Three Hares Roundel
The ancient symbol of the three dancing hares is a puzzle in more ways than one. The design depicts three hares chasing one another in an endless circle with each hare having only one ear, but joined in such a way that they appear to have two.
The oldest known example of the three hares symbol is in the Buddhist cave temples at Mogao, near Dunhuang, China, created during the Sui to Tang dynasties (581-907 AD). The mysterious symbol has since travelled far and wide and sightings of the three hares are frequent along the Silk Road connecting Asia with the Mediterranean and North Africa. Many other examples can be found in France, Germany, Switzerland, Southern Russia, Iran and Nepal. The earliest European examples date to around AD1200 with those found in Cornwall, England dated at about AD1300.
While no contemporary written record of the three hares symbol’s meaning has ever been discovered its prominent placing in sacred shrines and churches, and its frequent depiction on objects as varied as fabrics, metalwork and pottery shows clearly that the motif was revered in all the different contexts in which it appears.
The hare is itself strongly represented in world mythology and from ancient times has had divine associations. Its swiftness and elusive behaviour, particularly at night, have reinforced its reputation as a magical creature. The hare was believed to have mystical links to the female cycle and to the moon which governed it.
In early Saxon times the Goddess Oestara or Eostre was said to rule over the spring and the dawn. Her sacred animal was the hare which was also the symbol of the moon. It so happens that the gestation period of a hare is 28 days which is comparable with the moon’s monthly cycle. It is also interesting to note that the female monthly cycle is affected by the hormone oestrogen and also lasts about 28 days.
Following Christian appropriation of pagan rituals and beliefs the three hares symbol may have been associated with their own goddess, the Virgin Mary, which might explain why a three hares boss is widely found in western European churches, often in close proximity to a carving or image of the Green Man.