Today I am chasing a hare.
A magical, almost mystical, creature, symbolic of changeability and fertility and associated with the Moon, hares feature in folklore and art in many different cultures around the world, it would be hard to catch.
African folk tales¹ have the hare as companion to the Moon, as does Chinese legend. In the Indian sub-continent both Hinduism and Buddhism venerate the hare as a symbol of rebirth and in European antiquity the hare was an attribute of Aphrodite. Herodotus uses the hare’s great speed in his Histories², as a portent of Xerxes eventual flight and defeat. Pliny, Aristotle and, of course, Aesop³, refer to hares and in early Christian iconography the hare is a symbol of purity and resurrection. The hare triangle symbol, of three hares, each with two ears, though only three ears are visible, is found in church architecture, mosaic and tile work and is said to symbolise the Trinity – see the example right from a Devon church. Yet the same image is found in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and along the silk road to China.
In English folklore the hare is deemed both lucky and unlucky. The story of the White Hare is a Cornish legend in which an abandoned maiden dies and returns to life in the form of a white hare to wreak revenge upon her faithless lover. At the Somerset trial in 1663 of Julian Cox, the accused was said to change into the shape of a hare at will, an attribute commonly believed to be that of a witch. So the hare is a familiar of goddesses, maidens and witches.
The hare which I have been chasing, however, is of a different kind. He is Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834 – 1903) the Victorian writer and artist. Scion of a Sussex family of clerics and writers he was born in Rome and spent much of his life wandering around Europe, writing about the places he visited. Some of his many travel titles, most of which are now out of print, are Walks in Rome, Walks in London and Wanderings in Spain. He also wrote a six (!) volume autobiography, but then he had a fairly unusual life; his parents gave him away when he was a young boy to a relative (assuring her, incidentally, that they had other children if she ever felt the need of more).
This Hare is now largely forgotten, even the Hare Society web-site looks sadly out of date, but, in his day, he was very well-known as a travel writer, memoirist and writer of ghost stories. He knew everyone ‘in society’ and peopled his books with vignettes of the famous and infamous. He was also the generous supporter of a young Somerset Maugham. He aroused my interest because I recently acquired two of his paintings. Hare frequently illustrated his books himself, being a more than merely competent water-colourist and he painted the homes and houses he visited in England. I have yet to find the Arts & Crafts house which features in one of these paintings (right) but suspect it is also in Sussex, if that’s not a hare-brained idea.
Incidentally, I discovered that one of Hare’s cousins from the Lyon branch of the family, was Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice. So it can be said that he is connected with that other Hare, the Mad March Hare of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Just one incarnation of the old English saying ‘as mad as a March hare’, a phrase dating back to at least 1500. But that’s another story and I don’t want to start a new hare running*.
¹It is claimed that these tales, in which the hare is always wily and cunning, travelled with enslaved Africans to the U.S. where they formed the origin of the B’rer Rabbit stories. I don’t know if this is true.
²Histories, 7.57 – 58
³The fable of The Tortoise and the Hare
*In Calley Wood, the tale for March in my book The Village, concerns a young boy chasing a hare.
If you enjoyed reading this article there are other articles about words and symbols which you might enjoy When is a Tea Towel not a Tea Towel? Boozing Kens Warp and Weft