|Modern watercolor painting by Jackie Morris, 2006.|
The three hares is a circular motif that appears in sacred sites from the Far East to the British isles, although it is most frequently found in Europe. One of its mysteries is why it exists in such diverse locations and contexts. Even though it is most certainly religious, it is also non-denominational.
|"Window of the Three Hares" at Paderborn Cathedral, Germany.|
Image courtesy of Zefram/Wikipedia.
The symbol consists of three hares chasing each other. Only three ears are shown, as each ear is shared by two of the hares. This threefold rotational symmetry has some kind of mystical multi-cultural association shared by other types like the triskelion and the triqueta.
|From Tresbeare Farm, Devon, England.|
The triskelion is a motif of three interlocked spirals, sometimes depicted as human legs. This motif has appeared since ancient times from Mycenaean vessels, ancient coins, to Celtic art.
|Silver stater from Pamphylia (ancient Asia Minor) circa 400 BCE,|
with a triskelion to the right. Image courtesy Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
|Celtic triskelion, originally a pagan design but co-opted by the |
Christians to denote the holy trinity. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The triquetra is a similar symbol of threefold things, once used to refer to three-cornered shapes. It was found on rune stones and early Germanic coins. It is also a common symbol in Celtic art.
|Image of a triquetra courtesy of Wikipedia.|
The origins of the Three Hares and its original significance is uncertain, as are the reasons it appears in such diverse locations. The earliest examples are in cave temples from China from the 6th to 7th centuries. The iconography is thought to have spread through the Silk Road, and was associated with Buddhism. In China hares were auspicious symbols of peace and tranquility.
|A map of the sites where the symbol is found 600-1500 CE.|
As the symbol spread, and it has been found in Mongol sites - Mongols having controlled the Silk Road at its height, it no doubt took on different meanings as it was shared with other cultures. So the search for a general meaning is difficult, as at each site the motifs must be taken in context, and it must be determined what meaning(s) they were appropriated for.
|An Iranian tray with the motif.|
Some scholars believe that the Three Hares developed independently in England and northern Germany, since the majority of extant images come from there. In southwest England it is referred to as the "Tinners' Rabbits", which is the name of a dance involving the rotation of three, six, or nine dancers. The tin miners of this area may have adopted the symbol to use as a signature for their group, and thus it appears in local churches.
|Example from South Tawton, Devon, Enland.|
In Europe, the motif appears in wood and stone carvings, window traceries, and stained glass in churches. In England it is usually in a prominent place. One reason that Christianity may have adopted the motif is that it was believed by many that hares were hermaphrodite and capable of reproducing without loss of virginity, thus hares could be associated with the Virgin Mary.
|A woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of the holy family with|
three hares playing at Mary's feet, 1498. Image
courtesy Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlruhe, Germany.
In Judaism, even though rabbits are non-kosher according to the Bible, they have positive symbolic connotations. Some Jewish scholars saw rabbits as a symbol of the diaspora, and three is an important number in Kabbalistic context.
|Detail from a casket from Trier, Germany.|
Hares and rabbits are manifestations of deities in many cultures, hence this symbol would be appealing. It also just may be that people were taken with the puzzle of the ears - think how much people today like M.C. Escher. Contour rivalry, the artistic technique used to create multiple visual interpretations of an image, can make an image captivating.
|From Castle Inn, Lydford, England.|
Whatever the context, wherever, the Three Hares was revered. If there is an archetypal explanation for it, it is still to be found. Perhaps the hare, considered worldwide to be a magical creature, has saved its most powerful magic for its own obscurity.
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of