Isobel Gowdie & the Hare: Exploring Leporidae Familiars, Folklore, and Transformations in Early Modern European Magic & Witchcraft

An Athenæum Azostos Reflection on The Black Book of Isobel Gowdie by Ash William Mills and The Visions of Isobel Gowdie by Emma Wilby

Woodcut of the prophetess and supposed witch Mother Shipton, featured in Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century (1834) by John Ashton. Among the various familiars depicted, one resembles a hare. Source

The Early Modern period, particularly in Europe, was punctuated with witch accusations, confessions, and trials. One of the most well-known areas in which witch trials were held was Scotland, home of the notorious case of Isobel Gowdie (also known as the “Queen of the Scottish Witches”) in 1662 (Mills 16). The Celtic folklore and fantasy were deep-rooted in Scotland. As deeply rooted was Catholicism and the heresy therein of the Protestant Reformation (and the Restoration just two years prior) of Gowdie’s confessions. Catholicism and folk magic were often married – the belief in faeries or the “Faer Folk,” in some cases, was just as strong as the belief in saints or Christ. Catholicism was colored by superstition and folk magic, or “charming” and “cunning”; this was based on “the animism of the pre-Christian Scots… that is, the belief that everything that exists is linked by invisible and amoral occult forces” (Wilby 26-27).

Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) Source

This animism (to be compared with an “other”-ness, esoterically) and folkloric foundation, when coupled with the concepts of transformation and/or familiars, created a fanatical storm of witchcraft and its trials as exhibited in the many confessions during the European Early Modern period, especially in Scotland (as seen with the aforementioned case of Isobel Gowdie, which includes discussion of Christian concepts, also the Fae, the Devil, and animal transformations, e.g. the hare). Furthermore, much like Isobel Gowdie’s transformation into a hare (as mentioned in her real-life confessions, to be explored below), relationships between these traditional “witches” and animals (here, hares and rabbits, scientifically known as Leporidae animalia) are varied and complex: witch-familiar relations, bewitchments, transformations, and metamorphoses. This, in turn, creates that esoteric “other”-ness via animism, alchemy, and supposed folk magic that is consistent throughout much of the Early Modern period… whether with transformation of familiars, transfigurements into animals, or both. Moreover, these witch trials, albeit centuries-old, continue to color the portrayals of fictional witches’ transformations – and their animal forms and familiars – in contemporary times.

Witch pictured feeding her familiars with blood, in A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile (1579) Source

Witch-hunting exponentially increased in late 17th-century Scotland. The accusations could be for something common and menial, for example, “troubles of everyday life, agricultural problems, family tensions and disagreements between neighbors” (Henderson 52). Although the tribulations that prompted accusations could be small, the outcome was typically coerced (or possibly forced or even tortured into submission) confessions. Records show that in the period between 1563 and 1736, “at least 3,837 people were accused of the crime” of witchcraft in Scotland alone (Wilby 30). Often, in no small part due to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, old folk charms (which were often based on or rooted in Catholic foundational scripture or ceremony) were simply used by these “cunning folk” (also known as wise men or women) for matters like selling cattle for a fair price or healing a sick child (Mills). These charms virtually always called on a member of the Holy Trinity or the saints. Only in likely forced confessions was there mention of the “Devil.” However, when these conditions (Protestantism in a historically folk-Catholic area, for example) of the post-Restoration period in Scotland (post-Commonwealth, when the monarchy returned in 1660) – which inevitably caused “religious strife and tension” (Henderson 53) – were added to “both national and local factors…[c]hanges in legislation, political or military conflicts, and even the weather” created the perfect onslaught of upheaval for Isobel Gowdie and the thousands of other “witches” accused, tried, and/or confessed or executed (Wilby 30).

Familiars often looked plain, unassuming, and as simply a part of everyday life.

Witch accusations and trials were not just limited to Scotland. Although they began in Scotland officially somewhere around 1563, they had long increased after Heinrich Kramer, a Catholic inquisitor, wrote the Malleus Malificarum in 1486. Just a few decades later, the magus of the Renaissance, Cornelius Agrippa, died in 1535 (Sax 318). Shortly after that, King James I wrote Daemonologie in 1597. There were, then, manuals and guidelines for unifying the witch-hunts and persecutions; moreover, there were famous sorcerous “magi” who had infamously exemplified how a person in contract with the Devil (or with sorcery in general) may appear (as with Agrippa). Yet, even before these examples and manuals, an Irish woman in 1324 named “Dame Alice Kyleter of Kilkenny… had a demonic companion named Robin Filius Artis” (319). This was possibly the first recorded account of a witch’s “familiar” – that is, “a demon (also called a familiar spirit) supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of an animal” (“Familiar”).

These familiars were “supernatural helpers, which were often shape-shifters” (Graf, as quoted in Sax 318). Nevertheless, “instead of terrifying monsters,” familiars often looked plain, unassuming, and “as simply a part of everyday life”: cats, crows, hares, toads, etc. (Sax 318). Although the familiar most often seen in books and film is undoubtedly the cat, this paper solely explores the less-popular rabbit and hare, or the animals in the Leporidae family.

Frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches (1648) showing two witches calling out the names of their demons while Hopkins watches above. Source

In Isobel Gowdie’s second confession, she discussed the transformation not of her familiar into an animal form (a hare), but the metamorphosis of herself. Gowdie stated:

Qwhen we goe in the shape of an haire, we say thryse ower I sall gow intill a haire with sorrow and syt and meikle caire, and I sall goe in the divellis nam ay whill I com hom…we startin an hair, and when we wold be owt of tht shape we vill s caire, I am in an hairis liknes just now, but I salbe in a woman’s liknes…

(as quoted in Wilby 43)
Family book of Elector Friedrich IV of the Palatinate (1582-1605). Three hares encircled with their ears forming a triangle was an apotropaic image much like an ouroboros. Source

In Eddie Murray’s 2005 translation Gowdie’s confession is modernized as:

When we go into hare-shape we say: ‘I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sigh, and meikle [great] care. And I shall go in the Devil’s name. Aye while I come again.’ And instantly we start into a hare. And when we want to be out of that shape, we would say: ‘Hare, hare, God send thee care! I am in hare-shape just now – But I’ll be in woman-shape right now.’

(as quoted in Mills 35-36)

According to folkloric history, the hare and rabbit “are often conflated,” even if they vary in size, habit, and behavior; where they differ in folklore and in actuality is hares’ ability to be “elu[sive]… contribut[ing] to their reputation as tricksters” (Sax, The Mythological Zoo 57). Additionally, the hare is often associated with the moon, as are witches, and with fertility. Rabbits are said to be able to “be out on their own” after 28 days, which is a full lunar cycle (Andrews 303). Hares and the moon have much in common, such as colors (gray, brown, white), crescent shapes (as in leaps), and the tenet of “watchfulness” (Sax 57). The rabbit is also one of the 12 Chinese astrological symbols, representing cautiousness, gracefulness, intelligence, and “Yin” (or lunar/feminine) energy (Ng para. 2). Across the globe both rabbits and hares symbolize new life and fertility, based not just on the story of Easter, but of biological behavior and ability and speed in which Leporidae reproduce. Correspondingly, the rabbit’s history of being used as a somber way in which to administer an old type of pregnancy test (injection of urine into a rabbit) is also in the area of fertility. Thus, the amalgamation of trickster energy with both lunar and fertile energy becomes a breeding ground, both literally and figuratively, for mythos of witches and their familiars.

The Hare and the Frogs by Gustave Doré, 1868

Leporidae are also associated with various gods and/or deities from all across the globe. “During the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the practice of worshipping Lord Rabbit” (or a rabbit-headed deity) became tied in with the traditional offerings of “mooncakes,” which are also said to come from the shape of a rabbit (Ng para. 6).

The Nordic Freya, or Freyja, is often pictured with hares as a symbol of her motherhood and fertility. The Hellenic Hermes is a god of communication, and the rabbit is frequently a symbol of the speed in which he delivers his messages. Wenet (Unut), or Wenenut, is the Egyptian goddess of the hare. As Ng states:

Given its nocturnal proclivities, the rabbit has become associated with the moon in other cultures as well. In ancient Egypt, hares (which are closely related to rabbits) were linked to the waxing and waning of the moon and the people of the city of Hermopolis worshipped a hare-headed goddess of fertility called Unut (para. 7).

In Ireland, Saint Melangell became the patron saint of hares (celebrated in the Spring), as many of those Leporidae were said to have sought her protection. Ostara, or Eostre (from whom the holiday Easter is named), is a Germanic or Anglo-Saxon goddess who is worshipped on the Spring Equinox. Moreover, Ostara was also said to be able to take the shape of a hare, like many of the gods above – and like Gowdie claimed to be able to do herself.

And yet, it still has been noted that “there is a certain connection, perplexing and obscure, between the Christian festival of Easter and the worship or sacrifice of hares” (Billson 441). Part of this parallel is the annual “Pomerania” celebration, or the hunt for hares to eat on Easter. The second part is how the children were once told “that a hare lays the Pasche eggs” (Pasche meaning “Passover,” similarly Easter) for the holiday (Ibid.). Not only does this reinforce the fertility notion with the symbol of the egg, but it also creates a “magic” take on the animal not seen in just lunar and trickster ways. Some have even speculated that oestrogen (or the Americanized “estrogen”) is derived from the goddess Eostre (Oestre/Ostara/etc.), further implying the depths of femininity, fertility, and the vitality in which birth, Spring, and Leporidae hold.

The hare and rabbit are often conflated, even if they vary in size, habit, and behavior.

The hare has not always been a symbol of life, though. In West of Scotland Folk-Lore it was said that upon “meeting a hare while going to work would return home and not again venture out until the next meal had been eaten, ‘for beyond that the evil influence did not extend’” (as quoted in Black 85). Old legend from India explained it is “as unlucky to meet a hare as it is a one-eyed man” (Ibid.). Conversely, because of these examples and many more, in countless cultures, a hare can be considered a melancholic omen. But, for every melancholic story there is an equally silly or cunning one, if not one of pure – yet morbid fetishizing – luck (as with a rabbit’s foot). The history of the “lucky rabbit’s foot” may come “from a medieval practice where alleged victims of witchcraft wore a rabbit’s foot around their necks at midnight under the full moon to ward off evil” (Ng para. 10). Nonetheless, as exhibited with Isobel Gowdie’s confession and the idea of a witch’s “familiar,” the “hare is often credited with supernatural powers… [and] like the cat, an ally of the witch” (Black 86). In Scottish folklore hares were said to be seen as actual “devils and witches” – so much so in one Scottish myth one should not even say “hare” on the open sea for fear of disaster (Ibid.).

Crop of an engraving from Basil Valentine, Chymische Schrifften, Hamburg in 1717 Source

The word “hare” itself may have carried some heavy connotations, as with the case of Gowdie, who, according to Sax, “claimed she had taken the form of a hare when hounds surprised her,” only escaping when she used the chant listed above (The Mythological Zoo 60). Still, she “carried a mark on her back where a hound had nipped at her” before transforming back into a woman (Ibid.). This mark may have been from a hound while she was in hare-form, or it could have been a notorious “witches’ mark” (or even a familiar’s feeding mark or “mark of the Devil”). “[W]itches often have a mark of the [D]evil on their bodies,” and whether that is a birthmark, or a “teat” used for feeding a demonic familiar, it had been used for centuries to identify witches in Europe and further, as with the witch trials in New England, United States (as quoted in Sax 320).

The witch would convene with their master, often the Devil or the King and Queen of the Fae.

Sometimes, though, the conflation of witches and hares became a continental phenomenon, as with the cases of “The Witch as Hare” or “The Old Woman as Hare”; in other words, there is legend of a “witch-hare” in Early Modern Europe. From the “witch-hare” stems several folktales: the first being “the belief that a witch can transform herself into a hare and in that shape perform various mischievous or malignant deeds” (this could be most analogous to the confession in which Gowdie defines her ability to transform from woman to hare and back – a skill that enables her nightly travel for witch work or “Sabbaths,” a time in which the witch would convene with their master, often the Devil or the King and Queen of the Fae); the second is most closely related to the lore of the “milkhare” – that is, a woman whose task as a “supernatural creature” was to “steal milk or dairy produce” (often straight from the animal) (Nildin-Wall and Wall 67). The milkhare stories spread all across Early Modern Europe, with the Nordic and British areas having the most concentrated histories of the legends, folktales, or myths.

Often the milkhare did not begin as a woman per se; this milkhare was created out of “heddles and bits of wood” (heddles are the loops of material on a loom), or in many cases, “besoms and scrubbing brooms” (Ibid.). Interestingly, Isobel Gowdie herself mentioned, in her second confession which contained the admission of transformation into a hare, the usage of her besom (or broom) for sorcerous acts of malicious cunning. In fact, Gowdie quite literally discussed the broom right after she finished describing her animal metamorphosis. In the historical confession:

Iff we in the haire or any uthr likenes etc goe to any of owr neightboris howsis being witches… we tak windlestrawes or beenstakis & put them betwixt owr foot and say thry ‘and hattok hors and goe, hors and pellatts ho ho’: and immeditialie we fly away whair and least owr husbandis sould miss vs owt of our bedes, we put in a boosom or a thrieand say thryse ower I lay down this boosom or stool in the divellis nam let it not ste… [damaged, words missing] com again…

(as quoted in Wilby 43-44)

Or, in Murray’s translations:

When we wanted to ride, we’d take windle straws or beanstalks and put them between our feet, and say three times: ‘Horse and hattock, horse and go, Horse and pellatis, ho! ho!’ And immediately we fly away wherever we want. And lest our husbands should find us out of our beds, we put a besom or a three-legged stool in beside them, and say three times: ‘I lay down this besom, in the Devil’s name – Let it nor stir until I come home again!’

(as quoted in Mills 38)
Witches fly on a forked stick. Woodcut by Johann Zainer (1212)

Essentially, the correlations here between a “witch-hare” and a “milkhare” are undeniable: a woman, or quite possibly a witch (i.e. Isobel Gowdie), transforms herself into a hare or creates a supernatural being for metamorphosis and/or baneful acts via a besom  in the name of the Devil. In either case it is apparent that the parallels amount to the possibility that Gowdie’s confessions were inspired by the tales of the milkhare, since “the creature may be accompanied by the witch selling herself to the Devil” and Gowdie obviously admitted she was in league with the Devil (Nildin-Wall and Wall 67). Moreover, the two types of milkhare are the transformation of the witch into an animal or the usage of materials (and immoral pacts) to create a familiar. Lastly, there are also accounts of the witch-hare as a “trollhare,” that is, a malevolent trickster often tied to one individual witch or the Devil himself (Ibid.) Whether or not the witch-hare, milkhare, or trollhare steals milk, transforms themselves, or is a metamorphosized familiar, it is consistently – and almost always – some sort of Leporidae in Early Modern Europe, creating that continental continuity of cunning and charm. The parallels between Isobel Gowdie and the milkhare do not stop at the transformation into the hare or with the sorcerous compulsion of besoms. Gowdie also confessed to stealing milk!

Isobels’s claim that she gained milk through drawing ‘the tedder (sua maid) in betuixt the cowes hinder foot and owt betuixt forder foot’ echoed traditional folk belief (where the practice of [stealing milk] was attributed to both witches and fairies) (Wilby 84).

This practice was considered a “maleficium” – or an act of cunning or charming that is not considered benevolent. Therefore, it can be inferred that Gowdie either considered herself a milkhare, knew of milkhare mythos and sought comfort in those tales during her most likely tortured confessions, or in some magical way was metamorphosized, if not transformed a broom, into said hare. In any case, the confessions of Isobel Gowdie and her hare are captivating – and have appealed to and entranced both scholars and legend-lovers alike for centuries. Because of this Leporidae alchemy in the Early Modern period, transformations into rabbits have remained popular.

The hare from the film The Witch (2015)

Why are Leporidae so fascinating to us, regardless of time period or culture? Rabbits persist, giving birth to large litters and embodying life and fertility. They are lucky, or watchful…or melancholic. The hare is an animal of the gods; the rabbit a siginifier of time changing, as in Spring. They mean growth, change, and inevitably as with Gowdie, alchemical transformation and the metamorphosis of self (and Self) in combination with the “other”-ness of animism and of religion. This assiduous attraction is still seen today, from Harry Potter and the “transforming rabbit,” to the Red Dead video game allowing you to play as a hare, to Witch Hazel and Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes, to modern magicians pulling bunnies out of hats, and more. It appears it may not have started with Gowdie, and the rabbit/hare motif seems to be here to stay. With the added nuances of lunar and feminine energy, coupled with fertility and a rich history of folklore, relationships between witches and their animals (e.g. the hare) remain varied and complex via transformations, and metamorphoses. There are deep roots of animism in these concepts; because of that, the esoteric “other”-ness defined above perpetuated throughout much of the Early Modern period and into contemporary times and today. The effects of Isobel and her hare still – and possibly always will – remain.

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Works Cited

Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak. Llewelyn, 1993. Print.

Billson, Charles J. “The Easter Hare.” Folklore, vol. 3, no. 4, Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1892, pp. 441-66.

Black, William George. “The Hare in Folk-Lore.” The Folk-Lore Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1883, pp. 84-90.

“Familiar.” Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press, 2021.

Henderson, Lizanne. “The Survival of Witchcraft Prosecutions and Witch Belief in South-West Scotland.” The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 219, Edinburgh University Press, 2006, pp. 52-74,

Mills, Ash William. The Black Book of Isobel Gowdie and Other Scottish Spells & Charms. Edinburgh: Scottish Cunning Ways, 2021. Print.

Ng, Marcus. “To a Hare Raising Good Year: The Rabbit in Myth and Culture.” Roots, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan to March 2011.

Nildin-Wall, Bodil and Wall, Jan. “The Witch as Hare or the Witch’s Hare: Popular Legends and Beliefs in Nordic Tradition.” Folklore, vol. 104, no. 1/2, Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1993, pp. 67-76,

Sax, Boria. “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore.” Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 4, 2009, pp. 317-332.

Sax, Boria. The Mythological Zoo. Overlook Duckworth Press, 2013, pp. 56-63. Print.Wilby, Emma. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Print.

Wilby, Emma. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press, 2010. Print.

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