|Timeline of some key moments in the history of Easter and western Easter customs
The Easter Rabbit; the hot cross bun; and the Easter egg. One of these three things has a reasonable chance of having a pagan origin. A chance, mind. Let’s find out which one ...
Claim #4. The Easter Rabbit is pagan
Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.
Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010
Remember that passage from Bede, last week? That sentence that is the sum total of all testimony in the world that exists about Eostre? Did you notice the bit where he said that rabbits are sacred to Eostre? No? Three guesses why Bede might have forgotten to mention that.
|Robert Downey Jr is ... Iron Rabbit!
If you guessed that it’s because Bede is unreliable, biased, and trying to cover up the pagan origins of the rabbit, then full marks for scepticism. However, you also get –100 for mistreatment of evidence. (1) Bede explicitly talks about a festival in honour of a pagan goddess, so he’s not exactly trying hard to cover up pagan links. (2) We have no reason even to try to draw links between Eostre and rabbits. The Easter Rabbit is first attested in 1682 in Germany; Bede’s report on Eostre comes from 950 years earlier in northern England.
Some studies have tried to link the Easter Rabbit to rabbit imagery from all over history. But it won’t do to treat the history of the Easter Rabbit and the history of rabbit imagery in general as the same thing. No matter how many images of hares are found in 12th century Devon churches or in ancient art, if there’s no reason to infer a connection to Easter, they’re not evidence for a connection! If anyone wants to say the Easter Rabbit is based on images in 6th century Chinese temples, we might as well say Santa and his reindeer are based on the domestication of white-tailed deer by the Olmecs. Nuh-uh. Trace a link, then we’ll talk.
We don’t know much about how the Easter Rabbit came about, but we can be pretty confident that it was originally German. So whatever precursors you may find, you also need to find a link connecting them to early modern Germany. Even more of a problem for the ‘Easter-is-pagan’ mythbusters is that it probably didn’t start out as a rabbit, but as any old critter depending on which part of Germany you’re in.
The earliest appearance of the Easter Rabbit comes from a 1682 discussion of Easter egg traditions in central Germany: Georg Franck von Franckenau (1682: 6) tells us that the eggs were called di Hasen-Eier because of a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children.
Note: some recent internet sources claim an earlier German appearance in 1572. That’s an error. The 1572 claim originates from a March 2016 article in The Conversation. The author, Katie Edwards at Sheffield University, cites no source, and when I asked her for help in tracking it down she didn’t reply. My conclusion is that it was a typo for ‘1682’, the correct date of the Franck von Franckenau reference, with the ‘6’ and the ‘8’ mistyped.
An old study by Charles Billson tries to draw earlier links in England, but the evidence there isn’t nearly as close to the modern tradition: he cites evidence of a tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter in southern and central England going back to 1620 (Billson 1892: 442) and perhaps as early as 1574 (443). Unlike the German situation, though, that custom has no connection to Easter eggs.
The evidence trail ends with Franck von Franckenau. Going back beyond that involves a trolley-trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Jacob Grimm is responsible for the speculation that rabbits might be linked to ‘Ostara’; but it’s just that, a speculation, and a tenuous one at that, given that Ostara herself is conjectural. Some mythbusters like to draw links to rabbit symbolism from antiquity, but that’s just fantasy: there’s a 1400-year gap between ancient testimony on rabbits and Franck von Franckenau’s report, and none of the ancient evidence has anything to do with Germany.
It’s probably a wild goose chase anyway. Different animals appear in the folklore of Easter-egg-delivery in different parts of Germany. The best-known is the Easter Fox, attested in northern Germany into the early 1900s, and the only rabbit alternative to have its own Wikipedia article. However, the Easter Stork is still a regular Easter visitor in Franconia (that is, in Thüringen and northern Bavaria). There are reports of several other birds too: the Easter Cuckoo in Switzerland, the Easter Chicken in the Tirol, and the Easter Rooster in Schleswig-Holstein.
|Note: on the Easter Cuckoo, etc., see Newall 1971: 326–327, with bibliography. I haven’t dug into Newall’s sources, but they don’t fill me with confidence. One of them sounds like an arts and crafts book (it’s called Wir farben Eier, ‘Let’s paint eggs!’); the other two are encyclopaedias, not dedicated studies, and probably don’t cite any sources themselves. There are loads of more recent books with the same claims, but they’re just repeating Newall — usually without citing her.
This strongly implies that the Easter Rabbit’s rabbit-ness wasn’t integral to its role. I’m inclined to conclude that its true ancestor wasn’t a made-up rabbit god, or a conjectural dawn goddess, but rather any smallish animal or bird found in German-speaking lands. We’re looking for an Easter Critter, not an Easter Rabbit. And the search for the Easter Critter’s origin belongs much more to the realm of folklore than to religious history.
Claim #5. Hot cross buns are pagan
No, they just aren’t. Hot cross buns originated in 18th century England. They are Christian in origin. There is no reason to think otherwise, and no remotely sensible reason to suspect any link to any pagan practice. You’d think the fact that they’re marked with a cross, the archetypal Christian symbol, ought to be a bit of a giveaway.
The earliest attestation of them is a well-known rhyme that appears in a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733:
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
Wikipedia reports a half-baked 19th century idea that hot cross buns come from ancient Greece. The source cited is a 1912 issue of The New York Times, but it originally comes from an 1876 book — and even the author of that book doesn’t endorse the idea.
|Note: the NYT and the 1876 book report that the idea was based on linking ‘bun’ to the Greek word boun. Well, it’s true that boun is a Greek word. But it means ‘cow’. Moreover, it’s an oblique form: the proper ‘dictionary form’ is bous. Any student in my 1st-year Greek class would know better, and they’ve only been learning Greek for three weeks. This idea is in turn based on drawing a link between ‘bun’, a word dating to the 13th century, and an obscure explanation of bous found in the ancient grammarian Hesychius, referring to a kind of sacred cake ‘resembling a cow’. That’s a colossal stretch, and if you read the original source for that link, published in 1774, you’ll see that the man who came up with the idea was pretty seriously bonkers: his central idea was that all mythology everywhere in the world was derived from the Hebrew bible. Be that as it may: bous meaning ‘cow’ is super-common, bous meaning ‘cow cake’ is ... not. The OED isn’t confident about the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects it comes from French.
For an idea that has literally not a shred of evidence for it, the ‘ancient Greek hot cross buns’ thing has become weirdly widespread. This snippet appeared in a number of American local newspapers in March-April 1949, and some of its falsehoods still get trotted out now and then:
The ancient Greeks, not Christians, deserve credit for baking the first buns marked with crosses. To the Greeks, the crosses cut in the bread symbolized the four quarters of the moon; and they ate the buns to honor their goddess of nocturnal light. The custom was centuries old when the Christian church adopted it, translating the meaning of the cross into their own terms, and distributing the buns after mass on Easter Sunday.
Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, 24 March 1949, page 19
This is so crammed with falsehoods that it takes longer to point them out than the article does to say them. We have no evidence of ancient Greek buns with crosses; nothing to link those non-existent crosses to the quarters of the moon; nothing to link the non-existent cross buns to any night goddess; the Christian church never ‘adopted’ the custom (hot cross buns have always been solidly commercial); they’re traditionally associated with Good Friday, not Easter Sunday; and they developed in Protestant England, and the Anglican church doesn’t call its services ‘mass’. Holy crazy nutballs, Batman.
When people claim that hot cross buns are ancient, they usually gloss over the ‘cross’ bit — the feature that is the exact point of them. The exception is when people suggest that the cross on the bun is based on the quadrae of Roman loaves. There, at least, there is a visual resemblance.
But quadrae weren’t a religious symbol. They were simply to make the loaf a pull-apart. And, judging from the loaves that turned up in the ruins of Herculaneum, Roman loaves more often had octavae. More importantly, once again there’s nothing to link ancient Roman bread to 18th century England. It relies on ignoring a 1700 year gap in the evidence. So: nuts to the idea of ancient hot cross buns.
|Left: Roman bread with octavae, carbonised in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Right: a modern pull-apart loaf with quadrae. Neither of these is a hot cross bun.
The only halfway sensible candidate for a precursor to the modern hot cross bun is the St Albans bun or Alban bun. St Albans buns have the cross incised, rather than piped. The modern story goes that they were invented by a Hertfordshire monk, Thomas Rocliff or Rocliffe, at St Albans Abbey in 1361.
That isn’t a pagan origin, of course. But I’ve investigated it anyway. Regrettably, the St Albans story doesn’t hold water either.
I’ve been in touch with cathedral staff and a local historian in St Albans, and the earliest evidence anyone had was an 1862 article in a local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser. The St Albans bun does go back a little bit further than that: its earliest appearance is in an advertising flyer for a London baker, dating to 1851.
On the approach of Good Friday, 1851, G. Collier, 66 Wardour Street, Soho, advertised:
... G. Collier then gives the following account of the origin of his buns. On Good Friday, 1361, Thomas Rocliff, a monk of St. Albans Abbey, caused a quantity of small, sweet, spiced cakes to be made and one of these was to be given to each poor person who came to the Abbey on Good Friday, in addition to the usual basin of soup. This so pleased the people that it ultimately grew into a general custom all over the country, but nowhere did they produce such good cakes as the monks of St. Albans, who kept the Recipe of Father Rocliff secret. A curious old work ... well-known to learned Antiquaries, called ‘Ye Boke of St. Albans,’ mentions not only the historical fact but gives, in Latin, the ingredients of the cakes. Having been ‘favoured with a translation of this Recipe,’ G. Collier undertakes to treat the Public to a very superior article called in the aforesaid ancient record ‘panis parvus dulciarius impressum cum signo crucis, a small, sweet cake stamped with the sign of the cross.’ ... (Handbill, dated 1851, in my possession, A. R. W.)Wright 1936: i.70
This flyer is the basis for the 1862 local newspaper piece, and also for an 1859 magazine column written by a German expatriate living in London who visited Collier’s bakery (Anon. 1859: 550). Both of them copy the Thomas Rocliff story from Collier’s flyer closely, with only minor changes.
Collier claims the recipe comes from The Book of St Albans. This is a real book, dating to 1486. But the claim is spurious:
- The Book is in English, not Latin.
- It’s a treatise on hawking, hunting, and heraldry, not a collection of recipes or local anecdotes.
- It doesn’t mention Thomas Rocliff or bun recipes. There’s an interesting collection of medicinal recipes for hawk ailments, but ... somehow that’s just not the same. And, for the record, there are also no references to Rocliff, buns, or crosses marked into food items, in other chronicles of the time that might loosely be called a ‘book of St Albans’ — at least not in Thomas Walsingham’s St Albans Chronicle (ca. 1422) or the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (early 1390s).
- Panis impressum is bad Latin. A 15th century aristocrat, like the author of The Book of St Albans, would know better ... but a 19th century baker spinning a tall tale might not.
The natural conclusion is that Collier invented St Albans buns out of thin air, around 1850, to make his own buns sound a bit special. The mainstream hot cross bun is the real original.
In principle I suppose it’s theoretically possible there’s a unique variant of the Book somewhere that includes a Latin bun recipe among the English hawk medicines. But given that it’s a printed book, not a manuscript with scribal variations; given the lack of any testimony earlier than 1851, and a cluster of sources in the decade after that date; and given the other problems ... well, it’s not looking good.
|66 Wardour St, Soho: the birthplace of the St Albans bun. Any Londoners want to pop into that bar and see if they’re still on sale? Not exactly my kind of scene, but apparently their cocktails are delicious. (source: Google Streetview)
And now I can never ever visit St Albans, for fear of being stoned with St Albans buns. I regret that, as I’ve never visited. Such is life.
By the way, the German expat who tried Collier’s buns in 1859 was distinctly unimpressed:
Ich habe die Kreuzküchlein (Crossbuns) des Verfassers dieser Anzeige versucht, und muß gestehen, sie haben mir keine sondeliche Achtung für die Kochtalente des Bruders Rocliffe eingeflößt.
I have tried the cross buns of the author of this advertisement, and must confess they have not instilled in me any particular respect for Brother Rocliffe’s cooking talent.
Claim #6. Easter eggs are pagan
New Atheists will be glad to hear that there’s at least a plausible case for Easter eggs having a pre-Christian origin. But it’s still just an argument from likelihood, not from any direct evidence. Once again, Grimm suggests a link to Eostre; once again, it’s speculation on top of conjecture. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and/or Greek Orphic mystical thought. Again, though, there’s a huge gap in the evidence: a gap of over 1000 years, and no geographical continuity. They’re very separate places, and very separate times.
Easter eggs in ancient Mesopotamia. This sub-myth comes from a really severe case of mangled misreadings.
The Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red colouring ‘in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion’.
Wikipedia, ‘Easter egg’
The Wikipedia article has lots of citations, but each and every one of them is ultimately derived from a single source: a 1694 book by Thomas Hyde called De ludis orientalibus (‘On eastern games’). Here’s what Hyde says, translated:
Among the Turks this game is called Yumúrda ojúni, that is, ‘egg-play’ or ‘game of eggs’. Among Mesopotamian Christians it is customarily played from Easter time for 40 days. Consequently that time of year, when the game begins and carries on, in the easterners’ calendar is called in Turkish Kizil Yumúrda, and in Persian something that means the same, Beida surch, that is, ‘red-egg’. In the Turkish calendar you will find this period in the month of Adâr or March. For in this period, Christian children buy themselves as many eggs as they can, and make them red in colour, in memory of the blood shed by the crucified Saviour at that time...
This game is not preserved in central England, but seems to be hinted at in the proverbial phrase ‘an Egge at Easter’, and in northern England ‘an Egge at Paese’, that is, ‘an egg at Easter’. For when Easter returns each year, there also returns permission to eat eggs, and this was the reason for the Festival of Eggs. For neither papists nor eastern Christians eat eggs during the 40 days (of Lent), until the Easter festival arrives; and then they begin. This was also once the case at the University of Oxford...Hyde 1694: 237-9
There’s no solid reason to disbelieve Hyde: the phrases are authentic Turkish and Persian, at least — aside from the fact that bydh srkh بيضه سرخ apparently means ‘red testicles’ nowadays, not ‘red egg’. (I can’t answer for whether that’s modern slang based on a more innocent 17th century phrase, though.)
The point is that Hyde is the earliest available evidence for ‘Mesopotamian’ Easter eggs.
The Wikipedia article goes on to mention that Easter eggs were recognised in Catholic liturgy by 1610, and then claims — on the basis of Hyde’s book, 84 years later than that — that Easter eggs made their way from Persia to Greek churches, then Russia, and only then western Europe. The argument is that Easter eggs were thoroughly integrated into western Christian traditions 84 years before anyone connected them to the Near Eastern traditions they supposedly came from!
Steaming. Hot. Nonsense. How did this mix-up happen? I suspect the name ‘Mesopotamia’ is at the root of it: maybe people see it and assume that it automatically means ancient Mesopotamia. It doesn’t. Hyde’s story is about 17th century Christians, not ancient Akkadians, Achaemenid Persians, Parthians, or anything of the kind. The Turkish and Persian egg games he describes are definitely interesting in their own right, but they have no implications for the origins of Easter eggs. Because western Easter eggs go back a lot earlier than Hyde.
Easter eggs and the phoenix. Another effort to find Easter eggs in antiquity relates to early Christian use of the mythical phoenix bird as a paradigm of resurrection. True, resurrection and rebirth must be the idea behind the Easter egg, and are also what the phoenix represented for ancient Christians. But drawing any other link between them is an error.
Phoenix symbolism appears in a number of early Christian texts, starting already in the late 1st century: First Clement 25; Tertullian, On the resurrection of the flesh 13; Origen, Against Celsus 4.98; Cyril, Catechetical lectures 18.8. The phoenix also appears in Christian pictorial art starting in the 3rd century, often perched among palm leaves (Greek phoinix also means ‘palm leaf’). The textual sources cite the phoenix’s resurrection as a model for the resurrection of Jesus’ followers, or of Jesus himself. All nicely symbolic, right?
Just one small problem. The phoenix doesn’t hatch out of an egg. In all these reports, it builds a tomb or a nest for itself, dies there, and starts anew as a worm in the rotting flesh of the old phoenix. No eggs in sight.
So Easter eggs have nothing to do with Christian phoenix symbolism — or if they do, it’s purely conjectural. To get actual testimony on phoenix eggs, you need to go all the way back to Herodotus (Histories 2.73) — and Herodotus is a few centuries too early to have much to say about Christian allegory!
Easter eggs in mediaeval Europe. Actual documentation for Easter eggs goes back to mediaeval Christian sources, with an especially rich crop in the 1200s: see here, under ‘Ovum’. Some of them are formulas used for egg blessings. One French source from 1399 uses ‘Easter eggs’ (Eufs de Pasques) as a proverbial phrase. So we’re looking at a European origin, with the custom developing throughout the 10th to 13th centuries.
Mediaevalist scholars normally conclude that the custom of Easter eggs has its roots in the prohibition of eggs during Lent. Once Lent was finished, nutritious eggs suddenly came back on the menu. They were blessed for the occasion, and so Easter eggs became a thing.
The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
Gougaud 1925: 185
If we’re going to look for early evidence on Easter eggs, it’s probably best to listen to the mediaevalists, because they’re the experts. And because that’s as early as the evidence goes.
The cross-cultural case. The main argument in favour of pagan origins for Easter eggs has always been, and always will be, that egg-decorating is a widespread custom, stretching over many different cultures and many millennia. That gives reasonable grounds to suspect that there is some genuine influence from pre-Christian customs. It’s just that we can’t document that influence.
Does that amount to pagan origins? Well, it can. But it’s a matter of emphasis. If you want, you can emphasise the documented development of the custom in mediaeval Europe; or, if you prefer, you can emphasise the cross-cultural universality of painted eggs.
But that’s a long, long way from saying that Easter eggs are plundered or plagiarised from some particular source.
- Anon. 1859. ‘Correspondenz-Nachrichten. London, Mai.’ Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser 53.23 (5 June 1859) 550-551.
- Billson, C. J. 1892. ‘The Easter hare.’ Folklore 3: 441-466.
- Franck von Franckenau, G. 1682. Satyrae medicae continuatio XVIII, disputatione ordinaria disquirens de ovis paschalibus. Heidelberg: J. Richier.
- Gougaud, L. 1925. ‘Easter eggs.’ Irish monthly 53: 184-186.
- Grimm, J. 1835. Deutsche Mythologie, 1st ed. Göttingen: Dieterichsche Buchhandlung.
- Hyde, T. 1694. De ludis orientalibus vol. 2. Oxford: Theatro Sheldoniano.
- Newall, V. 1971. An egg at Easter: a folkloric study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Wright, A. R. 1936. British calendar customs, 3 vols. London: The Folk-lore Society.