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.
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.
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