Tuesday 6 March 2012

Star-Gayzing - A Mad March Hare

If it hadn’t been for the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” most people wouldn’t have known the significance of a March Hare. With most people living in towns and cities very few people would ever see one.

The hare gets its mad reputation from its behaviour at this time of year. Male hares competing for mates are often seen “boxing” each other and behaving in an excitable manner as if struck by madness.

If you know your constellations well you might be able to find Lepus, the constellation of the hare. Here's a star map. Find Orion’s belt, and directly underneath (below Orion’s trousers!) there’s a small group of stars that make up Lepus.

In mythology this constellation has several origins. Some say it is part of the Orion sky-story, with Lepus the hare being chased by one of Orion’s dogs, Canis Major. Another legend says that someone took a pregnant hare to the island of Leros. Hares soon became a favourite food and people began breeding them. Before long the island was overrun by a plague of hares and the islanders decided to get rid of them all. They chose a small group of stars to signify a hare to serve as a reminder that too much of a good thing isn’t very good after all. I prefer the hunting legend myself.

In Ancient Greek symbolism the hare represented lust and desire. As such it became a common animal seen on pottery showing lovers. Most often it is shown as a gift from a man to a young male partner. Sometimes the hare is shown being carried by Eros. Now, if you’ve been following this blog a while you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Eros several times as being the god of sexual desire between men, and of his importance to the training of athletes and soldiers. Shown here is one such depiction of Eros carrying a gift hare from about 500 BC.

Finally, on a seasonal note, in Celtic mythology the hare was a symbol of Eostre, the goddess of dawn, rebirth and the New year. Her name has come down to us as the word Easter, and her hare has been transformed into the fluffy Easter bunny.

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