April 6, 2012

Fantasy Rabbits

        In honor of springtime feasts, let's talk about rabbits!  Rabbits are one of those creatures that cultures all around the world invest with special significance and fantastical traits.  Coincidence?  Surely not!  Rabbits must truly be more than the common, humble prey critter they at first appear to be.
       First there's that whole fertility thing, based on the fact that rabbits can indeed pump out babies at a prodigious rate.  This makes them a great symbol for the rebirth and fertility of spring.  Hence the Easter Bunny, which sometimes does mundane rabbits one better by actually laying eggs, making it, I
suppose, a monotreme instead of a lagomorph.  I'm not generally a huge fan of the Easter Bunny (particularly not in its role of commercially secularizing Easter in the cheesiest possible way) but I will admit that I really love the picture book The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward.  I get choked up every time I read it.
       Next up, the trickster archetype.  Trickster rabbits and hares appear in stories around the world, including India and Tibet.  Popular in Western, Central and Southern Africa, the trickster rabbit may have come to America on slave ships and made a new life for himself as Br'er Rabbit.  But many Native American traditions, including Creek and Ojibwa, also have mythical trickster rabbit figures, which must have blended and reinforced each other.  Joel Chandler Harris put together the most famous compilation of Br'er Rabbit tales in his Uncle Remus Stories, but there have been many retellings, including Jump! an adaptation by Van Dyke Parkes and Malcom Jones.  And Br'er Rabbit, in turn, was clearly a major influence on Bugs Bunny, the most wascally wabbit of all.
       Then there's the matter of luck.  Rabbit's feet have been considered lucky in Europe since about 600 BCE, but of course they're lucky for the rabbit itself only when still attached.  The rabbit Motu claims to have a lucky foot in my Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.  But rabbits were deemed unlucky in the Isle of Portland, UK, where apparently they're sometimes referred to by riddling names such as "long ears" or "underground mutton" in order to avoid the unlucky taboo of saying the dreaded word.  (Rabbits are genuinely unlucky in Australia and New Zealand, where they're an invasive introduced pest that wreaks havoc on the native environment.  Remember that whole high fertility thing?  Not so good where they don't belong.)
        In the far East, especially China, Japan, and Korea, the rabbit is seen on the moon, where he's pounding in a pestle.  He was put there as a reward for his willingness to sacrifice himself, giving him another important trait: generosity.  And it must be true that there is a rabbit on the moon, because Aztec mythology sees him, too, (except that in the versions that are parallel to the Eastern myth, the rabbit in question is female.)  The Aztecs also have a couple of other explanations for how the rabbit got on the moon, but you can be assured that, being Aztec and all, every explanation involves painful death.  There's a Cree legend putting a rabbit in the moon, too.  There are many retellings of these moon rabbit folktales from around the world, but I'm sorry I don't have any particular ones to recommend.  However, tonight is the full moon, so I suggest you go out this evening and give your regards to the rabbit in person.
        In addition to being fecund, clever, and self-sacrificing, some lagomorphs are also insane: March hares.  The saying "mad as a March Hare" is based on the erratic and odd antics of hares at the beginning of their breeding season… although some people claim that accounts of such behavior are somewhat mythical, too.  In any case, though, the most famous mad March Hare is obviously the one in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
        I suppose I should at least acknowledge such fantasy rabbits as the Energizer Bunny, Twix cereal rabbit, Playboy Bunny, and Nesquik's bunny.  While perhaps not worth much in their own right, the fact that there are so many rabbits in popular culture certainly reinforces my argument that rabbits are much more mythically powerful than you might expect from their humble status in nature.
        And finally, a couple of other fun places to find super-power rabbit info:
• Terri Windling has a much longer essay on The Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares which you might enjoy.
• The idea of rabbit show jumping cracks me up.  Check it out here for some basic info and some videos.

[Pictures: Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
The golden shoes, lithograph(?) by Marjorie Flack, from The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, 1939;
Rabbit, linoleum block print by Chris Wormell, from What I Eat by Jonathan Cape, 1996;
Hare and Moon, linocut by Viza Arlington.  Visit her Etsy shop VIZArt;
Rabbits, wood block print by Antonio Frasconi, from Bestiary/Bestiario by Pablo Neruda, 1965.]


Pax said...

Don't forget the famous and amusing "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit".

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

True! And the flip side of the were-rabbit was the Wallace-rabbit, who was quite extraordinary in his own right.