They are depicted on drain hole covers in Germany, a tombstone in the Ukraine, a plate in the Musée Alsacien de Strasbourg, a medieval boss in Devon, the nave of Chester cathedral, and, perhaps most famously, on the ceiling of Cave 407 in the Mogao Cave complex in China; they have been called optical illusions and linked to the work of the artist M. C. Escher; they have been the subject of riddles; they have traversed 5,000 miles and spanned 1,000 years; they are said to represent peace and tranquility; and they have puzzled, inspired, and delighted in equal measure all those who have seen them. What are they? The answer is, of course, the hares on the three hares symbol.
Though the first known instance of the three hares symbol with its long-eared hares chasing one another in a circle first appeared in the 6th Century CE, hares and rabbits have long populated mythology, East and West. In Japan, the rabbit on the Moon prepares rice cakes. In China, it pounds herbs, busy preparing the elixir of immortality: little wonder that when China wanted to name its 2013 robotic lunar rover it chose Yutu - Jade Rabbit. In Celtic Britain, animism, the belief that creatures, trees, plants, and natural objects such as rivers and mountains are spiritually significant, sees the hare given a more Earth-centric role. A creature possessed of supernatural powers and requiring respect - definitely not to be eaten - it runs with the moon, shape-shifts, and connect with the spectral Otherworld, a harbinger of things to come.
With its long history in the mythology and folklore of diverse cultures, it seems fitting that the hare should be part of a symbol that resonates East, West, and all places in-between. If the symbol did not develop independently in various locations and instead first emerged in China around the time of the Sui Dynasty, the question of how it spread outwards from that location may never be known for sure, but it is feasible that it was chosen for its aesthetic appeal or religious significance and carried as a design on bolts of silk, or as robes, gowns, or furnishings to prospective buyers and far-flung markets along the ancient Silk Road.
Nowadays, the city of Dunhuang, 25 km southeast of the Mogao Caves, has a night market which is popular with tourists in the summer months. In the time of the Sui Dynasty, Dunhuang was a thriving frontier town, strategically situated at the intersection of the northern, central, and southern Silk Road routes: a haven for those having traversed the Silk Road’s deserts and mountains, a last chance to stock up on essentials for those departing. In the hundreds of years between the Sui Dynasty and the Ming, when official trade along the Silk Road ceased, how many traders made a pilgrimage to the caves? saw the motif? donated to the Buddhist monks? prayed for a successful journey or gave thanks for their safe return? We will never know.
Finally, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of the medieval poem The Names of the Hare, the poem’s anonymous writer describes the hare as:
“… the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
If you have ever been lucky enough to come across a hare in the wild, you’ll know exactly why they are described so: suddenly springing from cover, legs whirring, ears back, disappearing in leaping bounds, a hare is indeed a shake-the-heart. Which is why, when the time came to write a historical adventure for middle school readers, I drew upon the power of these magnificent creatures and gave the three hares symbol the leading role it deserved. A trilogy of books for the three hares. Nothing else would have sufficed.
By Scott Lauder
@sctlauder / Twitter