Throughout the world, there are long-spoken tales of hares1; from the Americas to the Far East, from Africa to Europe, the hare is embedded in the folk myths of our ancestors. It is associated in mythology with the Moon, the celestial skies and the Sun, with fertility, the dawn, cunning and bravery. There is evidence of hare mythology in ancient pottery, coins, seals, hieroglyphs and in oral history.
The most striking thing about the mythology of hares is the degree of commonality across the globe. Similar to the fact that most ancient cultures have a flood myth, most also seem to have hare mythology.
What was it about the hare which led to this mythology? We will probably never know for sure, but the fact that wild hares lived in proximity to people, perform unique and uninhibited courtship dances, are extremely sexually active in the spring and are active at night, were all factors.
As our closest celestial neighbour, it is easy to see why the Moon was thought to be a witness to the creation of Earth. In Africa, the hare was considered to be part of the Moon. Seen on a clear night the full Moon might, with a bit of imagination, contain the outline of a hare.
Throughout Africa there is a myth that at the start of the world, the Moon was so pleased with the Earth that she wanted to give mankind the gift of immortality. The Moon sent her companion, Hare, to pass on the message: 'Just as the Moon dies and rises again so shall you.' But Hare confused the message and said instead: 'Just as the Moon dies and perishes, so shall you.' Earth's people believed these words and became mortal. When the Moon heard what Hare had done, she became so angry that she beat Hare with a stick and split his nose, but as they continue to live together, they have mended their friendship.
Fables are told across the continent of the cleverness, deceit and triumph of the hare, called by various names according to the language. In West Africa the tale of The Pulling Contest and of Hare Goes Hunting With Hyena are well known. In Zambia, where Hare is called Kalulu, the following tales are still passed from generation to generation: Kalulu and Simba, and Kalulu Fools the Doctor. In Nigeria, the Hausa People tell the tale of The King of Beasts.
These tales were taken to America by slaves and became the Bre'r Rabbit tales related by Uncle Remus. There are no rabbits in tropical Africa and the clever animal is really a hare, which depends on its speed and cunning to protect itself against the dangers of the open Sudan and savanna country. Its chief enemy is the hyena, whose American counterpart is Bre'r Fox.
The hare was also present in Egypt. In Egyptian mythology Osiris was sometimes called Wepuat or Un-nefer and portrayed with a hare's head. Osiris was sacrificed to the Nile each year in the form of a hare to guarantee the annual flooding that Egyptian agriculture (and indeed their entire society) depended upon. A minor Egyptian goddess named Unut or Wenet also had the head of a hare. There is a city that bears Wenet's name, meaning 'District of the Rabbit'. Its primary deity was Thoth. The hare is often depicted greeting the dawn, and he sometimes serves as messenger for the god Thoth.
On a more spiritual level, the hare could symbolise the very essence of life itself: the hieroglyphic 'Wn', depicting a hare on top of a single blue-green ripple means 'to exist'.
Returning to the theme of the Moon, Pliny expressed the belief that the hare was androgynous and in Egypt this was depicted as the Moon being masculine when waxing and feminine when waning.
The Far East
In China, the Moon Hare holds a pestle and mortar with which it mixes an elixir of immortality. Figures of white hares were made for the celebration of the Moon festival. It is a yin animal, a guardian of wild animals. It comes from the North Pole bringing the greetings of the Moon goddess. In other Chinese writings a red hare appears with a Phoenix and a Unicorn, harbingers of peace and prosperity. Green jade hare amulets are made for good luck.
The Indian Sub-Continent
Hindus called the Moon Sasanka, 'Marked with the Hare'. This comes from a story told of the Buddha. In an early stage of his existence he was a hare, and when in company with an ape and a fox, he was approached by the god Indra, disguised as a beggar, who wanted to test their hospitality, so asked for some food. All went in search of it, Hare alone returning unsuccessful. However, so that his guest would not go hungry he had a fire built and cast himself into it for the guest's supper. In return, Indra rewarded him by a place in the Moon where we now see him2. Other Sanskrit and Cingalese tales mention the palace of the king of the hares on the face of the Moon. Many different Eastern cultures link the hare with the Moon and Buddhists have a saying about the 'shadow of the Hare in the moon' instead of the man in the Moon. They see the hare as a resurrection symbol.
There are tales told in India today of the wisdom of hares, such as 'The Cat, The Partridge and The Hare', as follows:
Once upon a time a partridge lived under a tree. One day the Partridge decided to go to the fields to feed. There was so much food that the Partridge did not return for many days.
In the meantime a Hare came along and moved into the Partridge's house. The Partridge eventually returned plump from the fields. It found the Hare living in its house and a fight ensued. The Hare said that the house belonged to whoever occupied it.
With no resolution in sight, they decided to contact a supposedly wise old Cat for a decision. They both approached the Cat with their opinions. The Cat, was actually a crook (and earned his livelihood by posing as a priest). It decided to take advantage of the occasion. On hearing the Partridge and the Hare approaching him with their problem, it said, 'Sorry! I can't hear you from that far a distance because of old age. Don't worry I mean you no harm. Come closer and both of you relate your stories.' They were fooled into getting closer to the Cat and as soon as it could grab them he killed and ate them both.
Moral: A crook doesn't change his character even if he changes his outward appearance.
Hare myths occur amongst Native North Americans in their tales and totems.
Throughout Native American culture, the best-known mythical hero was Michabo or Great Manitou, the Great Hare. The tribes of western, eastern, northern and central North America all spoke of this beast as their common ancestor. The tribe which bore his name was looked up to with peculiar respect. Michabo was the ruler and guardian of all of the tribes and he was the founder of their religious rites, the inventor of picture-writing, the ruler of the weather, preserver of earth and heaven and the creator. He was also a mighty hunter. One of his footsteps was said to measure eight leagues and the Great Lakes were the beaver-dams he built. Sometimes it was said that he lived in the sky with his brother the Snow, or in a wigwam in the on a floe of ice in the Arctic Ocean.
This shows that Michabo was a personification of the Sun, in other words, a life-giving power. His name is compounded of michi, 'great', and wabos, which means both 'hare' and 'white'. Michabo is the Great White Hare, the God of the Dawn.
There is another North American Indian tale involving the young Cunning Hare, who was so hungry he caught fish in the river, but had no fire to cook it. Whilst stealing fire from humans, he was caught by the ears and almost eaten himself. But he escaped, albeit a little singed. It is said that this is the reason for the hare's black ear-tips.
Man has for centuries respected, even feared, the hare because of its perceived powers of solitude and remoteness. Active at night, symbolic of the intuitive, and the fickleness of the Moon, the hare was an emblem of unpredictability. Like the Moon, which always changes places in the sky, hares were full of mystery and contradictions. The moon was perhaps the most powerful symbol of birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth. The hare was endowed with similar earth-bound powers.
Many European gods and goddesses are associated with hares:
Hittavainen (or Hittauanin) is the Karelian god of hares and hare-hunting
The hare is often depicted as a companion to Cupid and as an attribute of Aphrodite/Venus, being associated with fertility and love
Holda (or Herke, Harfer) of Teutonic mythology, was followed by a train of hares carrying torches
The Norse goddess Freyja had hare attendants
In Britain the hare was sacred to the moon goddess Andraste
The hare is associated with the Celtic goddess Cerridwen
Kaltes is a Moon goddess venerated by the Ugric people of western Siberia. She was a shape-shifter and often manifested as a hare
The hare was sacred in many ancient European traditions which associate it with moon deities and the deities of the hunt. In earliest times killing and eating the hare was taboo. In Kerry, Ireland, it is said that eating a hare was like eating your grandmother. This restriction was lifted at Beltane (Celts) and the festival of Ostara (Anglo-Saxons), when a ritual hare-hunt would take place.
The Celts believed that the goddess Eostre's favourite animal and attendant spirit was the hare. It represented love, fertility and growth and was associated with the Moon, dawn and Easter - death, redemption and resurrection. Eostre changed into a hare at the full Moon. The hare was sacred to the White Goddess - the Earth Mother - and as such was considered to be a royal animal. Boudicca was said to have released a hare as a good omen before each battle and to divine the outcome of battle by the hare's movements. She took a hare into battle with her to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.
The Celtic warrior Oisin hunted a hare and wounded it in the leg, forcing it to seek refuge in a clump of bushes. When Oisin followed it he found a door leading into the ground and he eventually emerged into a huge hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a wound in her leg. The transmigration of the soul is clearly seen in Celtic lore such as this.
Because of its fertility (one doe can produce 42 young a year), the hare is an emblem of fertility, abundance, sexuality, lust, rampant growth and excess. It became the emblem of gods and goddesses such as Venus, Aphrodite, and Cupid. Philostratus said the most suitable sacrifice to Aphrodite was the hare as 'it possesses her gift of fertility in a superlative degree'. Pliny the Elder prescribed its meat as a cure for female sterility and reported that if you ate a hare your body would be sexually attractive for nine days. Hare's genitals were carried to prevent barrenness.
In ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, Ostara is the personification of the rising sun, depicted with a hare's head or ears. She is associated with the spring, fertility and resurrection. She is the friend of all children and to amuse them, she once changed her pet bird into a Hare. This hare laid brightly coloured eggs, which the goddess gave to the children as gifts, hence today we have Easter Hares3 carrying eggs on their backs.
The date of Easter is tied to the Moon and the hare has strong lunar associations, therefore hare-hunting was a common Easter activity in England. Remnants of these rituals still exist, the Hallaton Hare Pie Scramble still goes on in Leicestershire on Easter Monday.
Coming Up To Date
The hare has long been associated with madness, especially during the mating season when the animals can be seen boxing or leaping in the air. 'Mad as a March Hare' has become a common phrase over the past few hundred years and was celebrated in the character of the Mad March Hare in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Hares were said to resemble a coven of witches dancing. Like many animals sacred to older religions, medieval Christians changed the hare into an animal of ill omen, saying witches shape-shifted into hare form to suck cows dry. Stories abound of wounds inflicted on hares being found the next day on a woman. It was claimed that a witch in hare form could only be killed by a silver crucifix. But old beliefs die hard and much lore regarding the lucky, as well as the unlucky, nature of the hare exists to this day.
Sailors considered hares so unlucky they could not be mentioned at sea.
In some places a hare crossing the path was unlucky, especially for a pregnant woman who would miscarry or give birth to a child with a hare-lip. A hare's foot was carried as a charm to avert this, preferably from the left rear leg; losing the charm would prove very unfortunate.
A hare's foot was said to avert rheumatism and cramps and help actors perform, or was carried as a good luck charm.
Hare fat burned in a lamp was thought to make all present merry.
Its brain was taken in wine before bed to prevent oversleeping.
The genitals were used in aphrodisiac potions.
In Cambridgeshire a hare running through the streets is a sign that a fire is about to break out.
A Cornish superstition says a young girl who dies after being abandoned by her lover will turn into a white hare in order to pursue her faithless love.
In agricultural lore, the hare has entered into the language of reaping corn. They often hide in cornfields during the reaping and the last sheaf is often called 'the hare' and its cutting called 'killing the hare', 'cutting the hare' or 'cutting the hare's tail off'. In some places the reapers would all stand around and throw their sickles at the 'hare'.
When you next see hares boxing in the fields, remember that they are not simply soft cute animals. They carry millennia of mythology, folklore and tradition with them. Mankind's reverence has helped them to shape the rituals and traditions that we still celebrate across the world.