Monday, March 30, 2015

The Three Hares; the Moon Hare, a Hare-witch, and Saint Melangell

Three Hares boss, church of St Hubert's, Dorset. Photo Credit: Eleanor Ludgate.

"From the perspective of European folklore, the rabbit is a creature with strong ties to witchcraft and magic. Rabbits and hares were commonly considered to be favorite familiars of witches. Additionally throughout Wales, Ireland and Scotland it was often believed that witches would transform themselves into hares in order to travel about undetected. In the case of the witch or her familiar it was said that the only way to injure or kill the supernatural hare was with the aid of a silver bullet. Interestingly enough, and a concept with potential significance, some European traditions held that the devil himself would often take the form of a hare with only three legs. This inspires further thought when we note that one of the few claimed powers of the Rabbit’s Foot in Europe was its ability to protect against witchcraft. The color of a rabbit was also of importance as some believed that to see a white rabbit was an omen of death, whilst black rabbits were often thought to be the reincarnated souls of ancestors."

- From an article by Matthew Venus entitled The Rabbit's Foot.

"According to local legend, a huntsman called Bowerman lived on the moor around one thousand years ago. When chasing a hare he and his pack of dogs unwittingly ran into a coven of witches, overturned their cauldron and disrupted their ceremony.

They decided to punish him, and the next time he was hunting, one of the witches turned herself into a hare, and led both Bowerman and his hounds into a mire. As a final punishment, she turned them to stone - the dogs can be seen as a jagged chain of rocks on top of Hound Tor, while the huntsman himself became the rock formation now known as Bowerman's Nose."

- From John Page's "An Exploration of Dartmoor", 1889, found here. (A photograph of Bowerman's Nose can be found at the end of this post.)

"Ancient Chinese men before the Han Dynasty believed that there were no male rabbits and female rabbits only became pregnant by watching the moon and spat out babies from their mouths. The origin of the Chinese term for rabbit "tuzi" was drawn from this belief, where tu means 'spit' and zi means 'babies'. This belief was corrected in the Han Dynasty. Mulan Ci, the story of Hua Mulan, talked about the way to tell rabbits' gender by lifting the rabbit by its ears. It was said that male rabbit's feet kept moving while female rabbit's eyes squint."

- From The Symbolic Meaning of Rabbit in Chinese Culture.


I've been mulling over the Three-hare symbol since I featured it in my spring post... a lot! Something about its attractiveness and the mystery surrounding it took hold of me and the little wheels started turning. If symbols could speak - and, really, that seems to be the whole point of a symbol - then the rotating three hares were speaking to me. So, what is it about those cunning little rabbits? While I can't say anything for certain, my online research has taken me to so many odd places that I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't try to share some of the interesting bits of information I found along the way...

Three Hare motif on a woman's tombstone, Sataniv, Ukraine, found here.

According to the Wiki article, the symbol of the Three Hares is, quite possibly, a meme; in this case, emerging synchronistically and independently in several localities at once without, necessarily, a common link or thread. But, the consensus of opinion seems to be that the symbol originated in the Far East, specifically in Buddhist caves - or, possibly, in central Asia - and as it travelled along the Silk Road in the form of an embellishment on some variety of goods, was discovered and eventually borrowed by other artists or artisans.  So, in the end, the symbol came to mean several different things depending upon the cultural needs it served. And, along with Buddhist caves, the symbol has been found in Jewish synagogues, on Ukrainian gravestones, on an Iranian tray, a Mongolian casket, various Medieval illuminations, and numerous Christian churches across Europe and the British Isles.  But it's only been due to the relatively recent, dedicated research on the part of art historian Sue Andrew, archaeologist and historian Dr. Thomas Greeves, Elizabeth Greeves, and documentary photographer Chris Chapman, that the conundrum was brought to popular attention. They formed the Three Hares Project in 2000 - (BBC article) - and, it's to them that this post and a subsequent article are indebted.

One interpretation of the Hare on the Moon.
Another can be found here.

From an Asian perspective, the Three-Hare symbol might be understood in one of several ways.  For instance, when China launched its lunar rover, Yotu - the Jade Rabbit - in 2013, I'm guessing that few of us in the west were aware of the fact that putting a rabbit on the moon was the metaphorical Asian equivalent of the West's putting a man on the moon. That is, those of us in the west are conditioned to see a man's face in the full moon... hence, Man in the Moon and/or on the moon. But, when Asian children gaze at the moon, they're taught to see a hare mixing the "elixir of mortality" with a mortar and pestal. In Japan and Korea the hare is pounding a rice cake or "Moshi" in the mortar, which, in the Shinto tradition is comprised of human souls. But, in any case, when Yotu arrived on the moon, the Asian moon myths were actualized in the same way the Apollo moon landing actualized the myth of the west. (Note: Interestingly, the Aztecs and Native Americans had similar myths.)

The plaster original for a small brooch I carved
for my mom in the 1990s.
Japanese Mythology posted a link to The Usagi Song...
a strange little tune related to the Moon Bunny.

Pareidolia - the ways in which we interpret visual or auditory information - is an interesting phenomenon. For the Asian mindset, visualizing a hare in or on the moon inspired a wonderfully rich mythology, so unlike our own that we may as well be discussing civilizations from two different planets. But, there's more to the Hare in the Moon story, because the hare is not alone. Its companion is, in fact, a Moon Goddess, Chang'e. So, not only do we have a hare on the moon, we have a female deity - the Woman in the Moon - and, in a strange way, this alignment of the hare with the primordial Feminine and the moon - that is, the Yin as opposed to the Yang - might just be one connective thread that assimilated our rotating triad of hares into Medieval European culture.

In the contemporary western story tradition - specifically in the United States - most of the hares, specifically rabbits, are predominately male characters: Peter Rabbit, Peter Cottontail, Benjamin Bunny, practically all the main characters in Watership Down, Uncle Wiggley, Br'er Rabbit, Crusader Rabbit, Roger Rabbit, Bionic Bunny or, for that matter, Bugs Bunny. Perhaps the only iconic contemporary female rabbit reference in western culture is the Playboy Bunny.

Fan art for Watership Down

It's only when we go a great deal farther back in time - in European history - do we find an opposing viewpoint and a different tradition. Oddly enough, it's found in the myth of another goddess, the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon Eostre or Ostara - for the most part associated with spring and dawn, but also possibly the moon - to whom the hare was sacred. But, the hare wasn't merely the goddess's totem; apparently she had the ability to take the form of a hare, and transform other creatures into hares as well. One story goes that she once transformed an injured bird into a hare, but the hare retained its bird's ability to lay eggs, and colored eggs at that... hence, the Easter Bunny and the Easter Eggs. So, there's that story. There is also the trifold goddess Hecate (also see here) - Queen of the night, the crossroads, and also the moon - but, her totemic animal was generally a dog, and often a large, black she-dog.

Which leads us to another story, and one running parallel to Eostre, the Hare Goddess: the legendary Hare-witch, alluded to by the quotes at the beginning of this post (and quotes in my previous March Hare post). The Hare-witches were women who could apparently transform themselves into hares; and, according to Sir John Rhys (in a quote found in this .pdf file) - who claimed his nurse was a Hare-witch - this gift was hereditary and passed down through families. (Now, there's a genetic mutation to conjure with!) In any case, it's a very old Celtic folk tradition and although it's difficult to pinpoint when exactly it originated, it culminated in the witch-trial of the infamous 17th century Scotswoman, Isobel Gowdie.


Isobel Gowdie - a "confessed" Hare-witch

Portrait of Isobel Gowdie found here.

"Gowdie was born sometime in the early 1600s in Auldearn, a village just outside Nairn in the Scottish Highlands. The daughter of a solicitor, she was a highly educated woman, encountering the upheaval of the Covenanting War in her youth, probably witnessing the gory Battle of Auldearn in 1645. She found herself trapped in a fairly miserable marriage. Sources say she married ‘beneath herself’, to John Gilbert of Lyon, a farmer and Kirk elder, going to live at his farm in Lochloy. The farm was isolated, and Isobel cut a lonely figure, expected to accompany her dour husband everywhere he went, which she was reluctant to do. Arguably, it was this dreich existence that drove her to witchcraft.

...The predicted meeting at Auldearn Kirkyard went ahead, with Isobel meeting both the Devil and Margaret Brodie. At this meeting, Isobel was renamed “Jonet” by the Devil and received his mark. From then on, she went on to fairly big things in the witching world. She was the powerful head of her own coven, which, according to her confessions, got up to all types of magic. Interestingly, her confessions, which had a huge impact on Scottish witchcraft, introduced the word coven into the general lexicon of witch trials.

Gowdie, in her confession, described how she and her coven were able to shape shift, turning into creatures such as hares. The incantation they used was:

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again

(And to change back:)

Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness now,
But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.

- The material quoted comes from the MJ Steel Collins article: Isobel Gowdie, Witch of Auldearn.

Note: Tragically, Isobel Gowdie, whose "confession" - contrary to the source provided here - was most likely obtained through torture, was executed by strangulation before her body was burnt at the stake in 1662.

Her legend has been addressed in musical form by composer, James MacMillan. A related BBC video with an interesting interview with MacMillan can be found here, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie.

There is also a 2010 book about Gowdie available by Emma Wilby entitled: The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland.

Below is a video by one of Britain's best traditional songstresses, Maddy Prior, and her haunting ode to Gowdie: "The Fabled Hare." 



"'Hares are sometimes seen to gather together in what looks like a convocation, says Larrington, 'eight or ten of them sitting in a circle and gazing at one another as if in silent communication. The writer Justine Picardi mentions seeing just such a phenomenon in June 2012 in the Scottish highlands:

'On the way here last night, a magical scene: glimpsed in a field beside the lane, a circle of hares, all gazing inward, motionless in the moment that we passed. I've heard occasional stories of these rarely witnessed gatherings -- but never seen one for myself. No camera to hand -- although if we'd stopped, I'm sure the hares would have vanished -- yet a sight impossible to forget.'

But we know of course that these were no ordinary hares, but surely a gathering of witches in hare form."

April 21, 2016: Just found some supplementary information for the Hare-witch in this Myth & Moor post, from which I found the quote above... and some lovely images, too!


Which leads us to the Three-Hare symbols found in churches in Europe and Great Britain, and specifically the proliferation discovered in southern England. Obviously, it's difficult to establish any overtly feminine connection, as the overriding influence of Christian mythology pretty much defined anything smacking of a primordial feminine force as the source of all evil. Lets face it, in the dictates of the church, that "property" was condemned. While it was fine to incorporate aspects of pagan mythology under its mantle, this was little more than subterfuge: a smokescreen designed by the Christian hierophants to win over an as-of-yet unconvinced flock by appealing to traditions that were already in place.

Window of Three Hares in Paderborn Cathedral

Generally, it's hypothesized that the appearance of the Three-Hare symbol in Christian churches is representative of the "holy trinity", although why this trinity would be represented by rabbits is anyone's guess. Then again, there was a Buddhist tale involving a self-sacrificing hare (oddly similar to the Aztec moon-hare tale), symbolizing Buddha himself, which superficially might fit in very well with Christian concepts. However, not only is it unlikely that the European masons who built the churches were aware of Buddhist parables, it's not even certain if the images found in the Chinese caves represented that same Buddhist parable to begin with. Guan Youhui, who researched the caves in Dunhuang, China - where many Three Hare paintings have been found - asserts the symbols were more than likely representative of peace and tranquility.

One other hypothesis of the presence of Three-Hare symbol in Christian churches is a long shot, and stems from the belief that hares and rabbits can reproduce by parthenogenesis, and hence, like Mary, can deliver a "virgin" birth. But, then again, why three of them in a circle, when Mary's "virgin birth" event took place only once? Seems like a relatively obscure symbol for the average member of Christian flock to even recognize.

But, just when I decided that the Three-Hare symbol was unlikely to have emerged from any fundamentally Christian source, I was presented with a third possibility.

A contemporary Three Hare garden plaque for sale at Marble Inspirations.

Enter Saint Melangell, the patron saint of hares, whom I was only introduced to several days ago when I found the image of the garden plaque (posted above). While the plaque's description doesn't presume the three-hare symbol belongs to the followers of Melangell, the plaque itself was inspired by her. And, as the story of Saint Melangell is a particularly charming one, I'll post a version here.


Saint Melangell - Patron Saint of Hares

"A lover of solitude, the Greek goddess Hecate was, like her cousin Artemis, a "virgin" goddess, unwilling to sacrifice her independent nature for the sake of marriage. Walking the roads at night or visiting cemeteries during the dark phase of the moon, the goddess Hecate was described as shining or luminous."

Melangell (pronouced Mel-en-geth) (in Latin, Montacella) was born at some point in the 6th century, the daughter of king Jowchel of Ireland. Apparently, the Princess wasn't content with her royal life, nor drawn to a marriage with the suitors her father had chosen for her. And, so, she fled to Wales to live the life of a hermit in a remote, wild region of the Berwyn Mountains, where she lived alone for fifteen years.

It was during this time that Brochwel Ysgithrog, the Prince of Powys (currently Shrewsbury) went hunting one day, and finding a hare, pursued it into a thicket. To his surprise, when he found the animal, it was staring at him from its safe haven beneath the folds of a woman's cloak. The woman was the hermit, Melangell. Finding it impossible to attack the hare, Powys chose instead to listen to the strange, solitary woman's story. Apparently, he was so impressed, he granted her a parcel of land to be used as a sanctuary for both herself, and other women who may have found themselves in situations similar to hers.

Melangell eventually established a religious community of women in the Tenat River valley and served as its abbess for thirty seven years. Wild hares befriended her throughout her life, and were ever after called "Wyn Melangell" (St. Melangell’s lambs). A pilgrims' church was erected in the 12th century - Pennant Melangell - which survives there to this day. And, in honor of the saint, the hares are respected by the local hunters and are never harmed.

Melangell is the Celtic Patron Saint of hares, small creatures, and the natural environment. Her remains were found at Pennant Melangell in 1958, while more of her relics were discovered at the English Jesuit College, St. Omer, France. She was entered into the Oxford Dictionary of Saints in 1997. Her feast days are celebrated January 31st  and May 27th.

Notes: The icons posted above can be found here. The contemporary one on the left is the work of Aidan Hart.


Of course, whether or not Saint Melangell served as the inspiration for the symbol of the Three Hares in any capacity is also a long shot. Would a Welsh saint have gained enough renown by the period in which the Medieval version of the Three-Hare symbol began emerging in churches and illuminated manuscripts? Probably not; the various dates are in the ballpark, but, as is mentioned in this source, the major life of St. Melangell was not written until the fifteenth century.

Moreover, to my knowledge, no Three-Hare symbols have been found at Pennant Melangell. Which is not to say they were never there; the small abbey suffered the fate of many religious buildings - and religious people - at the time of the brutal Reformation in the 16th century.

Melangell hare found here.

So, although I'm not completely ruling Melangell out in every instance, in the last analysis, the Three Hares are as mysterious as ever. Perhaps, in the end, their general meaning was as simple as the one given for the symbol of the hare taken from this Melangell source:

"The hare was a sacred animal for the Celts, signifying abundance, good fortune and prosperity. Also, the rabbit can run exceedingly fast uphill to elude its enemies, thus it came to represent Christians fleeing earthly evil and ascending towards Heaven."

There is, however, the matter of the Hare-witches to take into consideration... and the preponderance of feminine themes which seem to surround the hare within numerous cultures. I really don't believe this is superficial or incidental. Moreover, during the course of my research new information seemed to emerge continuously and rapidly... kind of like a rabbit's reproduction rate!

And, so, I'm afraid there's one more post regarding the Three-Hares on my back burner. Bear with me; if you have an interest in such things, it just might surprise you! 

Bowerman's Nose (detail) - Photo Credit: 2014, Simon Hodgkiss


  1. Wow...I feel like I fell down a rabbit hole................

    Man..superbly researched, cataloged and presented for Us...replete with illustrations. Love the brooch you carved for your Mother.

    1. Oh, thanks, BG. Sweet of you to say...

      But, I guess I just dragged y'all down the rabbit-hole with me! And, this little trip through Wonderland isn't over yet. Never underestimate a rabbit! ;-)

  2. I've mentioned this post in my upcoming October 22, 2018 post on Alice and rabbit holes! Hope this adds to your work here, Dia:

    1. Thanks for the hat-tip, L, although I must say that your exposé on the conundrum is far more sinister than mine! It's sad and, yet, amazingly predictable how so many internet "theorists" - the ones you mention in this post and others - consistently manage to mistranslate all information down to its lowest common denominator... What motivates these people do you suppose? I'm relieved you're pointing out the facts... it's a dirty job but someone has to do it.

      As always, you're doing a great job with this year's Halloween countdown, too... a lot of horrifyingly scary stuff to be sure! (and I LOVE your adorable Halloween hostess/mascot... the cat-ear-hooded, smoking babe appearing at the end of the post.)