The Easter Hare

The hare, call him scotart,
big-fellow, bouchart,
the O'Hare, the jumper,
the rascal, the racer....'

 From 'The Names of the Hare' Anonymous Middle English poem (trans Seamus Heaney)

During the month of April, probably at the full moon, the Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the fifth century celebrated the feast of the goddess they called ‘Eostre’.  Writing about three hundred years later the monk Bede related how this spring goddess gave her name to the month of ‘Ēosturmōnaþ’ – ‘Eostre’s month’. We know very little about her, but this is what Bede says:

‘Ēosturmōnaþ’ has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.’

German sources refer to the goddess as ‘Ostara’ and associate her with both the spring and the dawn. It all seems very likely to me; the goddess of the dawn is celebrated at the beginning of the growing season, the sun is higher in the sky, birds are pairing up and the world is waking up after the dark months of winter. 

The attendant spirit of Eostre was the hare and I just love hares. I’m ashamed to say that I also used to cook them, but I haven’t done so for years and now I’m not sure I could. Julius Caesar says that Celtic people had a taboo on eating hares and even now many country people won’t use them for food.

I’ve been reading a book by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson called ‘The Leaping Hare’. It contains everything you ever needed to know about hares - their peculiar March dancing and boxing habits, the way they chase aeroplanes, their association with fire, the clever ways they protect their young. What struck me very forcibly though, is that Evans and Thomson tell us that hares have been with us since the dawn of time and that hare myths exist in almost every culture from Buddhism to Hottentot.

 I took the photo of this leaping hare with chasing hound in the Roman baths in Bath.

Hares appear in the art of ancient Egypt and the hieroglyph for ‘to exist’ shows a seated hare over a ripple of water. They are a symbol of fecundity and sexiness, so if you ever see one in the corner of a painting it’s trying to tell you something, and they are associated strongly with the moon - the Saxon moon god had hare’s ears. In the several of the ancient churches on Dartmoor are mysterious mediaeval carvings  showing three hares chasing each other in a circle and this symbol has been traced back in time to the Dark Ages and right through Europe to the Silk Road and China. Hares are everywhere and always have been.

People used to think hares laid eggs because they often bear their young in the same fields as lapwings' nests and in Germany it is the Easter hare that lays the Easter eggs. To celebrate the Easter season Germans hang decorated hens eggs from the bushes in their gardens, like this:

At some point the beautiful, sexy, wild and fleet footed hare was cruelly transmuted into the fluffy, dull but safe Easter bunny, and the myth that hares laid eggs gave rise to the chocolate delight that is the Easter Egg.

Here's a delicious cake for Easter Day tea.

First make the stencil. I used a hare shaped biscuit cutter and the back of a cereal packet. You can also download free stencils from the internet. Cut the card the same diameter as the cake. Place your shapes centrally on the card and cut out carefully.

Eostre's Chocolate Cake

225g each of softened butter, sugar and SR flour
4 eggs
2 tablespoons cocoa and a teaspoon instant coffee
5 tablespoons boiling water
2 teaspoons baking powder

Icing sugar and sugar coated chocolate eggs.

Oven 180c. Two sandwich cake tins.

Grease the tins and line the bottoms with baking parchment

In a mixer or with an electric beater beat the sugar and butter together until white and fluffy. Mix the cocoa, coffee and hot water together.  Beat the eggs. Add the eggs, flour, BP and cocoa paste to the mixture all at once and mix well. Pout the batter into your two tins and bake for 20 minutes. Check they are springy on the top and remove. Do not over cook.

When the cakes are cool turn one cake over so the flat bottom becomes the top and sandwich the cakes together with chocolate butter icing or ganache.

Dust the top with cocoa and hold the stencil over the cake. Do not let it touch the cocoa. Hold steady and then sprinkle icing sugar over the shape like they do in coffee shops with your cappuchino. Place the eggs on the cake.

Only one other note - I considered using small chocolate eggs without sugar coating. Do not do this, otherwise it looks like something the hare might have produced that is not an egg.

'The timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lanes road to dust and dance and play
The dabble in the grain by nought deterred
To lick the dewfall from the barley's beard...'

From 'Hares at Play' by John Clare

PS. After I originally wrote this I was telling my sister about it and she told me about a moonlit night when she was driving home across the Yorkshire Wolds. Her lights caught the eyes of hares in a field and she stopped the car. Very quietly she approached and the field was full of hares, she thinks about a hundred all told, they were dancing and boxing and having a wonderful time. The sort of thing one dreams of seeing and only a few of us ever have the privilege.

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