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Hares and the Spring Equinox
Fri, 03/20/2009 - 22:52 — Eadha Deora
Spring Equinox, Vernal Equinox, Hare, Hares, Spring
A look at the symbolism behind the Hare and how this makes it perfect for its Spring Equinox or Easter associations, including some interesting facts.
Hares (in America, they call them jackrabbits) are leporids, which is the scientific name for the family group of rabbits and hares. In the UK and Ireland, we have only three types of hares: the Brown or Common hare, the Blue or Mountain Hare and the Irish Hare, which by the way can be found outside of Ireland.
Hares are quite different from rabbits, but are easily mistaken for rabbits because they are such elusive, shy animals. If you have a chance to catch a glimpse of the animal in question, you can identify hares by their length of ears, which are usually distinctly longer than a rabbit's, although this is not true for the soft Mountain Hare. Anatomically speaking, hares possess a significantly larger heart than rabbits. In hares, the heart can weigh from 1 to 1.8% of their total body weight, whereas with rabbits, the heart only weighs about 0.3% of their total body weight. When you think about it, this larger heart gives hares a greater advantage when it comes to pumping blood, which of course increases their powers of running at such speed and endurance enviable in the animal kingdom. Hares have been clocked at travelling as fast as 45 mph. If you managed to look closer at a hare, you'd realise that its hind legs are longer and more powerful than a rabbits too, and that their upper lip is almost completely split, whereas with rabbits, there is a membrane near the nose which helps cover the lips. This is why hares, in old age, show their teeth because of a lack of this particular membrane.
Another difference between hares is that unlike rabbits, they don't build their homes in burrows, but instead build forms, little nests in the grass or ground that help block out the wind. If you wonder how this exposure to the elements affects the little newborn hares, never fear because once again, unlike rabbits, baby hares are born fully furred and with open eyes. Because of this, mother hares have very little attachment to her babies, and they can generally fend for themselves if disaster struck and they were motherless. In fact, baby hares do not live in a form together or with their mother. They usually each have their own separate form and the mother goes around visiting them until they are weaned. Independence is a strong quality of the hare.
In summer and in spring, hares' coats change colour like many other animals, as a way of adapting to their changing environment. In the summer, they can be quite dark brown and ruddy, but in the winter, the brown gets softened with grey, and some in further northern climates actually transform into white. One distinction about hares that doesn't apply to rabbits is that hares usually have black markings in their fur somewhere.
Hares generally live alone or with a mate, but hares do not mate for life. According to our moral standards, hares are as promiscuous as it gets because they will mate with whoever takes their fancy, and there is no attachment formed because of it. Does or female hares usually live in one area all their lives, but bucks travel far and wide, impregnating as many does as will let them. Baby hares are called leverets.But there are certain times of the year when hares for unknown reasons congregate. When there is a number of hares together, we call them a "drove". One of these times of year when hares are known to move together en masse, is around the Spring Equinox. Around this time, it's as if some signal has been given in the natural world and the hares go crazy! Indeed, they become as mad as a march hare! Because they start chasing each other around fields and meadows, frenzies of running for no apparent reason, doing flips and feats of agility, rolling wildly in the grass, and so on. If you've ever seen a cat after catnip or valerian, then you have an idea of exactly how hares act during this season.
One of the things hares are most famous for are their boxing matches. This has long been thought to be competitions of prowess amongst male hares like the fights that go on between other animals such as stags, stallions, boars, etc. Ironically, science has only just discovered that most of the time, this is inaccurate. It is usually a male and a female hare that take to boxing one another. We still have no real idea WHY, but it has been suggested a few times that actually the female is testing the fitness of the male before she decides to have him as her mate, and if she doesn't like him or if she feels isn't ready to mate, then boxing his ears is a good way of telling him to bugger off! This is not only amusing to us humans, but also makes good sense. Also, looking at it from a metaphorical stance, the Equinoxes are a time of balance, between night and day, as well as masculine and feminine. The male and female hares boxing simply perpetuates this idea of balance at the Spring Equinox.
Ancient peoples found hares one of the most mysterious and perplexing animals around. Hares were thought to be hermaphrodites, male one month and female the next month. Even in the old Welsh laws this belief is perpetuated. Animals were all set down in lists and given values based on their age and gender. So a young female cat had a different compensation value to a kitten or a tomcat, etc. With hares, there is only one flat compensation price, because as it stated, the hare changed its gender from month to month. This belief about hares lived on even into the 19th Century, amongst Irish, Welsh and English farmers. The ancient Greeks asserted this was so too, and associated hares thus with powers of self-impregnation and something we now call superfoetation.
Superfoetation is "the fertilization of an already pregnant female which causes the simultaneous development of eggs of two different ovarian cycles within the genital tract." So when the female comes to the end of her term (usually between 40-50 days) and gives birth, she will already have been advancing on with a second pregnancy without having to wait to mate and get pregnant again. This doubles the production of young. It is something that almost all ancient peoples were convinced of in hares, so you can easily see why the hare was so strongly associated with fertility and fecundity. I did try to do research to find out more about superfoetation, but it seems to be an area of debate still among scientists, so superfoetation is under question as being fact. As far as I know, scientists don't have proof definitely one way or the other. I would certainly like to find out myself, if they did.
The ancient Mediterranean peoples also all believed that the male hare could also become pregnant. One Greek writer named Aelianus gives an account in his writings about how a male hare was caught and as it was being cut open, they found three baby leverts almost fully formed. Whether these ancient peoples made some significant mistakes about hares or not, it is still interesting to know what they believed, because it gives insight into things like their reverence for hares, as super-fertile shapeshifters and miraculous acts of natural alchemy. For example, most ancient peoples believed that hares could be dead but come back to life again. On top of this, hares have regularly been observed by country folk to leap about in circles. This gave rise to the belief that if you saw a hare going clockwise, this was very good luck, but if it was going counterclockwise or widdershins, this was bad luck, and if it was circling your house widdershins, then be sure that a cruel fate is about to befall you. Of course the circle is a very significant symbol of eternity and the perpetuation of life. Hares are also known to prefer to breed on the edge between a woodland and a field, out in the sun. Such connections to liminality and the fertile nature of the sun cannot be overlooked as surely it would not have been overlooked by our pagan ancestors.
Going back to the idea of balance between the masculine and feminine at the Equinox, we mustn't forget that many religions and myths, especially those derived from mystics and shamans, believe that the true nature of ourselves and the divine is found in the union of opposites. And from this union of the Masculine and Feminine, all Creation breaks forth into life and consciousness. It then makes sense that anything in nature that brings together the masculine and feminine, be it sexual intercourse, self-replicating plants, or in this case, hares who interchanged between male and female, were all held as some of the highest most sacred subjects in our world .. because they embody the actual creative powers of the universe.
For many of the reasons stated above, the hare has long been thought of as a mediator of the sacred. But unlike animals such as the horse, bull and cow who were highly revered by the sun-worshipping agriculturists after the Agricultural Revolution in the Neolithic Era, the hare and humanity goes back even further. Although rare, archaeologists have found cave art depictions of hares from Paleolithic times alongside other animals such as the auroch, deer, and so forth. These most ancient ancestors of ours, who lived by hunting and gathering, and in many ways lived in a similar pattern to the hare by their far-stretched roamings and impermanent homes, also lived primarily by the moon and held the moon in reverence perhaps even more-so than the sun.
It is no surprise then that the hare is so closely associated with the moon, particularly the full moon, a connection found in mythology and folktales all over the world, India, China, Africa, Mexico, North America, and Europe at least. This association was essentially a positive and powerful one in the minds of humanity until the medieval period when the moon was forcefully associated with lunacy, madness and the devil, thus giving hares a bad name, one almost as enigmatic as the wolf, another lunar creature. Indeed, hares were often called "moon-struck", another way of saying 'mad'. At surface level, it's easy to see why hares are given lunar qualities. Hares are nocturnal, feeding and travelling most at night, and sleeping and ruminating over their last night's meal in the day. When hares were more common in Britain, it wouldn't have been unusual when on a moonlit stroll, to see a meadow with a few hares grazing in it, their tall ears and quivering nose outlined against the pearly light of the glowing moon. It's also not coincidence that although their pregnancies last 40 days, this is close enough to the moon's cycle of 28-30 days to give the effect that a doe hare can pop out a new brood every month!
Not only does the hare have lunar connections, but also many Buddhist and Hindu texts describe the hare as a creature of fire, but not just any fire--the same consuming sacrificial fire of the phoenix, then to rise again out of the ashes. The hare in this sense is not just a symbol of cyclical life like the moon and in many tales blatantly depicted as a bringer of reincarnation to mankind, but also in the same way, it becomes a symbol of simultaneous destruction and recreation that is at the very heart of all Life. Life is not just about being creative, but also requires the balance of first being destructive. Once again, we are confronted with an appropriate reminder of the nature of Life at the Equinoxes.
Interestingly, the Egyptian hieroglyph for the verb "to be" or "being" was actually a hare crouched over a squiggly line of water. This "to be" is not so much an auxiliary verb but at that time in Egyptian grammar, more of the idea of being embodied, alive, persisting in being.
For all these reasons, the Hare then is not only associated with the Moon and the Sacred Fire and Spring, but also with the dawn and more importantly, with enlightenment. If you think about it, Spring is the daybreak of the year. The Saxon goddess Eoster or Ostara's name is thought to mean "dawn", so when we celebrate Easter, we are celebrating the dawning of life. Of course Eostere's attendant animal was the hare. The Hare (with a capital 'H' because of its nature as an archetype in man's psyche more than an actual fact) then is also all about new beginnings, rejoicing at the rebirth of Life and the full potential in store for us ahead. Traditionally, the Easter Bunny, actually a Hare, was said to lay eggs at Easter. This concept is of course very strange to our factual minds, but taken symbolically, the Egg is not only Potential, but it also represents the Cosmos, the very ground of Being from which we spring--no pun intended! One only need think about the Cosmic Egg and the Druid's Egg to begin to get the full scope of this meaning. No wonder then that the Hare was at one time considered both male and female. To produce the cosmos, both must be present.
This union of masculine and feminine makes the Hare an excellent symbol for marriage. Indeed, the ancient Greeks used to make their wedding rings with hares on them, and their wedding bowl to sup their wedding wine was often glass etched with hares on it. Aphrodite was always accompanied by a hare, not just cupids and satyrs.
Other associations with the hare that I won't go into now are witchcraft, or in ancient societies, with the seer or shaman--the hare is also the trickster figure in many stories, who outsmarts Winter and Death.
The Hare also played a fairly prominent role in Welsh folk stories, something I was previously unaware of, but as George Ewart Evans and David Thomson pointed out in their book "The Leaping Hare", there are at least five Welsh stories, both ancient and traditional, where the hare is a main element in the tale.
Overall then, the Hare is a symbol of many things, all involving balance, Life, creative potency, regeneration, fertility, and eternity. This symbolism manifests in associations with Springtime, the Dawn, the Moon and Sacred Fire, the Egg, the Circle and Infinity symbol, Marriage, Androgyny and Hermaphroditism, as well as Madness, Genius and Inspiration (which seem to go hand in hand). Basically, in the Hare you have summed up all the symbolism and rich beliefs across the world associated with the Spring Equinox.
Note: Resources are not dealt with academically here. I drew almost entirely from one book--"The Leaping Hare" by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson, which can be bought on Amazon.com if you wish to know the details further .. and also from the Wikipedia opensource article on Hares.
Spring Equinox, Vernal Equinox, Hare, Hares, Spring