Thursday, September 9, 2010
The Rabbit and the Hare.
The Rabbit and the Hare.
The belief of animism was also integral to tribal belief, animism is the understanding that all things in nature possess a spirit and presence of their own, so that rocks trees and the land were things to be learned from - as well as the ancestral spirits, who acted as guides for the future well-being of the tribe (although some beliefs about time were radically different to our own understanding).
Considering a rabbit's foot lucky is actually an ancient tradition in much of the world. At least as far back as the 7th century BCE, the rabbit was a talismanic symbol in Africa, and in Celtic Europe, rabbits were considered lucky as well. Thus keeping a part of the rabbit was considered good fortune, and a rabbit's foot was a handy means by which to benefit from the luck of the rabbit.
These traditions were not marred much by the onset of other more prominent religions like Christianity. Even in the strongly Catholic Ireland of the Middle Ages, there were still superstitious beliefs regarding fairies or the Tuatha De Danaan who resided underground. Gradually, as Christianity spread in Ireland, the old Gods of Celtic belief became associated with hell. Rabbits were thought to have special protective powers needed for residing underground. Thus the rabbit's foot could be protection from evil spirits, and is even considered so today.
Other ancient groups imbued the rabbit's foot with specific forms of luck. To the Chinese, a rabbit's foot may be a symbol of prosperity. Also the known proclivity for rabbits to reproduce quickly and breed often has been noted in numerous cultures past and present. The rabbit’s foot can be carried by women who wish to get pregnant, or who wish to enhance their sexual lives. Sexuality in general is also related to the wish for abundance, fertile crops, and good weather.
Some traditions of how to collect a rabbit's foot state that they're only lucky when taken from cross-eyed rabbits living in graveyards. On the night of a full moon, you must shoot the rabbit with a silver bullet. Further, only the left hind foot is lucky in many traditions. If you can manage all that you don’t need a rabbit’s foot. You must be the luckiest person around.
Hares feature in Irish folklore, and the hare is older than our island’s culture itself. The Irish hare has been immortalised as the animal gracing the Irish pre-decimal three pence piece. Hare mythology exists throughout almost every ancient culture and when the first settlers colonised Ireland, the Irish hare was already an iconic figure. There are many examples in Celtic mythology, and storytellers still relate tales of women who can shape-change into hares. The cry of the Banshee foretelling death might be legend but it may have parallels with the Irish hare of today as it struggles to avoid extinction in modern times.
For ancient communities that had struggled to survive the winter with limited food reserves, eggs were often the first of nature’s bounty to save them from starvation. No wonder then that the hare was revered as a symbol of life and endowed with magical powers.
In some parts of Ireland hares continue to be celebrated. The legendary ‘White Hare of Creggan’ can be seen at the An Creagan Visitor Centre in County Tyrone and its white silhouette still adorns local houses.
The Celts believed that the goddess Eostre's favourite animal and attendant spirit was the hare. It represented love, fertility and growth and was associated with the Moon, dawn and Easter, death, redemption and resurrection. Eostre changed into a hare at the full Moon. The hare was sacred to the White Goddess, the Earth Mother, and as such was considered to be a royal animal. Boudicca was said to have released a hare as a good omen before each battle and to divine the outcome of battle by the hare's movements. She took a hare into battle with her to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.
The Celtic warrior Oisin hunted a hare and wounded it in the leg, forcing it to seek refuge in a clump of bushes. When Oisin followed it he found a door leading into the ground and he eventually emerged into a huge hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a wound in her leg. The transmigration of the soul is clearly seen in Celtic lore such as this, the life of the body is not the end of the spirit, this is understood to take other forms successively.
In Europe there are wide-spread remnants of a cult of a hare goddess and man has for centuries feared the hare because of the supernatural powers with which he has endowed her solitude, her remoteness and her subtle, natural skills. Active at night, symbolic of the intuitive, and the fickleness of the moon, the hare is an emblem of inconstancy. Like the moon which is always changing places in the sky, hares have illogical habits and are full of mystery and contradictions. Certainly it has never been regarded as an ordinary creature in any part of the world, and in ancient Egypt the hare was used as a Hieroglyph for the word denoting existence
Many divergent cultures link the hare with the moon and Buddhists have a saying about the "shadow of the hare in the moon" instead of the man in the moon. They see the hare as a resurrection symbol. The moon is perhaps the most manifest symbol of this universal becoming, birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth. The moon disappears, dies and is born again, and this underlies most primitive initiation rites, that a being must die before he can be born again on a higher spiritual level.
The symbol of the hare was used deliberately to transfer old pagan religion into a Christian context, and the Albrecht Durer woodcut of the Holy Family (1471-1 528) clearly depicts three hares at the family’s feet. Later superstition changed the Easter hare into the Easter rabbit or bunny, far less threatening than the ancient pagan symbol and very few people will be aware that the hare ever held such standing.
As the ancient beliefs died, superstitions about the hare were rife and many witches were reported to have hares as their familiars.
Today we talk of a lucky rabbit's foot but for many generations a hare's paw or foot was used as a charm against evil, a throw-back to the long forgotten belief in Eostre the Celtic dawn goddess.
When you next see hares boxing in the fields, remember that they are not simply soft cute animals. They carry millennia of mythology, folklore and tradition with them. Mankind's reverence has helped them to shape the rituals and traditions that we still celebrate across the world.