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Three Hares on a wooden church boss in South Tawton, Devon (© Chris Chapman)

An enigmatic trio of rabbits running in a circle appears on centuries of art, from medieval churches in England to Buddhist caves in China. While each bunny seems to have two ears, the symbol is actually a visual puzzle: a total of three ears connects them in their endless loop. Some believe the rabbits symbolize eternity; others think they stand for fertility. Still others consider them a representation of the connection between the heavens and the Earth. The original meaning of the three hares motif remains obscure, but its cross-cultural significance inspired three researchers to spend over two decades traveling the world to unravel some of its arcane history.

Cover of ‘The Three Hares’ (courtesy Skerryvore Productions) (click to enlarge)

Released as a limited-edition book by Skerryvore Productions, The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding was created by archaeologist Tom Greeves, art historian Sue Andrew, and photographer Chris Chapman. All three are based in Devon, England, where there are 17 churches with three hares on their oak bosses (roundels often found on the ceiling). The book evolved from the group’s Three Hares Project, and includes thorough essays by Andrew and Greeves alongside Chapman’s images, chronicling their trek to trace the evolution of the symbol.

“Our constantly expanding journey embraces Judaic, Buddhist and Islamic hares from western Europe to China, or vice versa, touching Himalayan Ladakh and the Swat valley in Pakistan,” Greeves writes in an introduction. “We believe that the Mongol Empire and precious silk played a crucial part in transmission of the motif over vast distances in medieval times, traveling on the many strands of the Silk Road.”

In Corbenay, France, they viewed a beautiful example of the three hares carved in white stone in the cellar of a 98-year-old woman named Madame Bardoz, whose home was built on the ruins of a medieval church. In Stuttgart, Germany, another manifested on a painted wooden ceiling in an 18th-century synagogue. The researchers were told the hares indicated the Holy Trinity while in Switzerland and the meeting of heaven and Earth while in China, where the rabbits are depicted in the Buddhist cave temples of Mogao.

Stained glass in Long Melford, England (© Chris Chapman)

Not everyone they met was thrilled by the chase. Greeves describes a monk at a Benedictine abbey in St-Benoît-sur-Loire, France, who, upon being shown an image of the three hares and asked if he knew of any, was “surprisingly forthright in his dismissal of such a suggestion, saying, ‘Non, ce n’est pas chrétien!’ (No, it is not Christian!)’” There may very well be something pagan, or alchemical, about the three hares, which have the same cyclical energy as the ouroboros (snake eating its own tail), a symbol that dates back to ancient Egyptian funerary texts.

Andrew writes about the complex interpretations of the hares in one of her essays:

As a symbol, the hare in the medieval period might be regarded in either a positive or negative light. More often than not, the hare was regarded pejoratively, belonging to ‘the lascivious hunt of Venus, the hunt of lust, rather than to the virtuous hunt’. Nevertheless, the assumption of the Ancients that the hare could procreate without a mate led to the belief that it could give birth without losing its virginity. While the hare might be associated with lust, it could also represent chastity and virgin birth.

She adds that if “we seek a precise meaning for the Three Hares, at the expense of understanding what they do, we might just miss their real significance, for running in their never-ending circle they may have stirred memories and powered prayer in ways we are only just beginning to understand.”

Tile from the nave of Chester Cathedral (© Chris Chapman)

Plate decorated with the Three Hares in the Musée Alsacien de Strasbourg (photo by Ji-Elle/Wikimedia)

Three Hares on a fence in Paderborn, Germany (photo by Harmish Khambhaita/Flickr)

Three Hares in a road in Kirchhundem, Germany (photo by Stefan Flöper/Wikimedia)

Detail of the Three Hares Gate in Ibbenbüren-Schierloh, Germany (photo by J.-H. Janßen/Wikimedia)

Detail of the Three Hares Stone in Ibbenbüren-Schierloh, Germany (photo by J.-H. Janßen/Wikimedia)

Manhole cover with Three Hares in Paderborn, Germany (photo by Asio Otus/Wikimedia)

Three Hares in the Paderborn Cathedral, Germany (photo by Nawi112/Wikimedia)

Three Hares on a tomb in the Jewish Cemetery of Sataniv, Ukraine (photo by Mykola Swarnyk/Wikimedia)

The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding is published by Skerryvore Productions.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

6 replies on “The Mystery of the Three Hares Motif”

  1. It is surprizing that no one makes a connection to the triskelion motif, which in addition to simple designs has been known to include representations of both real and mythical animals.

  2. Given that so much of the work found to contain this image arises from the workers themselves, it seems likely that it addresses the communal or commutative nature of being: each hare shares both its ears with two other hares. We each have one ear, if that, but going together we have six, and each a pair. It is, if you will, a socialist mystery. No wonder the priest condemned it!

  3. If there is a puzzle here, perhaps it lies in the number of ears:

    3 – actual ears
    6 – each rabbit can be seen to have
    two ears
    6 – each rabbit shares each of its
    ears with each of the other
    rabbits (2×3)
    15 – using this count, we get a total
    of fifteen ears.

    In both the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Bible there are Fifteen Psalms of Ascent.

    I don’t know enough to suggest any answers for other traditions.

    Of course, this may be just a lot of hoowie. How knows?

  4. Hares and rabbits are in the same family – Leporidae – but they are different species; as different as sheep and goats, for instance.
    It is sloppy writing to alternate between calling these animals “three rabbits” and “three hares.” If I had to choose, I would say they are hares, since most of them display the long-bodied athleticism that is characteristic of the hare.

    1. While I acknowledge the distinction, I’d argue that not all the animals depicted in all these symbols are hares, and that is the umbrella term for that particular motif, which is why I chose to use it in this way. I do not get into it in this post, but another term for the Three Hares is the Tinners’ Rabbits.

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