New research indicates that the British of the Iron Age worshipped brown hares and chickens long before the modern Easter festivities.

Hares and Chickens Were Revered as Gods , Not Food, in Ancient Britain
Image by sharkdark from Pixabay 

At Easter, the focus is on rabbits and eggs. However, new archaeological research suggests that brown rabbits and chickens acquired an even higher status in ancient Britain, where they were reared for worship rather than for food.

A team of researchers has discovered carefully buried Iron Age chicken and rabbit bones that show no signs of butchery, Rory Sullivan reports for CNN.

The skeletons confirm further evidence that the animals were worshipped as deities by the British during the Iron Age. As Julius Caesar wrote in the comments of Bello Gallico: "The British considered it against divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. But they raised them for their own pleasure or for their own amusement".

Chickens and hares - not native to the British Isles - were not on the menu until the early Roman period in the first century AD.

"Easter is an important British holiday, but none of its iconic elements has its origins in Britain," Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at Exeter University, said in a statement. "The idea that chickens and rabbits originally had religious associations is not surprising, as cross-cultural studies have shown that exotic things and animals often acquire a supernatural status.

Sykes heads an interdisciplinary team that seeks to explore the origins of Easter traditions and the animal symbols associated with them, according to a blog post by the German Science Council for Social Sciences and Humanities. After discovering the apparently ritualized burials of hares and chickens, the team used radiocarbon dating to investigate their ages.

Analysis of bones from sites in Hampshire and Hertfordshire suggests that brown hares and chickens were introduced into Britain simultaneously between the fifth and third centuries BC. In contrast, the same team reported earlier that the Romans introduced rabbits into Britain in the first or second century AD.

"When new animals arrive in a culture, they are often associated with deities," Sykes told CNN.
Chickens were associated with an Iron Age god similar to Mercury, the Roman god of "merchants and traders, travelers and carriers, as well as thieves and cheats," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Hares, meanwhile, were related to an unknown hare goddess. These religious connotations persisted throughout the Roman occupation of Britain.

"Archaeological evidence shows that as animal populations increased, rabbits were eaten more and more and were even bred as cattle," Sykes said in his explanation. "Instead of being buried individually, the remains of hares and chickens were then disposed of as leftovers.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 AD, the brown chicken and rabbit populations of the region collapsed, with rabbits even disappearing locally. But in the 11th century, the Normans brought rabbits back to Britain as a treat for the upper classes, reports Esther Addley for The Guardian.In the 19th century, rabbits had become commonplace, which may have contributed to the Victorians replacing the Easter Bunny with the rabbit that is still popular today.

Researchers are now trying to trace the chickens' journey from Southeast Asia to ancient Britain, Sykes told CNN. The source of the introduction of the field hare remains unknown, however.

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