Curious Reverence of the Chicken and the Hare by Iron Age Brits
New archaeological research demonstrates brown hares and chickens held godly status in Iron Age Britain.
We invite you to tumble down the rabbit hole and learn about a new archaeological analysis from a team of archaeologists from the universities of Leicester, Oxford, and Exeter, led by Professor Naomi Sykes, Lawrence Professor of Archaeology at the later institution.
The team of academic researchers set out to investigate the origins of Easter traditions in Britain. They discovered chickens and hares were “buried with great care” during the Iron Age, between 750 BC to 43 AD, suggesting the two species were revered with godlike status.
Previous research by the same team of scientists determined that the first rabbits were not introduced to Britain by the Normans, as was previously thought, but by the Romans when they invaded in the 1st century AD. Both species were farmed as food during the Roman occupation of Britain and after their withdrawal in 410 AD chicken and brown hare populations decreased for half a century until they were reintroduced to Britain as an “elite food” by the Normans in the 11 th century.
Worshipping the Chickens and Hares of Heaven
Historical evidence suggests Britons considered chickens and hares “as too special to eat” and in the researchers post on the Arts and Humanities Research Council website, team leader Professor Naomi Sykes points to Emperor Julius Caesar ’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, Commentarii de Bello Gallico. This text says Britons considered it “contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure”.
Historians know Roman records were often works of propaganda and as such their accounts always require a sizable pinch of salt, but in this instance the researchers established the account to be factual, noting previous archaeological excavation reports that detail chickens and hares having been “carefully buried without being butchered”. Furthermore, the team radiocarbon dated hare and chicken skeletons from a number of archaeological sites in Hampshire and Herefordshire showing that these two animals were introduced to Britain between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.
The earliest chicken and hare specimens were complete skeletons showing no traces of butchery. (Naomi Sykes)
The Church Associated Hares with Homosexuality and Lust
According to Simon Carnell’s 2010 book Hare, in ancient Egypt a hieroglyph of a hare signified “existence itself” and in ancient Greece the animals were associated with the gods Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Artemis as well as with satyrs and cupids.
Egyptian hieroglyph of a hare, which symbolized life. (Dudubot / CC BY-SA 2.0)
All across pre-Roman Europe these two animals were symbols of sexual virility and fertility (spring and eggs) until the Christian Church connected the hare with the persecution of the church because of the way it was hunted. The Church also associated the animal with the sins of lustfulness and homosexuality.
Professor Sykes said, “Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain” and that exotic objects and animals were often given supernatural status. She adds that historical accounts suggest chickens were associated with an Iron Age god worshiped similar to the Roman messenger deity Mercury and that hares were linked with an unknown female hare goddess. The cross-disciplinary academic team also determined that as human population increased the animals were eaten and hares were farmed as livestock, and having fallen from grace, the two animals were disposed of as food waste.
The Chickens Strike Back
Chicken populations, however, slowly increased across Britain and many historians think this occurred because of the 10 th and 11 th century application of the 6 th century Saint Benedict’s words which forbade the eating of “meat of four-footed animals” during fasting periods such as Lent, making chickens and eggs the most popular fasting day foods.
- The Very Strange History of the Easter Bunny
- Ancient British Bake Off? Cauldrons Fit for Feasting Found at Iron Age Settlement
- The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter
The eating of chickens and eggs became popular during Lent in the 10 th and 11 th centuries. (Alison Burrell / Public Domain)
Archaeological evidence show rabbits were reintroduced to Britain as an elite food at the beginning of the 13 th century AD and that their numbers had boomed by the 19 th century contributing to their replacement of the hare as the Easter Bunny, when the Easter festival's traditions were realigned by Victorians.
A 2017 World History article explains how a large variety of modern Easter traditions were created in the Victorian period, for example, sending Easter cards, after a late 18 th century publisher added an Easter greeting to a drawing of a bunny on writing stationery. The bulb of a lily grows, blooms, dies, and grows again the following year, so it naturally became a popular Victorian symbol for life after death, and although tulips, daffodils, and narcissus share the same reproductive cycle the lily’s large white blossom was the most obvious symbol of Jesus’ resurrection.
A 1907 postcard featuring the Easter Bunny, a representation of the replacement of the hare by the rabbit as a traditional Easter animal. (Ras67 / Public Domain)
Children were especially excited on Easter morning for not only would the day see egg rolling contests and Easter egg hunts, but they all wondered what the Easter bunny might have left in their Easter baskets, rivaling the excitement generated by Santa’s impending arrival on Christmas Day.
Top image: Hares and chickens were revered during the Iron Age. Source: Uros Petrovic / Adobe Stock.
By Ashley Cowie