by Sheila

In the black furrow of a field
I saw an old witch-hare this night;
And she cocked a lissom ear,
And she eyed the moon so bright,
And she nibbled of the green;
And I whisered,"Shsst! Witch-hare'.
Away like a ghostie o'er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.

(by Walter de la Mare)

The hare is a lunar animal, associated with the Moon and Lunar goddesses in myths, legends and rituals all around the world. It is one of our earliest animals existing at the same time as mammoths and sabre-tothed tigers did (fossils of the hare have been found in Europe dating to 100,000 yars ago) and it dos not seem to have changed in shape since (unlike the previous two). Cave paintings pf the hare and engravings on stone and bone exist (e.g. Magdalanian engraving on stone from Isturitz) from earliest times.

Myths and legends associating the hare with the Moon are present in countries throughout the world, in India, China, Africa, North America as well as Europe and the Mediterranean countries. It is indigineous to Britain (unlike the rabbit) and was early associated with Lunar Goddesses. In China, the Hare in the Moon symbolised the feminine 'yin' power, figures of hares (or white rabbits) are made at the Moon festival (and lunar calendars are still used there and in Thailand and the Far East, alongside the solar ones). Our Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostra (Oestra) from which we have our present easter, was hare-headed, celebrating the rebirth of the Moon at the Summer Solstice, and until recently it was the hare that laid the Easter Egg (forget the Easter Bunny!) out of which hatched new life and growth. The Teutonic Goddess Holda (Harka, Harfa) was also a Moon Goddess and was followed by a train of hares bearing torches. And among the Alganquin Indians of North America, the first creator of the Sun, Moon and Earth is called The Great Hare, as a symbol of the dawn of life, of Spring, of rebirth, creation, and enlightenment.

Why the hare?

One obvious aspect of the hare's behaviour is that it is nocturnal, spending most of the day camoflaged in a shallow form on the ground. It comes out at dusk. So it is at night that we can see best, and onserve the hare 'in the light of the Moon'. It also prefers the wide open ground, open fields where it can run, leap, take advantage of its great speed, its almost magical ability to swerve suddenly, execute its 'mazes', disappearing then reappearing where we least expect it, making it impossible to predict its path. And it is in open fields and grounds, in the light of the moon that we can see hares gathering in groups, playing, drumming, mock boxing (not only in the mating season, and males and females taking part). The bahviour of hares is still mysterious to us, unpredictable and mysterious. And while gamekeepers this century have given accounts of hares gathering in circular assemblies with as many as eleven Jacks and some Does 'just playing about', much of their life is still mysterious. Hares cannot be kept in cages in captivity (unless captured as very young leverets) being, it is said, 'too highly strung'.

The hare's only protection against predators is camoflague and flight (their great speed) but far from being timid they are exceptionally courageous in defending their young, and perhaps all of these qualities had symbolic significance for our ancestors. Female hares 'hide' their leverets separately when born (fully formed with eyes open), 'visiting' them each and will fiercely attack any predator (especially if she hears he leveret 'shriek'). Examples ofhares seeing off bullocks, dogs, stoats, even men, abound in literature and stories told about them.

In many myths too, they are symbols of lover, fertility, prosperity. The hare is the companion of Aphrodite, of Cupid and the Satyrs. A 'hare's foot' carried in one's pocket as a charm was a cure for bodily ailments quite recently in Suffolk. Hares are said to be 'emotional' and indeed a feature which is both scientifically acknowledged and interesting is that hares do have a very large heart, weighing from 1% to 1.8% of their total body weight. (For comparison, in rabbits the heart weighs only about 0.3% of body weight, in squirrels about 0.6% of body weight.)

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