Sunday, May 15, 2011
Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twenty Two.
Rabbit . Coinín. Irish Hare. Giorria Éireannach.
A hare was a dreaded animal to see on a May morning. An old Irish legend tells of a hare being spotted sucking milk from a cow. The hare was chased by hounds and received a bad wound and it made its way into an old house to hide. When the house was searched all that was found was an old woman hiding a wound. The woman of the house had a central role in dairy production. From this fact springs the idea that women were those essentially involved in the theft of the farmers "profit". Old, widowed, unmarried or independent women were usually pinpointed as the main culprits.
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.
Fertility rituals: place a rabbit skin under your bed to bring fertility and abundance to your sexual activities. If you're opposed to the use of real fur, use some other symbol of the rabbit that you're more comfortable with.
The obvious one -- a rabbit's foot is said to bring good luck to those who carry it, although one might argue that it's not so lucky for the rabbit.
To bring yourself boundless energy, carry a talisman engraved or painted with a rabbit's image.
If you have wild rabbits or hares that live in your yard, leave them an offering of lettuce, shredded carrots, cabbage, or other fresh greens. In some magical traditions, the wild rabbit is associated with the deities of spring.
Rabbits and hares are able to go to ground quickly if in danger. Add a few rabbit hairs to a witch bottle for protection magic.
In some legends, rabbits and hares are the messengers of the underworld -- after all, they come and go out of the earth as they please. If you're doing a meditation that involves an underworld journey, call upon the rabbit to be your guide.
Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape–shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. Caesar recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes.
In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother — perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape–shift into hares by moonlight.
The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.
As Christianity took hold in western Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favourable light — viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape.
Although rabbits, in the Christian era, were still sometimes known as good luck symbols (hence the tradition of carrying a "lucky rabbit’s foot"), they also came to be seen as witch–associated portents of disaster.
Despite this suspicious view of rabbits and their association with fertility and sexuality, Renaissance painters used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey a different meaning altogether: one of chastity and purity. It was generally believed that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures of the Madonna and Child. The gentle timidity of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Titian’s Madonna with Rabbit (1530).
From 1893 edition of Folklore: “Country people in Kerry don’t eat hares; the souls of their grandmothers are supposed to have entered into them.
Hares were strongly associated with witches. The hare is quiet and goes about its business in secret. They are usually solitary, but occasionally they gather in large groups and act very strangely, much like a group of people having a conference. A hare can stand on its hind legs like a person; in distress, it utters a strange, almost human cry which is very disconcerting to the listener. Watching such behaviour, people claimed that a witch could change her form at night and become a Hare. In this shape she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars. These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck, and best avoided.
A hare crossing one's path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, caused much distress. Still, the exact opposite superstition claimed that carrying a rabbit's or hare's foot brought good luck. There is no logic to be found in superstitions.
Hares are considered unlucky, as the witches constantly assume their form in order to gain entrance to a field where they can bewitch the cattle. A man once fired at a hare he met in the early morning, and having wounded it, followed the track of the blood till it disappeared within a cabin. On entering he found Nancy Molony, the greatest witch in all the county, sitting by the fire, groaning and holding her side. And then the man knew that she had been out in the form of a hare, and he rejoiced over her discomfiture.
A tailor one time returning home very late at night from a wake, or better, very early in the morning, saw a hare sitting on the path before him, and not inclined to run away. He approached, with his stick raised to strike her, as he did so he distinctly heard a voice saying, "Don't kill it." However, he struck the hare three times, and each time heard the voice say, "Don't kill it." The last blow knocked the poor hare quite dead and immediately a great big weasel sat up, and began to spit at him. This greatly frightened the tailor who, grabbed the hare, and ran off as fast as he could. Seeing him look so pale and frightened, his wife asked the cause, on which he told her the whole story; and they both knew he had done wrong, and offended some powerful witch, who would be avenged. However, they dug a grave for the hare and buried it; for they were afraid to eat it, and thought that now perhaps the danger was over. However, the next day the man became suddenly speechless, and died before the seventh day was over, without a word evermore passing his lips; and then all the neighbours knew that the witch-woman had taken her revenge.
Top image:Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine (The Virgin and the rabbit). 1525-1530 Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris
Lower image: Hare in The Moon.