Hedgehogs and Slavic folklore

Hedgehogs and Slavic folklore

And also, he thought about the horse… How is she, there alone in the fog?

There’s a great article going around on hedgehogs in Slavic folklore as keepers of wisdom and I have to say, the Russian animation movie mentioned in the article, Hedgehog in the Fog by Yuri Norstein, is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen (and the source of the featured images in this post). Do watch it if you have 10 minutes!
It’s based on a fairy tale by Sergei Kozlov (1940-2010) – you can click the link to read 4 of his tales in English. Even in translation they still have a dream-like atmosphere.

The following tale, The Hedgehog, is a fairy tale of the Mari-el, a Finno-Ugric ethnic group, who have traditionally lived along the Volga and Kama rivers in Russia. The story has been translated by Zeluna.net and it’s worth following the link for more.

When autumn came a hedgehog sensed the approach of winter as he was walking through the thick grass. So he began to collect fallen leaves, dragging them into a pile to build himself a warm shelter. The hedgehog then began to look for a hole to stay in. As he looked he came to a willow hare.
“What do you want with all these leaves?” the willow hare asked with surprise.
“I’m preparing a warm winter nest,” the hedgehog explained. 
“Oh please build me one,” the hare begged. 
“How can I not help such a good friend,” the hedgehog said.
Delighted the hare ran into the thicket.
The next morning the hare laid down in his warm burrow when along came the fox.
“Friend hare, how did you get such a nice burrow?” the fox asked.
“The hedgehog built it for me, I’m sure if you ask him he’ll build one for you,” the hare answered.
So the fox went and begged the hedgehog to built him a burrow as well which the hedgehog agreed to do.
Next the wolf found out that he could get a warm burrow from the hedgehog so he went to the hedgehog as well. The hedgehog was worried that he wouldn’t have time to build his own burrow if he kept building it for everyone else so he tried to refuse but the wolf bared his teeth at the hedgehog.
Seeing no other choice the hedgehog agreed to build the wolfs burrow as well. But before putting down the leaves in the bottom he brought up jagged rocks from the creek and laid them under the leaves. The wolf jumped down into his den thinking it would be soft but hit the jagged rocks. 
“Ow, what have you done? The wolf complained.
“I don’t really know how to build a burrow,” the hedgehog replied.

 

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Fox, hare, and rooster

Fox, hare, and rooster

Once more the hare went on his way crying and met a cock with a scythe.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo! Why are you crying, hare?”
“Leave me alone, cock! Who wouldn’t cry? I had a house of wood, while the fox had one of ice. She invited herself into mine and drove me out.”
“Come along with me, I’ll chase her out.”
“No, you won’t,” said the hare. “The dogs tried and failed; the bear tried and failed; the ox tried and failed. You’ll fare no better.”
“Oh, yes I-will.” So they went up to the house. “Cock-a-doodle-doo! I’ll cut that fox in two with my scythe so sharp and true!”
When the fox heard that, she took fright and called, “I’m getting dressed.” Again the cock crowed: “Cock-a-doodle-doo! I’ll cut that fox in two with my scythe so sharp and true!” And the fox cried: “I’m putting on my fur coat.” A third time the cock crowed: “Cock-a-doodle-doo! I’ll cut that fox in two with my scythe so sharp and true!” The fox rushed out of the door and the cock cut off her head.
So the hare and the cock lived together happily ever after
-Collected and edited by Michael Terletski-

Yuri Norstein made a lovely ten-minute animation movie of this Russian fairy tale. Because sometimes, you need a rooster with a scythe 🙂

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Illustration: Ohara Koson
Photograph: Jan Weggelaar

 

The Hare

The Hare

In the black furrow of a field
I saw an old witch-hare this night;
And she cocked a lissome ear,
And she eyed the moon so bright,
And she nibbled of the green;
And I whispered “Wh-s-st! witch-hare,”
Away like a ghostie o’er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.
-Walter de la Mare-

Once seen as intimately connected to the moon, hares remain elusive, unknowable creatures even now; hard to catch and almost impossible to keep in captivity. It’s no wonder then that they became associated with witchcraft.
An enchanted hare that couldn’t be caught or killed except by magic – the silver bullet, the black dog – was known as ‘not right’. ‘It wasn’t a right hare,’ people would say after its escape, and even if it was killed, its flesh was said to be impossible to cook. If you managed to hurt the creature before it fled, you could be sure that later, somewhere a woman would be nursing a wound, still out of breath from the chase.

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If you’re interested in hare-folklore, I recommend the book ‘The Leaping Hare’ by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson (Faber & Faber). It’s invaluable for its collection of anecdotes as told by farmers, hunters, poachers, and countrymen.These orally transmitted stories can so easily be lost!
Here is such a tale, quoted from the book:

It was after John Page had been made a gamekeeper and got a cottage with a bit of land that he got up one morning to fodder cattle.
But this morning he got up; he got up middling early because he had a couple of animals; and there was about four inches of snow out; and he got up, and he had a couple o’ cattle in the land down below the house. And he went down with a bit o’ hay for the two cattle. As he was going along he met a hare’s track. He flung the hay to the cattle and he followed the track. Never drew rein until he went to the steeple of Killrodawn below – a mile and a half this side of Loch Linn – over from Loch Linn. And the old wall that was in it – there was an old ivy bush growing on the side of it. And the hare’s track went up this ivy bush that was along the old wall. And he was going along creeping and the stick ready to let bang at the hare. And the hare sat up. “Page”, he says, “you’re a foolish man to follow me so far!” He drew back his stick – there’s no lie in it! – “Now,” says the hare, “don’t be afraid of me,” he says, “I’ll do you no harm,” he says, “you have  a shilling in your pocket; and go to Loch Linn”, he says, “and get two glasses of whiskey’, he says, ‘you want it!” (And you could get a glass of whiskey for fourpence at the time.) “You can get two of them,” he says, “and that will bring you home to Clooncondra. But never follow me again!”
Divil a hare he ever followed from that day till he died.

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Here’s the great and rather amusing Cornish folktale of The Witch of Treva, about a witch and her husband, and my own modern fairy tale, Chasing the Wind.

Are these stories what remains of our memories of ancient rituals, of shamans dressing up as animals to ensure a good hunt, to acquire knowledge, to devise a framework for reality? Or is there a chance that one could still, on a moonlit night, see a woman change into a hare; running, always running away?

Illustrations: Albrecht Durer the younger and Hans Hoffmann

More on the white hare

More on the white hare

Though he tried to forget the old legend that told of women who changed into hares to haunt the men who’d left them, he couldn’t resist looking out at dawn and dusk to see the creature…
-Eva Weggelaar-

In my poem Song of a White Hare and in the story, The White Hare, I wrote about it, the white hare is a benign creature, albeit a determined one, and driven solely by love (typical hallmark of almost everything I write, I’m afraid).
Although it hasn’t got anything to do with the White Hare of Looe, you can read about another friendly white hare in Legends and Tales of North Cornwall by Enys Tregarthen (free download!).

The original Cornish tale is very different though –  you can read it on Zteve T. Evans’s wonderful website
And here’s a video by Western Light Pictures, commissioned by Mazed tales and the source of the featured image on this page: The White Hare of Looe

The Colour of Foxes

The Colour of Foxes

‘Her hair had the colour of foxes,’ he said again.
He could never stop talking about her; the woman he loved, the woman who’d left him.
She’d come to him one autumn day, and stayed with him all winter. He never knew she slid out of the bed each night, slid out of the house to retrieve her skin from the hollow tree, and ran through the forest, painting the Northern lights across the sky with the brush of her tail. Fox fire.
He only knew she smelled of the wet earth, of autumn, leaves and moss, of snow. And that she’d left him when winter turned to spring.
‘Her hair had the colour of foxes,’ he said.
-Eva Weggelaar-

While less fierce than the Japanese kitsune, European shape-shifting fox-women remain fickle creatures… And what about the English Mr. Fox, the handsome man with his crooked smile and all his lady loves. Or what remains of them…

Do check out Terri Windling’s beautiful blog for more fox-lore: http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2013/10/fox-lore.html and read the tale of Mr. Fox here: http://www.authorama.com/english-fairy-tales-29.html
Art: Franz Marc