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The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany.

The Three Hares Motif: A Cross-Cultural Symbol with Numerous Interpretations

The Three Hares is an ancient motif found in various parts of the world. This design features three hares, which are shown chasing each other / running in a circle, and joined together at their ears. Although one might expect three hares to have a total of six ears, the ones in the motif have only three ears in total. Due to an optical illusion, however, it looks as though each hare has a pair of ears. Although the Three Hares is a motif shared by a number of cultures, it is likely that its symbolism changed as it crossed the different cultural barriers. Hence, this design probably has differing meanings in the many cultures where it is found.

The Three Hares in China

The earliest known examples of the Three Hares motif can be found in China. It can be seen on the ceilings of some of the temples in the Mogao Caves (also known as the Mogao Grottoes or the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas). There are at least 17 temples in this complex where the Three Hares motif is depicted on the ceiling. The earliest motifs found in this Buddhist site near Dunhuang, Gansu Province, Western China, are thought to date back to the 6th century AD, when China was under the Sui Dynasty. In the subsequent Tang Dynasty, the icon of the Three Hares continued to be used.

The Three Hares motif in Mogao Cave 407, Sui Dynasty.

The Three Hares motif in Mogao Cave 407, Sui Dynasty. ( Japanese Mythology & Folklore )

Although China possesses the earliest known examples of this motif, it has been speculated that the Three Hares is not a Chinese design, and may have originated further west, perhaps from Mesopotamia, Central Asia, or the Hellenistic world. This is based on the fact that many other artistic elements in the Mogao Caves are from the West. Nevertheless, examples of the design from these proposed areas that predate those at the Mogao Caves have yet to be discovered.

The Three Hares motif in Mogao Cave 406, Sui Dynasty.

The Three Hares motif in Mogao Cave 406, Sui Dynasty . (Japanese Mythology & Folklore )

Trade and the Dispersal of the Motif

The Silk Road played an important role in the diffusion of the Three Hares motif. It was via this trade route that the Three Hares symbol found its way into the western part of China. Assuming that all later examples of the Three Hare motif have their origin in the ones found in China, then it is possible to say that the motif travelled along the Silk Road to distant lands as well.

Some later examples of this motif have been found in places such as Turkmenistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Germany, France, and England. The objects on which the Three Hares motif have been found include glass, ceramics, coins, and textiles. Many of these artifacts date to the time of the Pax Mongolica , i.e. the 13th century, a period when trade and the exchange of ideas between East and West flourished.

Main routes of the Silk Road (top) and known sites of the Three Hares motif between 600-1500 AD.

Main routes of the Silk Road (top) ( Public Domain ) and known sites of the Three Hares motif between 600-1500 AD. ( Morn/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Meanings of the Three Hares

The Three Hares symbolized different things for the different cultures who used it. In the absence of contemporary written records, however, these meanings can only be speculation. For example, in Christian Europe, one interpretation of the motif is that it symbolized the Holy Trinity, which may explain its depictions in churches. The problem with this hypothesis is that it was made some centuries after the motif was made, and might not coincide with the original meaning as intended by its creators.

The Holy Trinity by unknown Portuguese master (16th cent.)

The Holy Trinity by unknown Portuguese master (16th cent.) (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Another theory is that the hare represents the Virgin Mary, as hares were once mistakenly believed to have been able to procreate without a mate, thus giving birth without losing their virginity. In some churches, this motif is juxtaposed with an image of the Green Man, perhaps to highlight the contrast between the redemption of humanity with its sinful nature.

In the East, on the other hand, the hare is said to represent peace and tranquility, and has been regarded as an auspicious animal. This may be the reason for its use in the decoration of the Mogao Caves for example.

A medallion on an 18th-century embroidered Chinese emperor's imperial robe showing the White Hare of the Moon, at the foot of a cassia tree, making an elixir of immortality.

A medallion on an 18th-century embroidered Chinese emperor's imperial robe showing the White Hare of the Moon, at the foot of a cassia tree, making an elixir of immortality. ( Public Domain )

In both Eastern and Western cultures, the hare was once believed to have magical qualities, and it has been associated with mysticism and the divine. Additionally, the hare can be found in numerous stories relating to fertility, femininity, and the lunar cycle. Thus, it may be these connections that led to the hare being incorporated into the Three Hares motifs.

Featured image: The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany. Photo source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References

Chapman, C., 2004. The Three Hares. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk/hares/

Classical Chinese Puzzle Project, 2012. The Three Hares in China. [Online]
Available at: http://chinesepuzzles.org/three-hares/

Joint, L., 2009. The mystery of the three hares. [Online]
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/devon/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8280000/8280645.stm

Sandles, T., 2007. The Tinner's Rabbits. [Online]
Available at: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/three_hares.htm

The Telegraph, 2004. Caves hold clue to the riddle of the three hares. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1466046/Caves-hold-clue-to-the-riddle-of-the-three-hares.html

Comments

Yes, each of the 3 hares seems to have two ears, when it’s really only one each. But the artistic cleverness does not stop there. The three ears form a triangle at the centre of the picture, almost as if that had been the original artist’s aim in the first instance – to create a central focus from 3 identical but unlikely subjects.

Religious symbolism of some kind? Maybe. But note how the whole thing, when mounted in the circle as shown, creates a kind of eye, with the central triangle of ears being its pupil.

Maybe it had religious symbolism, maybe not, possibly having some kind of significance to pre-Christian pagans.

Evil eye? Or simply an up-market wagon wheel, one in which each hare serves as a load-bearing spoke?

Regardless of deeper explanation, all highly tendentious , it’s exceedingly clever – pure artistic genius one might say.

given the fact I already know that my family has a very long genealogy I am very interested in the purported mysticism of the hare. It would be further astonishing to find some connection in our family's long and quietly storied history and the mystery swirling around this fascinating iconography.

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