"Into the Woods" series, 42: The Folklore of Sheep
Speaking of animals....

"Into the Woods" series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits & Hares

Three Hares by Jackie Morris

The symbol of our village is three hares in a circle, their interlinked ears forming a perfect triangle -- an imge found in roof boss carvings in seventeen Devon churches, including ours. Known locally as the Tinner Rabbits, the design was widely believed to be based on an old alchemical symbol for tin, representing the historic  Three Hares by Brian Froud importance of tin mining on Dartmoor nearby -- until a group of local artists and historians created the Three Hares Project to investigate the symbol’s history. To their surprise, they discovered that the design’s famous tin association is actually a dubious one, deriving from a misunderstanding of an alchemical illustration published in the early 17th century. In fact, the symbol is much older and farther ranging than early folklorists suspected. It is, the Three Hares Project reports, "an extraordinary and ancient archetype, stretching across diverse religions and cultures, many centuries and many thousands of miles. It is part of the shared medieval heritage of Europe and Asia (Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism) yet still inspires creative work among contemporary artists."

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  Nature in Art by Eleanor Ludgateassociated with the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, the original, pre-Christian meaning of the Three Hares design has yet to be discovered, but we can glimpse possible interpretations by examining the wealth of world mythology and folklore involving rabbits and hares. In numerous traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of women, femininity, female deities, and women's hedgerow magic, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. 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.

The Mockingbird and the Hare by Kelly Louise Judd

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 image in other societies. In China, for example, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese Wishing on a Blue Moon by Karen Davisfolklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.

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.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Brown Hare, Suffolk, photographed by Michael Rae

In Greco-Roman myth, the hare represented romantic love, lust, abundance, and fercundity. 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 Thumper (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froudgoddess 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. 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.

Eostre by Danielle Barlow

Easter Rabbits by Mr. Finch

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. ((I should mention that our understanding of the Ostara/Eostre myth is controversial, with mythologists divided between those who believe she was and was not a major figure in the British Isles.)

Hare sculpture by Beth Cavener StichterCesaer 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.

As Christianity took hold across 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.) "Demonic" hares and rabbits are found on cathedral carvings and in other forms of Christian sacred art...but we also find the opposite: the pagan Three Hares symbol (mentioned above) representing the Holy Trinity, and unblemished white rabbits symbolizing purity, piety, and the Holy Virgin.

Desert cottontail sculpture by Mark Rossi

Desert Jackrabbit (Wikipedia photograph)

Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers by Terri Windling

Among the many different Native American story traditions, Trickster tales featuring Coyote or Raven tend to be best known to non-Native audiences, but there are also a large number of tales that feature a trickster Rabbit or Hare, particularly among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodland Mimbres Rabbits by Pablita Verlarde, Santa Clara Pueblotribes.

Nanabozho (or Manabozho) the Great Hare, for instance, is a powerful figure found in the tales of the Algonquin, Fox, Menoimini, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Winnebago tribes. In some stories, Nanabozho is a revered culture hero -- creator of the earth, benefactor of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he’s a clown, a thief, a lecher, or a cunning predator -- an ambivalent, amoral figure dancing on the line between right and wrong. In Potawatomi myth, Wabosso is the Great White Hare (and the younger brother of Nanabozho) who travels north to become the greatest of magicians among the supernaturals. The Utes tell the story of Ta-vwots, the Little Rabbit, who shatters the sun and destroys the world, all of which must be created again; and an Omaha rabbit brings the sun down to earth while trying to catch his own shadow. The Cherokee, the Creek, the Biloxi and other tribes tell humorous stories of a mischievous Rabbit who is cousin to Br’er Rabbit and Compair Lapin, outwitting foes and puncturing the pride of friends with his clownish antics.

Boxing Hares (from The Independent)

The jackalope legends of the American Southwest are stories of a more recent vintage, consisting of purported sightings of rabbits or hares with horns like antelopes. The legend may have been brought to North American by German immigrants, derived from the Raurackl (or horned rabbit) of the German folklore tradition.

The March Hare by John Tenniel

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 Moon Rabbit netsuke by Eiichi, circa-late 19th Centuryof predatory Tiger. In Japan, the fox is the primary Trickster animal, but hares too are clever, tricky characters. Hares in Japanese folktales tend to be crafty, clownish, mischievous figures (usually male) -- as opposed to fox Tricksters (kitsune), who are more seductive, secretive, and dangerous (usually female). 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.

Hare by Charles Robinson

African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers’ ships, mixed with rabbit tales of the Cherokee and other tribes, and were transformed into the famous Br’er Rabbit stories of the American South. These stories were passed orally among slaves, for whom Br’er (Brother) Rabbit was a perfect hero, besting more powerful opponents through his superior intelligence and quicker wits. the The Br’er Rabbit stories were Country Bunny by Marjorie Hackwritten down and published by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century in a now classic collection narrarated by the fictional Uncle Remus. At the same time that Chandler Harris was recording Br’er Rabbit stories from the African American oral tradition, folklorist Alcee Fortier was setting down the folk tales of the Cajun (French Creole) culture of southern Louisiana -- including delightful stories of a fast-talking rabbit Trickster called Compair Lapin. Like Br’er Rabbit, or the hares of West African lore, Compare Lapin is a rascal who manages to get himself into all kinds of trouble -- and then smoothly finds his way back out again through cleverness and guile. (Bugs Bunny owes more than a little of his character to this folkloric archetype.)

More of my bunny girls

Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world -- forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition. The precise meaning, then, of the ancient Three Hares symbol carved into our village church is bound to be just as elusive and mutable as the myths behind it. It is a goddess symbol, a Trickster symbol, a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of death, redemption and rebirth…all these and so much more.

Rabbit study by Beatrix Potter

The Rabbit's Christmas Party by Beatrix Potter

The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland

Hare by Albrecht Durer the YoungerImages above: "Three Hares" by Jackie Morris, "Three Hares" by Brian Froud, "Nature in Art" by Eleanor Ludgate, "The Mockingbird and the Hare" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Wishing on a Blue Moon" by Karen Davis, "Girl and Rabbit" photographed by Katerina Plotnikova, "Brown Hare (Suffolk)" photographed by Michael Rae, "Thumper" (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froud, "Eostre" by Danielle Barlow, "Easter Rabbits" by Mr. Finch, "Hare" sculpture by Beth Cavener Stichter, "Desert Cottontail" sculpture by Mark Rossi, Desert Jackrabbit photograph (Wikipedia), my "Desert Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers" sketch, "Mimbres Rabbits" by Pablita Verlarde (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), "Boxing Hares" photograph (The Independent), "The March Hare, Dormouse, and Mad Hatter" by John Tenniel, "Moon Rabbit" netsuke by Eiichi (Japan, late 19th Century), illustration from "The Tortoise and the Hare" by Charles Robinson, "Country Bunny" by Marjorie Hack, two more of my Bunny Girls, a rabbit study and "The Rabbit's Christmas Party" by Beatrix Potter, the March Hare at "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" by Arthur Rackham, and "Young Hare" by Albrecht Dürer.


This was so fascinating, thank you very much. I have vague, dreamlike memories of my father telling me Br'er Rabbit tales when I was very young. Too young really to understand them much, but even so there was the sense that they were weighted with more than just the words of adventures. And my uncle would tell me the stories of El-ahrairah from Watership Down and again, the deeper magic was resonant through the dark humour. So interesting to read here about the wealth of hare and rabbit lore throughout the world.

Oh! After gobbling up all the folklore about dragons,goats then sheep I was reeling with joy. So much colorful info to absorb.Now after downloading all this bunny stuff, another beasty favorite of mine, I'm in heaven. Thank you Terri for these early Christmas presents and taking the time to pull together all the wonderful illustrations.

You're very welcome, Sarah and A'vonne. This is the last of the long "Into the Woods" folklore posts before the holidays, but I have others planned for afterwards....


For anyone new to Myth & Moor, previous animal folklore posts are here:

Birds: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/09/birds.html

Deer: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/07/deer.html

Wild Neighbors: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/wild-neighbors.html

The whole "Into the Woods" series is here: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/into-the-woods-series/

Plus, writers/artists and their dogs here: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/09/dogs-and-writers.html

And here: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/09/creative-artists-and-dogs.html

Writers/artists and their cats, plus some cat folklore here: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/09/creative-artists-and-cats.html

This is absolutely gorgeous. Rabbits have been so important for me and my family the past couple of years. Wild ones have been visiting my in-laws for about that long. I have Benjamin Bunny (Beatrix Potter) tattooed on my forearm and it makes me so happy to learn of his magic and lore; thank you!

This is delightful! I love the way you gather tales across so many different cultures and folkloric traditions.

This is especially meaningful to me as I have come to know Rabbit/Hare as my Earth element totem over the past year. Thank you for the continual enlightenment, and I look forward to more Into The Woods after the holidays!

What a delightful and thorough study on rabbits/hares. Now I know much more about their folklore throughout the world, and will definitely keep it as a resource. Thanks so much!

I just adore these animal posts, Terri. Many thanks.

Oh Terri, adored your vastly informative essay on hares and rabbits. The art selection, including your own winesome drawings, richly enhanced this piece. Thanks so much for this delightful writing. Happy Holidays to you!

I think you should put all these animal folklore pieces together (with others you did for Ellen's magazine) and pass around to some small presses (Small Beer?) for a book with original art by you.


Wyrd folk artist Sedayne had done a lot with hare imagery in his music... Unfortunately I can't find the Christmas piece I have online at the moment, but this definitely gives the flavor:


Here Comes Hare

So here comes Hare,
lolloping along,
message from Herself
tucked behind his ears.
He's suppose to go
right to the palace,
no stopping in-between,
the message too important
for his usual lollygagging.
But a bit of wild carrot,
its feathered top
puzzling in the wind,
seduces him as always.
Then the smell of garlic
suckers him aside.
He gazes with longing
at parsley on the riverside,
before curling up
beneath a green-fingered fern
for his morning nap.

So the message is late,
the battle lost,
the child delivered
before priest
or midwife arrives.
Lovers part,
never having met.
The world is undone.

I blame Herself.
A dove or turtle
would have given
better service.
But she has a long,
intimation with Hare.
Best not to talk about it.
She can deliver quite a blow
when scolded.
Confrontation only makes
rivers flood, lava level
the houses closest
to the red-lipped mountain,
lightning set entire forests
aglow. That sort of thing.
And it's all about Hare.

©2014 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

This is fabulous!!!!!

Wonderful post Terri. Can I recommend that hare lovers read Arounf Finland With a Hare, by Aarto Paasolina. It is a glorious story of animal and msn.

Yikes! Herself and Hare ... I believe you're right "confrontation only makes rives flood, lava level ..."

Thank you so much Terri! This post makes me think of reading Watership Down as a child at my grandparents home in Illinois. A family of rabbits lived in their backyard and I felt certain they were intelligent and magical. I remember watching them emerge from their burrow at dusk and nibble clover. They watched me too.

::::Clap, clap, clapping:::: with cupped hands to you Terri. Thanking you for the wonderful posts of "Into the Woods" and this one especially.

Our Langley Town is home to thousands of bunnies who are enchanted no doubt. These ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers, fathers and cousins are the kin to the original descendants of bunnies once gathered at our County Fair ... long long, though not so long that it is "Once upon a long ago." The story goes that those Ancestor Bunnies were rounded up to be prizes to any child who could catch one when the bunnies were set loose. As you can imagine the chase was one and most children were rewarded with a prize bunny. BUT, many still (it only takes two!) went the way of the wild to live, THRIVE and multiple.

After reading the legacy of Hare and Bunny I must conclude, "Of Course!" Thank you once again. I am inspired and filled up with Hare.

What a wonderful romp through history and culture! I am continually amazed at the amount of time and dedication you put into these posts. I must admit that when I saw your rabbit image my first thought was of the triskele; that got me thinking about how certain numbers show up again and again across time and traditions. If you haven't read it, "The Power of Limits" by Gyorgy Doczi is fascinating. http://www.shambhala.com/the-power-of-limits.html


P.S. Should anyone mention that in the story of 'The Hare and the Hedgehog', the hedgehog(s) cheated? :-)


Fantastic read! In Japan you also get stories of rabbits being loyal to humans and offering good will. they're often very smart and crafty beings. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kachi-kachi_Yama or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hare_of_Inaba )

China has a lot of stories (that it carried all over Asia) about the moon festival and the goddess who resides on the moon with her pet rabbit. depending on the version of the story, the rabbits role varies, but it's always the faithful servant of the moon goddess. The story is also the origin story for the "rabbit on the moon" silhouette that's referenced in a lot of Asian literature and culture.

I don't know that one. Thank you!

Thank you, everyone.

What about recommendations of fiction involving rabbits in some way? There's Richard Adam's "Watership Down," of course, and"Peter Rabbit" and other children's tales by Beatrix Potter, but what others do you like?

Top of my list is The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce and Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder.

I've been working on putting some of these essays together ... it's only health that's been slowing me down. I'm praying for a healthy 2015!

Thank you, but to be honest it doesn't take as long as you'd think to put these posts together. I've done a lot of folklore research over the years while writing articles for various books and magazines, and blogging simply gives me the chance to make use of that material in a new medium. I think myth and folklore is an important part of our cultural heritage, and it's something of a mission for me to keep passing on this kind of information -- particularly to younger readers, writers and artists in my field (fantasy literature and Mythic Arts).

I've read varied iterations of Coyote, planning to get into the good graces of women so he can eventually seduce them, taking off his penis and giving it to Rabbit for safekeeping. While Coyote pretends to be a woman, Rabbit wears the penis well in Coyote's absence and gains a lusty reputation with the ladies.

Hi Terri

I am very late to this gorgeous post. I did read through all the material and wonderful comments yesterday afternoon. I adore the illustrations and all the different mythical facets of the hare/rabbit's role and purpose. As a child, I loved the Beatrix Potter tales; and as an adolescent, loved the novel, "Watership Down".

In 2006, here in the high desert we were literally flooded with rabbits. There was a baby boom that year and the small creatures were all over our lawns, fields and streets. It was also the year that they had rounded up some of the coyote population in the Joshua tree fields and took them elsewhere. That might have accounted for the sudden, birth explosion. But I was intrigued and delighted to see this small animals becoming tenants in my garden. My neighbors were not that happy. Anyway, this post has been so inspiring and knowledgeable. This poem came to mind --

The Amulet

We sacrificed the hare
on a stone mattressed with pine straw.
The Moon was full. The goddess pleased

as she gave me his long, slender ear.
Keep it, she said, her voice speaking low --

When you must heal,
it will be an aloe leaf,

if you need an alibi
the storyteller's tongue,

and should you wish to drift
away from woe,

the swan's feather
that you, first born daughter,
will become.
Many Thanks

Hi Jane

I concur with all the rest, an absolutely fabulous poem on both an imaginative and sensory level. I love how you characterize "Hare" and "Herself". And within the nature of animals, we find the traits that either hinder or propel us as human beings. Hare like many become irresponsible when facing temptation. It's not intentional but it happens because of animal/human vulnerability. Thee lines were marvelous in capturing that foible, that seemingly harmless indulgence that caused a major upset, the irony of life --

But a bit of wild carrot,
its feathered top
puzzling in the wind,
seduces him as always.
Then the smell of garlic
suckers him aside.
He gazes with longing
at parsley on the riverside,
before curling up
beneath a green-fingered fern
for his morning nap.

So the message is late,

Beautiful wording and pace in this engaging poem. Thank you so much for sharing it!

A delight to read,
My Best

Thanks all (see below) for all the kind words. Funny how a poem takes on its own place, space, and pace. I didn't think about where it was going when it began, just about the messenger. And suddenly it went deeper, darker, and right where it needed to go.


Shivers down the spine with this one Wendy! Sometimes your use of words is as precise as a scalpel. Beautiful.

Ooh, lovely, Wendy!

And folks, don't miss Stuart's hare poem, which was posted in the comments here: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2014/12/all-we-have.html#comment-6a00e54fcf7385883401b7c7246766970b

Dear Terri and Stuart

Thank you both so much for reading and commenting on this poem! I deeply appreciate your kind words and thoughts. This poem sort of wrote itself, a bit usual for me.


Then there's the Morris dance Tinner's Rabbit. This video from Dartmoor itself! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTub-Niej90

Hello all.

Thank you Terri for the wonderful wonderful overview of rabbits.

I ran a small rabbit rescue in Los Angeles, CA for six years. We rehomed rabbits from the LA City shelter system. We adopted to indoor homes only since, once s/neutered, rabbits naturally litterbox train.

They make wonderful indoor companions who give all of the responses and attitudes attributed to them in your article.

Thank you so much. I'll be passing it on to the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org) so that the rest of us rabbit parents can enjoy it too.


Brilliantly done -- as always. I love your folklore essays. Thank you.

The comments to this entry are closed.