The hare may look timid and nervous to us, but folklore knows lots of stories that connect this animal to witchcraft, hauntings and the Devil himself.Weird tales about hares appear everywhere, so next time you see a hare, you might think twice about its innocence. Most of the following accounts stem (as far as I know) from the early 20th-century Netherlands.
In Hellum (in the Dutch northern province of Groningen), a farmer’s help saw a hare that grew larger and larger until it gave the poor sap a good whipping. The logical conclusion was that this must have been the Devil in disguise. Other ‘growing hares’ were signalled in Zaamslag (Dutch western province of Zeeland), running along a farmer’s horse; and in de Achterhoek (eastern Netherlands) where it chased two boys.In another case from the Achterhoek, a woman held a meek little hare in her apron, but it quickly became heavier and heavier. She could not hold the animal anymore, so she let it go – upon which the hare turned into a witch master who walked into the meadow.
It was often thought that witches would tranform into hares when traveling and working magic. Near Meppel, in the Dutch province of Drente, there lived a hare that could not be shot with a gun. When one bright person changed the bullets for rye seeds, the animal was finally shot, and turned into a witch. Other tales like this are known in other places of (Northwest) Europe.
There is a connection with werewolves here, that becomes even clearer in the tale of a ghostly hare living in the province of Groningen that, like werewolves, could only be hit by silver bullets. In Zeelst (Noord-Brabant), a marauder shot a hare but missed, only to be immediately surrounded by hundreds of hares. Could this have been a huge group of witches coming to the rescue?
Another witch-hare was seen in de Achterhoek, where once a hare fled from hunters and ran toward a little house. Children were standing in the doorway, shouting “Bessemoor, kom gauw hier!” (Bessemoor, come here quickly!). The hare turned out to be their grandmother.
Apart from all this ghostly business, the hare is of course also connected to fertility. In folklore there is a special hare, known as the koolhaas or korenhaas. I’ll translate this litterally to ‘cabbage hare’ and ‘corn hare’. If anyone knows about English parallels, please contact me.
Beliefs about the koolhaas were written down around 1850. The hare was here seen as a sort of fertility spirit living among the crops. When the cabbage seeds would be threshed, the farmer’s wife and female helps would make a hare out of hay, reed or straw, and decorate it with ribbons. If the last bundle was about to be threshed, the hare would be approached in a reverent way. It would then be threshed together with the last bundle, and folks would grapple for the ribbons. To me this reads like a ritual of sacrifice in order to receive fertility. Indeed, Ter Laan, who is the main source of this article, places the koolhaas or korenhaas in a row of corn demons who have to die to be reborn.
K. Ter Laan, Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen.