AFTER all the rain we've endured, spring seems to have arrived at last. Instead of complaints about it raining cats and dogs, our favourite topic of conversation has turned to sunnier themes.
And, when the recent spell of high pressure arrived, with the typical contrariness of our climate, early March was less the roaring lion and more the lamb.
Whenever we mention the weather, and in Britain that's most of the time, our speech is literally stuffed with animal imagery. In ancient times, the changing seasons were linked to gods and goddesses and the supernatural.
Humans were constantly at the mercy of the weather, and as the winter flooding proves, still are today.
In earlier times, we turned to ancient belief and ritual to placate the weather gods. And, while we think we have progressed beyond superstition and old wives' tales, the many animal references in our speech are echoes of our distant past.
Whenever a new month starts, many of us still say "white rabbits"- just to be on the safe side!
Some old sayings are pretty obvious, like "nice weather for ducks". But, why do we invoke the humble bunny for protection or good luck? What's more is it the rabbit or the hare we should be asking for help?
To be honest it's a bit confusing, as in myth and folklore both appear to have similar roles. Both are archetypal symbols of the feminine associated with the moon, fertility, longevity and rebirth.
And, at this time of year, hare and rabbit imagery abounds. We blithely mention "mad March hares" and the "Easter Bunny", but why these two, in particular?
In mythology hares and rabbits are seen as paradoxical creatures, symbols of cleverness and foolishness, purity and lust. In some cultures, they were seen as messengers of the ancient mother goddess, able to flit between the realms of the human and divine.
In ancient Egypt, hares were linked to the cycles of the moon. The Egyptians believed hares could also change gender at will. In Greek and Roman myth the hare symbolised romantic love, lust and fecundity. Eating hare meat was thought to make you appear sexier and also cure sterility. Hares were also associated with Artemis the goddess of wild places and the hunt. As such, it was considered taboo to kill newborn hares.
Rabbits were considered sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and marriage. With their legendary talent for multiplying, rabbits were said to have "the gift of Aphrodite" – or fertility, in great abundance. Ancient Greek males commonly gave rabbits as gifts to their lovers. In ancient Rome husbands gave rabbits as gifts if their wives were having problems conceiving.
In Norse mythology, Freyja the goddess of love, was depicted being served by attendants in the shape of hares. She also travelled with a sacred hare in a chariot pulled by cats. In western Siberia Kaltes, a shape-shifting moon goddess, liked to roam in the shape of a hare. She was also depicted wearing a headdress with long, furry ears.
Likewise Ostara, the Anglo Saxon goddess of the moon, fertility and spring, was often depicted with a hare's head or with a white hare in attendance. According to legend this magical white hare laid brightly coloured eggs that were given to children during the spring fertility festival - the ancestor of our Easter Bunny tradition, of course! The myth of the magical white hare may also be where our monthly "white rabbit" saying comes from.
In Celtic mythology Eostre is the equivalent of the Saxons' Ostara. Like her Germanic twin, she is also linked to the moon, death and re-birth. Eostre was also a shape-shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each new moon. All hares were sacred to her acting as her special messengers.
When Julius Caesar invaded Gaul he noted how eating rabbits and hares was taboo among the Celts. And, in Irish folklore, it was said that eating a hare was akin to eating your own grandmother! Probably because of the ancient belief that "wise women" and witches could shape-shift into hares during moonlight.
The Celts also used rabbits and hares for magic and divination, studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances and looking for mystic signs among their entrails. As rabbits burrowed underground the Celts believed they could communicate with the spirit world, carrying messages from the living to the dead and from mortals to faeries.
Over time as Christianity replaced the old religions, hares and rabbits began to be seen in a less favourable light. Their associations with the old pagan beliefs meant they were viewed with suspicion, and now seen as the familiars of witches, or as witches who had shape-shifted into hare form.
Many old folk tales tell of humans being led a merry dance by hares that were really witches in disguise. Many others tell of hares being hunted and wounded, the cornered animal being revealed in her human form as a witch. A folk tale from Dartmoor tells how a mighty hunter called Bowerman disturbed a coven of witches at their rituals. One of these took revenge by transforming herself into a hare and leading Bowerman through a dangerous bog. Then she turned the huntsman and his pack into piles of stones. To this day the stones are known as Hound Tor and Bowerman's Nose.
Rabbits fared a little better than hares and were sometimes seen as lucky animals. That didn't mean they escaped the pot. But at least folklore was kinder to them, and the wearing of a "lucky rabbit's foot" charm became common. Yet, at times when it suited the situation, rabbits also were seen as witches or as omens of bad luck. If you saw a rabbit in a village street, for example, a fire would surely break out. A rabbit crossing your path in the morning signalled disaster.
Eventually the superstitions surrounding hares and rabbits became more or less interchangeable. One remedy to counteract bad luck caused by a brush with either creature involved spitting over your left shoulder, while saying: "Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me!" Another charm had folk touching each shoulder with their forefinger while saying: "Hare, hare, God send thee care."
Fishermen and sailors being especially superstitious tried not to let hares or rabbits – or women for that matter – board their vessels. They also avoided saying aloud the names of the long-eared creatures, or using any nets or equipment that had come into contact with them. One exception to using the animal's name would have been describing someone as being "Mad as a March hare", an expression referring to the creature's leaping and boxing during the spring mating season.
It's thought that the Romans brought rabbits and brown hares to Britain for food and for game. Wherever they went they liked home comforts, favourite food being top of the list. The rabbits were domesticated ones, bred in Spain, specially for the table. Small and easy to transport, rabbits are high in protein, ideal for soldiers on the move. Archaeologists have discovered 2,000 year old rabbit bones showing signs of butchery, evidence that the Legions were partial to rabbit stew.
They also introduced the brown hare to Britain. Prior to the Roman settlement, the native Celtic tribes only knew the indigenous mountain hare. What they thought about the invaders eating these sacred creatures we can only guess. Let's hope it really wasn't their grannies!