Witchery of the Hare
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.
So sang the young witch, Isobel Gowdie, when, under the light of the full moon, she transformed herself into a hare. In this shape, she journeyed to take part in a lavish banquet with the Queen of Elfhame, in her Hall under the low hills.
For a poor woman in 1660’s Scotland, an invitation to a royal feast was worth the price of her soul. All she had to do was leave her broomstick in bed beside her sleeping husband so she wouldn’t be missed, leave by the chimney, and shape-shift into a creature whose speed and endurance ensured her timely arrival at the Faery Ball. When she had had enough of wearing fine clothes, dancing, and feasting, she returned in her woman’s shape before dawn singing:
Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness now,
But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.
It is March. The Winterspells draw to a close. The Hare leaps into Spring to dance in the rains and frolic under the budding trees The Goddess, Oestar, arrives to herald the season of re-birth with her company of Hares. Even she, the great Goddess, became a Hare under the full moon to enjoy the wantonness of Spring.
You have heard the phrase “Mad as a March Hare.” Unlike the more docile rabbit, born naked and blind and burrowing under the earth for protection, the hare has the audacity to arrive fully furred with its pooka eyes staring wide, to sleep under the open air. The heady call to mate in Spring inspires in the hare a frenzy of leaping and jumping, and boxing against other hares all mad with the lust of Oestar. An old legend says he is so full of fertility that he changes gender, from male to female, and back again, giving birth by mating with him/herself. Perhaps this belief is true, or came about because, even in the mating season, the hare is quiet, solitary, alone.
Yet the hare and rabbit are close cousins and share their lunacy and magic. The hare lives in the upper world, visible to all. As such, he may be considered a creature of the light. Living under the earth in burrows and warrens, rabbits live in contact with the spirits of the Underworld, and may be called upon to carry messages from the living to the dead, and from humankind to the Faerie.
The image of the hare is imprinted on the moon, the esoteric sphere from which souls descend to find embodiment on earth. The moon, Mistress of the Tides, also rules the feminine hormonal cycles of menstruation and heat. The moon is the Queen of Heaven in Her Witchery. She is the source of creative, generative power from which all life springs. Her rhythmic emanations govern the potency of herbs, the life cycles of animals and plants, and the oceanic flux of visions, dreams, and prophecy.
Spring is a season between seasons, a transitional time when one thing becomes another, the magic of the dark revolves into the light, the sleeping Earth stirs and begins to awaken, that which was hidden in the dark of the Underworld greets the light of day.
I shall never forget one early Spring morning when I lived at Oak Lodge beside Hampstead Heath in London. As the dim, liquid light of sunrise was barely glimmering through the trees, thousands of birds began to sing. I lay half awake and half asleep in the half light as cascades of song swelled and died and swelled again, filling the sky, and falling to earth, until it grew light, and the singing stopped. Then it was so quiet it was as if the birds, who had orchestrated their chorus for the first breath of Spring, had flown away forever. I never heard anything like it before or since. The next night I was walking along the road beside the Heath and chose to take a path through the woods that led through a grassy clearing. There was a ring of flattened grass encircling a Rowan tree. I had no idea how it came to be there, but it reminded me of an old belief that in Spring, a group of hares was wont to dance in a ring around a young tree under the moon, while standing on their hind legs.
As the first stirring of Spring begins, the life that Winter held at rest below the ground, rises to the surface of the earth. The season of rebirth is a breath of fresh air. The wind blows wild and gusty, carrying seeds over great distances. Birdsong is carried on the breeze. The animals give birth and all grown things wake to new life. The clear horizon belongs to Spring, where the rays of rising sun stream over the hills, illuminating the grass and stones, and the first wild flowers lean towards their reflections in shining pools of rainwater.
With the Spring come the witchery of the Hare that stirs the Witchblood to carousal..
The Mysteries of the Goddess and the Hare:
The first of all Goddesses was Diana, that fertile darkness out of which life emerged.
Diana’s law reflects the cycles of the moon and hunt. Why is fertility combined with the hunt? What is the meaning of the cycle of birth and death?
Fertility brings game which is the purpose of the hunt. An abundance of life means and that there is plenty to eat. But, in the darkness of the soul, the hunter and hunted change position, for one cannot take life without being haunted by death. Everything on Earth is intertwined…the Goddess orders it this way in all of nature. Her sign is the appearing, disappearing, and reappearing moon.
The earth is a place of transformation, governed by the lunar wheel that cycles from light into dark, and into light again, reflecting the constant cycle of nature: what is born falls into death and what is dead springs back to life.
Both Diana of the Wild Beasts, the moon and the hunt, and Aphrodite of love and beauty include the hare or rabbit among their attendants. Freya, the Love Goddess of the North, travels with a hare. These make sense as the hare as legendary object of the hunt, leading the hounds on a relentless merry chase, while his heightened sexuality and fertility align him to Aphrodite and Freya. A procession of hares carry torches behind the sky Goddess Holda at the head of the Wild Hunt at Beltane. This suggests that the hare colludes in his role as prey, or even sacrificial victim, whose death supports the rest of life and whose prolific breeding ensures his quick return.
Yet, though the hare is hunted in Celtic countries it is taboo to eat her, for she may be someone’s grandmother, or a Faery, or a wisewoman-witch.
The Hare and I
I myself have roamed the low hills alone at night in the shape of a hare, wearing a long dark gown and a headdress of hare’s ears. Crouching under the full moon, with the smell of goldenrod and witchgrass in my nose, has been an eerie experience, plunging the consciousness into the soul of the animal while falling under the spell of the moon. If you want to access the Witchblood, I suggest this guising as a means of merging with the Earthlight and accessing the Hall of Elfhame.
So special has the hare become to me that she found her way into my Gothic Faery Tale, The Golden Stair, as a companion to my villianess, the evil Countess Orzsebet.
Here, one of the Countess’s girls has created a tapestry that reveals the true soul of Orzsebet, and the dark forces working through her:
“Treszka unrolled the linen and revealed a length of remarkable needlework. The subject was strange, disturbing, for it showed forth something that I knew, deep inside, should never be revealed.
On a background of tiny, precise flowers called millefluers, a golden-haired Goddess stood under a raining golden willow tree clad in a green-gold gown. A troupe of white hares danced around her in an eerie ring. Hidden in the top of the tree, a dark face brooded; perhaps it was a witch’s face, or a spirit, from whose eyes dripped tears of blood. The blood drops fell, spattering the willow fronds, and staining the Goddess’s pale cloak with crimson points like bloody ermine’s tails. The stitching was exquisite, impeccable, and the colors perfectly natural, and yet decorative in their effect. I shivered.
“Treszka, where did you get the idea to make a picture like this? It is extraordinary! I can hardly believe my mother would let you take it away.”
“She doesn’t like it, so she says, but it does show what I can do. She wants you to learn to embroider flowers, my Lady.”
I had to wonder what my mother was playing at, for she knew my eyesight was impaired and that flowers were detailed and called for small, delicate stitches. I was also surprised she allowed Treszka’s handiwork out of her sight, for the perverse, witchy image was surely inspired by her if it was not a direct portrait of her.
“Treszka, have you always made pictures like this?” I asked.
“Not really, though I do like to embroider animals and flowers. I just put the Countess’s likeness in the midst, I suppose.” She held the tapestry up and looked it over. “Do you like the rose-colored background? I would have preferred dark blue, for it is meant to be a night scene.”
“Thank God it isn’t,” I murmured. “And who might the hares be?”
“The girls, perhaps. But not really,” she laughed nervously. “It is the same with this figure in the top of the tree. I don’t know where it came from, but it was impossible not to weave it into the tree. Oh, my Lady! I am not used to great aristocratic houses, but only fields and cottages. Places with secrets are frightening sometimes.”
“ Yes, they are.”
The Origin of the Easter Bunny
Celebrated on the first full moon after Spring Equinox, Easter, is named after the Anglo-Saxon fertility Goddess, Ostara. In her role as rising sun on the first days of Spring, she wears a white hare’s head with its long ears, like horns, signifying spiritual power. A white hare stands at attention beside her. I imagine this scene on a rose colored ground of millifleurs, like the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
As a fertility Goddess, she is also a Mother. One day, to amuse her children, Ostara turned her pet bird into a hare. In this new form, it laid bunch of brightly colored eggs which she gave to the children as gifts. This is the origin of the Easter egg.
I shall end this essay with an evocative quote from Teri Windling on the magic of the hare:
“Now, as I walk through Devon lanes in the long twilight of a summer’s evening, rabbits dart out of the hedgerows, stare at me with unblinking eyes, and disappear again over the crest of the shadowed hills. I’m reminded of a 19th century children’s poem by Walter de la Mare:
In the black furror 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 “Whsst! witch-hare,”
Away like a ghostie o’er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.”
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