Located at the feet of Orion and running from Canis Major (the great dog) is Lepus the hare. The constellation consists of faint stars and has been defined as many different objects over time. The Arabs saw it as a thirsty camel bending down to drink from the Milky Way. The Egyptians claimed it as Osiris’ boat and the Chinese called it The Shed.
The Hare was well established in the sky by the time of the Greek poet Aratus (3rd century B.C.E.), yet its position and its actual presence among the constellations has raised questions from the Greeks to this very day. For Lepus the hare is an ancient constellation, not a modern addition like the house fly Mucas placed in the sky by Johann Bayer in the 17th century. So why would a timid insignificant creature such as a hare be honoured in the sky and why placed at the feet of the mightiest of hunters (Orion) with his hounds chasing such a unworthy prey?
The Hare seems to be symbolic of far more than just a timid creature.
In Egyptian mythology a sacred hare is associated with both the sun god Ra and the moon god Toth and its role was to guard or collect and/or deliver the sacred egg of life. Additionally, the hare was often depicted by the Egyptians as greeting the dawn, thus paying homage to the sun god Ra who himself was believed to be born of a great egg.
This loyal servant and priest of Ra, the hare, thus being faithful to his task of sun-watching and fast-footed, became a messenger between the sun god Ra and the moon god Thoth.
Adding to its sacred place the hare was also associated with Osiris who was sometimes portrayed with a hare’s head. Osiris was sacrificed to the Nile each year (possibly in March or April, a few months before the flood) in the form of a hare to guarantee the annual flooding upon which the Egyptian agriculture (and indeed their entire society) depended.
[Left – From the coffin of Bakenmut, divine father of Amum. Thebes 21st dynasty. (British museum)]
This is reflected in the hieroglyph ‘Wn’ which is the word for the very essence of life, depicted as a hare on top of a single blue-green ripple which means ‘to exist’.
This link between hares, eggs and the moon is also in Hindu mythology where the moon is named Cacin or Sasanka which means Marked with the Hare.
In recent times it is generally agreed that the placement of the hare next to Orion is representative of the union between the sun and the moon (Jobes:199). Such a union would involved the dawn-watching-hare receiving the light of the sun just as the moon “watches” the sun to produces the lunar phases, seen as the rhythm of life and fertility.
Of course this symbolism is still with us today. The Christian world celebrates its only lunar festival of the year at Easter, the death and resurrection of Christ, which echoes the Egyptian sacred time of the death of Osiris with his hare ears to ensure the rebirth of the Nile.
We still have the hare symbolism at this sacred time of Easter but not really knowing what to do with it we have turned it into a Disney-like rabbit that brings children eggs. Indeed not wanting to lose our hare, we have morphed it into characters deeply embedded in our literature but always as one who challenges the domination of the solar order.
Even the idea of decorating eggs is much older than Christian Easter, for the ancient Persians also painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration falling on the Spring Equinox.
So as you munch away on a chocolate egg this Easter, take a moment to think about its history, the lunar symbolism and dead gods with hare ears, and if you have time, take a look at the western night sky in the early evening and you just might see the Easter Bunny as he/she slips below the western horizon to go into the underworld and find more of those precious eggs.
Jobes, Gertude and James. (1964). Outer Space: Myths Name Meanings Calendars. London. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.