Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Month: April 2019

Old English Spring Traditions

Humans have revered the hare for thousands of years and early hunters believed that the hare was a worthy kill due to the challenge of catching such an agile and swift creature. As centuries passed, a belief that the mysterious hare was from the Otherworld grew strong and as a result it was treated with such caution that it was taboo to eat hare in many parts of Europe including Wales, Germany, Breton, Switzerland and Denmark. Even Julius Caesar observed this behaviour among the Celtic people of Britain. In some regions just saying the word ‘hare’ was not tolerated and this went on right up until the 19th century. There is even a story of a Germanic tribe that once descended upon Rome at the very same moment a hare was seen dashing towards the city walls. On seeing the Teutons running behind the hare, the Roman soldiers immediately abandoned their positions.

The most well known story, however, which portrays the otherworldly attributes of the hare comes from the Iceni tribe and their goddess Andraste. Whether this goddess took the actual form of a hare is not known, but the Greek historian Dio Cassius, recorded that this war goddess was invoked by their queen Boudica before they revolted against Roman occupation.

“Let us, therefore, go against [the Romans], trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” When she [Boudica] had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Boudica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman … I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.”

It appears in this case, that the hare was divine and possibly even revered by the Iceni tribe.

To understand the reasons behind why an animal is reviled we need to go back to the time of the Christian conversion and more often than not the trail leads back to a deity. With the arrival of Christianity, layer upon layer of superstition and fear were applied to these primal gods in an attempt to erase them from history, especially if they could not be moulded into the Christian mythos. An example of this comes from Germany with many tales of ghostly hares causing mischief particularly three legged ones. Yet, despite attempts to erase this sacred creature, the symbol of the hare has endured across the centuries hidden within the arts of folk medicine and magic.

Further evidence of the hidden symbolism of the hare can be found in Leicestershire. For there was once a tradition called ‘Hunting the Easter Hare” which took place on Easter Monday. A hare would be hunted then chased towards the Mayor’s house, after which a fine banquet was enjoyed with the hare being the main dish .

The Hallaton ‘Hare Pie Scramble’ has unknown origins, but a piece of land was once left to the rector of Hallaton village in order for him to be able to provide two hare pies and twenty four loaves for the local community on Easter Monday. Hares are not in season after March so mutton, steak and veal would have been used instead. Straight after morning mass the pies were blessed and all the food was shared among the local folk. In the afternoon a procession led by a man with a hare topped staff made its way to a place called Hare Pie Bank, that was situated on the south side of the village (in ancient times this would have been perceived as a sacred boundary). Once there a game of bottle kicking began.

The bottles were actually not bottles at all, but wooden casks two of which were filled with ale and the other which was left empty. Two teams of men, one from Hallaton and the other from the nearby village of Medbourne had to kick the casks over a water boundary of two streams. A full cask was thrown up in the air first and then fought for, followed by the empty one and lastly the remaining full one. The winners shared the ale between them which they received at a ceremony at the market cross. This tradition survives today and still takes place on Easter Monday. It is believed that the hare pie tradition goes back as far as Anglo Saxon times as part of a spring ritual sacrifice to a deity for a successful springtime sowing and autumn harvest. The bottle kicking tradition may go back even further than that, possibly  representing the symbolic struggle between winter and spring.

The name Simnel was applied to all cakes that were baked throughout the duration of Lent. Early Christians decorated these cakes with a figurine of Jesus or the Virgin Mary which gave them religious significance. On Simnel Sunday, young people would visit their parents with gifts of cakes and trinkets especially for the mother. Called ‘going a mothering’, this tradition eventually became Mothering Sunday. The word simnel which can also be spelt symel, simnell and simbling is very closely related to the Old Saxon ‘symbel’ meaning feast or banquet. These richly decorated cakes are very likely remnants of cakes eaten by the pre-Christian Anglo Saxons during celebrations, such as festivals that took place during the month of Solmonath. The Venerable Bede wrote that, ‘Solmonath can be called the month of cakes, which they offered to their gods in that month’. Simnel cakes made from fruit, spices and marzipan could at one time only be found in Lancashire.  Geoffroi Gaimer’s Anglo Norman story ‘Lay of Havelock the Dane’, written in the late 13th century, even mentions Simnel cakes.

The same can be said about hot cross buns (from the word bous meaning sacred ox) which some say are also likely to be a remnant of a much earlier pre-Christian observance. No doubt the church realised that they couldn’t stop people from offering cakes to their gods, so they absorbed this tradition into the Christian faith by adding a cross on top of them.

The symbol of the cross is much older than Christianity and Germanic people carved crosses onto ancient bridal and boundary oak trees (boundary oaks were a Saxon institution). An oak tree that grew near Dahl in Germany was at one time visited by newly wed couples who danced around it three times before carving a cross onto its trunk. Dr Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, philosopher and historian believed that the cross was the original symbol of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, which was used at one time to bless marriage unions. In the Poetic Edda’s Thrymskvitha, Thor dressed in a wedding gown has his stolen hammer placed on his lap.

Whether the cross symbolised Mjolnir or not we just don’t know, but we do know for sure that the oak tree was sacred to Thor and that hammers were used to consecrate weddings and also births for example. Interestingly, there is a Thor’s hammer pendant that was discovered in Iceland dated to the 10th century and it is in the form of a cross melding the pagan and Christian faiths together. Perhaps hiding the pre-Christian faith in plain sight?

For ease of conversion during Europe’s Christianisation, the early Church incorporated many of our pre-Christian customs and traditions into its own. The Church realised it could not stamp out the folkways of our ancestors entirely and conversion by sword and fire could only go so far. So despite their Christian veneer, the Old Ways are still with us today; if you know where to look.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Superstition, 1989, Oxford University Press

The Moon Myth and Image, 2003, Jules Cashford

The Easter Hare, 1892, Charles Bilson

Origins of English History, 1890, Charles Isaac Elton