Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two!
Ancient German riddle
Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral – Author: Zefram – GFDL
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.
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.
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