Folk-Lore/Volume 3/The Easter Hare

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Folk-Lore/Volume 3
Number 4 (December).

The Easter Hare. Charles J. Billson


Vol. III.]
[No. IV.


THERE is a certain connection, perplexing and obscure, between the Christian Festival of Easter and the worship or sacrifice of hares. The evidences of such a connection are furnished chiefly by survivals in folk-custom, but these are so few and indistinct, so far at least as I have been able to trace them, that they seem only to raise a problem without contributing much to its solution.

The custom of eating the Easter hare is classed by Mr. Elton among those ceremonies which bear most openly the marks of their original paganism.[1] It is best known in Pomerania, where hares are caught at Easter-tide to provide a public meal.[2] In other parts of Germany there are traces of a similar tradition. Thus, the children in South Germany are told that a hare lays the Pasche eggs, and a nest is made for the hare to lay them in[3]; and it is customary in many parts of the country "to place a figure of the hare among the Easter eggs, when given as a present, either a hare in a basket of eggs, or a small figure of a hare in one of the fancy eggs".[4] The same object is common on Easter cards.[5] In England there are a few indications of the same kind. "It would appear", writes Mr. James Britten, "that the hare was at one time in some way associated with Easter observance in this country";[6] and he quotes an entry from the Calendar of State Papers (Domestic Series), which is as follows:

"1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring."

At Coleshill, in Warwickshire, if the young men of the parish can catch a hare, and bring it to the parson before 10 o'clock on Easter Monday, the parson is bound to give them a calf's head and a hundred of eggs for their breakfast, and a groat in money.[7]

But the most complete instances of Easter-hare ritual surviving in this country are furnished by two striking customs, both of which were once observed on Easter Monday in the county of Leicester, and one of which is still celebrated.

The custom of Hunting the Easter Hare at Leicester is thus described in Throsby's History of the town:

"It had long been customary on Easter Monday for the Mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers, in form, to go to a certain close, called Black-Annis' Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom perhaps originating out of a claim to the royalty of the forest. Hither, on a fair day, resorted the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed. The morning was spent in various amusements and athletic exercises, till a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water for commencing the mock-hunting of the hare. In about half-an-hour, after the cat had been trailed at the tail of a horse over the grounds in zig-zag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. . . . As the cat had been trailed to the Mayor's door, through some of the principal streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the Mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends; in this manner the day ended."[8]

This description is by an eye-witness of this old municipal custom, which began to fall into disuse about the year 1767, although traces of it lingered within recent years in an annual holiday or fair held on the Danes' Hills and the Fosse Road, on Easter Monday.

The first mention of the Easter hunting on the Danes' Hills in the Town Records occurs in the year 1668, but it was then an ancient custom, and is so described. There are records, however, of a similar hunt having taken place elsewhere more than a century earlier. Thus, in the Chamberlains' accounts for the year 1574 there is an item of 12d. "given to the hare-finders at Whetston Court",[9] and from this and other notices it appears that the hunting was originally, as might be expected, that of a real hare.

We may here in a few words dismiss Throsby's conjecture that this custom originated out of a claim by the town of Leicester to the royalty of the forest. It has been pointed out by Mr. Kelly, in his Notices of Leicester, that this could hardly be the case, "as the forest had been held from time immemorial as part of the demesne of the ancient Earls of Leicester, and passed to the Crown in the person of Henry IV."[10] He suggests, however, that "this formal ceremony of hunting in their state robes was adopted by the Corporation as an assertion of their right of free warren over the lands in question". But there are grounds for thinking that the Easter Hunting of the Hare rests upon a tradition far older and more universal than those which have been suggested by the historians of Leicester; for there are traces, as we have seen, of a similar annual rite in other parts of England, as well as in Germany. And in Leicestershire itself another custom still prevails, known as "The Hallaton Hare-pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking", in which the same animal takes a prominent part in the observance of Easter. An account of this Hallaton festival was given in the Leicester Journal for April 22nd, 1892, and runs thus[11]:

"The origin of the custom associated with 'Hare Pie Bank' is lost in the mists of antiquity, and may be a relic of mediæval times, similar to the old 'Whipping Toms' in Leicester, put down in 1847. At all events, at a remote period, a piece of land was bequeathed to the Rector conditionally that he and his successors continued annually 'two hare pies, a quantity of ale, and two dozen penny loaves, to be scrambled for on each succeeding Easter Monday, at the rising ground called Hare Pie Bank', about a quarter of a mile south of the village. This land, before the enclosure, was called 'Hare-crop-leys', and at the time of dividing the fields, in 1771, another piece of land was allotted to the Rector in place of the 'Leys'. Of course, hares being 'out of season' at this time of the year, pies of mutton, veal, and bacon are substituted. (This year the loaves were dispensed with, an equivalent being given to the aged poor.) .... As may well be imagined, Easter Monday is the great carnival of the year, and eagerly looked forward to by the youths and natives of the place, as well as by the surrounding villagers. This year the two benefit societies, as usual, held their anniversary, one at the Royal Oak, and the other at the Fox Inn, and to enliven the proceedings each engaged a band of musicians to accompany the members in processional order to the parish church for the 'club sermon', after which each society proceeded to their respective inns, where a substantial dinner was provided. About three p.m. a selected deputation called at the Rectory for the provided 'pies and beer', which, upon being taken to the Fox Inn, a procession was organised in the following order:

"Two men abreast, carrying two sacks with the pies cut up.

"Three men abreast, carrying aloft a bottle each; two of these bottles, filled with beer, are ordinary field wood bottles, but without the usual mouth, and are iron-hooped all over, with just a hole left for drinking from; the third is a 'dummy'.

"Occasionally, when can be procured, as was the case in 1885, a hare, in sitting posture, mounted on top of a pole.

"Band of music.

"Procession, which, as may well be imagined, increases greatly in number as it approaches the 'Hare Pie Bank', where, on arrival, the pies cut up are pitched out of the sack and scrambled for.

"Until this year a man followed the band with a basket containing the penny loaves, which were broken up and thrown about indiscriminately as he went along. On Monday, when the procession neared the bank, the band struck up 'See the conquering hero comes', and on reaching the bank the hare-pies were scrambled for by the spectators, who amused themselves by throwing the contents at each other. Then commenced in earnest the business of the day—the well-known 'Hallaton bottle-kicking'. One of the large bottles containing ale—both of which are of wood strongly iron-hooped—was thrown into the circular hollow on the mound, when the 'Medbourne men' or other villagers who cared to join tried to wrest the bottle from the Hallatonians' grasp. Talk of a football scrimmage! It was nothing to this. First one side then the other prevailed, the object of the Hallatonians being to kick or get the bottle, by hook or by crook, to their boundary line over the brook adjoining the village. As each side was rough and determined, some fierce struggles ensued, especially when the surging mass of villagers reached a post-and-rail fence, which, giving way, precipitated the lot heels over head into the highway. Here followed the roughest part of the contest, as 'the strangers' nearly succeeded in getting the bottle over the adjoining fence, which, if accomplished, would have enabled them to work the much prized object to the Medbourne boundary. However, they were unsuccessful, as the prize was again got on the bank, and after a scene of good-humoured disorder that baffles description, was, after half-an-hour's tussle, got on to the ground sloping to the brook, and after being conveyed over two or three fences and ditches, was, amid the loud applause of the natives, safely got over the water—which was not the case with some of the combatants, who landed in the water. The victors of course claimed the contents. Next came 'the dummy', which, if anything, was contested for with even keener zest, for the Hallaton people boast that this has never yet got beyond their grasp, and they are not a little proud of their possession, which they do not at present seem at all likely to lose. The third bottle was then taken in triumph to the Market-cross, and its contents drunk with 'due honours'. The bottles for the occasion are carefully kept from year to year, and those now in use have done duty for more than thirty years. The present 'bottle holder' is Mr. Omar Neale, who takes a great interest in seeing the old custom perpetuated (which many might think more honoured in the breach than in the observance), and brightens up with animation when recounting the various incidents of note that have occurred during his stewardship."

How are we to explain these strange Easter customs, which, taken all together, seem to bear the stamp of immemorial antiquity?

It has been suggested by Mr. Elton in his Origins of English History[12] that they are survivals of sacrificial rites connected with the worship of the Anglian goddess Eostre, who is mentioned by Bede as giving her name to the great Christian festival. But as to the very existence of this goddess, the opinions of mythologists are divided; for she is referred to only by Bede, and by him only in one passage, to explain the name "Esturmonath", given to April by the early English.[13] Not a trace of her existence is left among other Teutonic peoples; but as the Germans also speak of "Ostermoneth", whereas all surrounding nations use the Biblical "Pascha", Jacob Grimm gives the goddess a German name also, "Ostara", and labels her, upon etymological grounds, "the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, and whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God."[14]

In Holtzmann's German Mythology she is also referred to as the goddess of Dawn.[15] "The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me", he adds, "but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara."[16]

Oberle also concludes that the hare which lay the particoloured Easter eggs was sacred to the same goddess.[17] Among other authorities who have no doubts as to her existence are W. Grimm, Wackernagel, Sinrock, and Wolf.[18] On the other hand, Weinhold rejects the idea on philological grounds, and so do Heinrich Leo and Hermann Oeser.[19] Kuhn says, "The Anglo-Saxon Eostre looks like an invention of Bede";[20] and Mannhardt also dismisses her as an etymological dea ex machina.[21]

The whole question turns, as Oberle says, upon Bede's credibility, with regard to which one is inclined to agree with Jacob Grimm, that it would be uncritical to saddle this eminent Father of the Church, who keeps Heathendom at arms' length and tells us less of it than he knows, with the invention of this goddess.[22] Moreover, the Christianising of England began at the end of the sixth century, and was completed about the end of the seventh, and as Bede was born in 672, he must have had opportunities of learning the names of heathen goddesses who were hardly extinct in his lifetime.

But however this may be, whether there ever was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon or British worship, there are good grounds for believing that the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, when it probably played a very important part at the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island. It appears not unlikely that the hare was originally a totem, or divine animal among the local aborigines, and that the customs at Leicester and Hallaton are relics of the religious procession and annual sacrifice of the god.

This hypothesis, startling as it appears, is supported by the concurrent testimony of several large groups of deep and widespread superstitions, some of which unquestionably date from that primitive and barbarous condition of mind to which we owe the peculiar features of Totemism.

In order to appreciate the significance of these superstitions, it will be necessary to set them out in some detail, and for that purpose it may be convenient to divide them into twelve groups.

I. The first argument for the quondam divinity of the hare is derived from the fact that it is still worshipped as a god. It may appear strange, at first sight, that a creature so apparently unregarded and insignificant should ever have divine honours paid to it at all. But, as a matter of fact, the hare has always been, and still is, worshipped as a god in many countries, literally, indeed, "from China to Peru." The most conspicuous example of this worship is furnished by the cult of Michabo or Manibozho, the Great Hare of the Algonkins, whose myth prevails throughout the North American continent, "from the remotest wilds of the North-West to the coast of the Atlantic, from the southern boundary of Carolina to the cheerless swamps of Hudson's Bay."[23] For other instances of this worship I may refer to a paper by Mr. W. G. Black, contributed to the Folk-lore Journal for 1883.[24] The conclusion at which Mr. Black arrives is very pertinent to the present argument. "Without attempting to found any sweeping generalisations upon the above facts, I may point out that the hare's celebrity is almost as great as its notoriety, and for my own part I am inclined to think that among primitive peoples the hare occupied a very high and honourable place in religion."[25]

The hare is said to have been sacrificed to the goddess Flora[26]; and at the Floralia there were hunting games in the circus, at which, instead of wild African beasts, goats and hares were driven into the net.[27]

II. In the second place, the flesh of the hare is, or was very generally tabooed. Among the many widely-separated peoples with whom this taboo occurs may be mentioned the following: Jews,[28] Chinese,[29] Lapps,[30] Hottentots,[31] Greenlanders,[32] Somal Arabs and Shiya'ees,[33] Namaquas,[34] Welsh, Germans,[35] Bretons,[36] British.[37] The inhabitants of the Swiss lake dwellings,[38] and of the Danish shell mounds,[39] also appear to have abstained from eating this animal. In India hare's meat was specially permitted by the laws of Manu[40]; it appears from a passage in the Kalevala to have been eaten by the ancient Finns, and it has of course been generally consumed by the more advanced nations of Europe. In some cases, however, even when it is eaten, a special religious or civic virtue, derived apparently from old sacrificial usage, is still attached to it. Thus, the celebrated "black broth" of the Spartans was made of the blood and bowels of a hare,[41] and in Ireland it was an old and peculiar privilege of the kings of Tara to be fed upon "the hares of Naas", a diet which probably owed its origin to religious ritual.[42]

It may also be noticed that peoples who do not eat the hare are quite unable to account for their conduct. The taboo has been handed down from dark primæval times, and is explained by some fable obviously modern, and often absurd. Thus the Jews gave a reason which any observer of nature might have exploded[43]; the Namaquas say they have an old grudge against the animal because he deceived them[44]; the Shiya'ees say "that they act in virtue of certain traditions handed down from their demigods", and adduce a special reason, which is "too stupid by far and too coarse to be recorded" by Mr. Palgrave.[45]

The consequences which ensue among some peoples from breaking this taboo also point to its very ancient and totemistic origin. Thus the Namaqua, if he eats hare's flesh after attaining manhood, "is not unfrequently banished from his werft, though on paying a fine he may again be admitted to the community."[46]

With regard to the British, we have the authority of Cæsar that at the time of his arrival in the country the hare was tabooed. "Leporem et gallinam et anserem gustare, fas non putant; haec tamen alunt animi voluptatisque causa."[47]

Why did the British make it a matter of religious duty not to eat the flesh of hares, while at the same time they kept and fed them? I think, having regard to the facts above-mentioned, that the most probable explanation is this, that the hare was a sacred animal, upon whom rested a taboo derived from a far ruder and more ancient religious system, under which it was worshipped as a tribal totem or god.[48] That the agricultural and comparatively civilised British were themselves ignorant of the reason of this taboo, is of course probable, and they may have regarded hares merely as domestic pets, who were kept, as Cæsar says, "for amusement and pleasure", but to whom there clung nevertheless some strange and venerable superstitions.

III. In some places there still lingers a stong objection to utter the name of the hare—a superstition which has its roots among the earliest strata of religious prejudice. Mr. Gregor says that among the inhabitants of the north-east coast of Scotland, "the word 'hare' is never pronounced at sea",[49] and the same superstition is also found among the fishermen in the West of Ireland.[50]

In Western Brittany the peasants, not many years ago, "could hardly endure to hear the hare's name".[51]

IV. Both in accepted systems of divination, and in the prejudices of the vulgar, the hare is a fertile source of omens. The prophecy of Kalkas, foretelling the fall of Troy, and also the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the Taurian Artemis, was inspired by the apparition of two eagles feasting on a pregnant hare, and the anger of the goddess is expressly ascribed by Æschylus to this event.[52] According to the poet, her tender heart is outraged by the sacrifice of the helpless brood, but this is a poetical and Hellenistic version, for the Taurian "Artemis" was no gracious lady of the Greek Pantheon, but a cruel and barbaric deity, probably a moongoddess who protected the hare as her messenger and servant.[53] Upon more historical occasions omens have been derived from hares. Thus, in Pausanias, the priest of the moon-goddess instructs some exiles, who are searching for a propitious place to found a city, to build it in a myrtle grove into which they should see a hare flee for refuge.[54] When Arnold and his German hordes besieged Rome, a hare ran towards the walls, and, the Teutons pursuing, a panic seized the Romans, who looked on it as a fatal omen; they deserted the gates without striking a blow, and the barbarians entered.[55] And in our own country hares were employed for purposes of divination. Thus Boadicea, when she harangued her soldiers to spirit them up against the Romans, opened her bosom and let go a hare, which she had there concealed, that the augurs might thence proceed to divine.[56]

The main evidence for the ancient sacredness of the hare rests upon its subsequent unpopularity, and the superstitions which cluster round it. It is of course a matter of common observation that the deities of one age become the devils of another; that, in the lapse of years, objects which were formerly worshipped and held in pious honour, become, under a new dispensation, the most ill-omened and outcast. Thus we may often argue back from the present unpopularity of an animal to its former divinity. The fate of the hare appears to have been similar to that of the wren. This very small and humble bird seems to have been a common totem, and its name in nearly all European languages still recalls its early sovereignty.[57] In some places (as in Cornwall[58]) a certain divinity hedges the bird to this day, but in others only the faint traces of its original sacrifice survive in the cruel sport called "Hunting the Wren", which prevails widely throughout France and the British Isles. Somewhat similar to the fate of the shy little king of birds is that of the timid hare. He is strictly boycotted by all superstitious people. Here are a few examples:

(1) To meet a hare is a very bad stroke of luck; and many people, if they meet a hare when going to work, will return home, and not venture out again until the next meal has been eaten.[59] This superstition is common in the British Isles, and is also found in India, Germany, France, Austria, Sweden, Africa, Lapland, Finland, and doubtless elsewhere.

(2) The hare portends a fire. There are reports of this superstition from South Northamptonshire[60] and from Ely,[61] and also from Hungary.[62] In the Wheal Vor mine the appearance of a hare presages a fatal accident.[63]

(3) The animal is accursed, an object of disgust and terror. Fishers of Fifeshire.we are told, "look on all maukens (hares) to be devils and witches, and if they but see a sight of a dead mauken, it sets them a trembling".[64] In Russia and Brittany the hare inspires disgust and loathing.[65] Among the Indians of Huarochiri the creature was cursed by their divine ancestor, "so he ran away and is still running".[66] In Finland the hare must never be called "bad" during the hunting season.[67]

(4) Hares have power over marriages. Thus, in Russian popular tradition, the hare meeting the nuptial car is a presage of bad omen for the newly wedded pair.[68]

V. But the superstition which most strikingly places the hare upon the left hand is that which associated him with those adherents of fallen gods and broken idols, the professors of the Black Art. Ever since the prince of necromancers, "the wondrous Michael Scott," was turned into a hare by the witch of Falsehope, and hunted by his own hounds, this harmless creature has been most closely associated with witchcraft and magic. "The Hare", says Henderson, in his Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England, "is the most common disguise of the witch in all the northern countries of Europe."[69] Many instances are given by Henderson, and others may be found in Thorpe's Mythology, Sir Walter Scott's Demonology and Witchcraft, and elsewhere.[70]

I think that this superstition may be traced in other forms:

(1) It is the belief of many countrymen that the hare changes its sex every year, being male the first year and female the next.[71] How can this extraordinary delusion be accounted for, except as a modification of that stouter paganism which attributed to witches the power of transforming themselves into the bodies of hares?

(2) There are many traditions of spectral hares, which haunt old buildings, and appear to partake of the nature of witches. Thus Bolingbroke Castle, in Lincolnshire, is or was haunted by a hare-spirit, which was often hunted with hounds without the slightest result.[72] In Cornwall, a maiden, who has been deceived and dies, haunts her deceiver in the guise of a white hare, sometimes saving his life, but in the end causing his death.[73] In Germany, too, there are many stories of spectral hares, especially of three-legged ones, "which", says Oberle, "is peculiarly noteworthy, because a three-legged ghost always points to some divinity".[74]

VI. Another relic of the hare's former divinity is the reputation which this animal has acquired in folk-medicine. "This much", says Cogan, in his Haven of Health, "will I say as to the commendation of the hare, and of the defence of the hunter's toyle, that no one beast, be it never so great, is profitable to so many and so divers uses in Physicke as the hare and partes thereof."[75] For examples of these medicinal virtues I must refer to Mr. W. G. Black's Folk-Medicine: a Chapter in the History of Culture.[76] And to the instances there collected by Mr. Black I may add a belief of the ancient Romans, that eating hare's flesh for seven days would make any one beautiful; a superstition to which Martial refers in one of his epigrams:

"Si quando leporem mittis mihi, Gellia, dicis,
 'Formosus septem, Marce, diebus eris.'
Si non derides, si varum, lux mea, narras,
 Edisti nunquam Gellia tu leporem."[77]

"You tell me, Miss Nancy, when sending a hare,
'In a week it will make you quite handsome, I'll swear,'
Now surely that's chaff: if it's true, my dear Nancy,—
Hare's, clearly enough, not a dish that you fancy."

The fact that many plants are named after the hare may also, as Oberle thinks, have a mythological significance; though the origin of such names as "hare-bell" and "hare-parsley" appears sufficiently explained in Hone's Table-Book upon other grounds.[78]

VII. The hare, or some part of it, is frequently used in magical charms Thus, Mr. Edward Peacock has recorded, in Notes and Queries, the discovery of the heart of a hare pierced with pins buried in the foundations of a house. When it was found, the "elders" of the village declared it had been buried there "to withstand witching".[79] "In a village near Preston, a girl, when slighted by her lover, got a hare's heart, stuck it full of pins, and buried it with many imprecations against the faithless man, whom she hoped by these means to torment."[80]

In Egypt, the figure of a hare was worn as an amulet[81]; and hares' heads were worn as amulets by Arab women.[82]

VIII. From the evidence of existing agricultural customs it appears that the hare was once a common embodiment of the corn-spirit.

"In some parts of Ayrshire the cutting of the last corn is called 'cutting the hare', and in Germany the name for the last sheaf is 'the hare'. In east Prussia they say that the hare sits in the last patch of standing corn, and must be chased out by the last reaper." The reapers hurry with their work, each being anxious not to have to "chase out the hare"; for the man who does so—that is, who cuts the last corn—is much laughed at. At Birk, in Transylvania, when the reapers come to the last patch, they cry out, "We have the hare." At Aurich an expression for cutting the last corn is "to cut off the hare's tail". "He is killing the hare," is commonly said of the man who cuts the last corn in Germany, Sweden, Holland, France, and Italy. In Norway, the man who is thus said to "kill the hare", must give "hare's blood", in the form of brandy, to his fellows to drink.[83]

IX. There are a few other apparent survivals of hareritual besides the customs we are investigating.

(1) It is well known to all students of folk-lore[84] that relics of ancient worship may often be discovered in those customary rents and services which comprise offerings of flowers or animals. It is therefore worth while to notice the survival in Sheffield of a rent which consists of two white hares, to be paid on St. John's Day.[85]

(2) There is a nursery rhyme "whose antiquity and connection with sorcery", says Mr. Leland, "is very evident." It is as follows:

"One, two, three, four, five,
I caught a hare all alive;
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
I let her go again."

Now Mr. Leland quotes from the Magical Spells of Marcellius Burdigalensis a charm, in which, after you have "caught your hare", you pluck from it the fur needed ad dolorem coli, and then let it go again, bidding it carry the disorder with it.

"Fuge, fuge, lepuscule, et tecum aufer coli dolorem." "In which", says Mr. Leland, "the hare appears as a scapegoat. It may be observed that all this ceremony of catching a hare, letting it go, and bidding it run and carry away the disorder, is still in familiar use in Tuscany."[86]

X. We have already noticed the very old and close connection between the hare and the moon. A large category of hare-myths have arisen out of the supposed likeness of the spots upon the moon's face to the figure of a hare. The story of the hare offering himself as a meal to the hungry Buddha, who in return translated him to the moon, is well known, and occurs with many variations in Eastern legend.[87] Indeed, the great moon-hare appears to have been an object of reverence in most parts of the world; and, to this day, little children in Swabia are told that it is wrong to make shadows of hares upon the wall, because they represent the sacred moon.[88] And through its mythological connection with the moon the hare acquires a special significance, which, by a strange coincidence, specially entitles it to be associated with the Christian Easter. The moon's periodic death and revival suggest thoughts of Resurrection and Immortality. Thus, according to Taoist fable, the moon-hare is a slave of the genii, who employ it in pounding the drugs which compose the elixir of life. In the moon is a cassia-tree, and under the cassia-tree squats the lunar hare, always employed in concocting the immortal draught.[89] In a curiously interesting myth, which is very widely prevalent in South Africa, the moon sends the hare to men to preach this Easter gospel: "Like as I die and rise to life again, so you also shall die and rise to life again." But the hare went to men and said: "Like as I die and do not rise again, so you shall also die and not rise again." Then the hare returned and told the moon what he had done; and the moon struck at him with a hatchet, and slit his lip, as it has remained ever since.[90]

There is a similarity also between the customs of the great Chinese Moon Festival and those which are still observed in England and Germany at the season of Easter, "This festival, known as the Yue-Ping (loaves of the moon), dates from the remotest antiquity. Its original purpose was to honour the moon with superstitious rites. On this solemn day all labour is suspended; the workmen receive from their employers a present of money; every person puts on his best clothes; and there is merry-making in every family. Relations and friends interchange cakes of various sizes, on which is stamped the image of the moon; that is to say, a hare couching amid a small group of trees."[91]

Last Easter, most of the toy and confectioners' shops in Berlin were filled with imitation hares and rabbits. These animals also figured largely on the Easter cards.[92] If the resemblance of these German and Chinese customs is not a pure coincidence—for borrowing is almost out of the question—into what remote strata of the world's life must we delve in order to find their common ancestor!

XI. I may briefly mention some characteristics attributed to the hare in folk-tales, which seem to confirm the theory of this animal's extreme importance in prehistoric religion. The impression he has left upon the popular mind, as expressed in legend and household tale, appears to be generally that of an exceptionally wise and crafty spirit, the guide of men, and the protector of other animals. A number of stories in which the hero or heroine is led by a guardian hare occur to the mind, e.g., the North German tale of "The Blue Riband". Sometimes, however, the hare leads the hero astray, as in the King of Erin's Tale, and Fionn's Enchantment,[93] still, however, retaining a supernatural power. In the Kaffir Story of "The Great Chief of the Animals"[94] he acts as the guardian of children—a function he performs but indifferently. In the tales of many countries, from the kraals of the Kaffir to the plantations of Virginia, he is represented as the crafty guardian and shifty schemer among animals. In India, he outwits the elephant, and traps the lion in a well.[95] In Greek and Latin proverbs, he draws the lion into a golden net,[96] and insults him when dead.[97] In China, the hare appears, as in Kaffirland, as the guardian of the wild beasts, and defends the lamb from the wolf.[98] In Slavonic tales the hare decoys the bear into a jungle,[99] and the princess who solves the riddles does so by the help of a hare.[100] In Russia, as in China, the hare is associated with the Water of Life, which he goes to fetch from its spring in the company of a fox.[101]

XII. To descend to the region of prosaic fact, it should be noted as an essential link in the argument, that the hare was undoubtedly well known to the prehistoric Aryan people, and in times still more ancient.

"If we find sasa for hare in Sanskrit", writes Max Müller, "and haso for hare in OHG, we need not hesitate to claim for the united Aryas an acquaintance with that animal."[102] Remains of the hare have been found in Pleistocene cave deposits in England,[103] and in the Belgian caves.[104] Among the early British hares were as common as vermin.[105] It is probable that this profusion, far from endangering the sanctity of the animal, actually enhanced it. Rare beasts are objects of terror to the savage, who generally takes his god or totem from the familiar surroundings of his everyday life. Thus the frequent occurrence of the hare as a corn-spirit is naturally explained by the fact that hares are the animals which most frequently took refuge in the last patch of standing corn, and, as they rushed out of it, were identified with the escaping spirit of the crop.[106]

Now, taking all these groups of testimony into consideration, we have, I think, such evidence of the deep and almost universal sanctity of the hare in prehistoric times as would lead us to expect that the ritual connected with it might very probably leave its mark upon popular custom. It remains to be shown that the form of the Easter ceremonies observed at Leicester and Hallaton is compatible with and suggestive of an origin in religious ritual.

Now the essential features of these customs appear to be the following:

1. They are municipal or corporate functions, acts of the whole community.

2. They entail a procession between a place of venerable antiquity outside the town and the house of the chief townsman (mayor or parson).

3. The leading motive of both processions is a hare. In the one case, the hare is followed to the Mayor's house, where a feast is eaten. Whether this feast originally comprised hare's flesh, I have not been able to ascertain, though, from an entry in the Chamberlains' accounts, it appears that at one Easter Hunting a great many hares were caught,[107] and these would presumably be used for the Mayor's banquet. At Hallaton, the hare is carried in procession (sometimes in the shape of hare-pies, sometimes also mounted on a pole) from the parson's house to a sacred spot on the boundary of the parish, where the feast of hare-pies is eaten.

4. At the Hallaton festival penny loaves are distributed to the people—a common form of survival in sacrificial customs.

5. Both these rites take place on Easter Monday, at a season, that is, of special religious solemnity in the spring of the year.

Thus the customs under review possess features which correspond upon the whole to the most prominent traits which we know must have distinguished certain religious ceremonies of prehistoric man. For, one of the greatest festivals observed by our early Aryan, perhaps by our pre-Aryan ancestors, must have comprised a similar public and communal procession, in which a god was carried round the district, and afterwards slain and eaten, and this festival took place in the spring of the year.[108] Before, however, we refer to this prehistoric ritual, let us consider another distinct factor in the problem. The Hallaton festival has preserved one feature, which is not mentioned in connection with the Leicester custom, the "Bottle-kicking". The "dummy-bottle", be it remembered, is simply a short log of wood; and hence the custom may be similar to many of those observed so generally throughout Europe, in which the image of Death or Winter is said to be "carried out" in the Spring of the year.[109] The essence of these customs consists in a figure of straw, a wooden box, or a log of wood, being borne out of the village, and either thrown away or drowned, or sawn through the middle, or burnt, or torn to pieces in a field. The figure which represents Death is often carried to the boundary of the village, as in the Hallaton custom, where it is sometimes pitched over the border, in which case the youth of the next parish resent the intrusion, and the two neighbouring villages come to blows about it[110]; sometimes the image is only taken to the border of the parish, and there destroyed. The nature of the rivalry between the Hallatonians and the men of Medbourne, which seems to point to some ancient feud not unknown in the history of adjacent parishes,[111] presents a difficulty in the way of this interpretation of the bottle-kicking; since the object of each parish is to obtain the image, not, as we should expect, to keep it away. This paradox is possibly capable of explanation upon the following grounds: The figure of Death (as it is called), as soon as its sacrifice is completed by its being thrown into the hollow on the mound, is supposed to revive, and to be endowed with a vivifying influence which is highly prized. Thus in Spachendorf (Austrian Silesia), the figure of Death is carried out to an open place outside the village, and there burned, and then a great struggle takes place for the pieces. Everyone who secures a fragment ties it to a branch of the tallest tree in his garden, or buries it in the ground. The same scramble for the fragments occurs in the Troppau district; and other instances in which a highly prized fertilising power is attributed to the figure of Death will be found in Mr. Frazer's Golden Bough.[112]

I think, then, that, at any rate in default of a better explanation, we may class this Hallaton bottle-kicking with the widely-prevalent spring ceremonies I have mentioned.[113] Space will not allow me to carry the argument any further; but I will refer to the very elaborate and suggestive discussion of Mr. J. G. Frazer, in which he certainly makes out a very strong case for the view that this custom of "carrying out Death" is a survival of an ancient rite of sacrificing the Spirit of Vegetation in the spring of the year.[114] And if upon the evidence of analogy, and the further argument of Mr Frazer, we can trace back the Hallaton bottle-kicking to this source, we shall feel less difficulty in referring the procession and sacrifice of the hare to the same spring-ritual of old religion. Indeed, in Mr. Frazer's view, the sacrifice of the divine animal is but another version of the sacrifice of the Spirit of Vegetation: both rites have a similar object, and belong to the same order of thought. The principle which inspired the savage hunter also guided the actions of pastoral and agricultural tribes. "Death" was originally an embodiment of the spirit of a tree or corn-field—its totem, in fact—and it was carried out and destroyed in order that the spirit, the life, of the tree or field might not perish, but might pass into the fresh leaves and the new crop. The effigy was beaten and kicked, not in order to intensify its sufferings or to express contempt, but "in order to dispel any malignant influences by which, at the supreme moment, the totem might conceivably be beset".[115] Before he is slain he is promenaded from door to door, that each of his worshippers may receive a portion of the divine virtues which are supposed to emanate from the dead or dying god. "Religious processions of this sort", says Mr. Frazer, "must have had a great place in the ritual of European peoples in prehistoric times, if we may judge from the numerous traces of them which have survived in folk-custom." Among those traces may perhaps be included these two Leicestershire ceremonies of "Hunting the Hare" and "Kicking the Bottle".

The sacrifice of the hare in spring-time, whether as a tribal totem or as a Spirit of Vegetation, may thus have survived, in faint and obscure traces, amongst the Easter customs of this nineteenth century.

Charles J. Billson.

  1. Origins of English History, 2nd ed., 1890, p. 390.
  2. Op. cit., p. 391, note.
  3. Folk-lore Journal, vol. i, pp. 121-2; Holtzmann's Deutsche Mythologle (Holder), Leipzig, 1874, p. 141.
  4. Notes and Queries, 3rd Series, i., 473.
  5. Ibid., 8th Series, i, 475.
  6. F.-L. Journal, vol. v, p. 263; N. and Q., 4th Series, viii, 23
  7. Dyer, British Popular Customs (Bohn), p. 176; Brand's Popular Antiquities (Bohn), vol. i, p. 177.
  8. Throsby's History of Leicester, p. 166. See Kelly's Notices of Leicester (1865), p. 168; North's Chronicles of St. Martin's (1866), p. 158; Thompson's History of Leicester in the Eighteenth Century, 1871, p. 38 sqq.
  9. Kelly, op. cit., pp. 173, 206, 278. Cf. Shakespeare, Much Ado, Act i, Sc. I.
  10. Kelly, op. cit., p. 169. It is, however, probable that some part of the forest was included in and formed part of the original town.
  11. See also Leicestershire Notes and Queries, vol. i, p. 147; Nichols' History of Leicestershire, ii, 630; "Hallaton", according to Nichols = "Holy town".
  12. Op. cit., p. 390, note.
  13. "Antiqui Anglorum populi, gens mea .... apud eos Aprilis Esturmonath, qui nunc paschalis menses interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum, quae Eostra vocabitur et cui in illo festa celebrantur, nomen habuit; a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consento antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes," (Beda, De temporum ratione, c. 13.) Cf. Grimm's Teutonic Mythology (Stallybrass, London, 1882), pp. 288-291, 616, 780-81, 1371, and 1520.
  14. Op. cit., 291.
  15. Holtzmann, Deutsche Mythologie, pp. 137-141.
  16. Op. cit., p. 141. He mentions (p. 138) that the goddess Freyja was worshipped by the Swedes and Danes under the name "Astrild" = Austr-hildis; "so that Ostara might be Freyja herself or her daughter." It may be noted that Freyja "was attended by hares as her train-bearers and light-bearers". Henderson, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England., ed. Baring Gould, London, 1866, p. 170; F.-L. Journal, i, 89.
  17. Oberle, Ueberreste germanischen Heidentums in Christentum. Baden-Baden, 1883, p. 104.
  18. Op. cit., p. 107.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Zeitsdirift., iii, 171.
  21. Mannhardt's Baumkultus, Berlin, 1875, p. 505, note; 522, note.
  22. Grimm, T. M., p. 289.
  23. A. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, i, 183-4; ii, 55-9.
  24. F.-L. Journal, i, 84; "The Hare in Folk-lore," by Wm. G. Black, F.S.A. Scot.
  25. Ibid., p. 89.
  26. Phaedrus, translated by Riley (Bohn), 1853, p. 450, note.
  27. Ovid, Fasti, Lib. v, 371-2.
  28. Leviticus, xi, 6.
  29. F.-L. Journal, i, 89; Lubbock's Prehistoric Times, 2nd ed., London, 1869, p. 190.
  30. Lubbock, op. cit., p. 190.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Palgrave's Central and Eastern Arabia, London, 1865, i, 360; Burton's First Footprints, p. 155.
  34. Tylor, Primitive Culture, London, 1871, i, 320.
  35. Oberle, op. cit., p. 104.
  36. Elton, op. cit., p. 286.
  37. See p. 451.
  38. Lubbock, op. cit., 190-1.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ordinances of Manu (Trübner's Oriental Series), London, 1884, p. 112.
  41. Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, iii, cp. 17.
  42. Elton, op. cit., p. 286, note.
  43. "The hare, because she cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, she is unclean unto you" (Leviticus, xi, 6). It is curious that in Albert Dürer's "Smaller Passion" the hare figures as the principal dish in the Last Supper, and the same mistake appears in the chapel at Galton Park. See Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, ii, 490.
  44. See post, p. 460.
  45. Palgrave, op. cit., p. 360. The reader will perhaps remember the reason given by Lady Answerall in Swift's Polite Conversations, when she quotes the old medical saw, "Hare-flesh engendereth melancholy bloude." Cf. Clodd, Myths and Dreams, London, 1855, p. 166.
  46. Lake Ngami, by C. J. Anderson, London, 1856, p. 328.
  47. Cæsar, Commentaries, v. 12.
  48. A writer in the Edinburgh Review, for April 1892 (p. 331), in an article on "Semitic Religions", suggests another explanation of this taboo: "Savage men have very generally supposed that the qualities of the animal eaten are absorbed by the eater; . . . that the cowardice of the hare may result from feeding on its flesh, which is sometimes allowed to women, but not to men." This explanation does not appear wide enough, however, to cover all the cases. The reason of the hare being allowed to women among the Hottentots, but not to men, is possibly due to a wish to exclude women from the penetralia of religious worship, such as exists in the strictest form among the aboriginal Ainus of Japan. Cf. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, Edinburgh, 1889, p. 216, note.
  49. F.-L. Journal., i, 87.
  50. Ibid., ii, 260. "So great is their aversion to a fox, hare, or rabbit, that they never so much as mention their names themselves, nor endure even to hear them named by others. If a fisherman of Claddagh happened to see one of these animals or hear its name mentioned, he would not on that day venture to sea; and the cause of this strange superstition they neither know themselves, nor can anyone else account for it."
  51. Elton, op. cit., p. 286.
  52. Æschylus, Agamemnon, 109-159.
  53. A. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, ii, 216; Müller's Dorians (Tr. Tuffnel and Lewis, Oxford, 1830), i, 397.
  54. Pausanias, iii, 22; A. Lang, op. cit., i, 278.
  55. Notes and Queries, 4th Series, viii, 505.
  56. Dion Cassius, lxii, 3, Borlase, Antiquities of Cornwall, p. 135; Elton, op. cit., p. 286, note; F.-L. Journal, i, 86, 89.
  57. Brand, Pop. Antiq., iii, 195-200; De Gubernatis, Zoological Mythology, 1872, ii, 207.
  58. F.-L. Journal, v, 213.
  59. Brand, iii, 201; F.-L. Journal, i, 84-85; ii, 258; De Gubernatis, op. cit., ii, 81; Indian Antiquary, v, 21; Henderson, op. cit., 204; Gomme, Folk-lore Relics of Early Village Life, London, 1883, p. 183; Kalewala, Rune 38, Crawford's translation, p. 576.
  60. F.-L. Journal, i, 87.
  61. Notes and Queries, 3rd Series, xi, 134-5.
  62. Ibid., xii, 362.
  63. F.-L. Journal, i, 85.
  64. F.-L. Journal, i, 87.
  65. Elton, op. cit., 286; Figuier, Primitive Man (Tylor), 268.
  66. A. Lang, op. cit., i, 177.
  67. Folk-Lore, ii, 246.
  68. De Gubernatis, op. cit., ii, 81-2.
  69. Henderson, op. cit., p. 168.
  70. Thorpe, iii, 278; Scott (Morley's Universal Library), pp. 203, 213, 233; F.-L. Journal, vii, 284-5; Folk- and Hero-Tales from Argyllshire, F.-L. S., 1889, pp. 87-89, 454; Atkinson's Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, 2nd edit., 1891, pp. 88-92. "The witch", says Canon Atkinson, "under the form of a hare, is of perpetual recurrence in all the copious witch-lore of the district." (Ibid., p. 87.) See Moore's Folk-lore of the Isle of Man, London, 1891, pp. 95, 147.
  71. Brand, Pop. Ant., iii, 38 1; Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, iii, chap. 17; Elton, op. cit., p. 286.
  72. Allen's History of the County of Lincoln, 1834, vol. ii, p. 105; Notes and Queries, 4th Series, iii, 103.
  73. F.-L. Journal, i, 87.
  74. Oberle, op cit., p. 104.
  75. P. 118
  76. F.-L. S., 1883, pp. 154, 155.
  77. Mart., Ep. v, 29. Cf. also Pliny, 28, 19, and Vet. Epig. apud Lamprid; Alex. Sev., 38.
  78. "Hare-bell," so called because it grows in thickets haunted by hares; "hare-parsley", because it is eaten by hares.
  79. Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, i, 415. See Grimm, T. M., 1824.
  80. Henderson, Folk-lore of the Northern Counties, new ed., Folk-lore Society, 1879. (The passage is not in the first edition.)
  81. A. Lang, op. cit., ii, 353.
  82. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, Edinburgh, 1889, p. 362.
  83. Frazer, The Golden Bough, London, 1890, pp. 10-11.
  84. I cannot bring myself to use the ugly word "folk-lorist".
  85. Elton, op. cit., 392.
  86. Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune-Telling, London, 1891, pp. 224-225.
  87. Harley, op. cit., p. 60, sqq.; De Gubernatis, op. cit., II, chap. viii. Hence the Sanskrit name of the moon, Sasānka, i.e., "having the marks of a hare."
  88. Harley, p. 66
  89. Ibid., p. 64.
  90. Harley, p. 65; Tylor, Prim. Culture., i, 320; Anderson, Lake Ngami, 328; Bleek's Reynard the Fox in South Africa, London, 1864, p. 72.
  91. Harley, pp. 104-105.
  92. Notes and Queries, 8th Series, i, 475.
  93. Folk- and Hero-Tales from Argyllshire, F.-L. S., 1889, pp. 87-9, 454, note.
  94. Theal's Kaffir Folk-lore, London, 1886, p. 176. Perhaps the hare is chosen as a leader for the same reason as that which causes him to be so often chosen as a messenger, viz., his swiftness and alertness. In the Kalevala he conveys the news of Aino's death, as he does that of the princess in the Zulu folk-tale.
  95. De Gubernatis, op. cit., ii, 76-7.
  96. ἔλκει λαγὼς λέοντα χρυσίνῳ βρὀχῳ.
  97. Mortuo leoni lepores insultant.
  98. De Gubernatis, op. cit., ii, 79.
  99. Ibid., p. 81.
  100. Ibid., p. 82.
  101. Ralston, Russian Folk-tales, London, 1873, P. 236.
  102. Max Müller, Biographies of Words, and the Home of the Aryas, London, 1888, p. 145, and cf. p. 164.
  103. Geikie's Prehistoric Europe, pp. 31, 87, 97.
  104. Ibid., p. 103, 107-8.
  105. Elton, op. cit., p. 219.
  106. Frazer, op. cit., ii, 33-4.
  107. Anno 1671. "Itm pd to two and twenty men that brought and carried hares before Mr. Maior and the Aldermen by Mr. Mayor's order."
  108. It may indeed appear strange, at first sight, that a sacrificial procession should have resolved itself into a hunt; but there are many instances of this amongst analogous customs, where the hunting of the wren, the squirrel, and the ram have been shown to owe their origin to the sacrifice of those animals. Cf. Gomme, Village Communities, London, 1890, pp. 112-13; Notes and Queries, 1st Series, vol. vii, p.
  109. Frazer, op. cit., i, 257-78; Brand, op. cit., i, 112, note; ibid., 117-8; Googe's Popish Kingdom, ed. R. C. Hope, 1880, p. 50; Dyer's British Pop. Customs, p. 118; Grimm, T. M., 764-76. For an account of "carrying out death" in Russia, see The Spectator for June 18th, 1892.
  110. See, ex. gr., The Spectator, June 18th, 1892.
  111. Gomme, Village Communities, pp. 242-44; Gloucestershire Folk-lore, Printed Extracts No. 1 (F.-L. S., 1892), pp. 38-9.
  112. Vol. i, pp. 267-68.
  113. I am not inclined to lay much stress upon the objection that most of these ceremonies occur not at Easter but in Mid-Lent; for we often find popular customs transferred from their old dates to those of proximate modern festivals. Thus the old Berkshire ceremony of "Wetting the Block" takes place in some parts of the county on the first Monday in Lent, and in others on Easter Monday (Dyer, p. 119). And a custom which survived until recent years at University College, Oxford, and which seems also to bear traces of this rite of "carrying out Death", actually took place on Easter Day (Dyer, p. 167). The Hallaton custom may possibly be analogous to that of "Riding the Black Lad", which also takes place on Easter Monday, at Astonunder-Lyne; in which case the effigy, after being carried round the town and shot at, is finally burned (Denham Tracts, vol. i, F.-L. S., 1891, p. 103.)
  114. Frazer, op. cit., ii, 206-208, etc. Mr. Frazer thinks that the practice of "carrying out Death" combines the two customs of killing the god and expelling evils annually by means of a scapegoat.
  115. Frazer, op. cit., 214-15.