Image courtesy of Victor Larracuente on Unsplash.

Rabbits have a very long history of folkloric connection with graveyards, shapeshifting, and witchcraft. They are not just cuddly, fecund harbingers of spring. No, no! They also carry deep wisdom about death, transformation, darkness, and the Underworld. 

Rabbit as Familiar and Fetch

When medieval Witches talked about a “spirit known to them” — a familiar spirit — they often described it as coming to them in an animal shape with which they could interact and tend to it on the physical plane. Not really a housepet, as the Spirit would have been viewed as more independent than that; but similar. It might have been a wild, feral, domesticated, or even livestock animal that demonstrated a certain uncanniness in its nature. Perhaps the Spirit had made itself known via vision, dream, or other contact in close proximity to the animal’s arrival — or the adoption of some new, strange behavior. Whatever the case, the animal was different, much like the Witches were different than their peers and neighbors. 

However, this physical (or corporeal) familiar was almost never a housecat, as we think of the classic Witch familiar today. In fact, as Judika Illes points out in her massive volume Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, the cat wasn’t a common household critter at that time. The term “pussycat” most likely referred to the rabbit (Latin “lepus”), an animal that was much more associated with witchcraft, lunar magic, necromancy, and shapeshifting. Rabbits and cats actually share some old associations — and nicknames. In addition to “pussy,” both are also called “malkin” — with “Greymalkin” being one of the famous familiars of Shakespeare’s three wyrd sisters in his … Scottish play. (wink-nudge)

The Hare

by Walter de la Mare

In the black furrow of a field

I saw an old witch-hare this night;

And she cocked a lissome ear,

And she eyed the moon so bright,

And she nibbled of the green;

And I whispered “Wh-s-st! witch-hare,”

Away like a ghostie o’er the field

She fled, and left the moonlight there.

Why are rabbits associated with witchcraft? Well, mostly because of the lunar magic, the necromancy, and the shapeshifting, of course! 

The lunar associations are ancient. Rabbits are sacred to Hekate (the Greek Goddess of lunar magic, witchcraft, and psychopompic travels — among other things) and have the peculiar habit of gathering in a circle, called the “hare’s parliament.” Many cultures perceive the form of a rabbit in the full moon, and the rabbit’s 28-ish-day gestational cycle firmly cemented its lunar associations. So associated with the moon and old goddesses of Europe is the hare that it was once forbidden to eat its flesh in Britain and Ireland.  In Kerry it is still said that to eat a hare is “to eat one’s grandmother.” 

Because the moon is ever-changing, and it’s form and position shift visibly from one night to the next across the sky, it is not shocking that animals, plants, and beings associated with the moon have been granted similar powers of shape-shifting in the popular or folkloric mind. This is certainly the case with the rabbit. 

Seventeenth century Scottish Witch Isobel Gowdie, as part of her trial, shared a charm she used to transform into a hare to journey — as Witches do. The following is a poem by Robert Graves that further adapts that charm:

The Allansford Pursuit

“I will go into a hare

with sorrow and sighing and mickle care,

and I will go in the Devil’s name,

aye ’til I be fetched hame

– Hare, take heed of a bitch greyhound

will harry thee all these fells around

for here come I in Our Lady’s name

all but for to fetch thee hame”

Many Witches have shared accounts of “fetch flight” — of what we would call soul journey or astral travel. In pre-modern times in many places in the world, it was widely accepted that the soul (or soul-part that undertook the journey) did so in the shape of an animal. Modern practitioners may be surprised to learn that rabbits were a common shape for the Fetch to take for the journey. 

Rabbits move fast, though, as we imagine something like the stuff of Spirit to do. And they just love a cemetery! There are so many bunny behaviors that link them to the psycho-pompic work of Hekate and soul-journeying; but I think it’s the combination of their robust fecundity and their proclivity to burrow within and “haunt” graveyards, that really has given them a reputation as fluffy, super-effective necromancers. 

Rabbits like cemeteries, and more than a few graveyards have had to deal with lepine vandals digging into sites and making a mess. Their love of these cities of the Dead (since humans first started burying our corpses, I suppose) also has led to the rather spectral sight of several rabbits popping up from seemingly nowhere (but really, their subterranean warrens) at dusk and dawn (their most active times). People seeing this uncanny behavior  in the liminal, grey watches of the day/night have said, “Here is surely a coven of Witches, going out or coming back from some witchy work.” 

Association of Graveyard Rabbits

There is a group of folks dedicated to funerary customs and cemetery documentation who understand a portion of the rabbit’s necromantic gnosis. As a whole, the group doesn’t espouse the witchier side of what we’ve discussed, but a few members like myself are most certainly “of the Family.”  (Note: My GYR blog isn’t currently active, so I am also not an active member, I suppose.)

The Association of Graveyard Rabbits is, according to its own words, “dedicated to the academic promotion of the historical importance of cemeteries, grave markers, and the family history to be learned from a study of burial customs, burying grounds, and tombstones; and the social promotion of the study of cemeteries, the preservation of cemeteries, and the transcription of genealogical/historical information written in cemeteries.”

Membership is pretty casual. Complete the application and maintain a blog in which you help contribute to the documentation of customs, lore, and records mentioned above. As a Folkloric Witch (and one with a spiritual allyship with Rabbit, no less), my heart is all a-twitter over this treasure trove of lore, images, and heritage. Between the blog (too many of which are sadly stale now — like mine) and the Facebook group (which is delightfully active), there is so much to be gleaned.

And as a crowning laurel to the mythopoetic perfection that bring Life and Death, bunnies and graves dancing together in this most glorious memento mori, there stands the namesake poem by Stenton:

The Graveyard Rabbit

by Frank Lebby Stanton

In the white moonlight, where the willow waves,

He halfway gallops among the graves —

A tiny ghost in the gloom and gleam,

Content to dwell where the dead men dream,

But wary still!        

For they plot him ill;

For the graveyard rabbit hath a charm

(May God defend us!) to shield from harm.

Over the shimmering slabs he goes —

Every grave in the dark he knows;        

But his nest is hidden from human eye

Where headstones broken on old graves lie.

Wary still!

For they plot him ill;

For the graveyard rabbit, though sceptics scoff,        

Charmeth the witch and the wizard off!

The black man creeps, when the night is dim,

Fearful, still, on the track of him;

Or fleetly follows the way he runs,

For he heals the hurts of the conjured ones.        

Wary still!

For they plot him ill;

The soul’s bewitched that would find release, —

To the graveyard rabbit go for peace!

He holds their secret — he brings a boon        

Where winds moan wild in the dark o’ the moon;

And gold shall glitter and love smile sweet

To whoever shall sever his furry feet!

Wary still!

For they plot him ill;        

For the graveyard rabbit hath a charm

(May God defend us!) to shield from harm. 

For Further Reading/Exploration:

Association of Graveyard Rabbits

GYR on Facebook

Wilby, Emma. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland.

Wilby, Emma. Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic.

Graves, Robert. Collected Poems, 1955. Doubleday. (Out of Print)

Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World

[Written by Laurelei Black.]