There’s nothing more galvanising to the intrigue than a local idiosyncrasy, a mystery. This particular mystery leers down, eldritch, grotesque and unashamedly real. Cast in stone, tenebrous in essence, red in tooth and claw (in this case, literally); its purpose shrouded to the aeons of time.
No one knows why, perched, bold as Poe’s raven, above the ornate doorway of the buildings that snake around the rear of the ancient Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne known as Amen Corner, hangs the snarling gargoyle of a monstrous, fanged rabbit.
The building where the rabbit resides is, in comparison to the Cathedral, relatively new; currently officers of solicitors, built in 1901, yet the site itself dates back to the Roman era and was known as Pons Aelius, the fort that guarded the first crossing of the river Tyne. The oldest surviving fragment of the cathedral it frames, dates back to 1175.
Before the son of William the Conqueror built the castle keep, Amen Corner was a Saxon cemetery; before becoming a burial ground for Newcastle’s elite until the 18th century. These days, the headstones are mostly gone, the remaining few built into the surrounding wall and paths.
I used to work in a restaurant down Newcastle’s quayside, five minutes walk from Amen corner and in the summer, I would spend the fleeting hours before my shift started reading books beneath the trees of the small cemetery. During those dappled afternoons, I was always aware of the presence of the rabbit, from its perch on the doorway ten meters or so behind me.
I would occasionally skirt the alley at the edge of the cemetery and stare up at it, gaze at those bulging, furious eyes and savage teeth, wondering…’what are you? Why are you here?’
Unfortunately there’s no answer to that question; not a conclusive one anyway. One of the theories is that the rabbit was created by the architect (William H Wood 1889-1939) as a tribute, or to mock Sir George Hare Philipson, professor of medicine at Durham University and a physician at Newcastle Royal Infirmary.
However, older photos show that the creature’s ears were originally shorter; giving the creature a more rabbit-y appearance until the late 1980s when they were extended and became more ‘hare’ like.
Wood, the architect of the building also founded University of Durham Masonic lodge; I am by no means a scholar of Masonic iconography, however, it is possible for a link to be construed:
Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, (fertility in the pre-Dynastic period) is an important deity in Freemasonry; often depicted with black skin (just like the rabbit) or a shroud. In the Masonic system, the symbol of the hare represents Osiris and has been adopted as the symbol of light, or the ‘moral illumination’.
The symbol of the hare appears again in Anglo- Saxon mythology (remember Amen corner is a former Saxon cemetery); in the form the shape-shifter Ostara, another fertility deity who took the form of a hare beneath the full moon. (In Native American folklore, Manabozho, another shape-shifter is known as ‘The Great Hare’)
The symbol meaning ‘hare’ is the Egyptian hieroglyphic of open eyes. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Hare (arnebet) is compounded using nabat – ‘to see’ (Portal, 1990, Les Symbols des Egyptiens, 69). Osiris has been equated with Ra, a single god self-fertilising creation deity (according to the Book of the Dead)
“It is Osiris. Others, however, say that his name is Ra, and that the god who dwelleth in Amentet is the phallus of Ra, wherewith he had union with himself.”
This idea of self-fertilisation is also attributed to Amen who was fused with Ra to create a solar creator god Amen-Ra.
The vampire rabbit stares with open eyes over ‘Amen Corner’ – coincidence or tenuous link?
However, the association between the hare and the Egyptian deities could just be a massive mistake; the link is thought to be a 19th century error in Egyptologists understanding of ancient Egyptian epithets (IE. Hare- wn, with Osiris Wennefer, a high priest of Osiris who carries the same epithet –wn which alludes to the power of Osiris but is not related, semantically to the animal.)
If indeed, Wood was paying tribute to Masonic divinity; a wide-eyed is as good a symbol as any (presumably before this error was discovered)but that begs one more question about the rabbit…why the fangs…the claws?
One explanation could be the creative way in which Christianity likes to demonise the belief of others – the pagan celebration of Ostara, (Ēostre in Northumbrian dialect) the spring equinox where eggs (a symbol of fertility) were given as gifts, presided over by the hare goddess Ostara – was changed to ‘Easter’ and the myth perpetuated that rabbits and hares were to be feared. However, according to some, the entire Ostara and rabbit connection is just a myth perpetuated by modern pagans…
So really, there’s nothing we can conclude for certain about the vampire rabbit of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. A tenuous tribute, a Masonic mistake or a two-fingered salute to the Cathedral and its clergy whose procession would end around this side of the building?
Or maybe William H Wood just fancied sticking a vampire rabbit on a doorway?