RICHARD WILLIAMSON: The symbolic importance of hares

My daughter told me that she once witnessed a hare dancing around the grave of a warrior in the woods.

It was an early spring morning with dew on the grass, as she strode along the forest ride to the crest of the Downs and the view north to Blackdown. Under the pines she stopped to examine the tomb or tumulus that is the resting place of a Bronze Age chief. The structure is forty yards wide, with a shelving rim, while the central chamber has long since collapsed.

She was wondering what sort of people had lived here and farmed, and finally finished their time, when the hare appeared. It frolicked in full circle around her with a bouncy step, apparently not seeing or even winding her. Then another hare appeared and the two began a duel, standing like men in a boxing ring and thudding each other with paws and claws. They leaped, they circled, and then as suddenly, they vanished.

Now my daughter is a practical woman who teaches 400 inner-city children and daily comes across every possible combination of human behaviour from violence to total dependence. She was able to slip into the consciousness of these two wild animals as they worked through their own battlefields of desires and fears, which, as with us, are the blueprints of existence.

Our ancestors would have extended the cognisance of this encounter far beyond the limits that we allow today. Poets such as Ted Hughes are allowed these close encounters because poets are safely locked up in pigeon holes. For the farmers and pastoralists millennia ago such an encounter as my daughter witnessed could have symbolised total belief in reincarnation, the spirits of the dead escaping into a new existence.

For the Ancient Egyptians the symbol ‘to exist’ was after all, the hieroglyph of a hare with a ripple of water underneath. The animal was a God, like the peregrine falcon and the panther. Centuries after the Christianization of Europe, clandestine gatherings celebrated the Mother Goddess as their race-memory decreed, when a leader might adopt the guise of a hare and metamorphose into its spirit.

The infamous witch trials and burnings of the 17 century were the last serious reverberations of that cult. Hare worship just did not fit the new society. A 13 C poem from the Welsh borders, designed as a ritual incantation to ward off the Satanic power of the hare, thus bringing it under the power of the hunter, contained a hundred names for the animal, most of them abusive: lurker, filthy- beast, coward, traitor, purblind, skulker, shagger, big bum, niggard, flincher, stag with leathery horns, the one that all men scorns, the stag of the cabbages, the one-who-makes-you-shudder, were among them.

Today the hare does not have our scorn or our worship. It is finding life difficult though, what with red kites and badgers foraging for its young, and pesticides altering its habitat. Its havens today are the woodlands and forests like those around my home.