The  Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares

by Teri Windling

South Tawton

Medieval roof boss, South Tawton, Devon
photograph by Chris Chapman, The Three Hares Project

A medieval church stands at the center of my small village in England’s West Country, and in that church is a strange little carving that has come to be known as the symbol of our town: three hares in a circle, their interlinked ears forming a perfect triangle.

The earliest known examples of the design can be found in Buddhist cave temples in China (581-618 CE); from there it spread all along the Silk Road, through the Middle East, through Hungary and Poland to Germany, Switzerland, and the British Isles. Though now associated with the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, the original, pre-Christian meaning of the Three Hares design has yet to be discovered.

In many mythic traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of femininity, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. But if we dig a little deeper into their stories we find that they are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgyny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity.

Rabbit Moon Netsuke

Moon Rabbit Netsuke, 19th century

The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over — ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the "Man in the Moon," the "Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon" is a more familiar symbol in other societies.

In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders—not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is believed to be the goddess Unut (or Wenet), while the male is most likely a representation of Osiris (also called Wepuat or Un-nefer), who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare.

In Greco-Roman myth, the hare represented romantic love, lust, abundance, and fecundity. Pliny the Elder recommended the meat of the hare as a cure for sterility, and wrote that a meal of hare enhanced sexual attraction for a period of nine days. Hares were associated with the Artemis, goddess of wild places and the hunt, and newborn hares were not to be killed but left to her protection. Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and marriage—for rabbits had “the gift of Aphrodite” (fertility) in great abundance. In Greece, the gift of a rabbit was a common love token from a man to his male or female lover. In Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive.  Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the transformative cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

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. Caesar 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.

Demon Rabbit

Chartres Cathedral Rabbit Demon

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).

Madonna with Rabbit, by Titian

From the time of the Goddess cultures, rabbits were a significant totem animal and eating them was prohibited in Britain and Egypt, and likewise taboo according to Moses in Deuterotomy 14:7. A Scottish superstition held that eating rabbit was tantamount to eating one's grandmother. Rabbits were used as favorable divining creatures by the Greeks, and also refered to by the Iceni Queen Boadicea, who correctly predicted victory from the direction of a darting rabbit. Since the hare can sleep with its eyes open, the Romans equated it with vigilance and believed that rabbits watched over everything--just as the moon appears to. In European folk belief, the phases of the moon could be seen in the eye of rabbits.

Some of rabbit lore springs from incorrect superstition. But underneath the superstition lies a deeper core of pagan sacral belief in which symbols of sex, fertility, the moon, re-birth and renewal are intertwined. The rabbit is an enduring symbol of fertility and desire, or "spring fever." In Greece, live rabbits were popular love gifts to connote sexual intentions. European wedded couples in the Middle Ages exchanged rabbit-shaped rings. Rabbit's popularity as a sex charm or fertility totem is related to its' natural behaviour: rabbit's gestation period is approximately one month, and it tends to be the first animal to give birth in the springtime, besides continuing to have litters of kits during the year. In Asian folklore, a rabbit is believed to become pregnant by staring at a full moon, by licking a male rabbit's fur under a full moon, or by running across a moon-lit water's surface. The saying, "mad as a March (or marsh) hare" is attributed to 15th Century Erasmus, who was refering to either the animals' vigorous mating displays, or their bouts of wild bounding over wetlands in the springtime.

ostara, easter 3 dancing bunniesFrom the 11th to the 13th Centuries, rabbits became reviled for their pagan connections to sexuality, easy fertility, and as the important women's religious symbol: the moon. A carved stone, southern portal of Chartres Cathedral shows a lewd, laughing rabbit-man tempting and carrying off a chaste young woman. An 11th century Latin text catalogues ominous and frightening sights including a sea dragon, a Viking ship, and a rabbit. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales describes a corrupt monk as sparing no expense in hunting "hares"--a slang term for women. Hares joined the ranks of cats, dogs, toads, crows, bats and owls as supposed Witch familiars. Yet as Christian imagery became more prominent and confident, rabbits' esteem changed again.

During the European Middle Ages, rabbits were believed to be able to change their gender. During the Renaissance, rabbits were even considered to be able to conceive without the male, and so they became a symbol of the Madonna's virgin birth. A 16th Century painting by Titian shows Mary clutching a white rabbit, illustrating purity and a control of sexuality. The rabbit had become an important symbol of docility, gentleness and submission: qualities the church particularly wished to encourage in its followers.

Hare and TaborRabbits also represent immortality and vitality. Pliny the Elder declared that eating rabbit greatly enhanced one's beauty and radiance for a week afterwards. Chinese myth considers rabbit meat essential for vitality, and the rabbit is a symbol of longevity: its fur supposedly turning white at age 100, and turning blue at age 500. In Eastern Asian myth, rabbits created the secret elixir of immortality, and when the Chinese Goddess Chang O drinks too much of it, she floats away to live on the moon, too light to return to earth. Rabbits were associated with good health in 16th Century Germany, where they appear in bunny-shaped glass medicine bottles. The Algonquin trickster rabbit, Manabozho, is thought to embody all life-giving energy.

Rabbits continue to represent the trickster and longevity in popular culture in surprising ways. B'rer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny are tricksters while the Energizer bunny of the battery company 'goes on and on and on.' Real life pet rabbits are a curious blend of docility, sweetness and unexpected twists of playfulness and smart, tricky behaviour which endears them to the people who care for them. Less evident today is the ancient symbolism connecting rabbits to women, blood cycles and the moon, although contemporary Asian images often depict rabbits with a traditional sense of womanly grace and stillness. Nevertheless, rabbits have become an enduring symbol for the beginning of springtime at Easter, and are worth considering for their deeper symbolism.  

Special acknowledgment goes to Alicia Ezpeleta for her indispensible book, Rabbits Everywhere. (Harry N. Abrams, 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4.3 Shearing angora rabbits

Government publication on how to shave an angora rabbit....