The hare is a very popular animal symbol in the new age and pagan community. It’s common to see many ‘moon gazing’ hare statues, paintings, figures and everything else you can imagine. It’s become more and more popular, and this year especially seems to have an explosion of hare-related merchandise!
So what does the hare represent? Besides the hare being an elegant and beautiful animal it is also an important part of our cultural heritage. This post will help you learn about the hare, the folklore surrounding it and it’s meaning as a totem or spirit guide.
Hares are mammals which are related to rabbits and are in the zoological order Lagomorpha. Lagomorphs have been confused with rodents for many centuries but are distinct from rodents in that they have a second pair of incisor teeth in the upper mandible behind the main pair.
Although similar to rabbits, hares are also remarkably different. They are longer-limbed, swifter than their cousins and have more elongated features. At full speed, hares can reach 35-45mph depending on the source, making them the fastest land mammal in the UK.
European hares (Lepus europaeus), also known as brown hares are widespread throughout most of the UK where they were originally introduced by the Romans about 2000 years ago. This is also most likely the image of the hare that you are most familiar with. However, there is a species of hare that is actually native to the UK: The mountain hare (Lepus timidus), sometimes known as the Arctic hare.
Hares are herbivores and feed mainly on grasses, herbs, fungi, roots and cereal crops, their diet changing with the seasons. They are prey to a number of animals including birds of prey, stoats and foxes. Their main form of defense is their incredible speed, using twists and turns on their powerful legs to outrun their predators.
Male hares are called ‘Jacks’, with females being ‘Jills’. Their courtship involves boxing and this behaviour gave rise to the term ‘mad March hare’. Contrary to popular belief, this behaviour is not two males fighting but in fact an un-receptive female hare pushing off a male.
Unlike rabbits, hares nest on the surface in a depression in the grass. The litters may consist of three or four young (leverets), with hares producing up to three litters a year. Their breeding period lasts from January to August. Brown hares have a typical lifespan of twelve years in the wild.
With heavier farming came more problems for the hare. Changes to the hares habitat due to land being turned into farmland caused them to become opportunistic feeders causing devastation to crops. They were hunted heavily throughout the last century as a pest species causing their numbers to drop dramatically.
Hare coursing has been illegal in Wales and England since 2004 and the consumption of the animal as a dish has almost completely stopped. There are also now various organizations and charities working to conserve this unique and enigmatic animal, giving the hare a better chance than it has had in almost three centuries.
Hares in Folklore
The hare is an animal which has been cloaked in mysterious for thousands of years. It’s nocturnal behaviors caused humans to see very little of it’s habits and its sudden appearance in spring may have been the reason many cultures see the hare as an animal which could freely move between this world and others.
The hare has been very closely associated with various deities for antiquity and they were thought to bring luck, positive change, transformation and fertility. They were also associated with the unknown, rebirth and death. In Celtic mythology, hares are associated with the Goddess Eostre, a Goddess of the Moon an life and was said to shapeshift into a hare at each full moon.
As the hare was a sacred animal to the Celts, it was taboo to eat in the Celtic tribes of Britain, although in some parts of the island it was permitable to hunt hares on Beltane. It was said in Ireland that to eat a hare was to ‘eat ones grandmother’, most likely due to the Goddess beliefs of the time.
The rebirth aspect of the hare appears to come from it’s association with Spring, the time of life and rebirth. The hare is believed to be the original ‘Easter bunny’, as hare nests (forms) look remarkably like lapwing nests. How strange it must have been to find ‘hare eggs’ around the spring time!
The hare is very closely associated with the moon and not just in the British Isles. Multiple countries across the world have their own versions of hare and moon myths. What we know as ‘the man in the moon’ in Western culture is more commonly known as the ‘hare (or rabbit) in the moon’ in Asia, where it is depicted with a mortar and pestle, or pounding a mochi (a type of rice cake in Japan).
Hares were considered to be androgynous or able to shift sex, sometimes with the phases of the moon. This shape-shifting belief strengthened the belief that hares were messangers or symbols of the Goddess, perhaps even the Goddess herself. Interestingly, in the Welsh myth of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Gwion Bach transforms into a hare whilst fleeing from Ceridwen.
With Christianity and the medieval period came the inversion of various old pagan symbols such as the cat and the hare. They were demonized and seen to be witches’ familiars, or even witches in disguise. Hares are often out grazing under the light of the full moon which in the time was associated with the devil, lunacy and madness and so like the wolf, they were seen as incredibly negative animals.
It was a common belief in that witches could transform into hares. This could be because the ‘hare’s parliament’, an unusual behaviour in which a group of hares sit facing each other in a circle reminded them of depictions of witches covens. This behaviour also usually takes place around the full moon when witches were believed to meet and perform rituals and spells. This is also most likely were the symbol of the moon-gazing hare comes from.
Hare’s feet were carried as talisman against misfortune or illness in some parts of Britain, or even to help actors ‘shift’ their roles. Historically their genitals were also carried with the belief that it would prevent infertility. In Scotland a hare’s foot found on a boat was considered a curse and even mentioning a hare at sea was considered incredibly unlucky. In the 1800’s recommending that the person who encountered the animal to repeat a protective chant should they see one.
Hares in British Culture
Hares have long been depicted in British art from sculptures to paintings. The most popular images of the hare are most certainly the ‘mad march hare’ and the ‘moon gazing hare’. With it’s elongated and delicate features the hare is often portrayed through anthropomorphicism in children’s books and TV shows. One of the best known depictions of a hare in a book is of course Lewis Caroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ This magnetism to the hare as a symbol is not a new thing either; there are multiple depictions of hares in ancient carvings and church architecture.
One of the most recognized symbols depicting the hare is the three hare symbol. It’s still a mystery what this symbol really means or where it came from. It can be found across Britain and although is believed to be a pagan symbol, is often found in churches and other Christian places of worship. In a city very close to my heart, Chester (being from nearby Mold) there lies a floor tile in the cathedral dated to around 1400 which shows this symbol. In the Christian pantheon the symbol is believed to represent the holy trinity, though no scholar has been able to accurately discover the true meaning of this reoccurring symbol. The symbol is not just restricted to the British Isles either; it has been found all over Europe and Asia.
Hares symbol on the floor of Chester Cathedral. Image Credit: Chris Chapman
Hare as Spirit Animal
Hares are an animal which represent illumination, intuition, promise and balance. They are strongly feminine in their energy and often come into your life when you need to look within and figure things out. Time to calm down and take a moment!
With a hare spirit animal your intuition will often receive a boost and you may become a lot more aware of signs and symbols around you. It’s likely that you’re missing something important!
The hare asks you to value what you have in life and to ensure nothing is against your personal ethics and morals. If you are being pressurized to do anything you don’t want to now is the time to make your escape. Remember that it’s your life.
Hares are often spirit animals of artists and other creative people. If you are currently struggling creatively, the hare can help you overcome your block and allow the energy to flow once again.
Anything that you are putting off right now can be negotiated with the power of hare as your ally. Allow things to run their course and don’t try to make things too complicated. Remember that by putting off things you are simply allowing things to build up. It’s best to get things done and out of the way!
I hope you liked this blog post as much as I liked writing it! I will be making further edits in the future and will likely update it when I find out new insights and information.
What does the hare mean to you? Did you read something here that you’d like to discuss? Let me know in the comments below!
I’m also going to do a series of these posts based on native British and European wildlife; if there is an animal you’d like to suggest, go ahead!