From China to Widecombe: The Extraordinary Journey of The Three Hares by Dr Tom Greeves


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This proved to be a most fascinating and interesting subject containing remarkable photographs of The Three Hares Symbol from all over the world. While there are numerous examples in Great Britain, Tom and his team have found examples spread over mainland Europe and Asia.

For years these symbols have often been referred to as “The Tinners Rabbits” and several writers in the past century have written expressing this theory, but research by the team has shown that there is no evidence that this is solely connected to the Tinners, it has far wider significance than that. The first written record of these symbols being on Dartmoor, refers to Widecombe, when on 24th June 1847 a John Davidson visited the church and saw our wonderful medieval pre- 1500AD roof boss and he referred to it as “The Three Hares in a very spirited manner”. We were shown pictures of the wide variation of carvings to be seen in Devon’s churches, mostly in the form of bosses in the church roofs. From Ashreigney to Paignton, Kelly to Broadclyst, to date, 17 churches in Devon have been found with examples of these features.

For anyone that has not seen this, it is a depiction of three hares chasing each other in a circle, sometimes clockwise sometimes in an anticlockwise direction, but the fascinating thing is that each hare has one ear, but they are so designed that it appears that each hare has two ears. As the saying goes, “It has to be seen to be believed and understood”. Broadclyst has several of these symbols, it now appears that John Davidson visited Broadclyst four years before his visit to Widecombe in 1843, but he did refer to them then as rabbits. There are examples in churches in Cornwall, Dorset and South Wales and also farmhouses, and even in a pub, in Wrexham North Wales. The three ears form a triangle and this too may have an important significance. From a Christian perspective possibly “The Trinity?” At Spreyton there is also an inscription associated with the carving which states that the roof was built in 1451. In France there is a depiction of two adults and a child in a similar pose holding each others hands but very alike to the 3 hares as their arms create the same triangular motif as the three ears. The child however is depicted with serious abnormalities to its face and body. Could this have something to do with sin, or good and evil being connected with each other?

The questions that this project poses are numerous. Did it have Pagan connotations? Sometimes these symbols are placed near images of ‘The Green Man’. The Green Man, is the symbol of original sin, and can often be found opposite, as if opposed to the 3 hares, in some religious buildings - there is so much more to unravel! Is there a link? If as is now thought the symbol came from the east to Britain. How and why has it travelled so far? Moving through or with the aid of other religions.

Was it the influence of the Mongols when they ruled a vast tract of Europe and Asia, the largest land empire that has ever been known, that spread these images? While many of these images are in churches and religious buildings, some are found in houses. Germany has its examples and France has several. In Trier in Western Germany, there is a Cathedral in whose treasury is a very fine example of a silver filigree box of beautiful design, said many years ago to have contained part of the skull of St Lazarus. The underside of this box has an oriental type design in which part of it is the symbol of the three hares. This was, according to experts, made in southern Russia in about 1300AD, by people that had been moved there by the Mongols from Persia. An interesting connection now appears with the Mongol world, an oriental Muslim world, and now in a Christian Cathedral, all in the medieval period! Then at Haina a small place right in the middle of Germany, a site of a Cistercian Abbey, in the belfry a most exciting image, a medieval bell, presented to the Abbey in 1224 AD, which is known as the ‘three hares bell’ and cast on it the famous symbol, it also has alpha & omega the two Greek letters for the beginning and the end! On the eastern border of France in the Germanic area, there is a Benedictine church with a Chapterhouse, in its roof is a stone roof boss, showing the three hares with a harebell beneath each foot. A 1414AD painted depiction, appears in North Italy on the wall of a castle. The team have traced examples in Syria, Egypt, Khagistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmanistan, Pakistan, Labach in the Northern Himalayan area, Napal and a fascinating site in China.

This symbol appears in such a wide variety of places and on many different types of creations and materials. Beautiful pottery in Egypt 1281AD, a coin from Iran minted by the Mongols, a tray from Iran and much more. A medallion from 11th century about 1000AD possibly from the Hindu culture. A figurine from Spain or Portugal c18th century, was shown and on its base is the three hare sign. Two plaster ceilings from Devon showing the sign, dating from 16th C and the ceiling of a Jewish Synagogue in Germany painted in early 17 hundreds and there is a Medieval Jewish manuscript that has this sign on it! A decorated manuscript, a salter found in Devon, once in the possession of the Bishop of Exeter, dated 1270- 1280 and recorded as being in his library in the mid 14th Century. In Chester a tile was found depicting the same design, while a very early locally made tile from Buckinghamshire, depicting the symbol has been dated at about 1300AD.

The great wall of China, which extends for 1000 miles, was visited by the team. At the western end of the great wall they found in a museum, relics relating to the old trading routes of the old world. On the edge of the Gobi Desert there are very few places where water can be found, a photograph of a cave painting from that areawas seen. They visited a site of a great cliff that had carved into it many caves, 500 caves in a two kilometre stretch of cliff. These were the homes of Buddhist Monks from about 400 AD to 1400 AD. There are doors now fixed to the entrances of many of these caves, inside, the walls of these caves are elaborately painted. About 50000 Buddhist scrolls were found in one of these caves a few years ago. In one beautiful cave right at the top of the roof was our three hares, these were going anticlockwise, which is interesting in itself as Buddhism normally has everything going clockwise! The design and patterns in this cave roof gives an impression of a material canopy, cloth-like in its appearance, which the team feels ties up with the carpet and silk trade of years ago. There are now 17 caves known of in this area with the three hares depicted in them, but there are many more caves that the team were not allowed to visit so the question is how many more are there with the Three Hares motive still to be recorded!

There is a belief that they have a sacred meaning but a Professor in China thinks that they are of Persian origin having come from their West before 600 AD. Samples of Mogul art in India dating from 1600 AD .

The story continues beyond the Medieval period and examples are found in 16th Century prints, also in association with alchemy, a chemical symbol of the three hares surrounded by running dogs. There are so many implications that the team are still researching and they admit that they still have not got to the bottom of this fascinating conundrum! The sign has also been referred to as the hunting sign of Venus.

Possibly connected to the silk and carpet trading of the far east but more significant than that, this symbol is really three hares and it can be seen in association with at least five different religions. The Christian, Hindu, Islamic Buddhist and Jewish faiths have all got this symbol recorded in their history with examples of this in their buildings, architecture, stain glass windows, tiles and other decorations.

The hare is often associated with the Moon in mythology. The symbol of the ‘triangle’ is also so evident in this project. The erratic running of the hare and the erratic rising of the moon may have a connection one with the other.

There is also a feminine aspect to the design. In the Christian religion could there be a strong connection with The Virgin Mary? The silk trading and marketing of years ago seems to be the most likely means of its transmission across the world. Starting from the ancient capital of China, the Mongols were also known to have used silk to wrap their sacred relicts, transporting them by camel caravans crossing the Asian landmass.

When the talk was completed and we reached the interval and tea break, the whole meeting seemed to be in deep conversation wrapped up in continuing the discussion of the subject which really fired the imagination and curiosity. We look forward to hearing again from Tom, Chris and Sue when they have researched further into this fascinating project.

In Tom’s own words;- ‘....there are still so many loose ends that all need following and then bringing together....’ In a more modern idiom, in the Castle Inn at Lydford there is a lovely stain glass panel of The Three Hares in one of the doors, and this was designed in 1974. It is still an inspiration to artists and crafts people.

We would like to wish those involved with “The Three Hares Project” continued success with their research.

Dr Tom Greeves, Sue Andrews and Chris Chapman.

Question.....Could there be any connection with the (Isle of Man symbol??)

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:26.


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