The child’s nose was pressed up against the glass display case, his dirty little fingers smearing whatever muck he had last eaten all over it. The condensation from his breath obscured what was on the other side. It made little difference to him, as he was clearly unable to concentrate on anything that wasn’t featured on the screen of a phone.
‘Do you like the bunny?’ asked the boy’s mother, cradling another, smaller, brat in her arms. It wriggled like a worm on a hook as she spoke. ‘Isn’t it cute?’ she added, hopefully.
The child stared through the steamed glass at the stuffed hare for perhaps five seconds, and then wandered over to the fox and the badger, which are even scrawnier and less shapely after a century in a museum case. The mother smiled at me wanly as she followed him. It’s a bloody hare! I felt like saying to her. It’s a hare, not a ‘bunny.’ Can’t you see the difference? Set your snivelling little child an example! I did not say this. I only nodded. I have found as I have grown older, much to my delight, that it is possible to get through most days without having to say anything to anyone at all.
After the child had left, I produced my handkerchief and carefully cleaned the glass. European Hare, read the Victorian hand-lettered label. Lepus europaeus. I looked into her glass eyes. Her black-tipped ears were balding, as if she had mange.
Old side-looker, I whispered to her, through the glass. Stag of the stubble. Old Turpin. They have never treated you as you should be treated. No respect. There is no respect left in this world. Left on show here as if you were just another beast of the fields. As if you were mortal. But I will find you. I am still looking.
I try not to talk to the hare when there are others present.
The museum is not far from my home. I come here perhaps once or twice a week. The staff are used to this eccentric old man wandering through their exhibits. I do not care how they see me. The hare knows me perhaps better than any human. I come because I feel, sometimes, as if looking into the eyes of the hare – false though they are – may furnish me with answers to questions which my research in more conventional areas has so far failed to reveal. I realise this is superstition. This is why I do it. Since I was a child I have gravitated towards anything dismissed by the educated as whimsy, stupidity, foolishness. Anything primitive or superstitious, any pre-modern notion which cannot be double-blind tested. The more educated a person is, the less they can really see. When the educated look at hares, if they ever do, they do not see the dance under the moon. They do not see the transformation. They do not see what She is and can become. The power and the danger, the polar dance on the green downs in summer.
No. They see a bunny.
But the dance continues, I am sure of it. Up there somewhere, in the old, high places. Before I die, I will bear witness.
fire rises in the circle
fire rising up the stones
the stones dance as if they are alive
they are alive
above the circle, the moon’s eye watches
the order of things shall be as ever
and the people stand circled within the ring
and the coals are the colour of the blood moon
and all speak now the words of summoning
the hare is brought forth
The hare’s association with the moon is of particular interest to me. The hare that dances on the plain here appears when the moon is full. This is what the tales say, in what scant documentary evidence remains. It was often the case that hares seen when the moon was full were considered to be bad luck. In many parts of the country, in fact, hares were bad luck at any time. In the West Country, no fisherman would put to sea if he came across a hare on the way from his home to his boat. Once at sea, any mention of the hare was strictly forbidden. Take a hare aboard your vessel and drowning is certain.
The moon hare is not a purely British phenomenon, which interests me greatly. The association is global. Silimukha, the Indian hare-king, is connected with the moon. In China, a hare sacrificed itself to the Buddha by throwing itself onto a fire. The Buddha, in recognition of its offering, commanded that the hare’s image should henceforth adorn the disc of the moon. The moon is a hare in many lands, and the hare becomes the moon in many others. Moon-hare tales lurk in the mythologies of Morocco, South Africa, France, Russia, various American Indian nations. There is a strange image of what appears to be a hare goddess in an old Saxon text. The Celtic goddess Ceridwen is linked also with hares. The Egyptian moon god Un-nefer, an early manifestation of Osiris, king of the dead, became a hare at the correct time of the month. And what of the hares painted high up in the Paleolithic caves in the Dordogne? What of the hares on the shaman’s drumskins in Lapland?
The hare lives in the places between. She is never merely animal. All have known this.
All except us.
The hare and the moon: across the world, they saw the connection. Back when the outer world was alive, when Man was not the measure of all things. Back when we could see beyond the ends of our noses. Before the lights came on and the asphalt went down. They all saw something. Here, when the moon was full, many times over the centuries, they saw the hare dancing on the plain, near the henge. The circling hare that came with a message. What did it have to say?
silence is the sky
silence in the moon’s eye
still the stones dance
and now the people hum
and the hare is brought to the fire
and the herbs are brought to the fire
and the oil is brought to the fire
and the hare annointed
it does not struggle
its ears lay flat upon its skull
in my arms now it is still
my arms now i raise to the fire
the hare does not move
in its eyes the flames dancing
Become, i say
The old church at Imber is only accessible now on a few days each year. A strange place, is Imber; strange and sad. A high, lonely village up on the plain, it was requisitioned by the War Office in 1943 and the villagers expelled. They were never allowed to return, even when they descended en masse and demanded their homes back. Their homes are long-gone, the thatched cottages, the inn, the manor, all replaced by concrete block houses where soldiers can practice kidnapping, killing, raiding, whatever it is they do and wherever they do it. But the church still stands, and once a year the public is allowed to visit. It has been stripped of its fittings – the pews are gone, the altar, the font. But the ghosts are still here.
It is in the parish records of St Giles’ at Imber that the hare first appears. The date is 1318. John Godwin, a shepherd on the plain, was on his rounds. Where he was precisely is not known; or was not known, before my work began. It was somewhere between the village and the henge, which is perhaps ten miles distant. It was the evening of the full moon, and the shepherd was resting on the downs. In my mind’s eye I see the plain in the times before industry. The hills of yellow grass and green, rolling to a far horizon. The skies clear, the only sounds the birds, the sheep, the wind. Sometimes I curse my mind’s eye for what it shows me. All of the unreachable things.
Godwin was resting, evening was coming down, when a hare appeared before him. I don’t suppose he paid it very much attention until it began to circle him. Clockwise it went, according to the records. It circled him continually, watching him always from its side-on eyes. Perhaps the moon was rising. The hare continued circling the shepherd, but now it began to stamp its hind legs as it did so. Its speed seemed to increase with every circle it made around him, the stamping got faster. The hare appeared to be dancing in a circle around the shepherd, who sat, barely breathing, simply watching. And then the moon was high and the hare was gone and John Godwin was hurrying back across the plains of grass to Imber, to tell his neighbours what he had seen. Godwin’s wife had died earlier that year; his one daughter just two years before her. As he moved over the plains in the brightening moon, his heart felt somehow lightened for the first time in years.
This is what I see.
What we don’t know is whether John Godwin was the first to see the dancing hare of the plain, or whether he was merely the first to record it. I favour the latter theory. I believe the hare’s dance is very much older than any records we have access to. I believe it may date, even, to the times when the henge was in use. Can the henge’s proximity to the site be coincidence? It could, but I doubt it. The whole plain is a great magical landscape, perhaps the preeminent one in these islands. I have no evidence upon which to base this theory. All I have is a hunch.
now with flames rising
sound of the circle rising
I step to the fire
raise the anointed one in my arms
ears down, eyes wide
power in her stillness
Become! I say again
I offer her body to the flames
From the 14th century onward it is possible to track the dancing hare right up to the present. In parish records, in newspaper reports, in stories passed down through families, claims are made by those who have seen, or believe they are seen, her dancing up high when the moon is full. From the middle of the 20th century the reports decline – partly, I suspect, for fear of appearing superstitious, partly due to the decline of rural culture and partly because the Army’scolonisation of the plain made her territory inaccessible to the unarmed. Still, in the late 1960s a local newspaper gives us the tale of another farmer, out in his fields one full moon night, who met with the hare and witnessed the same dance that John Godwin had witnessed 600 years before. This farmer, it seems, had also recently lost his wife.
I may as well say what I think at this point. I may as well lay out my theory about this dancing hare, drawn from my years of research. As I say, nothing can be proven. I speak about this to few people, and not only because I speak to few people about anything. But I believe that the hare appears to the grieving, to the worthy, to the lost in soul and body. I believe it comes when it is needed. I believe its dance is an offering, as old as time. In some way, I know this. In some way, in some way, I have seen it before.
Do not ask me to explain anything.
the hare does not draw back
the music of the circle grows louder
the flames are high
the stones dance
the hare kicks in my arms
its back legs thump into my breast
it leaps in to the fire
There is a rather wonderful 12th century poem, apparently from Shropshire, which appears to function as a hare charm. If a hunter, upon encountering a hare, is to have any luck capturing him, instructs the poem, he must lay upon the ground with his weapon in his hand, and utter the following 77 names for the animal. Thus will the hare’s strength be ‘put down’, enabling him to be captured.
The poem is in Middle English, and the names of the hare, most of them insulting, are captivating in this older version of our language. Scotewine, babbart, wodecat, westlokere, wint-swifft, wortcroppere, gobigrounde, deuhoppere. The modern English version is equally entertaining. Old big bum, fellow in the dew, cat of the wood, hedge frisker, swift-as-wind, squatter in the hedge, covenant breaker, stag with the leathery horns. Old Goibert is my particular favourite. I have no notion of the origin of this word, nor its precise meaning, but it is rather beautiful. Old Goibert. It sounds like an invocation.
One name missing is that given to us by Bede four centuries before: the name of a supposed Anglo-Saxon goddess whose memory lingers in the modern Easter, and which is regularly ritually abused by hordes of ridiculous modern so-called Druids and Pagans wandering about on the downs, polluting the circles and barrows with their incense sticks and magic crystals. I suppose I should be more charitable to these people. They are lost like everyone else. At least it gets them out of the house. But why is it necessary to dress up like vampires?
In Temporum Ratione, Bede tells us that April was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Eosturmonath, for this reason:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.
Hence the modern Easter. But this supposed goddess, Eostre, appears in no other source. Why not? Bede is unlikely to have invented her. Perhaps she was a localised deity. There are other such in Bede’s writings – Erce, for example, possibly a goddess of the Earth, who is found nowhere outside his work. Bede is good at rooting out old pagan customs, I think. He is fascinated by them, even as he seeks to bury them with his own religion. If Eostre ever existed, Bede would find her.
As for the hare – well, moon goddesses, Earth goddesses, hare goddesses are often tied up together. Eostre’s month is the time when hares mate, box, leap in the fields. The Easter Bunny is a memory of the old hare goddess, shrunk down to fit the withered glare of modernity, tied up in ribbons for children. I can prove nothing. But several old English rural tales tell of hares being born from eggs. This may be because hares nest in fields, where ground-nesting birds laid their eggs before the coming of the tractors. Easter eggs, Easter rabbits. And then we hear of the one hare story that is common in old cultures all around the world: that the hare can transform at will into a woman; and a woman into a hare.
Who is it that dances up there?
at this, the fire flares and rises
the circle draws back
moon’s eye is now wide and full above us
the flames cycle through colours
orange to red
the fire is white and high
we step back further
in the flames now, a shape moves
our music falls silent
The saddest story from Imber is that of Albert Nash. Albert was the village’s last blacksmith. From the old pictures it is possible to see how close-knit this village was. It is possible to see how little must have changed since the hare charm was written in Middle English. Scarcely more than 150 people, living up on the high plain. A blacksmith, an inn, the old windmill. Granny Staples’ old shop. Jabez Early, maker of dew ponds. The Deans at Seagram’s farm. And Albert. When the villagers were ordered to evacuate, Albert was found weeping, it is said, over his anvil. Of all the people of Imber, he found it hardest to break his ties with the land his family had lived on since before any recorded memory.
Albert lived less than six months after his exile. A strange thing happened. I can prove nothing. But it is said that his wife, Martha, awoke one night to find him dressed and pacing the bedroom. He wore his boots, as if he had been outside; they were wet with dew. The moon was full; I would place money on this, though I can prove nothing. Albert paced the boards, wide-eyed. He had seen something, I think. He had been out, and seen something. Martha asked him what he was doing. Albert said only: I am going home.
Martha persuaded him to undress and return to bed. When she awoke the next morning, she found Albert dead beside her.
from the fire then she comes
the White Lady
she stands before us
all in the circle fall to our knees
She stands before us
none dare look at her face
we bow our heads
Hare-women are not always goddesses, of course, and they are not always benevolent. I know of no god or goddess who is always benevolent. But in any case, many of the old suspicions that surrounded the hare in British folk culture seem to come from her association with the witch. There is a variant on a single story which is found in dozens of places across these islands. A hunter is out with his dogs when they encounter a hare. The dogs give chase and manage to injure the animal, biting it on the leg or pulling off a piece of its fur, but the hare escapes. The next day the old woman of the village, long suspected of witchcraft, is nursing an injury in the same place the hare was bitten.
There is the negative aspect of these small, isolated villages in one common tale. God protect the old woman who made too many enemies. Nobody can ever quite be trusted. I have learnt this in my long life. There is a darkness about this world. It is wiser to live alone. Stay silent, walk with your head down. Speak only when spoken to. That way, many of life’s arrows may miss you, if you are lucky.
I cannot say I have really been lucky. But it was a long time ago. Most things were a long time ago now. This is one of the few benefits of advanced age.
my head still lowered
I stand as others kneel
White Lady, I say,
bless our people
bless our land
bless this sanctuary
accept in exchange
there is silence
and then there is movement
a wind blows from the west
when we look up, She is gone
I have been preparing for a long time. For all of these years, I suppose, I have been preparing. Since I first came across the story of the dancing hare, since my interest became what some might call an obsession. I would prefer to call it a preoccupation. I don’t know how many years it has been now. Does it matter?
I have been looking for her before, of course. Casual trips at first, up on to the downs. Visits to Imber, when the public was allowed. But it’s no good just wandering about. There are calculations to be made. There is serious research to be done. She will not simply reveal herself to any casual passer-by. It has been necessary to track down and consult all the published tales and square them with the old maps, in order to effectively calculate where these events occurred. It has been necessary also, as far as has been possible, to align the stories with the dates, and even times, of the incidents. It has been complex and time-consuming. But time is something I have at my disposal, for now. And it has been enjoyable. I will miss it, I think.
But it is done now. I have identified a relatively small area, between the henge and the village, where I believe the sightings to have occurred over a period of several centuries. They have all occurred, as best I can see, under a full March moon – the hare moon, to use its folk name – at dusk.
It is a hare moon tonight.
I am waiting for dusk now. Up here, it creeps in across the hills like some being. I have chosen a site within my prescribed area. A standing stone, long fallen on its side, on the long shoulder of the plain. The view to all sides is beautiful. Imber is hidden beneath the brow of the next hill. Skylarks call as dusk approaches.
Date, time and place: I am as close, I believe, as anyone could ever be. But there is one variable I cannot control. She appears to those who need her. That much is certain. She offers something to them. It is clear enough from the tales that nobody expects or asks for what she brings. I suppose you could sit here through a hundred moons and never see a thing. She decides. She knows what you need.
The moon is rising now above the plain. The night is purple.
I am determined not to hunt. I am not a hunter. I did not bring binoculars, a camera, a notebook. None of that. I will sit on this stone with my hip flask, I will warm my body as the night grows cold.
What will be will be.
And then, suddenly, it is. I almost do not turn my head. It is impossible, really, that this should be anything more than a way to pass my time at this late stage in my life. Impossible that my games in the library and museum could come to anything.
But there she sits. In front of me and to my left, perhaps twenty yards away. A hare.
The evening is darkening as she begins to move to my right. She is a big one. The tips of her ears are coal black, her eyes saucer-like. She completes the first circle around me as I sit on the stone. I dare not move. She circles again. Faster this time. And again. Now her feet begin to thump on the ground. Her back feet push up, her rear end rises, now she rolls, as if somersaulting, faster, still faster, and now I can sit no longer, I raise myself up, I turn with her dance, I follow her as the night comes in and the moon brightens. The hare runs, faster still, faster than I have ever seen a hare run, she leaps, jumps, yes, she dances. She dances, and she keeps dancing as the night comes down and then she is dancing no longer, then she is standing before me and it is not a hare now.
It is not a hare now.
I did not realise how heavy my heart was. I did not realise the weight I carried. All of these years. I had thought the weight was the world and everything in it, but it was the weight of my heart.
It has been so heavy.
She stands before me now. I dare not look. Somehow I find myself kneeling. The moon silvers the grass of the plain as if it were day beyond the veil.
It is lighter now.
It is much lighter now.