Written by Heather Elvidge
As the turning point between winter and spring, March can be a capricious month. The sea is at its coldest, driving bitter winds across the land. But even easterlies can be beneficial, helping to dry out the soil.
Out in the fields brown hares are looking for a mate. Normally alone, in March they’re seen together. This is the month of the mad March hare, when jacks and jills chase and box while other hares watch.
Brown hares are handsome, muscular animals with amber eyes, black-tipped ears and a dark tail. When disturbed, they’re fast – hares can reach 45mph in their zig-zagging run, known as the maze. They’ve been here for around 2,000 years; the smaller mountain hare that turns white in winter is our native hare.
An evening in early spring, with the new moon high in the sky, is a good time to see “the old moon in the young moon’s arms”. The new moon is on March 11, so look when it is two days old and you may see ghostly earthlight cradled by the shining crescent.
Since people first pondered the mysteries of the moon they’ve seen images on its surface. One of the most common is a man in the moon, represented in folklore as a peasant with a lantern, carrying a bundle of brushwood.
Another thing people saw was a hare. This animal was linked with all ancient moon deities, making the hare-in-the-moon almost universal. The hare is seen as a large patch on the western side of the moon, from the eighth day to full.
Roof bosses in old Devon churches have a recurring theme of three hares chasing each other in a circle. The hares share three ears that form a triangle, yet each animal seems to have the usual two.
Beyond Devon the Three Hares image is less common, yet it does appear elsewhere in medieval stained glass and floor tiles, and on the plaster ceilings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century houses. There’s a wooden roof boss in the nave of Selby Abbey, and a tantalising mention of Three Hares on a ceiling in Scarborough, though sadly no details of its location.
The Three Hares turn up in European churches and in countries along the old Silk Route. The oldest known example was found in China, in a cave temple dating from the seventh century, where the hares were associated with a moon deity.
What could this mysterious image mean? Probably three phases of the moon in ancient times, though later cultures had their own interpretations.
Hares were messengers between people and their lunar god; they were symbols of rebirth; resurrection; female fertility; and the “light-in-darkness” of intuition.
In medieval England, this pagan baggage made the hare a creature of ill omen. Numerous superstitions arose, including a taboo on speaking the hare’s real name. Its presence in Christian churches could be explained by an old belief that the solitary hare was capable of virgin birth, but on the other hand a white hare symbolised the sin of lust.
In Europe hares became associated with Easter customs, and German children still search for eggs hidden by the Easter hare, the forerunner of the Easter bunny.