Medieval Lore: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight – Source

This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans

The Mythical, Magical Unicorn

The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age.  Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days.  Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more.  In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.

Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn.  Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.

Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn

The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …

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World Folklore: Meet the Scapegoat!

World Folklore: Meet the Scapegoat!

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt – Public Domain

The History of Scapegoat

A scapegoat is a term that refers to someone who is wrongly or unfairly blamed for something that has happened   The term is believed to have originated with an ancient annual ritual that was enacted to remove the sin of a community each year. It is one of the oldest known rituals in the world and found in various forms in many different human societies around the world. Although many of these rituals did involve goats in come cases a human or some other substitute was used.  Presented here is a very brief discussion looking at the role and history of scapegoats in society. Not all aspects of scapegoating have been covered and what has been is only brief. I would urge people interested in the subject to do their own research and make up their own minds and my sources are provided below which can be used.

Defining the Scapegoat

In these rituals a scapegoat could be a goat, a human volunteer or a person chosen unwillingly and had the sins of the people symbolically placed upon their head. They were then sent into the wilderness either to exist alone until they died or suffered some other form of exile or death.  The term became to be applied to someone who carried the blame for others and in doing so removed that blame from those others. It is also when a person or something becomes the object of unjustifiable hostility.

According to  the Book of Leviticus, from the Old Testament and the Torah, God ordained that all of the people of Israel would stop work and and the priest would enact rituals to nullify the sins of the nation.  One of these rituals involved the choosing of two goats and we are told,

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.”

Leviticus 16:8-10, KJV

In this way the lone goat that becomes the scapegoat and sent into the wilderness carrying with it the sins of the people and cleansing the nation for another year. Some scholars say a red cloth was wrapped around its horns symbolizing the sins it bore on behalf of the people.  In Judaism the ritual was carried out on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.  However there are some scholars who disagree claiming the translation is wrong.  They say the goat was sacrificed by being thrown over a cliff outside Jerusalem and the ritual originated to pacify a fallen angel who had become a demon of the wilderness named Azazel.

Scapegoat Theory

In the modern world scapegoat theory refers to the habit of an individual or a group of people who blame someone else for their own problems.  It often results in covert or open hostility or prejudice towards a person or group of people who may be unfairly perceived as being to blame.  This individual or a group may stand out or apart from society for some reason, perhaps through race, religion, behaviour, philosophy, sexuality, gender or many other reasons.  Scapegoats tend to be blamed for the failings or misconduct of others who in turn believe that in laying blame on others they have exonerated or erased their own guilt. This raises  themselves to a higher moral level, while enhancing or maintaining a positive self-image for themselves. Psychologically although it enhances the accuser it destabilizes and denigrates the scapegoat.   Scapegoating in this way is also used in politics as a deliberate ploy to alienate a person or group of people for the political gain of another. The existence of an alien or misfit indicates the existence of a controlling conforming group that cannot tolerate deviance by an individual or small group of individuals.

Examples of Scapegoats

Many people see the example of Jesus Christ who was scourged and carried the cross for his own crucifixion as a scapegoat carrying the sins of the community and through death cleansing that community.  Indeed Jesus does fit with the idea of a scapegoat in the  Roman and ruling Hebrew hierarchy as someone who stood out from the crowd, but Christians believe that when sinners own and confess their guilt and place their faith in Jesus they are forgiven their sins.

Similar forms of ritual scapegoating also existed in ancient Greece.  In Athens during the festival of Thargelia two ugly men were chosen for this role.  They were prepared a feast which they dined on and then taken through the streets where people beat them with branches.  They were then either driven out of the city by having stones thrown at them or escorted out though they were not killed.  

The Maya of Central America also held an annual ceremony involving a scapegoat. At the end of each year, Mayan villagers made a clay model of the demon Uuayayah. They placed the model before an image of the deity responsible for governing the coming year. Then they carried the model of Uuayayah outside the village to stop evil entering their community.

Jonah the Prophet

An example of how a group can scapegoat an individual is found in the Book of Jonah, in the Hebrew Bible.  The story tells that while voyaging over the sea a massive storm threatened to sink the ship.  The ship’s crew somehow came to the conclusion that it was the fault of one man and that was Jonah.  Believing that to save themselves and the ship they would need to rid themselves of him they threw him into the sea hoping to appease the storm.   In the sea he was swallowed by a whale which spats him out alive after three days. The story is just one example of how the removal, sacrifice or death of an individual can be seen as the salvation of the community or in this case the crew.

Scapegoats in Society

There often appears to be a belief among accusers that the elimination of their victims – the scapegoats – will mend some perceived grievance or maybe restore the social order and set their world to right.   There is a tendency to dehumanize and demonize human scapegoats. For example in medieval Europe female witches were singled out from the rest of the community and labeled as wicked and evil. The dehumanization or demonization of victims makes it easier and more acceptable for a society to inflict powerful punishments or sanctions upon their chosen scapegoat.  This may create a self-fulfilling prophecy and sense of collective righteousness.  

Politics

However there are ways that some people such as politicians can benefit from becoming scapegoats.  They may be seen as martyrs suffering an injustice which in due course will win them sympathy and support from others such as an electorate.  Some people have made themselves famous, notorious and even rich from scapegoating and in some cases it can be an emotional strategy between two lovers and even children can often innocently use it to get their way.

The opposite of scapegoating would be to lionize individuals or laud an object, service or items of some kind.  In this way the chosen ones or objects become or appear to hold the answer to the people’s problems. The choosing of such a human does not necessarily have to be based on fact or truth it just has to be believed by the controlling group and acted upon as if it were true.  In this way it becomes possible for people with charisma and exceptional powers of persuasion to manipulate large groups of people for their own purposes for good or evil. 

In conclusion, scapegoating can be used to impose the will of the controlling group of people onto a minority deviant section, transposing their own guilt, sin or culpability on to the smaller group and in doing so cleansing themselves.  Here we may think of modern politicians who know how to use scapegoating and its opposite for their own ends and enhancement.

© 04/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 4th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Griffin: The Legendary King of All Creatures

Knossos fresco in throne palaceCC BY-SA 3.0
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 18/04/2019, under the title, Mythical Beasts: The Griffin, the Legendary King of all Creatures, written by zteve t evans.

Griffins

A griffin is a legendary beast believed to be the offspring of a lion and an eagle, depicted in various ways by many different human cultures in different places throughout antiquity. It is usually depicted as having the back legs, tail and body of a lion, with the head of an eagle, sometimes having projecting ears. It is usually shown with eagle wings, but sometimes is wingless and sometimes has eagle talons on its forefeet. The eagle part was sometimes covered in feathers while the lion part had fur.

King of all Creatures

The lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, while an eagle was the king of the birds. The griffin, as a hybrid of these two, inherited the qualities of both, making it very powerful and the king, or ruler, of all creatures. Griffins were also known by a number of other names including ‘griffon,’ ‘griffon,’ or ‘gryphon.’ They were often depicted as having wings, but sometimes found wingless, as in the fine example found in the Palace of Knossos and shown here. The Palace of Knossos was the ancient ceremonial and political centre of the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete, described as the earliest in Europe, indicating the age and importance of the griffin motif.

Griffins in Mythology

Depictions of griffins are found in the art and mythology of many diverse ancient cultures, including Iranian, Anatolian, Egyptian, European, and Indian. In early Greek art they were shown pulling the chariots of the gods Apollo and Nemesis, and were said to be the hounds of Zeus. By their association with Apollo they became associated with the sun, and through their service to Nemesis became known as protectors and guardians, carrying out retribution for injustice on offenders. One legend tells how Alexander the Great captured two griffins and chained them to his throne. He eventually managed to tame one and rode on its back as it flew him around his realm for seven days.

Guardians of Treasure

Griffins were often seen as the guardians of treasure and priceless objects. They were associated with gold and said to guard gold mines, and often appear on tombs as guardians. According to Pliny the Elder, griffins laid eggs in burrows in nests lined with gold nuggets. Other accounts say griffins built a nest like an eagle’s and lay eggs of agate, which is a semi-precious stone.

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Petrification Myths: Mischief, Mayhem and the Pesky Lincoln Imp

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Lincoln Imp – Image by Richard Croft – CC BY-SA 2.0

On the walls of Lincoln Cathedral in the city of Lincoln in England is a rather strange figure of an imp that is carved on the stonework of a pillar inside the cathedral.  Despite its strangeness, or perhaps because of it,  the imp has become a symbol of the city as well as a number of other local organizations.  There is a legend that tells that the grotesque was once a real imp that was turned to stone by an angel.

The Legend of the Lincoln Imp

chesterfield_church

St. John and All Saints Church, Chesterfield – By Charlesdrakew – Public Domain

The legend is thought to date from the 13th or 14th century and tells how two imps were sent to Earth by Satan to cause as much mischief and mayhem as possible.   Arriving in the north of  England they set about their task with glee and malice causing mayhem and mischief everywhere they went.  Settling on the spire of St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield they spitefully twisted it out of shape and even today the results of their mischief can still be seen. Today, the Crooked Spire is a well-known feature of Chesterfield, though there are other legends which give different accounts of how this came to be.

The imps were not satisfied with their handiwork and went on a spree of mayhem and mischief.  They soon caused chaos across the north and the imps decided to visit Lincoln. Coming across the cathedral they set about causing as much devilment as they could.  They broke chairs and tables and vandalized everything in sight and were even said to have tripped up the Bishop.   They caused so much damage that an angel was sent to deal with the imps and to put things right.

The legend says the angel appeared out of a hymn book as they were vandali\ing the Angel Choir and immediately ordered the two miscreants to stop.   One of the imps, terrified by the angel obeyed and hid under a broken table.  The other was bolder and more evil and as well as throwing stones at the angel threw insults as well.   The angel was taking no nonsense from the imp and promptly turned him to stone there and then.  As the other imp had obeyed him and had not thrown stones or insults the angel spared him the same fate as his friend and gave it a stern warning.  The imp did not need a second warning and quickly skedaddled.   There is a saying that when the wind blows around Lincoln Cathedral it is the imp flying around in circles looking for his friend who can be seen in the cathedral to this day, looking down from where he was petrified to stone by the angel.  Different parts of the UK have variations of this legend.

The Grimsby Imp

One variation of the legend is found in Grimsby and tells how the second imp, having escaped petrification by the angel in Lincoln Cathedral, made his way to Grimsby.  Imps being imps are born to make trouble this one soon began to cause mischief and mayhem around Grimsby.  Finding  St. James’ Church,  the imp went in and began a spree of vandalism inside causing great damage.  The angel who had exercised leniency at Lincoln was sent to deal with the imp and seeing it was the same one he had spared spared, this time gave it a good thrashing on its backside and then turned it to stone. Imps may be imps but they should not mess with angels!

The Term “Lincoln Imp”

The symbol appears to have been termed the “Lincoln Imp” because it is the best known example and seems to have the first come to popular usage in the 19th century, even though it is far older and many examples predate the 18th century.  It may that it came to the public attention more in the latter part of the 19th century when a businessman named James Ward Usher managed to get the sole rights to make jewelry using the symbol in his designs which helped to make him famous and wealthy.

The Imp as a Symbol

the_lincoln_imp_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1304521

Modern example of the use of theLincoln Imp in the gable end of a garage in Farndale – Image by gordon clitheroe – CC BY-SA 2.0

The imp usually appears with cloven feet and with one leg raised to rest upon the other knee and both hands are gripping the leg that is on the knee.  It has a hairy body and open mouth displaying sharp teeth and has ears like those of a cow.

The imp is a symbol that appears in many parts of England and Scotland.  For example,   All Saints Church, Easington, Yorkshire has a carved stone figure of an imp.  The reason they were placed in churches or other places or their meaning is unknown.  It may be that these are not associated or representative of either the Lincoln or Grimsby imps but have some other purpose.  The use of the symbol is thought to predate both of these legends and many see its use as a similar mystery as that of the Green Man or the Three Hares symbol.

The Lincoln Imp is still a popular symbol and appears on the crest of Lincoln City Football Club and their mascot is known as Poacher the Imp.    A Gibraltar football club Lincoln Red Imps F.C., also takes their name from it and a World War 2, RAF  Squadron No. LXI Squadron RAF used the imp in its emblem until it was disbanded in 1958.  The Lincoln Imp is a symbol strongly associated with Lincoln and Lincolnshire and used by many local organizations and enterprises.  It appears in many works of art and jewelry still and is also found in churches and buildings in many other parts of England and Scotland. and many products of all kinds are found bearing its image.  Ultimately the legend of the Lincoln Imp portrays the imp as a symbol of the triumph of God over Satan and the never ending battle between good and evil reminding us that good will always triumph over evil.

© 09/05/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 9th, 2017 zteve t evans

Petrification Myths: The Rollright Stones Complex

the_rollright_stones2c_the_kings_men

The King’s Men

On the borders of the English counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, not far from the village of Long Compton, lies a mysterious complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age megaliths known as the Rollright Stones. Presented here is a brief description of the stone complex followed by a look at the petrification myth associated with it that fancifully attempts to explain its origin.  The presentation concludes by briefly mentioning other stone circles and monoliths that also have petrification myths associated with them.

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones complex consists of three sets of monuments; the King Stone, the Whispering Knights and the King’s Men.  The King Stone is a single standing stone set some 50 yards outside the stone ring which is  separated from it by a road.  The Whispering Knights was a burial chamber also outside the stone ring.  The final set is a circle of stones called the King’s Men.

The sets are not the same age as each other and all appear to have had different purposes. This leads scholars to think that the site had a strong tradition of ritual over a long period of time and had some kind of special significance during that time.  With the timescale involved and the sheer mystery of their purpose perhaps it’s not surprising that a number of intriguing myths and legends have evolved as people throughout the ages attempted to explain their existence.

The Petrified King and his knights

rollright_stones2c_the_king_stone_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1598710

The King Stone – Photo by Cameraman

According to a legend recorded by William Camden in 1610, and put into verse, there was a king who wanted to conquer the entire country of  England and he came across a witch who confronted him saying,

“Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”

The King took up the challenge saying in reply,

“Stick, stock, stone As King of England I shall be known.”

And strode forward, but on his seventh stride a long mound, which sometimes now is known as the Arch-Druid’s barrow rose up before him preventing the sight of Long Compton.  The laughing witch cried,

“As Long Compton thou canst not see King of England thou shalt not be. Rise up stick and stand still stone For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be And I myself an eldern tree.

The King was turned into a standing stone known as the King Stone and most of his men who were gathered in a circle were turned into the King’s Men ring of stones.  Outside of this circle was a small group of knights who some say were in prayers, while others say they were whispering  and plotting against the king.  Either way they still fell victim and were turned to stone to become Whispering Knights.

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Whispering Knights – by  Midnightblueowl

A legend says that one day the spell will be broken and the King and his knights will resume their conquest of England unless they have the bad luck to come across another witch. It is not told if the king had angered the witch in some way.  Neither is it known why the witch turned herself into an elder tree  unless it was to keep an eye on the hapless king.  The witch’s tree is said to be growing in a hedge separating the King Stone from the Stone Circle and according to legend will bleed if it is cut when in flower.  It is said that on Midsummer’s Eve people would congregate around the King Stone and he would move his head when the elder tree was cut.

Midnight at the stones

Tradition says the King’s Men are released from the petrification spell and return to life at midnight.  They all join hands together and dance in a circle and are also said to go down to the spring in a nearby spinney  to take a drink. This is a dangerous time because it is said that anyone who should witness these extraordinary events will die or go mad.

Petrification myths

Many other stone circles and standing stones have petrification myths attached to them that tell how people were turned to stone by a witch, God, or the Devil for taking part in some forbidden activity in some way.  Some people think these type of legends were encouraged by the Christian church who were keen to discourage pagan practices. Another school of thought was that such legends were promoted by the Puritans as a warning to keep on the straight and narrow path of the Christian faith.

The threat of petrification may have been seen as a lasting and very visible punishment for transgressing the rules, especially those of merrymaking on Sundays which seems to be a popular day for being turned to stone in Britain!  In the case of the Rollright Stones we are not told what the day was only that it was a witch that gave the king the warning and appears to have foretold the king’s destiny, or cast the spell that fulfilled it.

Was it misfortune, or just a bad day?

The petrification of humans into stone is often associated with the creation of stone circles and standing stones.  Many other ancient stone circles and monoliths also have petrification myths attached to them such as Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, Mitchell’s Fold in Shropshire, the Stanton Drew stone circles of Somerset, the Merry Maidens and The Hurlers,  Cornwall and there are plenty of other examples in the British Isles and around the world.  In Britain the petrification is often caused by a witch, or for participating in some forbidden activity such as merrymaking on a Sunday.  In the case of the Rollright Stones the King and his men just seemed to have had the misfortune to happen upon a particularly spiteful witch, or just caught her on a bad day!

© 11/07/2016 zteve t evans

 References and Attributions

Copyright July 7th, 2016 zteve t evans

Australian Folklore: The Emu in the Sky

The Aboriginal people of Australia developed an astronomy where figures from their mythology were represented  by the dark patches, stars and other features of the night sky. These figures came from familiar animals and objects from their immediate environment that often had stories attached to them explaining their origin or function.

emu_public

In the night skies above Australia is the Southern Cross which has a dark patch or cloud next to it called the Coalsack Nebula.  This dark place is associated with the “Emu in the Sky” with the Coalsack representing the head and the body and legs formed by the dust trails that reach out across the Milky Way. Presented here is a brief description of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy followed by the folktale of The Blind Man and the Emu. Then follows  a look at the rock engraving of the Emu in the Sky and the celestial orientation in the night sky of the Emu before concluding with the importance of both of these to the Aboriginal people.

Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

In Australian Aboriginal astronomy, astronomical objects such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets and the Milky Way and their movements across the sky are often seen as being representative of objects, animals or aspects of the world they knew. They used these representations to help explain and give meaning to various things that in their minds needed explaining or in some cases as a calendar to keep track of the passing of time and the seasons. Quite often there are mythological or religious explanations given to celestial objects and phenomena and sometimes there are less profound associations given.  Different groups of Aboriginal people have different folktales featuring many different creatures such as stingrays, sharks and other fish, different kinds of birds and animals also different people groups such as men, women, boys, girls and hunters.

The Blind Man and the Emu

One folktale tells of a blind man who lived in a camp in the bush.  He had a wife who lived with him and every day he would send his wife out to look for emu eggs for them to eat. His wife would dutifully oblige but no matter how hard she tried she could not please him. She would find the emu eggs and bring them back to him but he would complain they were too small and become angry with her.   One day she went out looking for emu eggs and came across the tracks of a very large emu.  Thinking that such a large bird would lay large eggs she followed the tracks and found it sitting on its nest on the ground.   Thinking the eggs would be large and would please her husband for a change, she became determined to get them and so she threw stones at the bird hoping to scare it off.  Instead the bird stood up and attacked her and killed her.

Meanwhile the blind man was becoming hungry waiting for his wife and he also began to worry about her.   Unable to see he began to feel his way cautiously around the camp until his hands felt a bush and feeling the branches he found some berries upon it.  Eating the berries he was suddenly cured of his blindness and picking up his spears he went out looking for his wife.  He found her tracks and followed them and found her body by the emu’s nest.  Realizing the emu had killed her he speared the emu and sent its spirit into the Milky Way.  There it remains to this day and can be seen at certain times of the year and became known as the Emu in the Sky.

Rock engravings of the Emu in the Sky

In the Kuringai National Park, north of Sidney the Guringai people who live there created rock engravings, some of these are depicting Daramulan the sky god and his emu-wife. One engraving at the Elvina Track Engraving Site depicts an emu similarly posed similarly as the Emu in the Sky constellation.  During  evenings in the autumn, which is March to May in Australia, the celestial emu in the sky is directly over the engraved emu in the sky depicted in the rock corresponding to the time when the emu lays its eggs and are traditionally collected by the Aborigines.

The Emu in the Sky

During March the head and neck of the Emu appears in night sky and from April to May the full length is revealed in the sky from south toward south east. During this time the Emu is said to have legs by the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples and is seeming to be in a running pose.  This is said to be representative of the females who during the mating season run after the males.

During June and July the celestial emu appears to change its position with the disappearance of its legs and is said to be now male and sitting on its nest hatching the eggs.  It is the male emu on earth that incubates the eggs.  So the celestial Emu appears to reproduce the behavior of the earthly emu.

The Emu in the Sky is an example of how the Aboriginal Australians related to the natural world on earth and the heavens above them.  Their reliance and closeness to nature is seen in the use of the rock engraving that acts as a calendar reminding them of the important time of the year when the emu egg will be available to harvest.

© 08/06/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright June 8th, 2016 zteve t evans

The Dragon in Chinese Culture

The dragon has played an important part in Chinese culture for thousands of years and is central to many myths, legends and traditions. This article briefly looks at how the dragon evolved to become such an essential part of Chinese culture.

Dragon and armed warrior design. From the Chinese Western Han Dynasty – Public Domain

Dragons in Chinese legend

In China from the earliest of times the dragon has been regarded as a lucky creature, bestowing fortune and blessing upon the lives people.   There is an ancient tradition that the Chinese people are descended from the dragon and it is a belief that still found deeply rooted in Chinese culture and the thinking.   Unlike western societies where dragons are often seen as evil, the Chinese people revere the dragon for its majesty and gravity and for its beneficial properties

A national symbol

Over the centuries as different tribes strove and often went to war for control of China before finally unifying the country it became accepted as a unifying national symbol.    As such, great powers were bestowed upon it making it the god of thunder, rain, rainbow and the stars.

Ancient Chinese society was heavily dependent on agriculture and farm animals making it heavily dependent on getting not just rain, but the right amount of rain.   In some areas too much rain could be as detrimental as too little causing floods and crop failures.  As such the dragon became regarded as the basis for all that was favorable and positive for Chinese society

The Imperial dragon

Over thousands of years the dragon received increasing exaltation’s becoming regarded as the source of joy, prophecy and the miraculous. With the development of a feudal society, emperors equated themselves along side the dragon and expected their servants to do the same which made the dragon the restricted symbol of imperial power and magnificence.   It became that no one else could intentionally or otherwise use the dragon as a symbol on pain of death.

Metamorphosis of the dragon

In China, the visual form of the dragon has also undergone considerable metamorphosis over the ages gaining in power and beauty.   Ancient portrayals on bronze ware depict it as a mysterious creature of wild ferocity.  Later during the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) it is depicted as something glorious though wild and untamed.  During the Tang Dynasty it was portrayed as being of a creature of mild disposition and controlled elegance.   During the Song Dynasty, and after, the dragon designs became finer with greater intricacy.

The colors of dragons

According to Chinese tradition dragons were different colors which signified their status.  Dragons could be blue black, white, red or yellow and it was the yellow dragon that was most sacred.   Chinese emperors would wear a gown with displaying a yellow dragon design.

Features of the dragon

Even though there are many different appearances of dragons that were depicted they all contain the same common features.  This is because the features are representing physical characteristics taken from other animals that are in turn representative of a desirable quality for humans.

For example, wisdom is represented in a dragon by giving it a  protruding forehead, while antlers are a sign of longevity.   Giving it the eyes of a tiger signifies it is powerful, while giving the claws of an eagle shows its bravery.    For flexibility the dragon is given the tail of a fish and for diligence it is given horse’s teeth.  In this way the dragon takes on numerous qualities that can be recognized in its form by humans.

The dragon today

Today the dragon is still an important part of Chinese culture with many myths and legends attached to it.   Public holidays to honor it are still enthusiastically observed such as Dragon Heads-raising Day, along with events such as the Dragon Boat Festival. The dragon dance is also still an important activity performed from the Spring Festival through to the Lantern Festival.

© 03/12/2012 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

This article was originally published on Triond titled The Dragon in Chinese Culture by zteve t evans – Copyright Dec 3, 2012 zteve t evans

Ancient symbols: The puzzle of the Three Hares

Three hares sharing three ears,

Yet every one of them has two!

Ancient German riddle

Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral – Author: ZeframGFDL

An ancient symbol

The three hares is an ancient symbol that is found in many religious places, buildings and caves ranging from the British Isles, Germany, France and other parts of Europe to the Middle East and parts of China in the Far East.  In Britain the symbols are mostly architectural ornaments or found in church roofs and sometimes on ceilings of private homes.  In Europe they are found mostly in churches and synagogues.   It is also used as a motif in heraldry, jewelry, ornaments, tattoos and other works of art. It has been wrought in many different materials and can be thought of as a puzzle, a topological problem, or a visual challenge, and can be found in stone sculptures, wood carvings, paintings, drawings and metal work.

Threefold rotational symmetry

Essentially the motif consists of three hares, or rabbits, chasing each other the same way around a circle.  There is a threefold rotational symmetry with each of the three ears being shared by two hares.The ears form a triangle that appears  at the centre of the circle, where, instead of there being six ears visible, there are only three, even though individually the hares all show two.  Occasionally a Four Hares motif is found in some places which is a similar but shows four ears, instead of eight, even though all the hares have two ears, making a square in the center.

The Tinners Rabbit’s

In  the county of Devon and other parts of the  south west England the motif is sometimes known as the Tinner’s Rabbits. This refers to the trade of tin mining that was once an important industry in the area. The theory was that a tin miners trade association or union that used the Three Hares motif as its emblem was the patron to a number of churches.  This might explain its high proportion of representations in churches in the area.  However, the motif is also found in parts of England with no association with tin mining, though it could have represented some other association that patronized these churches, but the theory is not accepted by everyone and the truth remains elusive.

Sacred symbols

The symbol is similar to the triskelion the triquetra and the triple spiral, or triskele. The meaning of the motif is unknown today though it is believed to have a number of symbolic and mystical associations and was possibly something to do with fertility and the cycle of the moon in paganism.   Its presence in Christian churches is thought to symbolize the Trinity though this cannot be proved and the fact that it is found in so many different countries over such a wide distance it may in fact have more than one meaning or purpose depending on the culture where it is found.

Buddhist connections

The Three Hares motif seems to have spread from the Far East westwards between 600 AD and 1500 AD.  The earliest known examples comes from the Sui Dynasty of China where it was found in sacred caves used for temples from the 6th to 7th century.  From there the motif was believed to have become connected to Buddhism and possibly spread along the Silk Road to the Middle East and eventually to Europe.

A researcher named Guan Youhui, now retired from the Dunhuang Academy, spent 50 years studying the patterns and symbols that are found in the Mogao Caves.  He believed the Three Hares motif represent “peace and tranquility” while others think they may represent “to be”.

The Three Hares can be found in “Lotus” motifs and Mongol metalwork from the 13th century.  It has been found on a copper coin from Iran dated 1281 and on other artifacts from diverse origins.

The spread of the motif

TIt is a mystery to how the Three Hares motif is found over such a large range from China the Middle East, Europe and the British Isles.  Although the earliest examples are found in China it is unknown why it occurs in so many diverse countries.It is possible it  spread along the great trading route of the Silk Road to other regions of the world but it could also have developed independently in different places with different meanings attached to it.  In the first instance it may have incorporated in the design of silks and artifacts simply because it was a pleasing design or it had some special significance.  With the second instance the majority of the occurrence of the motif are found in churches and synagogues in Germany and England, implying some religious significance was attached to it.

Christian use of the Three Hares

The Three Hares motif is found in a number of churches in some European countries.  In  Lyons, France the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière   and in Germany, the Paderborn Cathedral display excellent examples of the use of the motif.The southwestern parts of England has the most examples and the Three Hares Trail can be followed to see them.  They are often placed on carved wooden knobs, or bosses in a prominent position in the ceilings or roof of medieval churches, giving weight to the idea that they had some special significance and not just the trade symbols of masons or carpenters. The Dartmoor area has a number of Three Hares motifs found in churches. A fine example of a carved wood boss can be seen on a roof boss in the church of St Pancreas, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, near Dartmoor, Devon.

In Christianity there are at least two possible reasons why it it placed in churches.  The first is that in ancient times the hare was believed to be a hermaphrodite that reproduced without sexual intercourse and in doing so retained its virginity.  As such it became associated with the Virgin Mary and its image used in illuminated manuscripts and paintings of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.

The second reason is that the motif  could be representative of the  Holy Trinity.  The three ears from the three hares form a triangle in the centre of the motif possibly representing One in Three and Three in one.  Triangles and interlocking rings were quite often used to represent the Holy Trinity.

Intriguingly the Three Hares symbol is often found next to the so called Green Man symbol.  Like the Three Hares symbol little or possibly less is known about the Green Man.  It is speculated to be an Anglo-Saxon symbol though many people think it may be a far older originating Celtic times.   What it is doing in a Christian church is unknown.  Some speculate that the two together are meant to show the difference between the divine and the earthly nature of humans.

An ancient German riddle

Curiously the motif is found in many of the more well known wooden synagogues in the Ashknaz region of Germany dating from the 17th and 18th century along with the following riddle:-

Three hares sharing three ears,

Yet every one of them has two.

Coat of Arms of Hasloch – Public Domain

The meaning of the Three Hares motif

The hare is an animal that is involved in many myths and legends in many different cultures around the world.  The Three Hares motif can be found from Britain across Eurasia to China and was found in Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu cultures.   If there was a thread that linked them all together, or a common meaning attached to the motif, it is lost now but it is intriguing to find it in such diverse places.

Symbolism of the Three Hares

But there may be something that they may all have in common. The use of symbols or icons, or imagery helps make learning and remembering important information easier especially for people who cannot read or write.  The use of images is an invaluable aid for people in such circumstances as they convey meaning and information quickly and easily.  The paintings in the caves of Mogao Caves of China to the churches in the English countryside appear to be intended to convey some, but not necessarily the same message, or idea. The symbol of the Three Hares was at least one possible way that the information was conveyed.  What exactly the message was is not known but if one looks at the places and the cultures that they are found in it could be that ideas will naturally spring to mind.   Could it be that by looking at and thinking about the puzzle the beholder is being deliberately placed in a situation where they have to use their own knowledge and experience in combination with the location and culture the symbol is found in to make sense of it in the world that they find themselves in?

One last question

There is probably no right or wrong answer, but do you think The Three Hares symbol has a meaning; does it change with culture and location, or is it just an attractive image used for decoration?

© 06/05/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 6th May, 2015 zteve t evans