Sunday 17 November 2019

Country Matters: Hare's eggs in an Easter nest

THE STAG OF THE CABBAGES: Lepus timidus, the Irish hare
THE STAG OF THE CABBAGES: Lepus timidus, the Irish hare

Joe Kennedy

The stag of the cabbages, the cropper of herbage, images from Hoffman's Atlas, the Common Hare.

Today's Easter Bunny, morphed into soft fabric or hollow chocolate filled with sweet surprises, is cast in its image. There is a story of a creature favoured by the gods, or, rather, a particular goddess.

The Venerable Bede, a British holy man, suggested that the name of the Christian festival of Easter was adapted from that of an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre, sometimes spelled as Ostara or Ushas, the Sanskrit for Dawn. April was called "Eosture month" or Dawn month with brightness breaking.

In parts of Germany, altars, called Easter stones, and dedicated to Ostara, may be seen. Up to the middle of the 19th Century, young people used to dance about them in bonfire light. The Church was not pleased at such pagan practices.

Eostre's or Ostara's favourite creature was the hare (Lepus timidus), her lights as the goddess of dawn being carried by the animals. The leaping hare, of the moon, dawn and Easter, represented love, fertility and growth.

In Ireland, there was no link with "an giorra" and Eastertide, apart from, in modern times, the cuddly toy - which was a rabbit and probably from America. Yet, a couple of years back I stopped for a second look at a Dublin shop's Easter window display. It was certainly unlike the usual jumble of eggs and glitter. There were wood-carved toy bunny-hares (German-made, I later learned), some holding coloured eggs, among faux hay, twig nests and birds. There was a northern European cast about it all, the seasonal marking of spring fertility at the vernal equinox.

The eggs and nests are from associating the hare with ground-nesting birds such as the lapwing and plover - both species now sadly endangered - which lie near the grassy 'forms' where young hares, or leverets, crouch waiting for their mother's return at nightfall. (Unlike rabbits, hares have no burrow protection from predators).

The hare 'forms' and bird nests are similar - or were in times past - and so the folklore of a hare's nest with eggs evolved. Easter tradition in this country certainly includes eggs but not hares. There was once strict fasting and abstinence from meat during Lent, and so eggs, and fish, usually comprised ingredients for the main meal of the day apart from Sunday.

Closer to Easter, eggs used be 'saved' in rural homes for children planning 'feasts' and egg-rolling contests. The eggs were hard-boiled and decorated, and considerable quantities were afterwards consumed, a practice enthusiastically continued when chocolate arrived on the market! But eating 'real' eggs at Easter did not completely lose favour. In my poultry-keeping days of yore, a family asked every year for fresh eggs on Good Friday, on which they marked crosses and ate on Easter Sunday. Today's Easter, apart from religious ceremonial and a tradition of new clothes, is a time for roast lamb and, later, some exotic chocolate, especially those moulded bunnies.

The real hare, meanwhile, sits peacefully in its 'form', never having been part of the Irish festive celebrations.

Sunday Independent

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