night – except in spring when hares overcome their natural timidity to engage in boxing and chasing in a quest for breeding dominance.

The success of its breeding habits helps balance out the species' vulnerability to predation, and it has developed some impressive physical attributes to help its defences. This member of the ancient Lepus genus – Lepus from the Latin word, Levipes: ‘light foot’ – can run at speeds of up to 80km/h to outwit prey. Its long, intricate, heavily-veined ears are like antennas, allowing it to hear sound from any direction, and the ears also regulate body temperature. The high, wide position of its eyes allows near 360-degree vision to enable speedy action when danger is afoot. Its offspring (called leverets) are born precocial, meaning they are fully-furred with eyes open and able to fend for themselves soon

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 11 minutes

If you’re ever lucky enough to come across the captivating sight of a hare loping through pasture, you’ll be impressed by its elegance and swiftness. It’s an elusive creature, active mostly at night – except in spring when hares overcome their natural timidity to engage in boxing and chasing in a quest for breeding dominance.

The success of its breeding habits helps balance out the species’ vulnerability to predation, and it has developed some impressive physical attributes to help its defences. This member of the ancient Lepus genus – Lepus from the Latin word, Levipes: ‘light foot’ – can run at speeds of up to 80km/h to outwit prey. Its long, intricate, heavily-veined ears are like antennas, allowing it to hear sound from any direction, and the ears also regulate body temperature. The high, wide position of its eyes allows near 360-degree vision to enable speedy action when danger is afoot. Its offspring (called leverets) are born precocial, meaning they are fully-furred with eyes open and able to fend for themselves soon after birth.

These survival mechanisms possibly explain why the hare has existed for an exceedingly long time; in fact, its earliest ancestor lived 55 million years ago in Mongolia!

Native to Africa, Eurasia, and North America, the Romans introduced hares to Britain between the fifth and third centuries B.C. Over the next 2000 years, the hare migrated to settle in almost every other continent in the world. In each, its beauty and shy nature garnered unique pagan status, and the hare became an icon for spiritualism, mythology, and magic.

Some of those mystical qualities included early Christian wonderment at the hare’s quick and prolific procreation, considered a miracle of sorts. People believed that the hare was able to conceive without copulation and equated this to the Virgin Mary’s conception of Jesus. The hare (and rabbit) became enduring, holy symbols throughout Christendom.

This symbolism still confounds researchers today, none more so than the ‘three hares’ motif dating back to the 13thcentury. It appears in churches, temples and synagogues across the Far East, Europe and throughout Britain. The image is of three hares running in a circle, ears entwined, and the motif seems to have different meanings across different religions and cultures – most of which remain a mystery.

Boadicea Haranguing the Britons, Engraving by John Opie, 1793
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That mystery extends to the power of a hare to soothsay, as in A.D. 61 when Iceni queen Boudica consulted the entrails of a hare to divine the hoped-for victory in her uprising against the Romans. Roman historian Dio Cassius (b. 163 AD) said that Queen Boudica also kept a hare in the folds of her voluminous dress. She would release it and then analyse the direction it ran – either to the side of the Romans, or the side of the Britons. The rebellion failed, but even so, such was the position and importance of the magical hare.

Its habitual night-time activity and image as reflected in the dark patches of the moon led it to become a moon deity, and the Moon Gazing Hare is a revered phenomenon believed to be associated with fertility, growth, and re-birth. That connection with re-birth could explain why in the 17th century, the tradition of the Easter Hare came to be known. Eventually, the Easter Hare would take on a new role as the Easter Bunny, enthusiastically adopted as an identity for modern-day Christian Easter celebrations.

Easter is a religious festival and holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day after his burial following his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary c. 30 A.D.

Lore has it that the name Easter came about back in pre-Christian 8th century when the Venerable Bede (a monk at a monastery in England) wrote about how the month of April was named after a German goddess called Ēostre (say the two words Ēostre and Easter out loud and you can hear the connection). Ēostre was said to have taken the shape of a hare at each full moon, and her Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Ostara, was often depicted with a white hare by her side.

And according to Teutonic myth (around 1100), a little girl found a bird close to death and prayed to Ēostre for help. Ēostre appeared, crossing a rainbow bridge, the snow melting before her feet. Seeing the bird wounded, she turned it into a hare and told the little girl that from then on, the hare would come back once a year bearing rainbow-coloured eggs.

The hare’s connection with new life, fertility, and resurrection personified Easter perfectly.

Germany in the 1500s revealed written Easter Bunny stories, and about 1680, the first story about a bunny laying eggs and hiding them in a garden was published.

Originating among German Lutherans, around 1682, the Easter Hare became a folkloric personality who played the role of a judge, evaluating whether children were well behaved or disobedient at the start of Eastertide. In legend, the creature carries coloured eggs, candy, and sometimes toys to the homes of children (and as such, shows similarities to Santa Claus or the Christkindl).

In the 1800s, in Germany, the first edible Easter bunnies were created from moulds – a great advance in Easter rituals. Made from pastry and sugar, the chocolate ones followed quickly on their heels.

There were chocolate moulds for all kinds of images, but with many people abstaining from pleasures such as chocolate for the forty days of Lent, French and German chocolatiers saw a business niche to reward those on Easter with symbolic chocolate eggs and bunnies.

The U.S. adopted the Easter Hare in the 18th century when protestant German immigrants to Pennsylvania told their children that if they were good, they would receive the gift of chocolate from the ‘Oschter Haws’ or ‘Osterhase’ (‘hase’ means ‘hare’).

In 1890, a Pennsylvania pharmacist, Robert L. Strohecker went down in history as ‘the father of the chocolate Easter Bunny’ when he displayed a five-foot-high version in his shop as an Easter promotion. As you can imagine, sales of chocolate Easter bunnies began to take off.

After the Civil War, the Easter Bunny began hopping up with more regularity. Chocolate renditions, both hollow and solid, appealed to children and adults alike and became a popular way to connect family to religion.

Nowadays, over ninety-million chocolate Easter bunnies are produced every year (sixty-million consumed in the U.S. alone) most of which are hollow. This wasn’t always the case. Almost all chocolate bunnies were solid pieces until World War II. Hollow moulds entered the picture in 1939 when a newspaper advertisement mentioned hollow chocolate rabbits selling for five cents each. Then, in late 1942 the War Production Board put mandatory rations on chocolate and cocoa, keeping those foods for “staple civilian and military purposes, such as breakfast cocoa and candy bars.”

Most people love chocolate, but it turns out no one does more than the Brits with the average Brit found to have consumed 8.4 kg of chocolate in 2017, according to Mintel Global New Products data. Switzerland, Germany, Russia, and Austria follow close behind, and by country, Brazil is the largest producer and consumer of chocolate.

In the ’90s, chocolate bunnies in Australia had to hop aside for a while as chocolate bilbies made themselves popular, too. What on earth is a bilby? Bilbies are endangered native Australian marsupials needing help to survive. To increase conservation efforts, bilby-shaped chocolates were sold within many stores throughout Australia as an alternative to Easter bunnies.

Bilbies do have ears, which is fortunate because New Science Daily research found that 59% of 28,113 respondents prefer to eat chocolate rabbits et al starting with the ears. 33% said they didn’t care and so bite wherever feels good, and a tiny minority of 4% said they start nibbling on the tail or feet first (Wiley, 2017).

Whichever way you nibble yours, Easter is behind us now. But it’s likely that circumspect children around the world are still guarding their carefully hidden stash of chocolate bunnies in an attempt to eke out that pleasure for a little bit(e) longer. Sometimes the gorging may even last several months down the track until Christmas chocolate interlopes with further chocolate-heaven happiness.

As blithe consumers, it’s not often we wonder why we eat chocolate at certain celebrations, or why a rabbit symbolises the Easter event, or how the beautiful hare embodies so many fascinating roles in folklore, astrology, and religion.

In the black furror of a field

I saw an old witch-hare this night;

And she cocked a lissome ear,

And she eyed the moon so bright,

And she nibbled of the green;

And I whispered “Whsst! witch-hare,”

Away like a ghostie o’er the field

She fled, and left the moonlight there.

(19th-century children’s poem by Walter de la Mare)

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