African tales of how the hare got to the moon … and how mankind lost immortality

The Story of the Perverted Message

Hottentot Like many other savages, the Namaquas or Hottentpts story of the associate the phases of the moon with the idea of immortality, the apparent waning and waxing of the luminary Moon and being understood by them as a real process of alternate disintegration and reintegration, of decay and growth repeated perpetually. Even the rising and setting of the moon is interpreted by them as its birth and death. They say that once on a time the Moon wished to send to mankind a message of immortality, and the hare undertook to act as  messenger. So the Moon charged him to go to men and say, ” As I die and rise to life again, so shall you die and rise to life again.” Accordingly the hare went to men, but either out of forgetfulness or malice he reversed the message and said, ” As I die and do not rise to life again, so you shall also die and not rise to life again.” Then he went back to the Moon, and she asked him what he had said. 

He told her, and when she heard how he had given the wrong message, she was so angry that he threw a stick at him which split his lip. That is why the hare’s lip is still cloven. So the hare ran away and is still running to this day. Some people, however, say that before he fled he clawed the Moon’s face, which still bears the marks of the scratching, as anybody may see for himself on a clear moonlight night. But the Namaquas are still angry with the hare for robbing them of immortality. The old men of the tribe used to say, ” We are still enraged with the hare, because he brought such a bad message, and we will not eat him.” Hence from the day when a youth comes of age and takes his place among the men, he is forbidden to eat hare’s flesh, or even to come into contact with a fire on which a hare has been cooked. If a man breaks the rule, he is not infrequently banished the village. However, on the payment of a fine he may be readmitted to the community.

A similar tale, with some minor differences, is told by Bushman the Bushmen). According to them, the Moon formerly said originally of death # to men, ” As I die and come to life again, so shall ye do ; [death# ] then when ye die, ye shall not die altogether but shall rise again.” the hare [relayed the message s-i-c].

But one man would not believe the glad tidings of immortality, and he would not consent to hold his tongue. For his mother had died, he loudly lamented her, and nothing, could persuade him that she would come to life again. A heated altercation ensued between him and the Moon on this painful subject. “Your mother’s asleep,” says, the Moon. #  She’s dead,” says the man, and at it they went again, hammer and tongs, till at last the Moon lost patience and struck the man on the face with her fist, cleaving his mouth with the blow. And as she did so, she cursed him saying, ” His mouth shall be always like this, even when he is a hare. For a hare he shall be. He shall spring away, he shall come doubling back. The dogs shall chase him, and when they have caught him they shall tear him in pieces. He shall altogether die. And all men, when they die, shall die outright. For he would not agree with me, when I bid him not to weep for his mother, for she would live again. * No,’ says he to mc, * my mother will not live again.’ Therefore he shall altogether become a hare. And the people, they shall altogether die, because he contradicted me flat when I told him that the people would do as I do, returning to life after they were dead.” So a righteous retribution overtook the sceptic for his scepticism, for he was turned into a hare, and a hare he has been ever since. But still he has human flesh in his thigh, and that is why, when the Bushmen kill a hare, they will not eat that portion 6f the thigh, but cut it out, because it is human flesh. 

And still the Bushmen say, ” It was on account of the hare that the Moon cursed us, so that we die altogether. If it had not been for him, we should have come to life again when we died. But he would not believe what the Moon told him, he contradicted her flat.”  In this Bushman version of the story the hare is not the animal messenger of God to men, but a human sceptic who, for doubting the gospel of eternal life, is turned into a hare and involves the whole human race in the doom of mortality. This may be an older form of the story than the Hottentot version, in which the hare is a hare and nothing more.

# note When speaking of the moon the Namaquas do not say, like ourselves  that it rises and sets, but that *it dies and is born again.*C. J. Andersson, Lake Ngami, Second Edition (London, 1856), p. 328

* Sir J. E. Alexander, Expedition Bleek, Reynard the Fox in South Africa of Discovery into the Interior of Africa

Public Domain Source:  “Folk-lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend and Law” Internet Archive

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