#FolkloreThursday, Aesop's Fables, Alice in Wonderland, Aztec mythology, Brothers Grimm, Celtic folklore, Egyptian myth, Faerie, folklore, hares and rabbits in folklore, hares and rabbits in literature and film, Jewish folklore, Native American Rabbit Mythology, Stories on Scrolls, Wattpad
I love watching hares run and graze. Though I might accidentally call them rabbits, it’s not that big a deal: at least I’m not calling them something outside of their family. Besides, I write fiction and that place where reality and fantasy meets isn’t really keen on technicalities (until revision time).
For the most part, rabbits and hares are used interchangeably in folklore. If you’d like to know the difference between the two, check out this article by National Geographic.
Rabbits and Hares in Folklore
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. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.
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.
Rabbits and hares are both good and bad in trickster tales found all the way from Asia and Africa to North America. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for example, Hare is a wily trickster whose cleverness and cunning is pitted against Elephant and Lion, while in Tibetan folktales, quick-thinking Hare outwits the ruses of predatory Tiger. In Japan, the fox is the primary trickster animal, but hares too are clever, tricky characters. Usually depicted as male (whereas fox tricksters are most often female), hares in Japanese folktales tend to be crafty, clownish, mischievous figures — as opposed to fox tricksters (kitsune), who are more seductive, secretive, and dangerous. In West Africa, many tribal cultures, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Wolof of Senegal, have traditional story cycles about an irrepressible hare trickster who is equal parts rascal, clown, and culture hero. In one pan–African story, the Moon sends Hare, her divine messenger, down to earth to give mankind the gift of immortality. “Tell them,” she says, “that just as the Moon dies and rises again, so shall you.” But Hare, in the role of trickster buffoon, manages to get the message wrong, bestowing mortality instead and bringing death to the human world. The Moon is so angry, she beats Hare with a stick, splitting his nose (as it remains today). It is Hare’s role to lead the dead to the Afterlife in penance for what he’s done.
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.
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.
Considering a rabbit’s foot lucky is actually an ancient tradition in much of the world. At least as far back as the 7th century BCE, the rabbit was a talismanic symbol in Africa, and in Celtic Europe, rabbits were considered lucky as well. Thus keeping a part of the rabbit was considered good fortune, and a rabbit’s foot was a handy means by which to benefit from the luck of the rabbit.
These traditions were not marred much by the onset of other more prominent religions like Christianity. Even in the strongly Catholic Ireland of the Middle Ages, there were still superstitious beliefs regarding fairies or the Tuatha De Danaan who resided underground. Gradually, as Christianity spread in Ireland, the old Gods of Celtic belief became associated with hell. Rabbits were thought to have special protective powers needed for residing underground. Thus the rabbit’s foot could be protection from evil spirits, and is even considered so today.
Other ancient groups imbued the rabbit’s foot with specific forms of luck. To the Chinese, a rabbit’s foot may be a symbol of prosperity. Also the known proclivity for rabbits to reproduce quickly and breed often has been noted in numerous cultures past and present. The rabbit’s foot can be carried by women who wish to get pregnant, or who wish to enhance their sexual lives. Sexuality in general is also related to the wish for abundance, fertile crops, and good weather.
Some traditions of how to collect a rabbit’s foot state that they’re only lucky when taken from cross-eyed rabbits living in graveyards. On the night of a full moon, you must shoot the rabbit with a silver bullet. Further, only the left hind foot is lucky in many traditions. If you can manage all that you don’t need a rabbit’s foot. You must be the luckiest person around.
In hare mythology and folklore, hares are invested with a similar remoteness. The otherworldly White Hare, which in Cornish legend wove a path between the fishing smacks of the county’s harbours at sundown, was thought to be either a warning of imminent tempest or the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden determined to haunt her faithless lover (a tempest of a different variety) and, in both cases, a sight to inspire foreboding and trepidation. In 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, William Black wrote that, “From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”
Native American Rabbit Mythology
Rabbit is a trickster animal in most of the south-eastern Native American tribes, and occasionally in some of the north-eastern tribes as well. The Great Lakes Algonquian hero Nanabozho is also associated with rabbits and is sometimes referred to as the Great Hare (although he himself has the form of a human man except for one appearance as a rabbit spirit when he was a child.) In many Mexican and Central American tribes, rabbits are symbols of fertility; in Aztec mythology rabbits were associated with pulque (a type of traditional alcoholic beverage) and with drunkenness and promiscuity.
Aztec mythology speaks of a group of divine gods known as Centzon Totochtin (meaning four hundred rabbits), led by Ometotchtli (meaning Two Rabbit), representing fertility, parties, and drunkenness.
Much reference in folklore and mythology is made to the “moon rabbit”. The moon rabbit refers to a rabbit that lives on the moon and is due, in part, to “pareidolia” which is the practice of associating certain shapes or images , such as in the clouds or on the moon, with an animal or a person’s face etc.
In Jewish folklore, rabbits (shfanim) are associated with cowardice. In the spoken Hebrew the use of the word rabbit is similar to the word “chicken” used in the English language.
On the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England, the rabbit is associated with bad luck. This is believed to originate from the quarrying industry, where, to save space, piles of unsalable extracted stone were built into tall rough walls behind the working quarry face. Rabbit’s burrowing would weaken these “walls”, causing collapse, often resulting in injuries or even death.
The words “long ears” or “underground mutton”, are sometimes used so as not to have to say the actual word and bring bad luck to oneself.
An ancient symbol
The three hares is an ancient symbol that is found in many religious places, buildings and caves ranging from the British Isles, Germany, France and other parts of Europe to the Middle East and parts of China in the Far East. In Britain the symbols are mostly architectural ornaments or found in church roofs and sometimes on ceilings of private homes. In Europe they are found mostly in churches and synagogues. It is also used as a motif in heraldry, jewelry, ornaments, tattoos and other works of art. It has been wrought in many different materials and can be thought of as a puzzle, a topological problem, or a visual challenge, and can be found in stone sculptures, wood carvings, paintings, drawings and metal work.
Threefold rotational symmetry
Essentially the motif consists of three hares, or rabbits, chasing each other the same way around a circle. There is a threefold rotational symmetry with each of the three ears being shared by two hares. The ears form a triangle that appears at the centre of the circle, where, instead of there being six ears visible, there are only three, even though individually the hares all show two.
The symbol is similar to the triskelion the triquetra and the triple spiral, or triskele. The meaning of the motif is unknown today though it is believed to have a number of symbolic and mystical associations and was possibly something to do with fertility and the cycle of the moon in paganism. Its presence in Christian churches is thought to symbolize the Trinity though this cannot be proved and the fact that it is found in so many different countries over such a wide distance it may in fact have more than one meaning or purpose depending on the culture where it is found.
Eostre, 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.
It’s almost March, which means that the hares in the Northern Hemisphere will soon start going mad… It’s springtime and mating season for the creatures that can outrun any hound. FYI that’s where the expression as mad as a March hare comes from (the crazy running around, boxing, etc.)
Rabbits and Hares in Literature and Film
Aesop’s Fables contain a lot of hares.
The Hares and the Frogs (The hares try to commit suicide until realising that at least the frogs are afraid of them.)
The Hare and the Tortoise (We all know this one. The hare challenges the tortoise to a race. My favourite is a Disney version of it from the 1930’s.)
The Hound and the Hare (A hound nips and plays with the hare until told off.)
The Hare and the Hound (A hound hunts a hare for its dinner but loses when the hare is faster.)
The Lion and the Hare
“A lion found a hare sleeping in her form, and was just going to devour her when he caught sight of a passing stag. Dropping the hare, he at once made for the bigger game; but finding, after a long chase, that he could not overtake the stag, he abandoned the attempt and came back for the hare. When he reached the spot, however, he found she was nowhere to be seen, and he had to without his dinner.
‘It serves me right,’ he said, ‘I should have been content with what I had got, instead of hankering after a better prize.’ ” – Aesop’s Fables, William Heineman Ltd (1912).
If ancient people revered hares and rabbits as much as attested above, does it still ring true today?
Well, we’ve all read (saw the movies too) of Alice in Wonderland where there’s the White Rabbit and the March Hare.
In the strange “story to begin with” at the beginning of my copy of The Brothers Grimm Folktales, a hare is captured by three fellows on stilts.
“What’s more there were three young fellows on crutches and stilts trying to catch a hare. The first was deaf, the second was blind, the third was dumb and the fourth had lost the use of his legs. So do you want to know what happened? Well, the blind man caught sight of the hare trotting across the field, and the dumb man called out to the lame man with the news, and the lame man caught the hare by its collar.”
It’s very strange. I suppose there’s deeper meaning in it: changing it from three to four and then ignoring the deaf man in the end? And the hare is obviously that which they all wish to be. Or maybe they’re just hungry and the irregularities are just typos that stayed even after it’d been reprinted several times since the late seventies? Mmm…
There’s the wise Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh (who was always much more likeable than that bear…).
Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit who appeared in various stories.
There’s also the rabbits in Richard Adams’s Watership Down who have their own culture, language, mythology and other things necessary for adventure.
And in this century, literature and movies continue to place this animal(s) on a pedestal.
The awesome Easter Bunny in Rise of the Guardians definitely doesn’t look meek…
There’s the strange Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit where dog and inventor save a village from a mutant rabbit before their annual vegetable competition.
Of course JK Rowling’s Babbity Rabbity in her anthology The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a witch who can turn herself into a rabbit – much like in Celtic folklore.
There are plenty of others, if you’d just look…
I’ll confess that I’ve been working on the idea for this post since, well, late last year. So let’s take a quick look at why I chose rabbits/hares for the topic…
After the madness of the last week of October, I found a new competition prompt on Wattpad to write something scary for the fun of it.
I don’t know if it was all the anxiety, the high of my award or perhaps a little sleep deprivation, but I wrote a story and published it before the lightning could toast my computer. It featured quite a few creatures: Ghouls, Ghosts and Wraiths, the Grim, the Banshee and Faery-Hybrid Rabbits. Of course, it also had thin places and the other side.
I actually enjoyed writing this mere hours before NaNoWriMo started.
And it also added a new tale to Stories on Scrolls which had been a little abandoned the last couple of weeks as I worked on rewrites, short stories and whatever else it was I did…
I used a rabbit (a Faery Hybrid Rabbit) as the guide for the protagonist in The Torn Veil.
All Faery-Hybrids were once other types of Fae. They became whatever Faery-rat, Faery-bat, Faery-baboon or other creature by living a good life and going against whatever their Fae-nature was. Some see this as a reward – after all, Faery-Hybrids are as close to mortal as Fae can get. Others see it as an abomination. Tree Nymphs usually become Faery-Hybrid plants.
For the most part, these creatures are blue. Their Shade of Blue determines their power (magical and otherwise). They can easily go between all worlds (the land of the living and that of the dead). For the most part they keep to themselves, grazing where magic is strong and stealing offerings to other Fae on special occastions (Samhain, etc.).
“At least she knew why her memory was so fuzzy.
‘You should leave the forest before nightfall,’ a powder blue rabbit said from where it sat on a fallen tree. ‘It’s Samhain,’ he added when she stared at him in confusion.
Anja shook her head to clear it.”
– The Torn Veil, Stories on Scrolls, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading the sixth tale in the series. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. Can you name all the stories you’ve read as a child that contained a rabbit? Interesting how they’re so important, yet seem to fade into the background of memory.