Caves hold clue to the riddle of the three hares
Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
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Submitted by: Yuri Klitsenko

(Filed: 03/07/2004)

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.

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