For millennia, our view of the natural world was more akin to Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’, rather than Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’. We lived in a world where animals were characterised by the mystical connotations we attributed to them. We believed certain animals could predict the future, were bringers of good fortune, even riches, and others brought ill, fire, floods, and imminent death.
The European Brown Hare was no exception, being ladened with folklore and superstition, and more often than not was specifically associated with witchcraft.
In 1662 a Sottish lady by the name of Isobel Gowdie made four confessions to witchcraft over a period of six weeks. This included the time when she was sent on an errand for the devil in the guise of a hare. Whilst in this form she was harassed and chased by some dogs. Isobel managed to trick the hounds by running from house to house until she was able to find the time to utter the magical words that transformed her back to human.
Even though the dogs wouldn’t have been able to kill a “shapeshifter”, their bite marks would have still scarred the human form.
To turn into a hare Gowdie would chant:
Another well known case of witchcraft concerning hares is mentioned in W.B Yeats’ collection of essays, and involves the historic account of the witch trial of Julian Cox, Taunton, Somerset, who, in 1663, was accused of putting a spell on a maid who’s body had since languished. In order to back up the alleged “witch” status, a local huntsman was asked to give evidence.
Under oath, the man gave an account of how he was out hunting a hare with a pack of dogs near to Julian Cox’s house. When the poor hare looked like it was finally tiring, it ran towards a large bush in an attempt to take cover. The huntsmen quickly stepped in before the dogs could get to the hare, only to find Julian Cox rolling about on the ground. When the surprised huntsman spoke to the lady she was too out of breath to reply!
Alternatively, superstitious builders would sometimes use a hare to perform their own witchcraft when erecting a house, as a dead hare was considered good luck if buried within the confides of the building. Thankfully though - for the hare - it seems that builders aren’t the best when it comes to animal identification, as many a rabbit has since been found during restorations and repairs.
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In Greek mythology, Halcyone and Ceyx were lovers who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus by mocking him and his wife. Angered, Zeus killed Ceyx.