The hare, in Ireland, was believed to be a WITCH in disguise, perhaps because the animal was mythically connected to that witch-like being, the CAILLEACH. When a hare was injured, a witch in the neighborhood would sport an identical injury. The same belief is found on the Isle of Man, where a wounded hare would always get away unless shot with a silver bullet; the transformed witch would thereafter be found, either alive or dead, with an identical wound.
In Scotland it was believed that witches took the form of hares in order to steal MILK—a common target of magical theft. Disguising herself as a hare, the witch would sneak into a barn and suckle the milk from a COW’s udder. If caught, the hare would instantly turn back into human form. Hares seen in unusual places, including in regions where they were not typically found, were similarly believed to be disguised witches. If pursued, such hares would run into houses, revealing the witch’s habitation. If one found a group of hares together, it was clearly a gathering of a witches’ coven.
The fierce temperament of hares was sometimes assigned to the FAIRY Rabbit, a bold being that tried to drown people at sea; if the potential victims were carrying earth from their home, or from legendary Tory Island, they could survive even the onslaught of this malicious spirit.
Such folklore may be a late recollection of an earlier religious meaning for the hare. Caesar recorded that eating the flesh of the hare was taboo to continental Celts, which suggests that the animal was seen as sacred or ancestral; Dio Cassius mentioned a DIVINATION using hares that was employed by the Celtic warrior queen BOUDICCA before she entered battle. Such fragments of ancient lore suggest that the SHAPESHIFTING character given to hares in folklore may be a vestige of ancient religious imagery.
Sources: Campbell, John Grigorson. Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1970, pp. 8, 33; O hEochaidh, Séan. Fairy Legends from Donegal. Trans. Máire Mac Neill. Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1977, p. 247; Ó hÓgain, Dáithí. Irish Superstitions. London; Gill & Macmillan, 1995, p. 57; O’Sullivan, Patrick V. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds. Cork: Mercier, 1991, p. 76.