Friday, April 24, 2009

"Chasing Hares": Buddha's Three Easter Bunnies?

Mad March Hares, chocolate bunnies, Astarte, lunacy, menstruation, fertility, Buddhism's three refuges, the Trinity, and the Virgin Mary. Along the Silk Road, through the Golden Horde, the same ancient symbol. Three circling and intertwined hares spread east to China and west through Germany to Devon. Coincidence? Chance? Kismet?

While the Chinese and the Christians who incorporated the motif into their places of worship both appear to have forgotten the original meaning, they displayed the three rabbits chasing each other upon roof bosses, treasure chests, wall paintings, and even Mongol coins. Sure, threes-- my lucky number-- is a given for many cultures. But, the specificity of the three hares does establish a singular pattern that did not originate independently. Its distinction marks its common birthplace, in Persia.

James Crowden wonderfully and eloquently follows the diverging, and then unifying path taken by three scholars. They pursued this image over thousands of miles. Listen to the November 16th 2004 BBC Radio 4 Programme "Chasing Hares." Crowden alludes to the connection: hares were by many ancients supposed to reproduce asexually, their fertility was tied of course to spring but also to the lunar cycle, and the half-lost ties to Astarte-Esther-Eostre-Easter, feminine wiles, and sexual potency jumbled together. Into "spring fever"!

The trio themselves of archeologist Dr. Tom Greeves, art historian Sue Andrew, and photographer Chris Chapman explored around 2004 the Three Hares icon's dispersion and origin. They have inspired an array of websites with pictorial links to the iconography and the provenance of this symbol. I don't think the hares made it to Ireland, but this triple intertwining, reminiscent of Celtic swirling interlace but somehow folklorically international and maddeningly common in many storytelling traditions, may have influenced the triskele of the Isle of Man and they have been traced to the North of England in formerly Celtic realms during the Middle Ages.

Many conventional scholars belittle the idea that Christian and Buddhist, Western and Eastern, Nestorian and Catholic, perhaps Celtic and Himalayan could have had much verifiable contact. (I admit caution here despite my romantic wish for fulfillment; I found out on my own, tangentially, that as late as 1291, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery survived in Persia, for example.)

What about the Italian friars contemporary with Marco Polo who travelled to Samarkand and Swat? The forgotten sailors who must have skippered from Cairo to Cornwall? The traders who lugged cauldrons and crafted torcs across the sands and steppes. If my Celtic ancestors may have exchanged goods with those prehistorically from Scythia or Danube, Galicia or Tunisia, why could such trade not glimmer later?

I'm now mapping out historical predecessors in pseudo-scholarship by antiquarians of Buddhist-Celtic ties. Professors scoff at this documented need by some of those on the fringe. Outliers persist in melding together what academicians sever. This energy produced, recently, determined constructions of hybrid spiritualities. While the Silk Road may be replaced by the Information Highway, the yearning to cross over from one culture, one faith, to another, still beckons a few bold pilgrims today.

The solution to the mysterious origin-- as far as we can surmise-- of the three hares suggests that our ancestors shared intriguing lore from faraway lands. No less than hipsters with Chinese tattooes, Lhasa residents better or worse working at Holiday Inn, or sushi bars the world over-- and pre-fab Guinness-tapped chain pubs. This venerable trail of interlocked beasties attests for us in a globalized age of a slow diffusion from a caravan-burdened, clipper-ferried, or tinker-peddled less hectic, more marvelling, past.

Here are two representative links: Chris Chapman's photos for the "Three Hares Project." Metapage to Crowden's talk, Chapman's pictures, Chinese parallels, and similar puzzles: "Three Hares Homepage." St. Andrew's Church, South Tawton, Devon image; photo by Chapman.

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