Three hares  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Three Hares is a circular motif which appears in sacred sites from the Far East to the churches of south west England (where it is often referred to as the Tinners’ Rabbits).

The symbol features three hares chasing each other in a circle. Each of the ears is shared by two animals so that only three ears are shown. It has a number of mystical associations and is often associated with fertility and the lunar cycle. However, its precise origins and significance are uncertain, as are the reasons why it appears in such diverse locations.

The earliest occurrences appear to be in cave temples in China, which have been dated to the Sui dynasty (sixth to seventh centuries). The Three Hares also feature in 'roof bosses' (carved wooden fixtures) in the ceilings in almost 30 medieval churches in Devon, England (particularly Dartmoor), as well as churches in France and Germany, in 13th century Mongol metal work, and on a copper coin, found in Iran, dated to 1281.

One theory is that it was brought across Asia as far as the south west of England by merchants travelling the silk road.

Some claim that the Devon name, Tinners’ Rabbits, is related to the fact that local tin miners adopted it as their own symbol. They generated so much wealth in the region, that they funded the repair and rebuilding of many local churches, so the symbol may have been used as their signature mark.

On the other hand, many of the structures that feature the symbol are unrelated to the miners. In fact, in many locations the Three Hares are positioned directly next to the Green Man - another symbol best known for its links to paganism. The Three Hares and the Green Man always appear in prominent places in the churches, such as the central rib of the chancel roof, or on a central rib of the nave. This would suggest that the symbols held greater significance to the church, and casts doubt on the theory that they were the builders' signature marks.

There’s a good example of a roof boss at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor, with another in the town of Tavistock on the edge of the moor. Other occurrences in England include floor tiles at Chester Cathedral, stained glass at Long Melford, Suffolk, and a ceiling in Scarborough, Yorkshire.

See also

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