Hunting the spurious Eostre Hare

It's that time of year again: daffodils are coming up, the sun is re-establishing itself as a welcome and warming presence instead of some dimly remembered thing of olden time, and people who don't know any better are circulating that bloody story about Eostre's Hare. Again.

I've blogged extensively about Eostre in the past and don't intend to repeat any of that here. The short version: there is only one reference to her anywhere, in Bede; he gives absolutely no information about her except for her name; and everything else that people claim about her, such as having a sacred hare companion, is wholly unsupported by evidence.

This is not even a controversial stance. On the contrary, it is exactly what the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states: 'Nowadays, many writers claim that hares were sacred to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but there is no shred of evidence for this; Bede, the only writer to mention Eostre, does not link her with any animal.'

The interesting question now, to me, is when this spurious association between Eostre and hares arose. It's not in Bede, as we've already established. It's not in Grimm. (EDIT: WRONG, SEE FURTHER EDIT NOTE BELOW.) Adolf Holtzmann, writing in 1874 in German Mythology, states "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara." This is the earliest example of this association I can find, and it is still speculative at this point.

K. A. Oberle, in the catchily titled Überreste germanischen Heidentums im Christentum, oder die Wochentage, Monate und christlichen Feste etymologisch, mythologisch, symbolisch und historisch erklärt (1883), writes "Wahrscheinlich ist der Hase das heilige Tier der Ostara gewesen" (Probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara), echoing Holtzmann.

However, it's worth noting that in 1892, Charles J Billson writing in the the British journal Folk-Lore states flatly that "Oberle also concludes that the hare which lay the particoloured Easter eggs was sacred to the same goddess," ignoring the 'probably' that both Holtzmann and Oberle included.

We find another speculative association in Charles Isaac Elton's Origins of English History (1890), in which it is suggested that certain Easter customs "were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre", the customs in question being those in which "the profits of the land called Harecrop Leys were applied to providing a meal which was thrown on the ground at the 'Hare-pie Bank".

Elton's speculation is still a far cry from the modern assertion that Eostre's sacred beast was the hare, so who first made that assertion? John Lanyard's Lady of the Hare (1944) refers back to Billson, but writes as if the question were more or less settled, rather than being a matter of speculation: 'Since the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare, and the hare so widely symbolizes 'dawn', and as dawn comes from the east, and Easter is the festival of the Resurrection symbolizing the birth of new life, it had occurred to me to wonder whether the actual word "Easter" might have a very simple explanation indeed - so simple that philologists and churchmen alike had missed it - namely that it was cognate to the word "east" as symbolizing the dawn from which new light came.'

By 1976, we have Christina Hole writing in Easter and its Customs: 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.' Any suggestion that this is a speculative association is entirely extinct. Somehow, along the way, supposition has become unexamined fact. I am not aware of any source between John Lanyard and Christina Hole who makes this outright statement, and would welcome any breadcrumbs from readers of this blog who know of one.

So, in summary, here is a very tentative timeline of Eostre's Bunny:

725 CE: Bede mentions Eostre. He does not associate her with hares.
1835 CE: Grim, in Deustche Mythologie, postulates Ostara; he does not associate Eostre with hares. (WRONG - SEE EDIT)
1874 CE: Adolf Holtzmann states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1883 CE: K.A. Oberle also states 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara'.
1890 CE: Charles Isaac Elton states that Easter customs at 'Hare-pie Bank' at 'Harecrop Leys' 'were probably connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre'
1892 CE: Charles J Billson refers to Oberle's association of the hare with Ostara as a conclusion, rather than as a speculation
1944 CE: John Lanyard states that 'the Saxon Easter Goddess does seem to have been connected with the hare'.
1976 CE: Christina Hole states that 'The hare was the sacred beast of Eastre (or Eostre) a Saxon goddess of Spring and of the dawn.'

Please bear in mind that no new evidence arose during this time to change the speculative association into a definite one. The shift from 'probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara' to 'the hare was the sacred beast of Eastre' wasn't based on any archaeological discoveries, collected oral traditions or unearthed documents. It appears to have been based completely upon authors borrowing from other authors, and in so doing, shifting the goalposts of certainty until one person's speculation had become another's unchallenged fact.

Afterword: it's an interesting time in Eostre studies, folks. As you'll know, I have never been inclined to dismiss Eostre herself out of hand, though I am happy to take the axe to the massive amount of unsupported codswallop that is circulated concerning her, such as the bunny story. As far as Eostre herself goes, if she's good enough for Professor Hutton, she's good enough for me. She may have been a real figure of worship, she may not. The jury's still out on that one.

And now Doctor Philip A. Shaw of the University of Leicester has added something entirely new (to me) to the ongoing debate, namely linking Romano-Germanic votive inscriptions to the 'matron Austriahenea' to Eostre. I am therefore going to pick up a copy of his work 'Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons' just as soon as the next pay cheque arrives. Though one does have to facepalm at the sole comment on Amazon: 'It is not surprising that there is little "hard evidence" considering that there was literally a war waged over hundreds of years to stamp out "the old religion."' I imagine Dr Shaw would probably have a few words to say on that, too.

EDIT: This is fascinating stuff. According to Swain Wodening's review of the book, Dr. Shaw believes that Eostre really existed but that she and Hretha were entirely local to Kent! So, the selfsame academic who offers up new evidence for Eostre's existence also limits her to a very small part of south-eastern England. Not a pan-Germanic Goddess at all, then; and in affirming an entirely local Kentish Eostre, Dr. Shaw is effectively demolishing the hypothetical Germanic 'Ostara' proposed by Grimm. Indeed, he suggests that 'the German month names Ostermonat and Redmanot were carried to Germany and France by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and uses this to back his claim that they were local goddesses'! So, the stance is that Christian Anglo-Saxons took those month names over, and (presumably) there is no connection at all to any cognate pagan goddesses in those regions. Well, that certainly jives with Charlemagne renaming the month of April to the old High German Ostarmanot; he would hardly have done so if there were lingering pagan associations.

IMPORTANT EDIT: I done screwed up, folks. Bound to happen one of these days. Holzmann's Deustche Mythologie was simply a reissue of Grimm. So it *was* Grimm who made the initial association between Ostara and hares. I'm going to leave the original with this correction in place rather than edit it out, because I'd rather not pretend to be infallible.

Next Easter Rant: the Pagan Sausage Machine Fallacy

The Tale of the Dancing Man

Originally published at Adrian Bott. You can comment here or there.

Originally published in Ahoy There magazine, Issue 23. Based on the song ‘Jack Dancer’ by The Golden Apple. All musical anachronisms are intentional.


Make yourselves comfortable, lads. It’ll be a good few hours before they give us the signal, and until then we may as well warm ourselves and have a drink or two. One of you keep an eye out of the window and give me a nudge if you see anything unusual out there.

Now, since we’re a merry company at a long table by a goodly fire in a clifftop inn at ten in the evening in the month of November, why, we’d best have a story; and you all know as well as I that the only kind of stories to tell on nights like these are stories of terror.

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Being Lara Croft

When I'm not ranting about Ridley Scott films, frantically redrafting children's stories or acting as the first minister of the newly founded International Church of Space Jesus, I work as a narrative consultant and content writer for videogames. I mention this by way of explaining why I'm about to go off on one about Lara Croft, but not for quite the same reasons as everyone else is going off on one about Lara Croft.

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Jockeying for space

Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobby Gentry's 1967 ballad Ode To Billie Joe derives its ambience both from its tantalising incompleteness, and from the uneasy indifferent stasis that the narrative wanders into at the end. The elements of a mystery are set up, with inferences and implications, but nothing is ever resolved. Any shocking revelation there might have been, any broader meaning a young man's death might have had, is simply allowed to dissipate like flower petals in muddy water. A sultry, implacable indifference reigns over all, and we are left with the impression that only the narrator's private memory retains any value.

'Memory' was the original title for the first half of the story that would become Alien. (Its second working title, Star Beast, was discarded when the word 'alien' leaped out of the page during one of Ronald Shussett's late-night writing sessions, and solved a multitude of problems in a single masterstroke. 'Alien. It's a noun and an adjective.')

Dan O'Bannon's 'Memory' only covered the first half of a movie. The second half, in which the Alien causes bloody havoc on board the Nostromo, was based on another earlier idea about gremlins getting on to a World War II bomber. I don't know it for certain, but it seems to me the chestburster sequence is the exact point of division, splitting the film neatly in two.

The first half, the Memory half, is - to quote Alan Dean Foster's novelisation - 'redolent with alien ghosts and memories'. Reading through an early draft of the Alien script, I'm struck by how much of the text didn't make it into the movie but did make it into the novel, almost verbatim in some cases. And yet, for some reason, the Space Jockey sequence is completely missing from the book.

The 'memory' part of Alien is, like many a good ghost story, cryptic. It presents both the characters and the audience with riddles that are only ever partially deciphered. The 'distress signal' that is partially decrypted, revealing it to be a possible warning; the origin and purpose of the derelict vessel; the unexplained fusion of biological and mechanical forms; and of course the greatest enigma, the identity of the grotesque, curiously pathetic, long dead being that the exploring trio discover in its chair.

As with Billy Jo MacAllister, the only certain fact about the Space Jockey is that it is dead. It is so nakedly, explicitly dead that its deadness seems exaggerated, as if the basic notion of 'skeletal remains' had been overblown into a sort of carnival of ossification, more dead than any previously living thing could ever be. It is hapless, and though grotesque, it is not sinister; in the early draft of Alien, the yet-to-be-Gigerized creature's skull is taken back to the ship and even brought on to the shuttlecraft, where it watches over the final survivor 'like some dead, melancholy pixie'.

The Book of Alien (not a holy text, despite how it sounds, though many of us revere it) comments on the benevolence of the Space Jockey: 'Sitting in repose in its doomed derelict ship, the jockey appears to somehow have been a benign creature. People involved in the film tend to agree on this. But they can't explain why.' This sense of benignity, of possible kinship even, is present in the early Alien draft, in which the character who would later become Ripley says of the dead creature 'I wish it was him we'd met in the first place - things might have turned out different.'

The composite figure of the Space Jockey provides us with too many disparate points of information to triangulate into an easily resolved answer. Confronted with this, our instinct to imagine the possible confluence of events that led to this macabre relic goes strangely awry, like the effect of plunging one hand into a basin of hot water and the other into cold. We can see that, as Dallas exclaims, it looks like it's grown out of the chair, but we cannot visualise how that could have happened. The chair itself is part of some kind of colossal device, presumably important to the ship, but we can't reconcile its form with any guessable function. We can see the Jockey's empty-eyed hose-nosed face with stark clarity, but can't easily imagine the living creature. The Jockey is like an Escher picture in that respect, presenting an architecturally impossible image that cannot exist except as artwork, except as a finished, static thing.

I can't help thinking that the elephant-like Space Jockey taps into childhood sentiments. Elephants never forget; elephants are wise, ancestral, tragic; elephants are primal. And, of course, elephants are giants.

The crew of the Nostromo don't say it, but we think it: the dead alien on board the derelict is huge, and more humanoid than not. This resonates on a mythic level; the whole 'there were giants in the earth in those days' bit. Humanity is saturated with legends of ancient gigantic beings who towered above us and whose fragmented wisdom lives on only in the ill-understood relics they left behind. Seen in that light, the Space Jockey is the same breed of entity as the Titans, the Nephilim, the Fomorians, the builders of the Giants' Causeway.

Giant alien bones in a derelict ship, evidence of ancient civilizations not our own. Before they appeared in Alien, they appeared in the 1965 film Planet of the Vampires. The parallels have been denied, but they're hauntingly apparent. See the following clip, from 6.55 onwards:

The screenwriters of Alien claimed they had never seen Planet of the Vampires. Call me naive, but I tend to believe them. There's some organic sarcophagus deep in our brains where the Space Jockey and his ilk eternal lie - and I don't mean that in some fatuously literal Von Daniken sense, just that when humans make myths, they unconsciously veer in prescribed directions. Giant, monstrous; almost-human bones; fragmentary messages from the past; ruins, relics, images too saturated with meaning for us to understand them. We know these things.

The enigma of Billy Joe MacAllister's suicide eventually, perhaps inevitably, resulted in a movie. It explained every detail, exhaustively but not, one might say, canonically. Bobby Gentry didn't ever say 'Yup, well done, you solved it'. It was an answer given because there was money in giving an answer, and because doing so scratched the maddening itch of the unresolved.

Ridley Scott's Prometheus is now showing at a cinema near me. I am given to understand it offers answers, of a sort, to the enigma of the Space Jockey. I'm going to see it, of course; but I can't help thinking that any definitive answer as to his origins would rather diminish that gnomic icon of long-decayed intelligence. It is the sinister implication of the alien remains that we take away from the scene, and implications do not gain power by being reduced to explanations.

The xenomorph is Alien; the Space Jockey, I like to think, is Memory.

And for me, no prequel or spinoff or supplementary feature could ever tackle the strangest riddle of the Jockey: its seeming serenity. It seems to me not only benign, in the utterly inhuman way that the eye of a blue whale is benign, but indifferent to its fate. There is no sign of a struggle. Its arms lie neatly by its side. Its trunk lies down the dead centre of its chest.

And I think there is a very slight suggestion of amusement in its hollow eyes. Like the dead child in 'The Inquest', by William Henry Davies, the victim seems to smile at our unease and bafflement:

For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
'What caused my death you'll never know -
Perhaps my mother murdered me.'