So, as an aperitif of sorts, something a little different. I'd like to cite, once again, the magnificent prologue to The English Year by Steve Roud:
'The real danger is from a far more virulent virus - the idea that all customs, indeed all superstitions, nursery rhymes, and anything that smacks of 'folkiness', are direct survivals of ancient pagan fertility rites, and are concerned with the appeasement of gods and spirits. Although the suggestion of an ancient origin for our folklore was the central tenet of the Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of folklore collection, this notion has only become generally known in the last forty years or so, and has taken hold with astonishing rapidity; the majority of the population now carry the virus in one form or another, while some are very badly infected. The problem here is not simply that these theories are unsupported by any evidence, but that their blanket similarity destroys any individuality. All customs will soon end up with the same story.'
That last line is so chilling, isn't it? 'All customs will soon end up with the same story'. And that's exactly what we are seeing.
Please consider how many of the neopagan 'explanations' for modern customs refer to the most entrenched, corporate-enshrined, iconic versions of those customs. In an age of instant mass communication, the holiday traditions and the characters associated with them have become standardised. Regional variation steadily vanishes. So, when neopagan 'explanations' of The Easter Bunny or Santa appear, they often sound like probes into the secrets of well-known celebrities. The modern icons have become monolithic.
No surprise, then, that the neopagan Easter Bunny origin stories are equally monolithic, attempting as they do to appropriate a standardized, ubiquitous, iconic rabbit by means of a standardized line about a Goddess and her sacred hare. We thus arrive at a notion of Paganism which, in responding to globalised imagery, has become equally timeless, placeless and divorced from actual practice. The Eostre business becomes 'the story', regardless of what your inherited traditions may be, how they may have changed over the years, or what regional nuances may have shaped them. It is both ironic and tragic that pagan religion, which placed so much emphasis on the local, should now have been reimagined as Paganism (TM) in all its amorphous boundary-crossing homogenity.
This relentless standardization and homogenization of our common pagan past, with its wilful blindness to any research that does not serve the grim purpose of appropriation, drowns out many exciting and fascinating aspects of folklore that are much more deserving of our attention. It's as if a historical site of immense significance had been buried under a huge concrete bunny with a neon pentagram stuck on top.
Take, for example, the Osterfuchs - the Easter Fox.
You could be forgiven for not even having heard of the Easter Fox, and yet it's described as an older Germanic tradition than the Easter Bunny. In some places, it was supposedly more popular. A translation of some Easter Fox information by Arkady Rose:
Until the mid-20th Century, according to older literature, it was mainly the Easter Fox who was responsible for the eggs in the Easter tradition. Gradually this was then displaced by the Easter Bunny. A note of 1904 from the Schaumburg area states quite specifically that the eggs were laid not from the Easter Bunny, but the Easter fox.
Traditionally, on Holy Saturday the children would prepare a cozy nest of hay and moss for the Easter Fox. They also made sure that the Easter fox was not disturbed during his visit - for example by shutting up pets for the night.
Furthermore, the Easter Fox was described in a Westphalian document of 1910. Interestingly, the tradition seemed at the time to have been in a transition period to the Easter Bunny. Thus we read in Scripture that "... it would look as though the Fox might return before the hare. "
Where the Easter fox comes into the story, we can only surmise today. It was considered early on that it is based on the Pentecostal fox. This is an old custom in which people at Pentecost went with a pet fox from house to house to collect donations. Other descriptions suggest the Easter fox harks back to the tradition of Christmas Gebildbrot pastries.
You won't see any neopagan interpretations of the Easter Fox, or any suggestion that Eostre's sacred animals were a fox and a rabbit. That's because fakelore interpretations only concern themselves with imagery that it is assumed you already know. You continually see attempts to appropriate Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because everyone is familiar with them. It never seems to occur to anyone that these traditional figures were not always so standardized or internationally accepted, even in the English-speaking world.
In the Easter Fox, however, there is a sniff - possibly no more than a sniff - of a tradition that may be genuinely old, forgotten and occluded. Personally, I find that wonderful.
Next Easter Rant: On what we mean when we say 'pagan fertility symbols'