Long before the festival of Ostara was “repurposed” as Easter by the early Christian church, even long before the Goddess Eostre was celebrated by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, a different Hare Goddess was honored by some very spiritual people every coming Spring. These people were the ancient Egyptians. As for the Hare Goddess, her name was Wenet; the Swift One.
The Egyptian cosmology
What we now call “ancient Egyptian religion” is probably one of the most complex polytheistic religions of antiquity. But for the people who actually lived along the river Nile and flourished for 3,000 years before becoming a part of the ever-growing Roman empire in 30 BCE, religion was an integral part of their culture and daily life. The Egyptians, as the Sumerians and (to a lesser extent) the ancient Greeks, considered every aspect of life to be an aspect of the Divine. And for that purpose, they honored an elaborate, sophisticated and ever changing pantheon that consisted of about 2,000 deities. All these gods and goddesses were perceived as different manifestations (or parts) of the same, ultimate Divine Being; each with a different role to play in the universe and a different area of “expertise” in the physical world. And so, when it came to worship and everyday life, each god and goddess was important and sacred in his/her own way.
Now, you may have seen several depictions of Egyptian deities in animal form — or as human bodies with animal heads. This was not meant to be literal! The true nature of gods and goddesses was considered mysterious and abstract: their form, as described in sacred texts and depicted in hieroglyphics and statues, is considered to be a symbolic representation of their nature. So why were so many of them depicted as animals? Because the Egyptians studied animal behavior extensively, as they believed that every creature, no matter how small, had some correspondence with a god or a goddess.
Which brings us to the humble hare — and the Hare Goddess Wenet.
The Hare Goddess Wenet
Although less well known to us today than other Egyptian deities (like Isis or even Bastet), Wenet is actually of the oldest Goddesses of ancient Egypt, with a very rich history of worship.
Some of her earliest depictions can be found in Hermopolis, or Khemenu as the Egyptians themselves would call it. Khemenu was a hotbed of religion, knowledge and culture for the ancient Egyptians. It was in Khemenu that the first seeds of the ceremonial magic known as Hermetic tradition, a tradition that would play a big part in the revival of occultism in 18th century Europe (with the creation of secret societies like Golden Dawn and religions like Aleister Crowley’s Thelema — and eventually inspiring the founder of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardner) first evolved into a system.
Khemenu was the center of worship for Thoth, the wise God of writing, science and magic who helped the dead. There, an Ogdoad started forming: a group of eight gods and goddesses in perfect balance, that were considered more primal and principle than the many other deities the Egyptians worshipped, with Thoth at the epicenter. Next to Thoth, who was traditionally depicted as a man with an ibis or baboon head (both sacred animals to him) was the Hare goddess Wenet. In later years, Wenet was part of the cult of Horus and Ra.
So, who was Wenet? The form of the Hare goddess has been depicted in sacred texts and hieroglyphics in many different ways: she appears as a woman with the head of a hare; a woman with a human head, on top of which a hare is perched; a serpent with the head of a hare (serpents in general were used to showcase female deities, but as we’ll see later this depiction has a particular importance for Wenet) and, in some cases, just a hare with no human characteristics at all. She is very often seen as a messenger of Thoth and frequently depicted “greeting the Dawn”.
The Hare Goddess, also known as Wenut or Unut, was a protective goddess known as “the Swift one”. Like Ostara, she was celebrated in spring time. But Wenet’s nature was also lunar (connected to the moon). She was associated with the Underworld, very often depicted together with her male counterpart, the Hare God Wenenu — who was considered to be another version of Osiris or Ra.
If you’re wondering how important the Hare Goddess was to the ancient Egyptians among their 2,000-strong pantheon, all you need to do is take a look at geography; particularly at the city of Khemenu and where it was located. Egypt was divided in 22 districts, or Nomes as they were called. Each Nome had a patron or matron deity that was either primarily worshipped and had the most temples in the area, or was the protector of the area. Despite the fact that Thoth was the most prominent God in Khemenu, the area didn’t take his name. Instead, the whole Nome of Khemenu was the Nome of Wenet; the District of the Hare. Not bad for the timid hare…
Divine qualities of the Hare
Although ancient historians like Plutarch call the hare’s speed and vigilance “divine”, the truth is that hares in Egypt were venerated for much more than just their impressive speed and survival skills. We already mentioned that Wenet was also considered a lunar Goddess: that’s because the dark patches of the moon (what we now understand to be volcanic planes but early astronomers call “seas”) thought by ancient Egyptians to be created by hares, as they jumped from one place to the other.
Because of the animal’s easily observable promiscuity (our ancestors would be quick to observe how often the hares mated and how many offspring they produced!) the Hare is connected to the Life Force and considered an agent of renewal. And, as it is obvious in the myth of Persephone and so many other deities connected to Spring Time and the Vernal Equinox, renewal requires sacrifice. Wenet’s male counterpart, Osiris or Wenenu, was sacrificed to the Nile every year to bring forth the flooding of the river (which would in turn bring new life to the land and the crops). Perhaps for that same purpose, hare figurines in honor of Wenet and Wenenu were very often found in tombs.
Another interesting thing about the Hare who became the symbol of the Goddess Wenet, is that its name is also a phonetic sign in the hieroglyphic writing system the ancient Egyptians used. This sign is “Wn”, depicting a hare over a ripple of water; a symbol of the very essence of life. Not surprisingly, the hare was thought to have regenerative powers. Wenet was very often worshipped by women wearing amulets with her form — and these amulets were meant to bestow fertility and protection, both in life and in death.
The Hare and the Snake
Ancient Egyptian religion had more than 3,000 years to evolve. It’s no wonder then, that Egyptian deities went through many metamorphoses during the millennia. (Just think how different Christianity is now compared to 2,000 years ago.) One such metamorphosis was of the Hare Goddess Wenet. Historians and archaeologists believe that the first form of Wenet was that of a Snake Goddess — and that her moniker, “the Swift one” relates to her serpentine qualities.
Perhaps our modern brains may have a hard time understanding how a Hare Goddess can also be a Snake Goddess. After all, snakes and hares are not exactly fast friends! But we need to understand the symbolic nature of it: hares represent life, renewal; snakes represent healing and the wisdom of the Underworld. And we’ve already seen how the gods and goddesses of Egypt existed in many different manifestations: to an ancient Egyptian, the fact that Wenet was sometimes depicted as a snake with the head of a hare would make perfect sense.
Snake or hare (or both), Wenet was a Guardian of the Underworld. She has been called “the Lady of the Hour” and is mentioned in the Book of the Dead (that was found in Khemenu) in a hymn to Ra. In the hymn, Wenet is perched upon Ra’s head to maximize his reach and guidance to the world of the dead.
As we understand it today, ancient Egyptians were very concerned with matters of the afterlife. Their famous pyramids, apart from impressive burial mounts for Pharaohs, are also thought to be resurrection chambers; their conical shape drawing power from the Earth and connecting to the sky. A perfect dance of opposite forces; of life and death, the pyramids were filled with figurines and votives thought to help the souls of the departed (or their ka) stay nourished in the afterlife. The fact that many hare figurines and amulets of Wenet have been found in such tombs, speaks to the very important part the Hare and the Snake played in the circle of Life and Renewal.