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RABBITS . The belief that a rabbit dwells in the moon is widely attested not only in Inner Asia, South Asia, and East Asia but also in North America, Mesoamerica, and southern Africa. Among the Turco-Mongol peoples of Inner Asia, the shaman hunts a rabbit in the moon during his ecstatic journey to the heavenly world. In China, as early as the Han period, the rabbit is represented on bronze mirrors as inhabiting the moon, pounding the drug of immortality with a pestle and mortar. The Japanese depict him as pounding rice cakes in the moon spots.

The Khoi and the San of the Kalahari in southern Africa also tell of a rabbit in the moon. In Khoi myths of the origin of death, the hare is presented as the careless messenger. Charged by the moon with bringing a message of immortality to humankind, he mistransmitted the good tidings as a message of death. The San have similar stories.

In North America, a rabbit is at the center of the creation myth of the ancient Algonquin. At the mythical time of beginning, the Great Hare appeared on earth and laid the foundation of the world. He instructed people in the medicine dance and other forms of life; he fought the oceanic monsters; he reconstructed the earth after the deluge, and on his departure he left it as it is today. The rabbit, as well as the hare, appears as a trickster in the Indian tales of the southeastern United States.

In ancient Mesopotamia and Syria, about the beginning of the second millennium bce, the hare was imbued with the symbolism of death and rebirth. In Egypt it was probably associated with Osiris, the god of rebirth and immortality. The hare appears in Islam, for example, in Rūmī's poetry, as one of the animals symbolizing the base human soul.

In the Greco-Roman world, the hare was multivalent: It was widely recognized for its lubricity, it was thought to be androgynous, and its flesh was used as an aphrodisiac. It was most pleasing to Aphrodite and sacred also to Eros, who hunted the animal. However, it was especially associated with Dionysos, the god not only of love, fertility, and life but also of death and immortality. The hare was hunted, torn to pieces and eaten, and used as a love gift. It was considered a most appropriate symbol for a grave stele, because in humanity's basic dreams it represents the love that will conquer death. As belief in immortality became more popular, the hare was increasingly used in funerary art. Early Christians accepted this rabbit symbolism and depicted rabbits on gravestones. In modern times, the Easter Bunny, whose eggs represent the source of life, seems to be a continuation of archaic religious values associated with both the rabbit and the egg.


On the symbolism of the rabbit in the Mediterranean world, see Erwin R. Goodenough's excellent study in Pagan Symbols in Judaism, volume 8 of his Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York, 1958), pp. 8595. See also Johannes Maringer's "Der Hase in Kunst und Mythe der vor- und frühge- schichtlichen Menschen," Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 30 (1978): 219228, and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's review of John Layard's The Lady of the Hare: A Study in the Healing Power of Dreams (London, 1945) in Psychiatry 8 (1945): 507513. Coomaraswamy's review was also published under the title "On Hares and Dreams" in the Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society (Bangalore) 37 (1946): 114.

New Sources

Birchfield, D. L. Rabbit: American Indian Legends. New York, 1996.

Davis, Susan, and Margo Demello. Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York, 2003.

Ross, Gayle. How Rabbit Tricked Otter and Other Cherokee Trickster Stories. New York, 1994.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography