Here's another folklore post for you in the run-up to Halloween. This time it's on the subject of Witch Hares, a creature more common that you might think....
As my friend Carolyne Larrington observes in her excellent book The Land of the Green Men: "We tend to associate witches with black cats that operate as their familiar spirits, but more traditionally the witch transforms herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the neighbours' cows. The witch-hare has other moneymaking sidelines, however: in one rather jolly tale from Tavistock in Devon, she gives the hare hunters a run for their money. In a letter written in 1833, a certain Mrs. Bray relates how a young boy would would earn money by starting hares for the local hare hunters -- he was always able to find one when they seemed scarce. Somehow, the hare always managed to get away. This made the huntsman suspicious, so on one occasion the hounds were teed up to to get on to their prey's trail more quickly. The hare zigged and zagged to cries from the boy of 'Granny! Quick! Run for your life!' Aha! The hare just made it into the boy's grandmother's cottage through a little hole. When the huntsmen broke in, no animal was to be seen. But the old woman was quite out of breath, and she had scratches as if she had been running through brambles."
Why, asks Carolyne, are there so many stories of witches in the shape of hares all across the British Isles?
"They were familiar animals before the industrialisation of the countryside," she notes, "and their habit of rearing up on their hind legs and their distinctive zigzag run made them easy to pick out. They are swift and clever -- which explains how they always manage to get back to the witches' houses before they are caught -- and the have long been indigenous to the British landscape. Hares thus appear in a good deal of folklore across the country....I've seen hares myself near where I live in North Oxfordshire, up by the Roman road that runs along the southern side of Madmarston Hill near Swalcliffe: two big beasts on their hind legs, boxing away at one another like a couple of prizefighters, until they spotted me and the dog. Then they swerved away over the stubbly March fields, only to take up their bout again at a more distant corner. These hares were probably a male/female pair, rather than rival males duking it out: the female was trying the repel the male's advances, with limited success."
Hares are sometimes seen to gather together in what looks like a convocation, says Carolyne, "eight or ten of them sitting in a circle and gazing at one another as if in silent communication. The writer Justine Picardi mentions seeing just such a phenomenon in June 2012 in the Scottish highlands:
" 'On the way here last night, a magical scene: glimpsed in a field beside the lane, a circle of hares, all gazing inward, motionless in the moment that we passed. I've heard occasional stories of these rarely witnessed gatherings -- but never seen one for myself. No camera to hand -- although if we'd stopped, I'm sure the hares would have vanished -- yet a sight impossible to forget.'
"But we know of course that these were no ordinary hares, but surely a gathering of witches in hare form."
If you'd like to know more about about hares in legend and natural history, I recommend The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans & David Thomson and Hare by Simon Carnell (published as part of Reaktion's "Animal" series). Another one to seek out is The Hare Book, edited by Jane Russ for The Hare Preservation Trust (UK), which is a delightful and informative compilation of stories and facts about hares accompanied by photographs and art -- including contributions from Jackie Morris, Virginia Lee, and Hannah Willow. (I particularly recommend Jackie's story in the book, "The Old Hare in Spring: 1502," inspired by the art of Albrecht Dürer, and the charming true-life tale of the three hares beloved by the 18th century poet William Cowper.)
You'll find more magical hares in my previous post "The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares" -- as well as some Witch Hares leaping through a post on Devon folklore: "Tales of a Half-Tamed Land." Devon is a veritable hotbed of shape-shifting hares, so be wary if you're out after dark here....
The gorgeous hare art in this post is by Jackie Morris, one of the finest painters of hares (and other animals) working today. To view more of her work, please visit Jackie's website and seek out her beautiful books, including The Lost Words, The House Without Windows, and Song of the Golden Hare.
Both Carolyne and Jackie were colleagues of mine on the year-long Modern Fairies project, where the final concert included a gorgeous song by Fay Hield about a shape-shifting hare based on the witch trials of Isobel Gowdie. Fay's music and Jackie's sketch for the song are pictured below.
Words & pictures: The quote by Carolyne Larrington is from The Land of the Green Men: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscape of the British Isles (I.B.Taurus & Co., 2015). The quotes in the picture captions are from The Hare Book edited by Jane Russ (The Hare Preservation Trust/ Graffeg Books, 2014) and Common Ground by Rob Cowen (Windmill Books, 2016). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.