The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/The Hare in Folk-lore


By William George Black, F.S.A.Scot.

TO start with, I shall admit that the hare is regarded as an "uncanny" animal. Sir Thomas Browne tells us that in his time there were lew above threescore years that were not perplexed when a hare crossed their path.[1] Aubrey epitomizes Browne,[2] but in another passage notes the same prejudice, apparently from his own observation.[3] Napier says many a person meeting a hare while going to work would return home and not again venture out until the next meal had been eaten, "for beyond that the evil influence did not extend."[4] From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.[5] Dalyell couples the hare with the weasel as ominous.[6] At the Wheal Vor mine it is linked in similar ill-fame with the white rabbit; the appearance of either in one of the engine-houses presages a fatal accident in the mine.[7] These are a few out of many illustrations of the bad repute of the hare.

When we enquire into the origin of any superstition it is prudent not to limit investigation into the exact form of the folk-lore which it is intended, if possible, to explain: let us, therefore, see with what other qualities than those of mere power to frighten we find the hare credited.

In the first place it is confessedly one of the most melancholy of animals in popular opinion. When Falstaff complains that he is as melancholy as a gib-cat, or a lugged bear. Prince Henry suggests "Or an old lion, or a lover's lute;" and when Falstaff, in the same vein, goes on with "Yea, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe," the Prince replies "What sayest thou to a hare, or the melancholy of Moor-ditch?" and brings down upon himself the retort, "Thou hast the most unsavoury similes, and art, indeed, the most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young Prince." Dyce cites from Turberville (through Staunton), "The hare first taught us the use of the hearbe called Wyld Succory, which is very excellent for those who are disposed to be melancholicke: shee herself e is one of the most melancholicke beasts that is, and to heale her own infirmitie she goeth commonly to sit under that hearbe."[8] In a note to a long passage from Levinus Lemnius, de Complexionibus—which may be consulted by those who care—Dr. White Kennett supplies us with an excellent reason for the melancholy of some intelligent hares culminating in suicide:

"Memorand: It is found by experience that when one keepes a hare alive, and feedeth him till he have occasion to eat him, if he telles before he killes him that he will doe so, the hare will thereupon be found dead, having killed himself."[9]

Cogan, at least, would not have advised the death of a hare with a view to the table, for he tells us that "hare-flesh beside that it is hard of digestion, maketh grosse and melancholy bloud, and is one of the foure kindes of flesh that breed melancholy, mentioned before in the chapter of these. Wherefore it is not for the goodness of the flesh that this silly beast is so often chased with hounds and hunters, but for pastime. Yet thus much will I say to the commendation of the hare, and of the defence of hunters' toyle, that no one beast, be it never so great, is profitable to so many and so diverse uses in physicke as the hare and partes thereof, as Matth. [lib. 2, Dios. cap. 18] sheweth .... The ankle-bone of the foote of an hare is good against the cramp."[10]

In the Kaffir story of "the great chief of animals," it is to a hare that the woman who has to go from home for a time leaves the care of her children; but the hare is a poor guardian, for she runs away to a distance to watch, and when the terrible monster comes and demands the names of the children, she gives them at once, upon which the animal immediately swallows them entire.[11]

But the hare is not regarded always as merely melancholy, silly, or frightening without apparent reason. The hare is often credited with supernatural powers. It was certainly made use of in augury—on a celebrated occasion in the history of our own country by Boadicea[12]— but its legendary association with witchcraft is not, in my opinion, directly traceable to any traditional augury. The hare appears to be Like the cat, an ally of the witch. Fishers of Fifeshire "look on all maukens (hares) to be devils and witches, and if they but see a sight of a dead mauken it sets them a trembling."[13] Mr. Gregor notes that to say to a fisherwoman of the north-east of Scotland that there is a hare's foot in her creel, or to say to a fisherman that there is a hare in his boat, arouses great ire, and calls forth strong words; the word "hare" is not pronounced at sea.[14] In Cornwall a maiden who has been deceived and dies, haunts her deceiver in the guise of a white hare, sometimes saving his life, but in the end causing his death.[15] So, too, in South Northamptonshire the running of a hare along the street of a village portends fire to some house in the immediate neighbourhood.[16] In the Isle of Man they say women are turned into hares, and can only be shot with a silver sixpence. When a witch is in shape of a hare, the Scotch continue, she can only be hit by a crooked sixpence.[17] "It is unlucky," Dr. Brewer corroborates, "for a hare to cross your path, because witches were said to transform themselves into hares."[18] Indeed, the greatest of all northern wizards. Sir Michael Scott, was turned into a hare by the witch of Falsehope. Several curious hare stories will be found in Mr. Henderson's valuable notes on north-country lore.[19]

The spot which discovered witches to the world sometimes resembled a hare's foot in the experience of continental experts,[20] but it must be borne in mind "ce signe n'est pas toujours de même forme ou figure; tantôt c'est l'image d'un lièvre, tantôt une patte de crapaud, tantôt une orraignée, im petit chien, un loir."[21]

Having gathered together these few illustrations of the unhappy repute of the hare, I shall now similarly group some instances of an altogether different association of ideas.

The hare is the good genius of the Calmuck.[22] One family of the Moguis believed that they were descended from a hare, and that after death their spirits entered into hares again. They accordingly worshipped the hare, as did other families the deer, the bear, the prairie-wolf, and the rattlesnake for similar reasons.[23] The hare was regarded with superstitious reverence by the Indians of the North; the rabbit was the "sign" of the divine years in the Mexican calendar.[24] In China we remember that the people of Yo-yang would not hunt the hare because it was a telluric genius. "Albino hares," says Dr. Dennys, "are regarded as omens of good, and their appearance is a mark of, heavenly approval."[25] It was into a hare that the highest lord of heaven, according to the Mongolian belief, changed himself to feed a hungry traveller, and does not therefore the hare sit in the moon? The Ceylon tale tells how Buddha was wandering through a wood and met a hare, whom he told, in answer to his question, that he was poor and hungry. "Art thou hungry?" said the hare; "make a fire then; then kill, cook, and eat me." Buddha made a fire, and the hare leapt into it. Then Buddha exercised his skill as a god, rescued the benevolent hare from the flames, and placed it in the moon. In Indian superstition Chandras, the god of the moon, is said to carry a hare. Children in Swabia may not make shadows on the wall to represent the sacred Moon Hare.[26] In a Kaffir tale, the hare, if not playing the part of a god, appears as the very crafty Ulysses of animals. The animals, we learn, had made a kraal and appointed one after another the coney, the muishond, the duiker, the bluebuck, and the porcupine to keep watch over the fat stored therein, and to signal the approach of the inkalimeva (a fabulous animal). Those all failed ill the duty and were killed by the other animals. The sixth time that fat is put into the kraal the hare is selected as keeper of the gate, rather against his will. He skilfully makes an end of the dreaded inkalimeva, but as he eats the tail, which should have been reserved for the chief, he has to flee for his life.[27] In Scandinavian mythology Freya is said to have been attended by hares.

Without attempting to found any sweeping generalisation upon the above facts, I may point out that the hare's celebrity is almost as great as its notoriety, and for my own part I am inclined to think that among primitive peoples the hare occupied a very high and honourable place in religion. By-and-by, when animal worship began to yield to something more spiritual, while at the same time the relative character of the hare as contrasted with that of other animals became by experience better known, the hare lost its high estate. It did not at once acquire the repute of being either stupid or inspired by a witch. A blind hare it was, in the North German tale of "The Blue Riband," which ran before the princess, and by plunging in a brook, diving thrice under water, recovered its sight and scampered off, thus teaching her to lead Hans to the same water, with the satisfactory result that after he had plunged in it three times, he, like the hare, recovered his sight.[28] That the flesh of the hare was not eaten in Britain because Boadicea used the hare in augury, could be no reason for the Chinese refusing to eat of it from the earliest dawn of Chinese history. The animal had been sacred, and the tradition perhaps shown in the use of the hare in augury perhaps was that the remembrance of this holiness long lingered. From primitive regard the descent is generally rapid, and we readily find an explanation for the hare's connection with witchcraft in the degradation of its character from the days of Buddha—a sacred animal becomes an uncanny animal, as heathen gods become devils when their worshippers change their faith. The process is a very common one.

It is curious to note that in the same way that many worthy people have from time to time consulted professed charmers, crediting them, through a reason never discussed, with supernatural powers, so the unhappy hare, like the unhappy cat, although banned and despised, is readily made use of in folk medicine. Thus we read in Notes and Queries of but a year ago that a Dorsetshire mother in the autumn of 1881 was somewhat troubled with the care of recently-born twins. "On paying a visit to inquire, after the mother, my wife was consulted as to the desirability of a dose of hare's brains (as a soporific). Mentioning the circumstance to my keeper in the hope of eliciting some information as to the prevalence of the belief, he told me that about a fortnight ago the wife of the keeper of the adjoining manor, who had been recently confined, called at his house and told his wife that she had been down to the squire's house to beg a hare's head from the cook in order to give the brains to her baby as a sedative."[29] Cogan, we have seen, mentions that the ankle-bone of the foot of a hare is good against cramp. The hare appears to be occasionally employed as an Easter emblem in Germany.[30]

  1. Vulgar Errors, ed. 1658, p. 320.
  2. Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 1881, p. 109.
  3. Ibid. p. 26.
  4. West of Scotland Folk-Lore, p. 117.
  5. Folk-Lore Record, vol. v. p. 48. Browne mentions meeting a fox as presaging some future imposture, Vulgar Errors, p. 320.
  6. Darker Superstitions of Scotland, p. 424.
  7. Jones' Credulities Past and Present, 1880, p. 137.
  8. Dyce's Shakespeare, Glossary, p. 201. See also Cockayne's Saxon Leechdoms, vol. i. p. 227 (Herbarium Apuleii, cxiv.)
  9. Aubrey's Remains of Gentilisme, pp. 101-102.
  10. Haven of Health, 1605, pp. 118-119.
  11. Theal's Kaffir Folk-Lore, p. 164.
  12. Brand (Popular Antiquities, ed. 1877, p. 690) will have it that because the ancient Britons used the hare for purposes of divination, its consequent absence from the table gave rise to its ill repute in ordinary matters.
  13. History of Buck-haven, in Fifeshire (Chapbook), Folk-Lore Record, vol. ii. p. 200. "The Claddagh fishermen, Galway, would not go out to fish if they saw a fox," &c. Ibid. vol. iv. p. 98.
  14. Gregor, Folk-Lore of N.E. of Scotland, pp. 128, 129.
  15. Hunt's Romances and Broils of the West of England, Second Series, p. 112.
  16. Choice Notes (Folk-Lore), p. 16.
  17. Ibid. p. 27. Gregor, p. 128.
  18. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p. 386.
  19. Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties, ed. 1879, pp. 201 et seq.
  20. Dalyell, p. 576.
  21. De la Démonialité, par le R. P. Sinistrari d'Ameuo, traduit des Latin par Isidore Liseux, 1876, § 23, pp. 23 et seq.
  22. Conway's Demonology, vol. i. pp. 124, 125.
  23. Dorman's Origin of Primitive Superstitions, 1881, p. 254.
  24. Ibid. p. 256. "Wabasso, who fled to the north as soon as he saw the light and was changed into a white rabbit, under that form became canonised."
  25. Folk-Lore of China, 1876, p. 64.
  26. Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, vol. ii. p. 597. The writer of an article on "Some Solar and Lunar Myths," Cornhill Magazine, October, 1882, refers to the above passages in Grimm's work, but gives the pagination of the earlier edition, p. 679.
  27. Theal's Kaffir Folk-Lore, pp. 168 et seq.
  28. Thorpe's Yule-Tide Stories, 1880, p. 435.
  29. Notes and Queries, Nov. 19, 1882, 6th S. vol. iv. p. 406. See also Cockayne's Saxon Leechdoms vol. i. p. 343.
  30. Ibid. p. 388.