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Three hares share three ears

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Three Hares
Photo courtesy finestoneminiatures.com

British trio tries to solve age-old mystery

Twenty years ago, one of our sons sent us this photo (below) of a puzzling design he had seen on a stained glass window of an ancient cathedral in Paderborn, Germany. It shows three hares and three ears, but by clever draughtsmanship, each animal seems to have two ears.

The Three Hares

When we first saw it, we thought a German cleric or a local artist might have designed it as a joke when the cathedral was built in the 11th to 16th centuries. We placed the photo in a family album, and forgot about it until last week, when we showed it to one of our grand-daughters.

"I've seen something like that somewhere else, but I can't remember where" she said. "Perhaps it was on TV."

Next day, we decided to see if the internet could tell us anything about it. Indeed it could.

We discovered intriguing stories about a mysterious emblem that was known 1500 years ago, has been found in many parts of the world, and has connections with Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. And no one knows its origin or meaning.

Three English researchers, art history researcher Sue Andrew, documentary photographer Chris Chapman, and archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, launched the Three Hares Project, a non-profit organisation, in 2000. They planned to record and research all known occurrences of the three hares motif. They have found, photographed and filmed the emblem in many parts of Britain, and in France, Germany and China. It has also been found in Afghanistan.

Their official website says that Tom Greeves first studied the symbol in the late 1980s. In 1991 he reported in a magazine article that the design had been found in continental Europe and in Buddhist cave temples near Dunhuang, China. Quoting the website:

Sue Andrew's extensive research began in the mid-1990s. Her studies focused on the motif in Islamic and Buddhist contexts and on the possible transmission of the design from east to west through the medium of textiles.

Chris Chapman's images are essential to the Project, for it is only through the medium of photography and through the skill of the photographer that the detail and craftsmanship of many of the more inaccessible examples of the hares can be fully appreciated.

The Three Hares Project has now documented all known occurrences of the motif in Devon and the rest of Britain and has begun work on continental Europe. The Project team visited China in August 2004 to give presentations at academic conferences in Mogao and Beijing.

Not surprisingly, the plan to solve the age-old mystery has attracted media attention, particularly in Britain. A program note for BBC Radio Four read:

An ancient symbol found in a remote church roof in Devon starts three historical detectives on a journey to a Himalayan mountain kingdom. Presenter James Crowden joins them, as the unmistakable symbol of three hares chasing each other in a circle, their ears joining in the centre, inspires a voyage of discovery from Devon through the history of 1500 years of trade, conquest and religious history; connecting Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

In search of a connection, they find the symbol being used in many different places. It accompanies images of Buddha, can be found decorating a casket that once contained the bones of St Lazarus and in central Europe, surrounds the image of the pagan character the Green Man. It is even chimed daily on a 13th century bell in a German monastery.

Their findings connect the known with the exotic; linking the Virgin Mary, the Buddha and a pagan goddess. James traces the character’s path from a great Persian empire, via the Silk Route to medieval Britain.

The Three Hares website says:

The earliest known appearance of this motif is in the Mogao caves near Dunhuang, China, which were created during the Sui to Tang dynasties (581-907 AD). Along the Silk Road other sightings of the three hares (and sometimes four hares) have been found. The hares seem to have traveled in distance and time, adapting to different religions and taking on new meanings where they settled. Recently researchers have begun seeking to answer these questions:

  • What is the meaning of the three hares motif?
  • Where did the motif originate?
  • How did it spread?
 

THE RODENTS AND THE SPOONS

Here's an extract from Paderborn Cityportal German version, as presented by Google's stumbling automated translator:

At the north side in the inner court of the cathedral cloister (in Paderborn also “Pürting” mentioned) one knows the famous three-hare window from that 16. Century it finds whose tracery from mentioned three rodents is formed, which the artist grouped skilfully in such a way that they have together only three ears and nevertheless each hare of two spoons hectar t (“the hares and the spoon three, and nevertheless has each hare two”). The three-hare window is an old landmark of Paderborn and Glücksbringer, which each Handwerksbur moving by Paderborn must have seen.

Paderborn Cityportal's less confusing English-language page reads:

Enter the Dom (Cathedral), 11th -16th century, by the northern portal, known as the red portal. The door to the left of the chancel (the so-called Hasenkamp) leads you into the cloister. This is where you will find the Drei-Hasen-Fenster (Three Hares' Window) one of Paderborn's emblems.

Do the Paderborners know that their emblem is only one link in a mysterious chain encircling the world?

 

Links

 

An edited version of this story has been published by the citizen reporters' journal OhmyNewsInternational in South Korea. You can read that story yourself, or hear
British journalist Claire George reading it in a podcast.

Story first posted December 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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