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Hare Psychology

The hare is also a very potent symbol for modern psychoanalysts. Maybe it is no coincidence that one of the early books on dream analysis called The Lady of the Hare was written in 1944 by the anthropologist and psychologist John Layard, a student of WHR Rivers who famously treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen for shell shock. The link to Jung was through the psychologist called EA Bennet who later wrote a biography of Jung. John Layard’s great uncle was none other than Sir Austen Henry Layard who had excavated at Nineveh.

John Layard became a student of Carl Jung and he was a mentor to WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Layard’s ideas also influenced the work of TS Eliot. But it gets even better. I recently bought a secondhand copy of The Lady of the Hare and found that it had many small careful notes written into it and on the flyleaf it was inscribed with the owner’s name: EA Bennet July 1945 Cabin 64. I delved a bit further and found that EA Bennet was a well-respected psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. As a chaplain during the First World War he had been awarded a Military Cross for conspicuous bravery. Bennet later wrote several important books based on many years of his conversations and letters with Jung. In July 1945 as Brigadier EA Bennet RAMC he was sailing back from India, so he would have read that very copy of The Lady of the Hare sitting in his deckchair on board his troopship as he passed through the Suez Canal and brushed alongside Egyptian culture. Osiris lives on. The 8th Army and the Desert Rats did indeed defend the Nile. Two Saxon nations and the Italians fighting it out over a bit of desolate sand, and the British also had a bit of help from the Indians, Greeks, Kiwis, Australians, Polish and Free French.

So amidst the turmoil at the end of the Second World War some of the best brains in England were deeply immersed in stories of ancient hares, dreams and hare symbolism.5

In his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Jung mentions the Three Hares window in Paderborn cathedral, which he says represents consciousness “scenting or intuiting” the unconscious and the centre of one’s self. In other words for him the Trinity is the archetype of the universal Self. There are also unconscious links to ancient forms of the triple deity. In Jung’s own words: ‘Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level’. The Three Hares are therefore much older and more important psychologically than we realise, not only to early religions but to a sense of personal unity and completeness. Fluidity in balance.

Dreihasenfenster - 'Window of Three Hares'

Dreihasenfenster – ‘Window of Three Hares’ – in the inner courtyard of the cloister, Paderborn Cathedral, Germany, 16th century. Photo: Zefram GFDL, Cc-by – 3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

To make things even more colourful, witchcraft also gets a look in. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis 1146–1243) mentions that in Ireland men and women can transform themselves into wolves, which was fine while wolves still existed, but as wolves were hunted to extinction the women then turned themselves into hares. This belief survived for many centuries. Even the redoubtable Mrs Eliza Bray, wife of the vicar of Tavistock, writes in 1833 to Robert Southey, the poet laureate about a local woman who regularly turns herself into a hare. Such a belief also exists in Nordic countries where they have milk hares and troll hares. In Scotland in 1662 a housewife called Isobel Gowdie was tried for witchcraft. Her confession, apparently obtained without torture, was enriched with many lyrical tales of hares which the singer Maddy Prior has turned into a modern day folk song called The Fabled Hare. Old beliefs die hard. The hare has by its curious behaviour, speed and quirkiness endeared itself to the human race.

There are also two excellent BBC documentary films on the life of the hare. One presented by Peter Scott with photography by Eric Ashby dated 1963 and the other presented by David Attenborough dated 1993 which uses the song by Maddy Prior.6

It is also easy to see how the hare was linked to the spirit of the corn field. Hares often stayed to the very end of harvest, hiding in the shrinking square of wheat and then make a run for it and try to escape, chased by dogs, men and young boys. In classical times the hares may have been seen as an offering to the Greek goddess Demeter, who presided over grain, fertility, harvest, life and death, if not a symbol of Demeter herself.

In Devon and Cornwall, the tradition of ‘Crying the Neck’, was, within living memory a common ritual which involved cutting the last sheaf of corn, holding it aloft to the east for all to see, then shouting out the words, ‘I have’n, I have’n, I have’n.’ ‘The neck. The neck. The neck.’

This ancient tradition of completing the harvest and evoking the spirit of the cornfield may like the hares run right back to Hittite and Egyptian times when agriculture was first being developed. More than anything else the reverence for the corn spirit may in turn help to explain the universal nature of the Three Hares symbol, its wide distribution, its energy and its appeal.

These early traditions and seasonal festivals are incredibly important as they symbolise this transition, dependence on the weather and the cycles of the moon for the timing of such important events as ploughing, sowing and harvest. The moon is also a vital part of these calculations and in many cultures hares also have links to the moon. Nowruz the spring equinox festival in Iran is one such festival. It involves a fire ceremony and dates back to the time of Zororastra. Iran is also a likely candidate from where the Three Hares motif may well have originated along with Mesopotamia, the Urartu Kingdom and Armenia.

So if the Three Hares is a symbol of survival and renewal, fertility and abundance, which it appears to be, then on a very ancient level, it could easily symbolise the gradual switch from hunting to farming. The slow change from a hunter-gatherer economy to settled domesticated agriculture upon which so much of our civilisation depends. And if that is the case then the Three Hares symbol is a very important image indeed.

More recently many people will remember Masquerade by Kit Williams which in 1979 sparked a national treasure hunt to solve a puzzle and find a bejewelled golden hare that had been buried in a special location. The solution to finding Kit William’s hare was a nationwide quest in its own right and the clues involved Catherine of Aragon, Ampthill Park in Bedfordshire, a shadow at noon, the equinox and a whole raft of mathematical and trigonometrical anagrams.

Psychologically the hare is therefore fascinating, as Carl Jung rightly perceived, yet the eminent psychiatrists of their day did not fully realise the widespread occurrence and importance of the Three Hares both geographically and in history. The search for the symbol is by its very nature open-ended. Enjoy the sacred journey. It is one of life’s great mysteries and we are the richer for it.

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