Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ancient and Enigmatic

Fine stone craftsmen Martin and Oliver Webb note that the “essential and defining feature” of the “ancient and enigmatic symbol” of three hares running in a circle is that “each hare shares its ears with its neighbors, joining them together and forming a central trefoil.” An interesting result of this configuration is that there are only ever three ears depicted.

Martin and Oliver suggest that the image of the Three Hares may be connected with the Green Man, and, in some cases, be seen as a representation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

“Three Hares” by Martin and Oliver Webb.

The Three Hares Project has documented the presence of this intriguing symbol in many different parts of the world and across diverse cultures, with the earliest occurrences of it appearing to be in cave temples in China, which have been dated to the Sui dynasty (6th to 7th centuries).

As to its meaning, the project concludes that: “the three hares motif was clearly revered in all the different contexts in which it is found, but, as yet, we have not come across a contemporary written record of its meaning. It may be expected that the motif would have had different meanings in different cultures but, as an archetype, perhaps there was an element of meaning common to all.”

Most likely, this meaning is related to the fact that the hare is “strongly represented in world mythology and from ancient times has had divine associations. Its elusiveness and unusual behaviour, particularly at night, have reinforced its reputation as a magical creature.”

The linking of this motif with the Christian Trinity, notes the Three Hares Project, “appears to be an association made long after the image was originally worked.”

One theory pertaining to the spread of the motif is that it was transported across Asia and as far as the south west of England by merchants traveling the
Silk Road. This view is supported by the early date of the surviving occurrences in China. However, the majority of representations of the Three Hares occur in England and northern Germany. This supports a contrary view that the Three Hares are English or early German symbols.

Medieval roof boss in South Tawton, Devon,
photograph by Chris Chapman of the Three Hares Project.

Reflecting on the mystery of the Three Hares, Terri Windling writes: “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 my 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.”

An Iranian tray featuring the symbol of the Three Hares.

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