Friday, March 29, 2013


The Rabbit and the Hare.

The belief of animism is 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).

Around this time of year many people celebrate the Christian festival of Easter. The symbol of fertility associated with this is one based upon the Rabbit/Hare. Below is a short summary of some of the superstitions and folklore surrounding these animals.

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.  One might argue that it's not so lucky for 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.
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).

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.

The Hare.

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.

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.

Keep smiling.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The History of Irish Soda Bread.

If you thought that soda bread was Irish then you would be wrong. It appears that honour belongs to the First Nation Indians on the American continent who used soda ash in baking their bread. Now we have made it our own and it has become known as Irish Soda Bread. This turn of events was brought about by poverty for the use of soft wheat flour and bicarbonate of soda was ideal for making what was then known as ‘Quick bread’ getting it to the table a lot faster than yeast based bread. In1908 2/3rds of the flour used in Ireland was soft wheat from the U.S. 90% of the flour used in Belfast and 80% of the flour used in Dublin was soft wheat
In 1850 it was reported that during the failure of the potato a large amount of bicarbonate of soda was used by the poor in the preparation of bread. This resulted in a shortage of bicarbonate of soda and unscrupulous dealers rose their prices accordingly. Crooked dealers also sold substitutes for bicarbonate of soda that caused many deaths.

In 1835 pre-packed ‘Royal Baking Powder’ was introduced. This combined bicarbonate of soda with cream of tartar to create the acid/alkali combination resulting in the release of carbon dioxide gas this in turn causes the bread to rise. It was introduced in baking around 1840, how it was first introduced is still unsure.
Sour milk was used in the making of soda bread in Ireland in the early years, a great way of using up something that would be normally thrown out.  However, buttermilk is used today. If you wish you can now buy a buttermilk powder that you just add to water.

Before baking your loaf, cut a cross on the top with a sharp knife. This is said to ward off the devil and protect the household , in reality it allows the bread to heat right through.  The shape of the loaf can differ depending on where you live. In the Southern part of Ireland it is shaped and baked as a round loaf with the cross marked on the top. In the Northern part of the Island it is flattened into a round disc and then divided into four equal triangular shapes. Each is then cooked on a flat griddle.
Bread making formed an important part of daily life within an Irish household. Most families lived in isolated farmhouses and with kitchens that had an open fireplace and no oven. Bread was baked on griddles or three legged black iron pots (Dutch ovens), hung on a crane over a turf fire. Due to the fact that the pot had three legs you could place it directly onto the hot embers, place a few hot embers onto its lid and here it would bake. You ended up with a lovely loaf that was tender and dense with a hard crust and a sour, tangy taste.

In our house n south Mayo soda bread was called farl, (pronounced farel).  The word derives from the Gaelic Fardel which literally means ‘four parts’ and this refers to the way you cut the cross into the top and when the bread is cut into four quarters when baked.
When the bread has been cooked it is wrapped in a clean tea towel until it has cooled down and this keeps the crust soft. Unless of course you eat it straight away. All that’s left to add is fresh butter, jam, and a nice mug of tea. On a cold spring equinox day like today, freezing wind and biting cold rain. A nice slice of farl with a hot mug of tea is just right. Keep smiling and don't forget the jam.