“Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.”
As we approach Easter and small children look out for what the Easter Bunny has brought, let us consider its cousin..the Hare. The above quote underlines a common belief of the Hare in British folklore. In Cornwall a legend tells of a white hare which would be seen as a warning to some sort of fishing disaster, the hare being the embodiment of a love-lorn widow!
Even in India an account from 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, a William Black noted that:
“it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”
Often witchcraft linked with hares. This account in Edward Rainsberry’s Through the Lychgate. He notes:
“There is a story told that many years ago three young lads from Long Compton named Will, Jack and Lewis were out netting rabbits down by Barton’s Grove. They saw a white hare run behind a hedge, then a little later running in circles across a gateway. The lads carried on with their trapping but every time they looked up the hare seemed to be drawing nearer to them in decreasing circles. Despite the moon it was now getting dark, so they decided to finish for the night and get along home. Following the footpath back through the fields, they looked round-the hare was following them. When they stopped, it stopped; when they ran, it ran also. Eventually there were running as fast as they could and get back to the village along Duffus close. One of the lads lived in a cottage on the main road, so the three jumped across the stone wall into his back garden. He tried to open the back door but the key would not fit; glancing round before he forced the door open, he saw the white hare sitting on the garden wall.”
In the trial of Julian Cox in 1663, a witness stating:
“A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”
Yet despite these associations with harbingers and witches the Hare became an important figure at Easter. An Easter Hunt by the Mayor and dignitaries, perhaps significantly from a place associated with Black Annis near Leicester and the famed Hare Pie and Bottle kicking from the same county cement the animals association. Choosing the hare for a cult figure was of course significant considering the wider associations with the time of year. The high fecundity made it a suitable beast which to associate with the change in the apparent fertility of the land. Whether or not the deity of Eostre existed, the Venerable Bede apparently is the only source; it would make perfect sense to have a deity in the form of the ubiquitous hare. As the rabbit became more common across Europe thanks to a wide spread introduction ‘programme’ for food by the Vikings, the tradition of fecundity slipped to the rabbit. This later manifested itself as the Easter Bunny. A tradition built upon by the Americans from their German ancestry and like many traditions imported back across much of the English speaking world..