The Hare

  Gea`rr, the hare

The Tradition of the Hare

"Keen eyed her hares and hounds,

Blackberries and fruit of the dark blackthorn

Weaving their wall in the woods"

  From "Arran of the many deer" Irish 12th century.


The hare's habits of foraging and mating at night mean that human observation of its behavior has until recently been severely limited.  People once believed that hares changes gender annually, and that their frantic racing around and their peculiar boxing matches were confined to the month of March - hence the term "Mad March Hares".  But we know that this mating behavior takes place throughout the breeding season: before March it happens unseen before dawn, in March the days grow longer and they can be observed, but later in the spring the vegetation grows and their "madness" is again unnoticed by humans.

When her daughters were disinherited by the local governor, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni in eastern Britain led a revolt against the Romans which succeeded in destroying their power.  The classical writer Dion described how she used a hare to divine the outcome of her first battle: "When she had finished speaking to her people, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress: and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Boadicea raising her hand toward the heaven, said. I thank thee, Andraste {goddess of battle and victory}... I supplicate and pray thee for victory."

In the old days hares were animals sacred to the Goddess - they brought luck, fertility, transformation, and healing.  But as with other sacred animals, such as the cat and snake, Christianity degraded and inverted their symbolism.  The close association between cats and hares is seen in their both having the nicknames of "pussy" and "malkin" and in medieval times it was commonly believed that witches could shape-shift or skin-turn into hares - to go milking in the night, or travel over great distances.  it was possible that the "Hare's Parliament," in which hares sit in rings, reminded observers of the witches' circle, with each member in the ring being in reality a witch who had disguised herself as a hare.

A hare's foot was often carried as a protection against rheumatism, or by an actor to help with shape-shifting into the role, but in Scotland if a hare's foot was discovered on a fisherman's boat it was considered a curse, and the word "hare" was never to be spoken at sea.  Similarly, seeing a hare crossing one's path when setting out on a journey was considered unlucky.  It was also believed that the "machinations of the fairies" produced hare lips, or that in pregnancy the mother had accidentally startled a hare.


Rebirth, Resurrection and the Corn Spirit

As the bearers of good fortune, and as animals sacred to the Goddess, hares, or figurines of them, have been found buried in ritual pits.  As a grave companion the hare is ideal, for it symbolizes the power of the Goddess to bring rebirth and immortality.  This power is often represented in the Corn Spirit, who embodies the magical ability of the life sustaining crops to die in the fall only to be reborn in the spring.  The pagan underpinnings of Christianity become abundantly obvious at Albon Eiler, the Spring Equinox.  

Here the hare is the original "Easter Bunny" - the word Easter being derived from the Saxon goddess Eostre, to whom the hare was sacred.  Hares sleep outdoors in forms which look remarkably like lap-wing nests, and in the spring when nests are filled with eggs, it seemed that hares made them magically appear - they were the gifts of the Sacred Hare.  As goddess, the hare has brought new life - rebirth - at the Equinox.  The Christianized version becomes the moon-determined time of Easter, when the appearance of "bunnies" and chocolate or painted eggs marks the resurrection of Christ.

The hare appears again at the other side of the year - at the time of Alban Elued, the Autumn Equinox - when the promise of the spring is fulfilled in the autumn harvest.  the last sheaf of corn to be called the "hare" and its ritual cutting was known as killing or cutting the hare.  If a hare happened to bolt out of this last sheaf as it was cut, this was considered extremely auspicious.


Grandmother Hare

Since the hare was sacred to the Goddess and symbolic of the Corn Spirit, eating it was taboo.  In Kerry they still say that to eat a hare is to eat one's grandmother.  But like horsemeat, hare's flesh was forbidden only in Britain and Ireland, except that the Kings of Tara were allowed to eat the hares of Naas.  In Gaul the hare was the most popular of the hunted animals.  

In Ulster "cashing the Cailleach" (the hag-goddess) was allowed immediately following the harvest, and in some parts of Britain hare-hunting was allowed on the one day of Beltane.  Hare-coursing was a later introduction, probably the Romans, but the image of the hare being pursued by the greyhound is powerfully invoked in the story of Taliesin - in which the fleeing Gwion turns himself into a hare to escape the goddess Ceridwen, who then shape-shifts into a greyhound to continue her pursuit.

Virtually impossible to raise in captivity, supremely fertile, the hare when caught cries like a human child.  In the Western tradition, and in many other traditions throughout the world, it is strongly associated with the moon, whiteness, dawn and the east.

From the "Druid Animal Oracle" by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gum