The Timeless Three Hares
Playing with eyes for centuries, the image of three hares has shared not only ears, but the admiration of many different faiths across many different regions of the world. The origin and initial meaning for the mystifying, rotating hares are still debated. The circular motif causes a person to question what they are seeing. Perhaps, seeking an answer to this provides an approach into the hare’s original purpose.
The earliest known appearance of the puzzling hares dates to around the sixth century. Discovered on ceilings of Buddhist cave temples in China, the hares were seen depicted with surrounding lotus petals and moving in a clockwise fashion. Each hare seems to chase and shares the ear of another. Although these are the first occurrences of the motif realized, it is not confirmed the design originates here.
Next known appearances are in the 12th/13th century and include an Iranian tray and coin portraying the image. Examples can also be found in glass and ceramic work from the Islamic world. There is also an early depiction of the three hares on a bell of the Cistercian Abbey of Kloster Haina. This dates to 1224.
Researchers feel the appealing nature of the motif, along with trading routes of the Silk Road, helped spread the design across the many countries where they are now noticed. Many churches of Devon, England can be found to consist of roof bosses depicting the three hares. There are also examples of the design noticed in places like France, Germany, Switzerland, Iran, and Russia on a variety of objects. It’s probable the three hares took on new meaning and symbolized different things in different cultures over time.
The hare is often associated with the moon, fertility and the female cycle of life. In ancient times, hares were believed to be hermaphroditic and able to reproduce without the loss of virginity. The white hare, seen with the Virgin Mary in works of art, conveys this past association of the hare. The three hares’ appreciation could have expanded upon this belief.
Since there hasn’t been any discovery of a written account for the three hares creation, the original intent is lost. One must consider the symbol itself in relation to past beliefs. The most notable aspect about three hares is the triune nature. They display a threefold rotational symmetry, like the triquetra and triskleon. These symbols are known to represent the union of three things. Used in a Christian context, they symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other contexts, they represent the three worlds; Heaven, Earth, and Hell or the cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth.
The hares also illustrate an illusion with contour rivalry. The joy for puzzles goes back thousands of years. Earliest confirmed puzzles date to around 2000BC. Riddles, as well, are known to have been mused upon; like for example “The more of them you take for yourself, the more of them you leave behind for others. What are they? This riddle dates to 100BC. They challenged the viewer to reason and consider.
Could the Three Hares Puzzle have been created with a similar purpose in mind? In looking at the three hares, one notices the triangle formed by the hare’s ears in center. They move in a circle. With the hare being an earthly animal, and the square relating to earth, could the three primary shapes and their importance to creation or cycles of life be portrayed here?
As the hares demonstrate a continuous cycle, it is understood the three must be together in order for the cycle to continue. Taking a hare as itself leaves the cycle broken. It leaves the other two incomplete. The three hares are only complete when the three are seen connected. One in Three and Three in One. Each acts like part of a key; they cannot turn unless the three act together. When we question what we see, we may realize this powerful understanding which seems conveyed in the timeless and cherished three hares puzzle.
The Three Hares Project, Chris Chapman Photography, reviewed November 2012
Greatest Puzzles, Carlton Books, 2009
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