Sunday, March 29, 2015

And then there were hares

The screen at St.Melangell's church depicting the hunt and and the saint.


 I cannot let March escape without one of my favourite stories, it may be repeated each year but are not stories there to be told again and again..... And not forgetting that this church in its circular plot of ground may have once been an early Bronze Age burial site, and according to it's wikipedia entry is one of the oldest Romanesque shrines in Britain.  A must visit church!

The story of Saint Melangell and her little hare. She was the daughter of King Cufwlch and Ethni of Ireland and she fled to Wales to escape a forced marriage. She settled in Pennant at the head of a valley, and whilst one day sitting in a clearing she heard the sound of a hunt, dogs and horses galloping up the valley. This was Prince Brochwael of Powys hunting hares. As she sat a hare came into the clearing and Melangell hid it in the sleeve of her dress to protect it. When it peeped out the dogs fled, and so the Prince gave her the land on which he hunted, and she lived at Pennant for another 37 years and no animal was killed in her sanctuary. Hares were known as wyn bach Melangell or Melangell's little lambs, and to kill a hare was an act of sacrilege.

This story is taken from "The Book of Welsh Saints" T.D. Breverton, and there are other versions of the tale. But at Llanfihangel-y-Pennant near Llangynog  this is probably the site of her foundation, because on the church's medieval rood-screen are little hares.

A description of the the screen
  • First compartment. Brochwel Yscythrog, Prince of Powys, on horseback; his bridle tied on the mane of the horse; both arms extended; in his right hand a sword which he is brandishing. He wears long hair under a flat cap; a close-fitting coat and girdle, both painted red, and sits in the high saddle of the Middle Ages. He is the most distant figure of the series.
  • The second compartment is partly damaged in the branch-work, but the figure is entire. The huntsman, half-kneeling, tries in vain to remove the horn, which he was raising to his lips for the purpose of blowing it. when it remained fast and could not be sounded.
  • In the third, St. Melangell, or Monacella, is represented as an abbess; her right hand slightly raised; her left hand grasping a foliated crozier; a veil upon her head. The figure, seated on a red cushion, is larger than that of Brochwel, and smaller than that of the huntsman.
  • A hunted hare, crouching or scuttling towards the figure of the Saint. The hare is painted red.
  • A greyhound in pursuit; the legs, entangled among the branches of the running border, can hardly be distinguished from them. The dog is painted of a pale colour.
  • A nondescript animal, intended, I suppose, for a dog. In this and the 5th compartment the hounds are supposed to be further from the eye than the hare, which is the largest figure in the whole range.
  • One tracery panel lies its gouge-work painted red; the gouge-work of the next is blue; that of the next is red; and so on alternately."
The screen itself, on the rood-loft of which the above formed a cornice or frieze, still remains in its position between the chancel and the nave. It comprises four compartments on each side of 

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Of course it must not be forgotten that the term easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Eostre  and as Bede states here;

The English Months. In olden time the English people – for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations' observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation's – calculated their months according to the course of the moon. Hence after the manner of the Hebrews and the Greeks, [the months] take their name from the moon, for the moon is called mona and the month monath. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Sol-monath; March Hreth-monath; April, Eostur-monath; May Thrimilchi... Eostur-monath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. (Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit.) Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

So much of christianity's myths lay on the back of old gods and stories, and Easter is a prime example, this spring festival has as much to do with the dawn rising earlier each day heralding the new growing season than it has to do with Christ being hung on a cross for our sins.

2 comments:

  1. Thelma, thank you so much for the story - I 'collect' hares and have statuettes, paintings, cards and all kinds of memorabilia of hares - folk send me hard cards if they see one - I think i must have nearly all of them now. I frame them in clip frames and hang them in my utility room. I think my love of hares goes back to my Lincolnshire childhood - Lincolnshire used to be a county where hares were plentiful. Here in North Yorkshire we only see a few.

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  2. It is a lovely story Pat, glad you are a 'hare' person, there used to be some up on the downs round Bath, only saw them this time of year though....

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