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White Hares in Cornish Mythology
(February 2013)

Hares have had a mystical reputation around the world, and here in Cornwall there are myths surrounding the white hare.

The most famous belief about white hares in Cornwall is that they are the spirits of girls who had been deserted by their lovers; as a result of which the girls died broken-hearted due to grief. Thus, with their spirit being unable to rest, they chose the form of a white hare in which to return and haunt their deserters. In this guise they are invisible to all except the one who jilted them, and they will haunt him until he finally dies.

For both fishermen and miners hares were associated with witchcraft and deemed to be ill omens. Whether on board a ship or down a mine they were thought to bring bad luck and would be chased away by not only miners but also farmers who believed they were witches in an altered form.

Where Cornish fishermen were concerned they believed that to see a white hare weaving an eerie path among the boats near the harbour at sunset meant that a storm was on its way. Such a storm would arrive very soon and be extremely violent. In this instance it was seen as being an omen that was ignored at one's peril. Fishermen also considered it unlucky to mention hares, rabbits, or other wild animals while at sea. And they would never use a net that had been contaminated by a hare.

When it comes to the old miners, over at Wheal Vor Mine, near Breage, it was believed that should a white hare, or a black dog, appear it foreshadowed a fatal disaster at the mine. The mine has long since been closed.

Miners also thought it very unlucky to whistle underground, or to mention hares. And, after eating (mainly pasties) they would leave a small piece of the crust to propitiate the 'little people,' known as Knockers, who were believed to haunt the mines. This was done so that the Knockers would not cause any trouble.

A ghostly white hare has also been reported on the hill between Talland and the Jolly Sailor Inn at Looe. Apparently it was observed running down the hill and disappearing as it reached the Inn. For anyone to see it is considered an ill omen.

White hares also appear in Cornwall in the guise of what we so often call road ghosts. And in this county they tend to be seen most often on straight stretches of old track ways.

So where might this mythology come from? It can be found throughout the world, and in many religions. The hare has been used to represent numerous deities in many different cultures. One such representation is the circular design of three hares chasing each other that can be found at sacred locations from the Far East to the churches of Southwest England.

In Christianity is represents the Trinity. And, in Southwest England almost 30 examples of it have been recorded, particularly in Devon; the adjacent county to Cornwall. Normally it can be seen in a conspicuous place within the church, which suggests that it was significant within the Christian religion and not, as some maintain, simply the mason or carpenter's mark. The reason behind its existence may be either that, in those days, it was believed that the hare was a hermaphrodite and thus able to reproduce without losing its virginity. This, of course, led to an association with the Virgin Mary. Or, it was a representation of the Holy Trinity, the One-In-Three and Three-In-One.

Interestingly, in many places the symbol is situated next to the Green Man. I wrote an article about that which you can read here:
As the Green Man is a symbol connected to the perpetuation of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic paganism the juxtaposition next to the three hares may have been meant to indicate the distinction of the Divine from the corrupt, earthy nature, of mankind.

On the other side of the coin, as with symbols such as the Triple Spiral, and Yin Yang, it is also used in the pagan symbolism of Wiccan. Here, each of the ears is shared by 2 hares, and thus only 3 ears are shown. The representation has various mystical links and is connected to fertility and the lunar cycle. Its roots and its original meaning are now unknown, as is why it appears in so many different places.

In mythology the hare is associated with Bravery, Cunning, the Dawn, Fertility, the Heavens, the Moon, and the Sun. Some of the reason for this may be that it lives where people can observe its behaviour. It is highly active during its spring mating season, and it is also active at night.

As well as the many countries around the world that have a hare mythology here it is the UK that I am interested in. So here are some of the associations that can be found:

The hare was sacred to the moon goddess Andraste. In earliest times it was forbidden to kill and eat the hare. However, this prohibition was removed for the festivals of the Anglo-Saxon Ostara (the Spring Equinox), and the Celtic Beltane (in May), when a ritual hare-hunt was held.

The White Goddess, or Earth Mother, held the hare to be sacred, and it was thus considered to be a royal animal.

The Celtic goddess Cerridwen is associated with the hare, and also with the goddess Eostre whose favourite animal, and accompanying spirit, was the hare. In this case the hare represented fertility, growth, and love. It was also connected with the moon, with the goddess Eostre changing into a hare at Full Moon; and what we now call Easter, i.e. death, redemption and resurrection.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, used the hare before going into battle when she released one as a good omen, and to divine the outcome by studying the hare's movements. She also took a hare into battle with her to guarantee victory.

Another Celtic warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare wounding it in the leg and thus compelling it to seek shelter in some bushes. When Oisin tracked it he came across a door leading into the ground. Entering into where it led he found a beautiful young woman seated on a throne and bleeding from a leg wound. Thus, in this legend, the Celtic belief in the transmigration of the soul is seen.

In mediaeval times it was said that hares resembled a coven of dancing witches. They believed that the witches were able to change into hares, and hares were held to be animals of ill omen. The people of those days also thought that the witches shape-shifted into hares in order to suck all the milk from cows. Once shape-shifted it was said that the witch could only be killed by a silver crucifix, but quite how this was done isn't clear.

Even in more modern times myths about hares persisted, one of which said that it was unlucky if a hare crossed your path. Another was that if that happened to a pregnant woman they would either have a miscarriage or their child would be born with a hare-lip. From this arose the idea that carrying a hare's foot charm, especially that of the left rear leg, would avert the outcome; and, naturally, losing the charm would be extremely unfortunate.

In the acting profession a hare's foot was thought to help the actors perform and was carried as a good luck charm.

The brain from the hare, taken in wine just before going to bed would stop one from oversleeping.

A hare's foot was supposed to forestall rheumatism and cramps.

The genitals from the hare were used in aphrodisiac potions.

Finally, in the county of Cambridgeshire to see a hare running through the streets was a signal that a fire is about to occur.

The above are only a few of the beliefs that were held in the UK about the hare. But, having said they were beliefs that 'were' held I suspect that in some places many of them are probably still held to this day.

On a personal note I'll end by just mentioning that when I was a child my mother wouldn't have jugged hare in the house. She believed that to do so was courting disaster!

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