Rabbits in Mythology
Rabbits have stood out in the human imagination for untold centuries. All across the world, wherever rabbits are found, they have become the subject of myth, folklore, and creative speculation. It’s no surprise that these playful, intelligent and mysterious creatures have attracted the attention of mystics and storytellers throughout the world.
The most familiar manifestation of rabbit mythology to most Americans is, of course, the Easter bunny. Many parents wonder what on Earth egg-dispensing rabbits have to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, while most children are content to receive his mysterious bounty. The origin of the Easter Bunny actually lies in the pre-Christian times of the Anglo-Saxons. Then, as now, rabbits were known for being prolific breeders, and thus became a symbol of fertility, spring, and youth. The holiday we now know as Easter was, for the Germanic peoples, a celebration of the fertility goddess Eostre, and the rabbit and the egg were employed as symbols of the rebirth of the world from the deathly cold of winter. When these areas were Christianized, the rabbit and the egg were brought over into the new Christian holidays.
A less innocuous use of the rabbit symbol in modern America is the “Playboy Bunny”. This iconic symbol makes use of the rabbits reputation for playfulness and amorous activity to represent sexual frivolity. Some American street gangs have adopted the rabbit head design as part of their iconography, perhaps in reference to the “Playboy lifestyle”, or perhaps to the clever and quick nature of the rabbit that enables gang members to evade the law.
Another popular rabbit figure in modern American culture is that of Br’er Rabbit. Made famous by the “Uncle Remus” stories of African-American slaves, as written by Joel Chandler Harris, Br’er Rabbit is a sly trickster who must use his wits to evade the predations of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Although these stories are now considered politically incorrect, their influence is still observable in phrases such as “tar baby”, and “don’t throw me into the briar patch”. These cliches refer to one story of Br’er Rabbit in which Br’er Fox attempts to outwit his nemesis by making a figure out of tar and clothing it. When Br’er Rabbit crosses paths with the dummy, he greets it; but since the tar baby is too “rude” to reply, Br’er Rabbit strikes it with his paw, and gets stuck in the tar. When Br’er Fox returns to dispose of his enemy, Br’er Rabbit pleads with him to do anything he likes, if he will only not throw him into the briar patch. This, of course, is a trick of reverse psychology; Br’er Fox throws Br’er Rabbit into the thorny bushes, where he quickly makes his escape.
Like the Easter Bunny, though, Br’er Rabbit has origins that predate the Christian societies in which they became well-known. He is thought to be an African-American version of a figure known throughout many African societies. Bantu-speaking peoples call him Kalulu, the Hare, and he is regarded as a consummate trickster. Lazy, but wily, he frequently deceives and gets the better of more powerful animals, like the elephant. There may be a connection here to the practice of keeping a “lucky rabbit’s foot”. The use of a rabbit’s foot as a good luck charm is known throughout many world cultures, but entered American society through the “hoodoo” traditions of African-Americans, themselves derived from traditional African practices. Too many different rationales for the use of this charm have been put forth to be certain of any particular one. One possible explanation lies in the traditional belief that witches could transform themselves into rabbits or hares.
The theme of the rabbit or hare as a trickster archetype is repeated in other cultures throughout the world. In the mythology of many Algonquin Native American tribes, Nanabozho is a mythical culture hero who takes the form of a rabbit. Like similar figures depicted as Coyote or Raven, Nanabozho is more than a simple ne’er-do-well. His daring exploits and ingenious tricks are responsible for much of the creation of the world as we know it, and the gift of various kinds of knowledge to mankind. In one story of the Ojibwa people, he stole the gift of speech from the animals to prevent them from conspiring against mankind. As with trickster figures the world over, however, he often falls victim to his own ruses.
Apart from wiliness, fertility, and fleetness of foot, rabbits are often associated with the moon. Many cultures, especially those of the Far East, recognize not a Man in the Moon, but a Moon Hare. In Indian legendry, one of the Buddha’s early incarnations was in the form of a rabbit, who traveled in the company of a fox and an ape. When the god Indra approached them, disguised as a beggar, each animal went to get food for the poor man. Only the rabbit returned empty-handed, but rather than let the beggar go hungry, he built a fire and threw himself on it to feed him with his own flesh. As a reward for his sacrifice, Indra placed the rabbit on the moon, where he resides to this day. In Japan, the face of the moon is seen as depicting a rabbit mashing rice on a mortar and pestle to make the cake-like snack called mochi. A similar belief is found in Korea, while the Chinese believe the rabbit in the moon is mixing herbal concoctions.
This is only a small sampling of all the legendry associated with the rabbit and hare throughout the world. A truly thorough description of all the beliefs and folklore surrounding rabbits and hares would fill volumes. These fascinating creatures have bred myths and legends as prolifically as one would expect from such famously fertile animals. Wherever you go in the world, you can see the influence of the rabbit. With such a diverse and long-standing fan following, it’s no wonder that people across the world continue to pursue the wonderment and joy that is found in friendship with these mercurial, magical, and mesmerizing figures.