© MOMA, Wales
Brochwel rode up to the thicket, and there he saw a beautiful maiden, deep in divine contemplation. The hare was crouched under the hem of her cloak, its wide amber eyes boldly facing down the dogs. The astonished prince asked the young woman how long she had dwelt alone in so remote a spot; she replied that in fifteen years she had never seen the face of man. She gave her name as Melangell, the daughter of an Irish king who wanted her to marry an old chieftain. Swift as a hare she fled to Wales to preserve her virginity and live a holy life in the wilderness of the Tanat valley. The prince was so moved by her story that he gave her this part of his lands to be a sanctuary forever. Hares were given her special protection and it was forbidden to hunt them. From that time forth they accompanied her everywhere she went, and became known as "Melangell's lambs."
|Hare in Forest by Hans Hoffmann (German, about 1530 - 1591)|
In Wales such "hare witches" ran in families. The Victorian folklorist, Sir John Rhys, tells how his own nurse belonged to one such family and how his mother was considered to be rather reckless in entrusting him to her care, "as she might run away at any moment, leaving her charge to take care of itself."[iii] An early poem by Walter de la Mare perfectly captures this long-standing belief:
In the black furrow of a field
It's the usual story of a creature once revered as a goddess, demoted to the rank of woodland spirit, and finally to an evil witch. Yet somehow, the legend of Melangell managed to preserve the old memory of the hare as a sacred creature to be protected and cared for, a view appealing to all those who care about living creatures of the wild. This is no doubt one of the reasons that the old paths, until recently mere overgrown and muddy tracks weaving through bog and moorland, are now eagerly trodden by modern pilgrims in search of spiritual inspiration and renewal at her shrine.
[iii] John Andrew Boyle. The Hare in Myth and Reality: A Review Article. Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Winter, 1973), p. 315. Online at http://rbedrosian.com/Folklore2/Folklore_Boyle_1973_Hare_Myth.pdf
[iv] T.J. Hughes. Wales's Best One Hundred Churches. Seren: Bridgend, Wales, 2006, p. 184.