A hare is in folklore, a witch’s Familiar or a witch metamorphosed in disguise (see metamorphosis). It is still bad luck in the British Isles for one’s path to be crossed by a hare. Witches were said to be able to change themselves into hares and other animals with magical charms such as the following from the British Isles:
I shall go into a hare, With sorrow and such and muckle care, And I shall go in the Devil’s name. Ay, ’till I come home again.
The hare supposedly was the favourite disguise of Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish woman who voluntarily confessed to witchcraft in 1662, astonishing her staid community of Auldearne with her wild tales. Once while in the shape of a hare, she said, she had a close call with some dogs.
The Devil had sent her, as a hare, to carry a message to neighbours. Along the way, she encountered a man and a pack of hounds, which sprang upon her. “I run a very long time,” said Gowdie, “but being hard pressed, was forced to take to my house, the door being open, and there took refuge behind a chest.” The dogs pursued her into the house, and Gowdie escaped only by running into another room and uttering a “disenchanting” charm:
Hare, hare, God send thee care! I am in a hare’s likeness now; But I shall be a woman even now-— Hare, hare, God send thee care!
Many stories exist in folklore of hunters shooting hares, only to discover they had killed old hag witches, who resumed their human forms upon death much like the werewolf in disguise. The following Irish folktale, from W. B. Yeats’ collection of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1892), tells of the wounding of a witch hare:
I was out thracking hares meeself, and I seen a fine puss of a thing hopping hopping in the moonlight, and whacking her ears about, now up, now down, and winking her great eyes, and—”Here goes,” says I, and the thing was so close to me that she turned round and looked at me, and then bounced back, as well to say, do your worst! So I had the least grain of life of blessed powder left, and I put it in the gun—and bang at her! my jewel, the scritch she gave would frighten a rigment, and a mist, like, came betwixt me and her, and I seen her no more; but when the mist wint off I saw blood on the spot where she had been, and I followed its track, and at last it led me—whists, whisper—right up to Katey macShane’s door; and when I was at the thrashold, I heerd a murnin’ within, a great murnin’, and a groanin’, and I opened the door, and there she was herself, sittin’ quite content in the shape of a woman, and the black cat that was sittin’ by her rose up its back and spit at me; but I went on never heedin’, and asked the ould——how she was and what ailed her. “Nothing,” sis she. “What’s that on the floor?” sis I. “Oh,” she say, “I was cuttin’ a billet of wood,” she says, “wid the reaping hook,” she says, “an’ I’ve wounded meself in the leg,” she says, “and that’s drops of my precious blood,” she says.
In Norse mythology, the hare is the companion of Freya, goddess of fecundity.
- Leach, Maria, ed., and Jerome Fried, assoc. ed. Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Harper & row, 1972.
- Yeats, W. B. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1892. reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1986.