April 05, 2009

The Great White Hare

Symbol of spring, or ruler of the Underworld?

Easter is on the way, so my mind has drifted to bunnies and colored eggs. I couldn't think of any good lore about colored eggs, but I read a good story about a bunny (actually a hare) in Frank Speck's article 1935 article "Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs" in The Journal of American Folklore.

According to some of Speck's Penobscot informants, a long time ago there was a giant White Hare who lived on a far northern mountain which was inhabited by lots and lot of little white hares. Sounds cute, right? Not so. The White Hare ruled cruelly over his smaller subjects, who were originally men but whose brains had been removed and eaten by malevolent witches. Brainless, they drifted north to the White Hare's wintry abode where they were transformed into hares. (Speck points out that in many Algonquian cultures the White Hare is rules the land of the dead, so in this story the mountain could represent the afterlife, and those brainless men the souls of the dead.)

For quite some time the witches keep eating brains and sending men to the White Hare, whose mountain became covered with thousands and thousands of hares. Meanwhile, the poor Penobscot are starving to death. Winter has struck, and there's no game to be found. Plus, I guess, a lot of their hunters have been de-brained, so things are bad for the people left behind.

Eventually Glooskap saves the day. He braves the wall of perpetual blizzards that surrounds the northern mountain and, after an epic battle, slays the White Hare. He frees all the little white hares, who scamper away into the woods. The Penobscot are saved from starvation, because they capture and eat the white hares. Basically, the souls of the dead cycle back into the natural world, and sustain their living descendants. Oh, and Glooskap also slays the witches by sticking them head first into the ground like sticks.

This story does fit the Easter season pretty well. In addition to bunnies, it has death, resurrection, and feasting (although in a non-Christian context). You probably won't hear during Sunday services.

There is another version of the White Hare story, though, which doesn't feature Glooskap at all, but another hero named Snowy Owl. Snowy Owl defeats the witches, but doesn't go after the White Hare at all. At the end of the story the White Hare is still up there in the north, collecting hare-shaped human souls in his icy mountain abode.

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