My Celtic hare art – plus I take a dive into hare meaning, myth, folklore, stories, and hare symbolism…
The hare is one of my favourite wild animals – and I’m lucky that I get to see them relatively often as they seem to love the large flat fields we have here in the east of Yorkshire.
I’ve watched them boxing in fields in March, loping across grassy stretches, hunkering down with a flick of the ear, and one summer, I was fortunate enough to regularly see a family of young leverets playing in the early mornings in a field near my home.
Mysterious, swift, wild, otherworldly… the hare is one of our most cherished countryside animals – and far more than just a big rabbit!
If you watch a hare run, it’s almost impossible to mistake her for a rabbit – a hare runs more like a dog or deer, where a rabbit simply hops.
The hare has the air of something fleeting – fleet of foot, but also something ephemeral – a wildness that can’t be tamed, a creature that’s not quite of this world…
So the myths, stories and folklore around the beautiful hare are in many ways perfectly understandable and only add to our intrigue with this creature of the wild as we try to entice her through our stories to become a part of our world.
A Hare by Any Other Name
The hare has many traditional or country names which give us a clue to our past (and present) human relationship with the hare…
It’s striking how many of the old country words for hare mean cat – hares seem to have had a strong association with cats – perhaps connected to their link with witches… we’ll come back to that later!
In Britain and Ireland there are three native species of hare:
A Pre-history of Hares
Cave fossils in Ireland suggest that Irish hares were present in Ireland as much as 30,000 years ago!
The mountain hare is native to the Scottish Highlands. But although the Brown hare is now considered a native animal to Britain, it’s argued that Brown hares may have been introduced to Britain by the Romans – or perhaps a little earlier, between the 5th to 3rd centuries BC.
An archaeological study led by Professor Naomi Sykes of Exeter University discovered that Iron Age hares (as well as chickens) were “buried with great care”. The hares (and chickens) were “carefully buried without being butchered” which implies the hare and chicken were treated with a special reverence and that people considered chickens and hares were “too special to eat.”
Indeed, we know that Roman Emperor Julius Caesar wrote that the Britons believed that it was “contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”
Cassius Dio, (writing in the 3rd century AD) tells us about Boudicca, the Iron Age Briton warrior queen who was said to release a hare from beneath her cloak before 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 Bodicea, raising her hand toward heaven, said, I thank thee Andraste [a goddess of battle and victory]… I supplicate and pray thee for victory.”
A number of animal-motif artefacts including brooches have been found in Britain from the late Iron Age through to the late Roman period, which are thought to depict a hare (rather than a rabbit).
It’s been argued that these may point to the worship of a Celtic hare-deity in particular regions where the brooches are found – the south and east of England.
Place names in the same areas may also relate to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre who is often said to be the goddess of Easter and associated with the hare…
It’s thus suggested that the Celtic hare-deity may have evolved into the later Anglo-Saxon Eostre in these areas…
The Easter Hare
Eostre, also known as Ostara (a Germanic goddess) is believed to represent the origins of our Easter – the name, the link to hares/rabbits, and the concept of rebirth and renewal of life.
Eostre/Ostara has also been linked to a European goddess Austro and also Ausos, an earlier proto-Indo-European goddess – both are goddesses of dawn and bringers of light.
All we know for sure of Eostre/Ostara is taken from the writings of Bede in the 8th century, regarding the Easter month celebrated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons of the past.
“Eosturmonath (Easter month/April) has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
In the early 19th century, mythologist Jacob Grimm again linked Eostre/Ostara to the celebration of Easter. And later that century, Professor Adolf Holtzmann associated Eostre/Ostara with the hare:
“The Easter Hare is inexplicable to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara.”
And also suggested that, “The hare must once have been a bird, because it lays eggs.”
By the very end of the 19th century, it was somehow enshrined in the public’s consciousness that Easter celebrated the story of the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic goddess Eostre/Ostara and how she had found a wounded bird on the ground in late winter…
She helped the poor bird by transforming it into a hare – but the transformation was not complete and, like a bird, the hare still laid eggs, which became part of the Easter tradition.
It may be that in times past, people did believe the hare was a magical being who laid eggs in spring…
Hares create little nests on the ground in fields that do look like the nests that lapwings create on the ground too – hares and lapwings both thrive in the same large, flat fields. So it’s an understandable jump to link the lapwings' nest of eggs with the hare.
And so the hare is linked with the goddess Eostre/Ostara and the ideas of springtime, new life, and fertility.
The Loving Hare
The Ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, is associated with the hare – and the Ancient Greeks engraved hares on wedding rings and wedding bowls.
The Moon Hare
Hares are very much associated with the moon – not just in Britain but all over the world.
The image of the ‘Mad March Hare’ that we have – those iconic ‘boxing hares’ (which are actually thought to be a mating ritual between male and female hare) – are part of the hares ‘madness’ and linked to the idea of being ‘moonstruck’, being sent mad by the moon.
The markings of the moon are seen as hares (or rabbits) in various cultures, including in Asia, and the Aztecs who believed that the marks on the moon were caused by a rabbit being thrown at the moon by a god.
In North America, the Algonquin Ojibwa and Sioux Winebago Native American culture had Menebuch the Great Hare as a mythical ancestor from the heavens and go-between between this world and the Otherworld.
In Ancient Egypt, the god Osiris took the shape of a hare and was ‘killed’ and thrown into the Nile in order to ensure seasonal renewal.
Egyptian mythology linked hares to the moon – like the moon (which was believed male when in waxing phase and female when in waning phase), hares were also believed to switch genders…
And even in Britain and Europe, too, it was thought that hares alternated between genders either monthly (with the moon) (or sometimes annually.)
Ancient Welsh laws stated one flat compensation price for hares as they changed gender month to month (the price for other animals differed according to whether they were male or female).
The Siberian-Ugrian goddess Kaltes-Ekwa was a moon-goddess associated with fertility and childbirth. She was also associated with the bringing of dawn and often appeared as a hare.
The Fertile Harvest Hare
The link with new life and fertility carries through the seasons and we see the hare appear at the Autumn equinox time of harvest just as surely as at the Spring equinox (Easter).
In times of harvest, people would start seeing hares again after their spell of ‘March Madness’ had given way to a quieter time when the hares were effectively hidden from view by the growing crops.
The last sheaf of corn that was cut was known as ‘the hare’ – and people referred to this ritual cutting as ‘cutting the hare’ or ‘killing the hare’. It was believed to be very lucky if a hare ran out from this final sheaf of corn.
The Celtic tale ‘The Book of Taliesin’ from the Mabinogion tells the story of the servant boy Gwion who stirs a cauldron of magical potion for the enchantress Ceridwen. Only the first three drops of the potion will convey beauty and wisdom and the rest is poison. The precious drops are destined for Ceridwen’s son.
Gwion spills the potion on his hand and unwittingly consumes the valuable three drops as he licks his hand clean. As the potion takes effect, he realises that Ceridwen will be angry and turns himself into a swift hare to flee…
Ceridwen chases him as a greyhound. He then becomes a fish and she an otter – then a bird and she a hawk.
Gwion finally turns himself into a grain of wheat. Ceridwen eats it but becomes pregnant. When she gives birth to Gwion, reborn as a beautiful child, she floats him out to sea.
He is found and raised by a Prince and becomes the great and wise Taliesin.
So the hare is very much linked to this story of Ceridwen who is often shown as a Celtic goddess of creation and inspiration.
The Fiery Hare
At harvest time, too, we see more of the association of the hare with fire.
Buddhist and Hindu writings call the hare a ‘creature of fire’ with the idea of rebirth from the fire (similar to a phoenix).
The Indian Jataka Tales tell the story of the Buddha in his previous lives. He was reborn as a hare and in hare form threw himself into the fire, a self-sacrifice to provide food for others who were hungry. This virtuous act was celebrated by the hare’s image being painted onto the moon.
In Britain, too, people associated the hare with fire – often linked to the burning of stubble in the fields that used to happen after harvest, even when I was a child.
In 'The Leaping Hare', George Ewart Evans & David Thomson write of the hare hunkering down as the crop-stubble burns to “hang on to the last minute then make a dash for it” seeming to appear out of the flames.
Sometimes the hare is seen to leap back into the fire – perhaps the fear of the people around controlling the fire is greater than the fear of the fire itself.
It was also believed that “if a hare runs through a village street, a fire will break out in one of the houses very shortly afterwards.”
In Ulster, it was permitted to chase the hare only directly after the harvest – this was called ‘Chasing the Cailleach’ (the hag-goddess).
The Shape-Shifting Hare
Hares were very much associated with witches and it was believed that witches would shape-shift into hares.
People feared that witch-hares would suck a cow dry of milk by night – and there were tales of hares who had been wounded disappearing into the night – with the same wound seen on the local wise-woman the following day.
The Celtic tale of Oisin tells of the warrior who hunted and wounded a hare in the leg.
He followed the hare into the ground and discovered a beautiful young woman in a large underground hall – but she was also wounded in the leg!
A shape-shifting hare!
A reported behaviour of hares when they sit in circles is known as a ‘Hares’ Parliament’ and was thought to be a gathering of witches in hare form.
It was believed that a witch-hare could only be killed by a silver crucifix or a silver bullet.
I don’t know if hares really do sit in circles or gaze up at the moon (moon-gazing hares) – but I do know that I’ve seen little hares (or perhaps rabbits) sat up in a field at night, gazing literally ‘moonstruck’ up at a large and particularly bright full moon in the same way that a rabbit or other animal becomes immobilised in a car’s headlights.
I’m not sure if it’s a behaviour that’s unique to rabbits or hares, either, as I’ve also seen my collie gaze ‘moonstruck’ up at a large full moon too (...perhaps I should be worried!).
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