hares


hares
   From the Middle Ages onwards, hares have been considered unlucky. It is a bad omen if one crosses one's path, especially at the start of the day's work or of a journey; if one runs through a town, a house will burn down; no dead hare should be taken on board a fishing-boat, nor the word 'hare' spoken at sea. If a *pregnant woman meets a hare, her baby will be born with a 'harelip', unless she immediately tears her petticoat. This is recorded first in Thomas Lupton's A Thousand
   Notable Things (1579); an earlier book, Gospelles of Dystaues (1507), warns women against eating hares, for the same reason: 'Ye sholde not gyve to yonge maydens to ete the heed of a hare ... and especyll to them that be wyth chylde for certaynly theyr chyldren might haue clouen lyppes.'
   However, hares can bring luck or good health. Samuel Pepys carried a hare's foot in his pocket against colics, while others thought it prevented cramps and rheumatism, or protected against witchcraft (cf. *rab-bits). Countrywomen often soothed fretful babies by feeding them hare's brains to eat (N&Q 6s:1 (1880), 34; 6s:4 (1880), 406, 457-8). One man joining the Navy in 1939 took a hare's foot as mascot (Evans and Thomson, 1972: 234).
   In folklore, witches were commonly said to turn into hares; there was a widespread anecdote about a man who vainly hunted a hare which escaped into the house of an old woman - who was found panting hard. But if the hare's leg was bitten by the hunter's dog, or broken with a stone, or shot with a silver bullet, the witch would be found wounded in the same way; this, some said, took away her power (Brockie, 1886: 2-5). In Yorkshire, the hare was occasionally thought to be a *familiar rather than the witch herself; when it was killed with a *silver bullet, the witch cried out in grief (Henderson, 1866: 166-7; Blake-borough, 1898: 203). Both belief and story are in most regional collections, and persisted till the 1930s (Evans and Thomson, 1972: 164; Simpson, 1973: 69-70).
   In the west of England white hares were said to be ghosts of forsaken girls, haunting their seducers; one caused her ex-lover's death by scaring his horse (Hunt, 1881: 377). In one Lincolnshire tale the Devil, in the form of a three-legged hare, causes the death of a boy who is playing at hanging himself, by distracting his companions at the crucial moment so that they fail to release him (Gutch and Peacock, 1908: 63).
   Nowadays, many writers claim that hares were sacred to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, but there is no shred of evidence for this; Bede, the only writer to mention Eostre, does not link her with any animal. For Celtic Britons, we have Julius Caesar's authority for saying hares were sacred and provided omens for Boudicca before a battle.
   See also *Easter, *Easter eggs.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 189-94.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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