In Teutonic myth, the earth and sky goddess Holda, leader of the Wild Hunt, was followed by a procession of hares bearing torches. Although she descended into a witch–like figure and boogeyman of children’s tales, she was once revered as a beautiful, powerful goddess in charge of weather phenomena. Freyja, the headstrong Norse goddess of love, sensuality, and women’s mysteries, was also served by hare attendants. She traveled with a sacred hare and boar in a chariot drawn by cats. Kaltes, the shape–shifting moon goddess of western Siberia, liked to roam the hills in the form of a hare, and was sometimes pictured in human shape wearing a headdress with hare’s ears. Ostara, the goddess of the moon, fertility, and spring in Anglo–Saxon myth, was often depicted with a hare’s head or ears, and with a white hare standing in attendance. This magical white hare laid brightly colored eggs which were given out to children during spring fertility festivals — an ancient tradition that survives in the form of the Easter Bunny today.
Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape–shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. Cesaer recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes. In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother — perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape–shift into hares by moonlight. The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.
As Christianity took hold in western Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favorable light — viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape. In one well–known story from Dartmoor, a mighty hunter named Bowerman disturbed a coven of witches practicing their rites, and so one young witch determined to take revenge upon the man. She shape–shifted into a hare, led Bowerman through a deadly bog, then turned the hunter and his hounds into piles of stones, which can still be seen today. (The stone formations are known by the names Hound Tor and Bowerman’s Nose.)
Although rabbits, in the Christian era, were still sometimes known as good luck symbols (hence the tradition of carrying a "lucky rabbit’s foot"), they also came to be seen as witch–associated portents of disaster. In Somerset, the appearance of a rabbit in a village street was said to presage a coming fire, while in Dorset, a rabbit crossing one’s path in the morning was an indication of trouble ahead. A remedy from 1875 suggests, "You can easily set matters right by spitting over your left shoulder, and saying, ‘Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me,’ or else by the still more simple charm which consists in touching each shoulder with your forefinger, and saying, ‘Hare, hare, God send thee care.’" Some Cornish fisherman would not let hares or rabbits on their boats, or say the names of these animals aloud, or use a net contaminated by contact with one of them. Hares were also associated with madness due to the wild abandon of their mating rituals. The expression "Mad as a March hare" comes from the leaping and boxing of hares during their mating season.
Despite this suspicious view of rabbits and their association with fertility and sexuality, Renaissance painters used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey a different meaning altogether: one of chastity and purity. It was generally believed that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures of the Madonna and Child. The gentle timidity of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Titian’s Madonna with Rabbit (1530).