If I were to choose an animal totem, it would be the wild, shy, magical creature that we know as the hare.
As a boy I used to see a lot of hares, especially in Spring, when they come out to “box”. There is something truly fey about them. Is it the fact that they seem to be able to disappear in the twinkling of an eye, or that they dance under the full moon? Is it their elusive shyness, or the vulnerability with which they nest in “forms” in the grass? Whatever the reason, hares hold a special place not just in my heart, but in cultures all over the world.
In the East, the hare is sacred to Buddha. One tale tells of a time when Buddha asked all the animals to bring him some food for a feast that would be held later that day. That night, with Buddha waiting beside a large bonfire, the animals bring various portions of different things for him to eat. The hare has brought nothing. Instead, he flings himself onto the fire, saying that although he cannot offer anything, he will give himself. With a smile, Buddha takes the hare out of the fire and breathes new life into him, thanking him for his devotion, but telling him that the beauty of life is in the living.
In Europe the hare was sacred to the Celtic/Roman goddess of the Dawn, Eostre. Today we still celebrate Eostre’s Festival at “Easter”, but the goddess’s sacred totem has been relegated to the cosy, domesticated “Easter Bunny.”
It seems the quiet, endearing hare is easily pushed aside by the rabbit. In England and Ireland, where I have spent much of my life, the hare was indigenous, with rabbits only being introduced by the Romans (who wanted a good supply of fresh meat for their troops). Now, rabbits are everywhere whereas hares are not nearly so common. One reason for this is that rabbits are far more aggressive and territorial. My children and I once saw this first-hand.
It was one of those chill, frosty Easter mornings, when Winter seems intent on giving us a last reminder of its presence. I was up early, crunching my way through the garden to hide eggs for our regular Easter Egg Hunt. Coming back inside I filled the kettle and looked out over the valley, filled with that peculiar excitement that comes from anticipating a Festival Day. As I gazed out over the rising mist, I was surprised to see two hares. They had appeared as if from no where.
I rushed upstairs to wake the children and for the next half hour or so we all watched the Easter hares, loping around with that distinctive, gawky gait of theirs and then stopping to nibble at the grass. What a wonderful Easter-morning treat that was!
Just then two rabbits popped out from the old hedge at the bottom of the garden. (You can always tell which is which, by the way. The trick is this: if you think you are looking at a hare but are not sure it will be a rabbit, because when you really are looking at a hare you’ll know it! They are much bigger and move in a totally different way; less lollopy, more like a small dog!)
We were all amazed to see one of the rabbits chase the hares away. At twice the size, you might expect the hares to stand their ground. Not a bit of it. The rabbit ran forwards; the two hares ran off a short distance. The rabbit ran forwards again; the two hares retreated. This happened several times until eventually Lord and Lady Hare decided that enough was enough and took their stately exit, harried all the way by the upstart rabbit!
I once saw a large chocolate-brown hare, dusky as evening, in the garden. He came just once and was never seen again. I think it’s this elusive, twilight quality of the hare that I love most of all. They are unpredictable, arriving unexpectedly and then gone in the blink of an eye, leaving you wondering if they were ever there at all. I always feel privileged, elevated somehow, after encountering one.
One abiding image of the hare is where three of the animals race around in a circle, each of them with one ear that is solely their own and another that is shared. This image is as old as the hills and can be found all over the world. There has been much debate about its significance. To me it is most deeply connected to the magic of the moon and the monthly cycle of women, to the Triple Goddess in all her aspects and the three Rays of Inspiration of the druids.
Like the Celtic triple spiral, the triple hare speaks of the unending cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth. I have a wall-plaque with three interconnecting hares looking down on me as I write.
For lovers of the hare, there is plenty of beautiful contemporary hare-based artwork to be found. One of my particular favourites is Karen Davis’s blog Moonlight and Hares (see http://moonlightandhares.blogspot.com/). I’ve used her pictures in this post.
Like the hare itself, there is something wonderfully fey in her work. If you know any others, please drop me a line!
More on Hare-Magic another time, but for now…best wishes!
PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might like to find out more about my books Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys (including lots of reviews from readers) at any of these links. Thank you!