Origin of the Three Hares motif

Above: The Three Hares motif as seen in mural paintings in the Dunhuang caves (Photos: Dunhuang Academy)

Caves Hold Clue To The Riddle Of The Three Hares

The Telegraph (UK)  | 7-3-2004
Retrieved from Free Republic

A research team led by a British archaeologist is to travel to China in search of the origins and meaning of a mysterious ancient symbol identified in sacred sites across Britain, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.

Striking depictions of three hares joined at the ears have been found in roof bosses of medieval parish churches in Devon, 13th century Mongol metal work from Iran and cave temples from the Chinese Sui dynasty of 589-618.

Academics are intrigued at the motif’s apparent prominence in Christian, Islamic and Buddhist holy contexts separated by 5,000 miles and almost 1,000 years.

The symbol shows the hares chasing each other in a circle. Each of the ears in the image is shared between two animals so that there are only three ears shown.

Four researchers will travel from Britain to Dunhuang in China next month to examine paintings in 16 caves and meet experts in an attempt to shed light on the mystery.

Dr Tom Greeves, a landscape archaeologist, has suggested the motif was brought to the West along the Silk Road. Dr Greeves, from Tavistock, Devon, said: “It is a very beautiful and stirring image which has an intrinsic power which is quite lovely.

“We can deduce from the motif’s use in holy places in different religions and cultures, and the prominence it was given, that the symbol had a special significance.

“Until recently there has been little awareness of its wide distribution. We are uncovering new examples all the time.

“If we can open a window on something that in the past had relevance and meaning to people separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, it could benefit our present day understanding of the things we share with different cultures and religions.”

The symbol’s meaning remains obscure but the hare has long had divine and mystical associations in the East and the West. Legends often give the animal magical qualities. It has also been associated in stories with fertility, feminity and the lunar cycle.

In Britain the motif is most common in Devon where 17 parish churches contain roof bosses depicting the hares.

On Dartmoor, it is known locally as “The Tinners’ Rabbits”, but there are no known associations with tin mining.

There are examples elsewhere in Britain in a chapel in Cotehele, Cornwall, in medieval stained glass in the Holy Trinity church in Long Melford, Suffolk, in a plaster ceiling in Scarborough, North Yorks, and on floor tiles from Chester Cathedral and in the parish church in Long Crendon, Bucks.

The first known literary reference is from A Survey of the Cathedral of St Davids published in 1717 by Browne Willis. It says: “In one key stone near the west end are three rabbits plac’d triangularly, with the backsides of their heads turn’d inwards, and so contriv’d that the three ears supply the place of six so that every head seems to have its full quota of ears. This is constantly shewn to strangers as a curiosity worth regarding.”

The three hares are depicted in churches, chapels and cathedrals in France and Germany. The symbol has been found in Iran on a copper coin minted in 1281 and on a brass tray, both from the time of the Mongol Empire.

The earliest known examples of the three hares are in representations of textile canopies painted on the ceilings of Buddhist cave temples in Dunhuang, an important staging post on the Silk Road.

Sue Andrew, an art historian who is part of the group going to China, said: “We don’t know how for sure the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments.”

Chris Chapman, a documentary photographer, and David Singmaster, a retired professor of mathematics, will also be part of the research team. The group is seeking funding to continue their work.


Archaeologists tackle China mystery
AlJazeera ^ | 7/05/04 | AlJazeera
Posted on 2004/7/6 10:13:33 by freedom44

British researchers are heading to a remote part of western China to try and unravel one of archaeology’s most puzzling mysteries.

The researches are trying to find why the same sacred symbol has been found in apparently unconnected ancient sites around the world.

Depictions of three hares joined by the ears can be seen in British medieval churches, 13th century Mongol metalwork and temples from China’s Sui dynasty of the 6th and 7th Century, the Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday.

Academics have long been baffled as to why the circular motif became prominent in Christian, Islamic and Buddhist cultures separated by such great distances and times, the paper said.

In each place the depiction of the hares, chasing each other in a circle with the ears touching each other’s heads, is virtually identical.

Examining caves

A four-strong British research team, led by an archaeologist, will travel to the town of Dunhuang in the western Chinese province of Gansu next month to examine caves which might shed light on the mystery, the report said.

“We don’t know for sure how the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is that they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments”

Sue Andrew, Art historian

More than 1000 years ago, Dunhuang was a key staging point on the Silk Road, the famous network of trading routes which linked China with Central Asia and Iran, with branches into Tibet and South Asia.

As well as commodities, the Silk Road saw religions and ideas spread great distances, and the researchers said this could be the key to the hare motif.

“We don’t know for sure how the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is that they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments,” art historian Sue Andrew told the Daily Telegraph.

Textile canopies

The earliest known example of the symbol is in textile canopies painted on the ceilings of caves in Dunhuang, which the researchers will examine.

The town in famous for a network of caves containing thousands of documents and fabrics from the Silk Road, which were sealed in about 1000 AD.

The caves and their contents – preserved astonishingly well by the dry local climate – were rediscovered by Hungarian-born, British-based explorer Marc Aurel Stein, who trekked along the Silk Road a series of times between 1900 and 1930.

“It is a very beautiful and stirring image which has an intrinsic power which is quite lovely,” archeologist Tom Green, who is leading the team, told the newspaper.

“If we can open a window on something that in the past had relevance and meaning to people separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, it could benefit our present day understanding of the things we share with different cultures and religions,” he said.



More is written about the possible origins of the three hares motif:

“The Origin and Migration of the Three Hares

The three hares images found in the Mogao Caves are the earliest known examples, but it’s unlikely that the motif originated there. It may have reached Mogao under Sogdian or Sasanian influence, with origins in Mesopotamia, or even the Hellenistic world. What is known is that in addition to the Buddhist images found at Mogao, Guge and Ladakh, early examples of the motif also occur in Islamic and Christian contexts along in a path that extends more than 8000 kilometers westward to southwest England.

Pottery fragment
Egypt or Syria; ca. 1200
In central Asian and Middle Eastern contexts the motif occurs
• in glass (an Islamic medallion of ca. 1100, now in Berlin);
• on ceramics (impressed pottery vessels at Merv, Turkmenistan in 12th c.; polychrome pottery from Egypt/Syria ca. 1200; a tile of ca. 1200, now in Kuwait);
• woven on textile (four hares, 2nd quarter to mid-13th c., now in Cleveland); and
• on a copper Mongol coin (Urmia, Iran, minted 1281-2).

More information is also given in The Three Hares of China about the Buddhist contexts of the three hares’ motif:

“The Three Hares at Dunhuang

Beginning in the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), Dunhuang was an important stop on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that stretched from Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) in the east to Central Asia, India, Persia—and, eventually, the Roman Empire—in the west. And during the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms (366-439), at Mogao, less than a day’s journey from Dunhuang, Buddhist monks began digging out hundreds of cave temples from the cliffs along the Daquan River. The caves were decorated with statues, murals and decorative images, and construction of new caves continued at Mogao for over 500 years.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), three-hares images were painted on the center of the ceilings of at least 17 caves. Typically, the circle of hares is surrounded by eight large lotus petals and forms the focal point of a large painted canopy covering the entire ceiling. The following photos show what some of these images look like today.

The beautiful image from Cave 407 is the most familiar of all the three-hares designs at Dunhuang. The hares are surrounded by two bands of lotus petals against a background of feitian (celestial maidens) flying in the same direction as the hares. Notice the hares’ eyes, all four legs, and the white scarves trailing from around their necks. Interestingly, this is the only one of the 17 cave images in which the three hares are clearly running in a counterclockwise direction.
The three-hares image of Cave 305 is badly deteriorated. But close study clearly reveals the white triangular silhouette indicating the hares’ ears as well as parts of their bodies. In Cave 420, all that remains is the triangle formed by the hares’ three ears along with parts of their heads.

In Cave 406, the rough white silhouettes of the three hares are clearly seen against a tan background. It would require close examination to determine whether these white areas are places where a darker pigment of the original hares has changed color over time or the original pigment has peeled off to expose a white undercoat. In Cave 383, the slender hares are gracefully leaping with front and hind legs fully outstretched.
In Cave 397, the white silhouette of one hare and parts of the other two are still clearly visible. It appears that bits of the original pigment remain, although its tone may have changed over time. In some places all the paint has peeled off, exposing the beige clay.”

The images of the three hares in Cave 205 are very well preserved. Less so for the images in Caves 144 and 99.
In addition to the caves shown above, the three hares motif also appears in Caves 200, 237, 358 and 468 from the Middle Tang dynasty (781-847) and Caves 127, 139, 145 and 147 from the Late Tang dynasty (848-906). (In Cave 127, the artist—either by carelessness or design—has created a unique variation of the three-hares image. Each hare’s ears are together, and the ears of all three hares form a Y-shaped pinwheel instead of the usual triangle.)
Of all 17 three-hares images, the one in Cave 139 is the most detailed. This image is also the best preserved—perhaps because the cave is accessible only through a small elevated opening on the right side of the entryway to Cave 138. The three hares are tan against a light green background and are surrounded by eight lotus petals. Each hare is beautifully drawn in pen-like detail, with clearly visible features, including mouth, nose, eyes (with eyeballs!), all four legs, feet (including toes!) and tail. Even the fur on the stomach, breast, legs and head of each rabbit is shown.

Four Hares at Guge
There is also at least one site in present-day Tibet with puzzling images of hares sharing ears. Images of four hares sharing four ears can be found in the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Guge, which thrived from the mid-10th century until its defeat in 1630. On the ceiling of Guge’s White Temple are 314 painted panels, and one of these panels has two roundels, each showing four hares chasing each other in a clockwise direction….

Other Buddhist Images of Three and Four Hares
Other Buddhist images of three and four hares occur in Ladakh, within the present Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. At Alchi on the bank of the Indus River is a temple complex that was built in the late 12th to early 13th century while Alchi was within the western Tibetan cultural sphere. Within this temple complex, inside the Sumtsek, or Three-Tiered Temple, is a sculpture of Maitreya. On Maitreya’s dhoti are painted more than 60 roundels depicting scenes from the life of Buddha Sakyamuni. Each space between four such roundels is decorated with images with long-eared animals chasing each other in a clockwise direction. Some of the spaces show three animals sharing three ears, while others show four animals sharing four ears.”


One theory of the motif’s origins is that it began in Central Asia, either in Western China or with the Sogdians seen at Dunhuang in ancient times or that it spread along the Silk Route together with trade and appears to be a Persian/Sassanian art motif that influenced Chinese silk art (see “Three Hares and Cintamani: Two Well Travelled Motifs”.

“The earliest occurrences appear to be in cave temples in China, dated to the Sui dynasty (6th to 7th centuries).[10][11] The iconography spread along the Silk Road,[12] and was a symbol associated with Buddhism.[13] The hares have been said to be “A hieroglyph of ‘to be’.”[14] In other contexts the metaphor has been given different meaning. For example, Guan Youhui, a retired researcher from the Dunhuang Academy, who spent 50 years studying the decorative patterns in the Mogao Caves, believes the three rabbits image-—”like many images in Chinese folk art that carry auspicious symbolism—represent peace and tranquility.”[10][11] See Aurel Stein. The hares have appeared in Lotus motifs.[15]

The Three Hares appear on 13th century Mongol metal work, and on a copper coin, found in Iran, dated to 1281.[16][17][18]

Another appears on an ancient Islamic reliquary from southern Russia. Another 13th or early 14th century Reliquary was from Iran from Mongol rule, and is preserved in the treasury of Cathedral of Trier Germany. On its base, the casket reveals Islamic iconography, and originally featured two images of the three hares. One was lost through damage.[19]

One theory pertaining to the spread of the motif is that it was transported from China across Asia and as far as the south west of England by merchants traveling the silk road and that the motif was transported via designs found on expensive Oriental ceramics. This view is supported by the early date of the surviving occurrences in China.” — Wikipedia

Distribution of the Three Hares motif between 600 and 1500

The other possibility is that the motif has a much older provenance, given the religious context in which the Three Hares motif turns up mostly in England, northern Germany, France …and with most of the symbols having either Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or semitic (Ashkenazi) medieval religious associations.

“…the majority of representations of the three hares in churches occur in England and northern Germany. This supports a contrary view that the Three Hares are English or early German symbols.[1][10][11][20]

Some claim that the Devon name, Tinners’ Rabbits, is related to local tin miners adopting it. The mines generated wealth in the region and funded the building and repair of many local churches, and thus the symbol may have been used as the miners signature mark.[21] The architectural ornament of the Three Hares also occurs in churches that are unrelated to the miners of South West England. Other occurrences in England include floor tiles at Chester Cathedral,[22] stained glass at Long Melford, Suffolk[A] and a ceiling in Scarborough, Yorkshire.

The motif of the Three Hares is used in a number of medieval European churches, particularly in France (e.g., in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyons)[23] and Germany. It occurs with the greatest frequency in the churches of the West Country of England. The motif appears in illuminated manuscripts,[24] architectural wood carving, stone carving, window tracery and stained glass. In South Western England there are nearly thirty recorded examples of the Three Hares appearing on ‘roof bosses’ (carved wooden knobs) on the ceilings in medieval churches in Devon, (particularly Dartmoor). There is a good example of a roof boss of the Three hares at Widecombe-in-the-Moor,[7] Dartmoor, with another in the town of Tavistock on the edge of the moor. The motif occurs with similar central placement in Synagogues.[2] Another occurrence is on the ossuary that by tradition contained the bones of St. Lazarus.[25]

Where it occurs in England, the Three Hares motif usually appears in a prominent place in the church, such as the central rib of the chancel roof, or on a central rib of the nave. This suggests that the symbol held significance to the church, and casts doubt on the theory that they may have been a masons’ or carpenters’ signature marks.[1] There are two possible and perhaps concurrent reasons why the Three Hares may have found popularity as a symbol within the church. Firstly, it was widely believed that the hare was hermaphrodite and could reproduce without loss of virginity.[19] This led to an association with the Virgin Mary, with hares sometimes occurring in illuminated manuscripts and Northern European paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child. The other Christian association may have been with the Holy Trinity,[19][26] representing the “One in Three and Three in One” of which the triangle or three interlocking shapes such as rings are common symbols. In many locations the Three Hares are positioned adjacent to the Green Man, a symbol associated with the continuance of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic paganism.

16th century German scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, saw the rabbits as a symbol of the Diaspora. The replica of the Chodorow Synagogue from Poland (on display at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv) has a ceiling with a large central painting which depicts a double headed eagle holds two brown rabbits in its claws without harming them. …

The hare frequently appears in the form of the symbol of the “rotating rabbits”. An ancient German riddle describes this graphic thus:

Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two.[2]

This curious graphic riddle can be found in all of the famous wooden synagogues from the period of the 17th and 18th century in the Ashknaz region (in Germany) that are on museum display in Beth Hatefutsoth Museum in Tel Aviv, the Jewish Museum Berlin and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They also appear in the Synagogue from Horb am Neckar (donated to the Israel Museum). The three animals adorn the wooden panels of the prayer room from Unterlimpurg near Schwäbisch Hall, which may be seen in replica in the Jewish Museum Berlin. They also are seen in a main exhibit of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. Israeli art historian Ida Uberman wrote about this house of worship: “… Here we find depictions of three kinds of animals, all organized in circles: eagles, fishes and hares. These three represent the Kabbalistic elements of the world: earth, water and fire/heavens… The fact that they are always three is important, for that number . . . is important in the Kabbalistic context”.[2]

Not only do they appear among floral and animal ornaments, but they are often in a distinguished location, directly above the Torah ark, the place where the holy scriptures repose…”  — Wikipedia: The Three Hares

It seems also likely that the commonly seen medieval Christian or Jewish symbols may have been one of the fairly universally known pagan fertility symbols in the past:

The Bavarian “Community of Hasloch’s arms[depicted below] is blazoned as: Azure edged Or three hares passant in triskelion of the second, each sharing each ear with one of the others, in chief a rose argent seeded of the second, in base the same, features three hares. It is said, “The stone with the image of three hares, previously adorned the old village well, now stands beside the town hall.”

“Hares and rabbits have appeared as a representation or manifestation of various deities in many cultures, including: Hittavainen, Finnish god of Hares;[35] Kaltes-Ekwa, Siberian goddess of the moon; Jade Rabbit, maker of medicine on the moon for the Chinese gods, depicted often with a mortar and pestle;[13][36] Ometotchtli (Two Rabbits,) Aztec god of fertility, etc., who led 400 other Rabbit gods known as the Centzon Totochtin; Kalulu, Tumbuka mythology (Central African) Trickster god; and Nanabozho (Great Rabbit,) Ojibway deity, a shape-shifter and a cocreator of the world.[36][37] See generally, Rabbits in the arts.” — (Wikipedia)

The Celts (and Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Dutch and French) all have a folklore of hares, eggs and spring ritual folklore, the Egyptians have their Hare goddess, over a whole district of province Hermopolis, and the hare was sacred and messenger to both Wenet and Thoth (deity of scribes, in kind with the Mayan hare deity who invented writing). Sacred, moon-gazing hares were sacred and associated with moon goddesses like Ostara, Ishtar, Innanna associated with renewal, rebirth and cycles of the moon … as were the Jewish kabbalistic and Persian triple hares, which had in common with the Chinese, Korean and Japanese ones that associated the hare with goddesses of immortality, who bore the task of pounding elixirs or rice-cakes.

Sources and References:

Three hares in China

Photos courtesy of Dunhuang Academy The (Mogao) Grottoes

Three hares (Wikipedia)

Three Hares and Cintamani: Two Well Travelled Motifs / Hares Juxtapose with Green Men  

5 thoughts on “Origin of the Three Hares motif

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

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

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

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

  5. […] the Silk Road, and in the Middle East, in the form of three hares rather than three bears. Although it’s uncertain when exactly the symbol travelled to Western Europe, it does not seem to appear consistently before the 13th century ,so Brave is a little early on […]

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