Smooth trickster, Easter herald, good luck charm and lunar companion. Far from being hare-brained, the rabbit in myth enjoys a diversity of guises that mirrors the real animals’ colonisation of every non-polar continent. Come February, adherents of the lunar calendar across East and Southeast Asia, save Vietnam where the cat has usurped the bunny, will celebrate a new year soothsayers claim heralds a break from the drama and pugnacity of the Year of the Tiger.
A creature of (mostly bad) habit (such as coprophagy), the rabbit returns in the eighth lunar month to preside over the Mid-Autumn Festival. Perhaps the best known legend related to this festival is the tale of Chang Er, wife of Hou Yi, an archer so keen-eyed he shot down nine suns that had threatened to scorch the earth. As a reward, the gods bestowed him the dubious gift of an elixir of immortality, which Chang Er inadvertently drank, causing her to become light-headed enough to float to the moon and an everlasting lifetime of headaches from the incessant poundings of a white rabbit. During the late Ming Dynasty, the practice of worshipping Lord Rabbit or Tu’er Ye (兔兒爺) emerged. From an annoying herb pounder, Lord Rabbit became a garish humanoid with a rabbit’s head and wearing imperial armour and a golden helmet.
Given its naughty, nocturnal proclivities, the rabbit became associated with the moon in other cultures as well. In ancient Egypt, hares were linked to the waxing and waning of the satellite and the people of the city of Hermopolis worshipped a hare-headed goddess of fertility called Unut. Ostara or Eostre is the Celtic goddess of the moon, a huntress with an entourage of hares who often assumed a lapine guise herself and is suspected to be the origin of the Easter Bunny tradition. Paying homage to the fictional fortune and ferocious fecundity of rabbits, farmers and hunters during the Middle Ages uttered talismanic oaths to seek good luck in the fields. One such chant is thought to have evolved into an archaic nursery rhyme:
Run rabbit run, rabbit run run run,
Run rabbit run, rabbit run run run,
Bang bang bang bang goes the farmer’s gun,
Run rabbit run, Rabbit run run run.
Run rabbit run, rabbit run run run,
Don’t give the farmer his fun fun fun,
He’ll get by without his rabbit pie,
So run rabbit run, rabbit run run run.
With typical chutzpah, the British hijacked this rhyme during the Second World War, replacing ‘rabbit’ with ‘Adolf’ to mock the krauts. One place where warrens are unwelcome, however, is the Isle of Portland off Dorset, England, where the word ‘rabbit’ is taboo to locals, who regard it as a harbinger of misfortune. This superstition is said to have arisen in the 1920s when local quarry workers spotted rabbits emerging from a hole shortly before a rock fall and the animals were blamed for causing landslides by their burrowing.
Still, bunnies enjoy favourable press in most other places. The somewhat macabre Western tradition of carrying a rabbit’s foot in one’s pocket stems perhaps from the notion that snaring a rabbit by the foot in a trap is a sign of further hunting success. Another theory points to a medieval practice of wearing a rabbit's foot around one's neck at midnight under the full moon to ward off witches. Curiously, witches were themselves often suspected to take on the form of a hare. English writer Walter de la Mare, on the other hand, paints a more benign encounter with a creature that straddles the realms of myth and magic in his poem The Hare:
In the black furrow of a field
I saw an old witch-hare this night;
And she cocked a lissome ear,
And she eyed the moon so bright,
And she nibbled of the green;
And I whispered "Whsst! witch-hare,"
Away like a ghostie o’er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.
In Aesop’s animal fables, the hare won infamy for his complacent napping while the tortoise plodded on to snatch victory. Bunnies in other lores fare better, though. The Panchatantra, a collection of Sanskrit stories that convey hard truths of animal morality, tells of a community of hares who agreed to sacrifice one member each day to a lion to prevent the beast from devouring them all at once. However, the chosen ‘victim’ manages to trick the lion into believing that his reflection in a well is another lion. Enraged by his ‘rival’, the lion leaps into the well to his death.
Tibetan and Burmese traditions also laud the rabbit as a wily creature who pits brain against brawn. But lagomorphs (as rabbits and hares are known to zoologists) earn top billing in Native American folklore, where the cottontail is a trickster par excellence who outwits vastly more powerful foes. Both joker and bungler, the rabbit often falls victim to his own hare-brained schemes, only to hop back to life none the wiser. According to one tale of foul taste, the rabbit once caught some ducks and cooked them over a fire, having ordered his anus to keep watch over the roast. Having no eyes, the unfortunate organ permitted a fox to steal the fowl and suffered the touch of a punitive firebrand as a result. Hobbling off in pain, the rabbit nibbled instead at a piece of fat, which turned out to be a part of his intestine that had fallen out of his burnt anus. Attempting to stuff his guts back in place, the result was a tangled mess of wrinkled passages that remain to this day.
Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis).
Photograph by Jim Witham/IUCN
A number of Native American tribes also perform a ritual known as the rabbit dance, in which dancers circle a drum and pretend to put food in their mouths while chewing like a rabbit as a mark of respect and request to the animal they are about to hunt. The rabbit is also a primeval force: Nanabozho the creator and benefactor, or the Great Hare who stole the sun for the people and gave the gift of fire.
West African tribes also revere the hare as a comic mastermind who gets other animals to perform his tasks. In one instance, the hare was too lazy to till his fields and so tied a rope to the hippopotamus and the elephant. The attempts by the two behemoths to get loose ultimately cleared the hare’s fields and he was able to sow his crop. Converging on the North American continent as slaves from West Africa arrived with the colonists, these geographically disparate traditions of the rabbit as folk hero are thought to have given rise to the Brer Rabbit stories of America’s Deep South.
In modern life, the rabbit pops up in rather more diverse iconography, from the streetwise gags of Bugs Bunny to the risqué symbolism of the Playboy Mansion. Beatrix Potter forged an urbane landscape of tea-sipping bunnies, while her compatriot Richard Adams turned a pastoral idyll into a realpolitik thriller where militaristic warrens wage war in bloody tooth and claw. One generation grew up wondering Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while their younger siblings laughed to the pest-control antics of Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. In culture and consciousness, the rabbit continues to lead men on a merry chase through fable and fantasy, and serve as a furry source for fascination and inspiration in ritual, religion and thumping good reads.
Hopping into oblivion
Though usually regarded without distinction in most traditions, rabbits and hares are markedly different animals in the mammalian order Lagomorpha, which also includes more than 30 species of insufferably cute montane furballs called pikas. Spanning 10 genera, rabbits are expert burrowers who prefer to hide from their predators, whereas the genus Lepus, which includes hares and the confusingly named jackrabbits of North America, have longer, dark-tipped ears and never burrow, relying on their longer legs and ability to run up to 72 km/hour to flee from foes.
Native to southwest Europe and the archetype of its order, the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) followed the Romans as they marched across the continent and into the British Isles. Later, an ill-thought scheme to improve the wildlife composition of Australia resulted in a shipment of rabbits to Victoria, where they bred like proverbs and became major agricultural pests. Meanwhile, disease and habitat fragmentation have caused their forebears in Iberia to suffer from a decline that threatens two of the peninsula’s most charismatic hunters.
Across the globe, there are more than 60 species of rabbits and hares. Most are found in temperate or Mediterranean climates, but two stubby-eared rabbits survive as glacial relics in the cool highlands of Sumatra and Indochina. The Sumatran striped rabbit is known from only about a dozen museum skins collected at the turn of the 20th century and occasional sightings since, while the Annamite striped rabbit was described only 1995 from carcasses in a Laotian market.
A reputation for prolific fertility has not spared lagomorphs from the predations of man, who has rendered one of four species vulnerable to extinction, with consequent effects on the landscape and the livelihoods of predators whose populations are linked to a cycle of bunny booms and busts. Not unexpectedly, species endemic to small islands face a dire future. The primitive Amami rabbit clings on to existence on two Japanese isles, where invasive mongooses and feral pets threaten these stocky, dark-furred grazers.
Tehuantepec jackrabbit (Lepus flavigularis).
Photograph by Arturo Carrillo Reyes/IUCN
Even continental species have dwindled as human activities encroach on habitats on the fringes of sustainability. In the foothills of the Himalayas, the loss of seasonal marshlands where elephant grass reaches 3 metres in height during the monsoon have driven the hispid hare to apparent and near-extinction. The riverine rabbit of South Africa faces similar threats to its unprotected, riparian refuges.
Across the Atlantic, fewer than 10,000 Tehuantepec jackrabbits remain in a coastal region of Mexico degraded by alien grasses, bushfires and pasture. Isolated pockets of another endangered Mexican, the volcano rabbit, are stranded on two sierras south and east of Mexico City, whose burgeoning population and penchant for poaching gnaw at the slopes of pine and grass that shelter this squat, near-tailless bunny.
For some reason, the Bambi Syndrome has failed the pygmy rabbit, a rotund creature whose extirpation in the state of Washington and tailspin in other parts of its range have failed to convert its status from inconsequential to imperilled. The cuteness of pikas, too, draws little attention to the plight of a family in retreat as rising temperatures shrink their Alpine slopes and farmers persecute a miniscule threat to their livestock. In parts of Tibet where the plateau pika is widely poisoned by shepherds, the loss of bite-sized prey has forced brown bears to turn their appetites on local pastoralists. China also bears the honour of at least three other endangered pikas: the Ili pika of the Tian Shan Mountains; the silver pika from Helan Shan; and Koslov’s pika, which is restricted to five remote mountains in central China.
This sunny isle is only a little more hospitable to bunnies, which fare better in cool subterranean cubicles or spacious enclosures a safe distance away from the mayhem of ratty malls. Acquired as bundles of fun and abandoned as overgrown heaps of disappointment, rabbits of all sizes and states are likely to turn up at parks and pavements across the island as families welcome the new year with living embodiments of astrological meaning that will prove too much of an earthly burden for many. It's a fate common to pets of all shapes and stripes who offer happiness in brief in return for hearts that soon grow cold and harbour only the means to care less and no capacity for small mercies.