Hares and Chickens Were Revered as Gods—Not Food—in Ancient Britain

New research indicates that Iron Age Britons venerated brown hares and chickens long before modern Easter celebrations

Hare
A team of researchers has discovered carefully buried Iron Age chicken and hare bones that show no signs of butchery. Arterra / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On Easter, bunnies and eggs tend to take center stage. But new archaeological research suggests that brown hares and chickens attained an even more exalted status in ancient Britain, where they were raised not for food, but for worship.

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

The skeletons corroborate other evidence indicating the animals were revered as deities by Iron Age Britons. As Julius Caesar wrote in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, “The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”

Chickens and hares—neither of which are native to the British Isles—weren’t on the menu until the Roman period began during the first century A.D.

“Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain,” says Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, in a statement. “The idea that chickens and hares initially had religious associations is not surprising as cross-cultural studies have shown that exotic things and animals are often given supernatural status.”

Sykes leads an interdisciplinary team seeking to investigate the origins of Easter traditions, as well as the animal symbols that have become associated with them, per a blog post published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. After discovering the apparently ritualized burials of the hares and chickens, the team probed their age using radiocarbon dating.

The analysis of the bones, excavated from sites in Hampshire and Hertfordshire, suggests that brown hares and chickens were introduced to Britain simultaneously between the fifth and third centuries B.C. By contrast, the same team previously reported that the Romans brought rabbits to Britain during the first or second century A.D.

“When new animals arrive into a culture, they are often linked with deities,” Sykes tells CNN.

Chickens were associated with an Iron Age god similar to Mercury, the Roman god of “shopkeepers and merchants, travelers and transporters of goods, and thieves and tricksters,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Hares, meanwhile, were tied to an unknown hare goddess. These religious connotations lasted throughout the Roman occupation of Britain.

“[A]rchaeological evidence shows that as [the animals’] populations increased, they were increasingly eaten, and hares were even farmed as livestock,” says Sykes in the statement. “Rather than being buried as individuals, hare and chicken remains were then disposed of as food waste.”

When the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 A.D., the region’s chicken and brown hare populations crashed, with rabbits even becoming locally extinct. But during the 11th century, the Normans brought rabbits back to Britain as a delicacy for the upper classes, reports Esther Addley for the Guardian. By the 19th century, rabbits had become commonplace—a fact that may have contributed to the Victorians’ replacement of the Easter hare with the bunny still popular today.

The researchers are now trying to retrace the path of how chickens, which are native to Southeast Asia, made their way to ancient Britain, Sykes tells CNN. The source of the brown hare’s introduction, however, remains unknown.