The symbol features three hares or rabbits chasing each other in a circle. Like the triskelion, the triquetra, and their antecedents (e.g., the triple spiral), the symbol of the three hares has a threefold rotational symmetry. Each of the ears is shared by two hares, so that only three ears are shown. Although its meaning is apparently not explained in contemporary written sources from any of the medieval cultures where it is found, it is thought to have a range of symbolic or mystical associations with fertility and the lunar cycle. When used in Christian churches, it is presumed to be a symbol of the Trinity. Its origins and original significance are uncertain, as are the reasons why it appears in such diverse locations.
Origins in Buddhism and diffusion on the Silk Road
The spread of the three hares symbol between 600 and 1500
The three hares appear on 13th century Mongol metalwork, and on a copper coin, found in Iran, dated to 1281.
Another appears on an ancient Islamic-made reliquary from southern Russia. Another 13th or early 14th century box, later used as a reliquary, was made in Iran under Mongol rule, and is preserved in the treasury of the Cathedral of Trier in Germany. On its base, the casket has Islamic designs, and originally featured two images of the three hares. One was lost through damage.
One theory pertaining to the spread of the motif is that it was transported from China across Asia and as far as the south west of England by merchants travelling the silk road and that the motif was transported via designs found on expensive Oriental ceramics. This view is supported by the early date of the surviving occurrences in China. However, the majority of representations of the three hares in churches occur in England and northern Germany. This supports a contrary view that the three hares occurred independently as English or early German symbols.
Some claim that the Devon name, Tinners' Rabbits, is related to local tin miners adopting it. The mines generated wealth in the region and funded the building and repair of many local churches, and thus the symbol may have been used as a sign of the miners' patronage. The architectural ornament of the three hares also occurs in churches that are unrelated to the miners of South West England. Other occurrences in England include floor tiles at Chester Cathedral, stained glass at Long Melford, Suffolk[B] and a ceiling in Scarborough, Yorkshire.
Where it occurs in England, the three hares motif usually appears in a prominent place in the church, such as the central rib of the chancel roof, or on a central rib of the nave. This suggests that the symbol held significance to the church, and casts doubt on the theory that they may have been a masons' or carpenters' signature marks. There are two possible and perhaps concurrent reasons why the three hares may have found popularity as a symbol within the church. Firstly, it was widely believed that the hare was hermaphrodite and could reproduce without loss of virginity. This led to an association with the Virgin Mary, with hares sometimes occurring in illuminated manuscripts and Northern European paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child. The other Christian association may have been with the Holy Trinity, representing the "One in Three and Three in One" of which the triangle or three interlocking shapes such as rings are common symbols. In many locations the three hares are positioned adjacent to the Green Man, a symbol commonly believed to be associated with the continuance of Anglo-Saxon or Celticpaganism. These juxtapositions may have been created to imply the contrast of the Divine with man's sinful, earthly nature.
In Judaism, the "shafan" in Hebrew has symbolic meaning.[C] Although rabbits are listed as a non-kosher animal in the Bible--they at least arguably chew their cud[D] lacking cloven hooves--rabbits can carry very positive symbolic connotations, like lions and eagles. 16th century German scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, saw the rabbits as a symbol of the Jewish diaspora. The replica of the ChodorowSynagogue from Poland (on display at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv) has a ceiling with a large central painting which depicts a double-headed eagle holds two brown rabbits in its claws without harming them. The painting is surrounded by a citation from the end of Deuteronomy:
This may be translated: "As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her pinions (...thus is God to the Jewish people)."
The hare frequently appears in the form of the symbol of the "rotating rabbits". An ancient German riddle describes this graphic thus:
Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two.
This curious graphic riddle can be found in all of the famous wooden synagogues from the period of the 17th and 18th century in the Ashknaz region (in Germany) that are on museum display in Beth Hatefutsoth Museum in Tel Aviv, the Jewish Museum Berlin and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. They also appear in the Synagogue from Horb am Neckar (donated to the Israel Museum). The three animals adorn the wooden panels of the prayer room from Unterlimpurg near Schwäbisch Hall, which may be seen in replica in the Jewish Museum Berlin. They also are seen in a main exhibit of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. Israeli art historian Ida Uberman wrote about this house of worship: "... Here we find depictions of three kinds of animals, all organized in circles: eagles, fishes and hares. These three represent the Kabbalistic elements of the world: earth, water and fire/heavens... The fact that they are always three is important, for that number . . . is important in the Kabbalistic context".
Not only do they appear among floral and animal ornaments, but they are often in a distinguished location, directly above the Torah ark, the place where the holy scriptures repose.
Jurgis Baltrusaitis's 1955 Le Moyen-Âge fantastique. Antiquités et exotismes dans l'art gothique includes a 1576 Dutch engraving with the puzzle given in Dutch and French around the image. This is the oldest known dated example of the motif as a puzzle, with a caption that translates as:
The secret is not great when one knows it.
But it is something to one who does it.
Turn and turn again and we will also turn,
So that we give pleasure to each of you.
And when we have turned, count our ears,
It is there, without any disguise, you will find a marvel.
The Community of Hasloch's arms is blazoned as: Azure edged Or three hares passant in triskelion of the second, each sharing each ear with one of the others, in chief a rose argent seeded of the second, in base the same, features three hares. It is said, "The stone with the image of three hares, previously adorned the old village well, now stands beside the town hall." Hasloch is in the Main-Spessart district in the Regierungsbezirk of Lower Franconia (Unterfranken) in Bavaria, Germany.
Tinners' Rabbits is the name of a Border Morris dance of many forms involving use of sticks and rotation of three, six or nine dancers.
The hare is rarely used in British armory; but "Argent, three hares playing bagpipesgules" belongs to the FitzErcald family of ancient Derbyshire. Parenthetically, in heraldry the "Coney", that is the rabbit, is more common than the hare. Three coneys appear in the crests of the families: Marton, co. Lincoln; Bassingthorpe co. Lincoln; Gillingham co. Norfolk and Cunliffe co. Lancashire.
Ushaw College (St Cuthbert's College, Ushaw) is a Roman Catholic seminary which includes "Three coneys" in its crest. This adornment is from the family coat of arms of William Allen.
Other coats of arms of English and Irish families have three conies or hares.
"Three Conies Inn" was the name of a 17th-century inn, and three rabbits feeding was used as a motif on the obverse of its trade token. "The property is believed to date from at least the 17th century; the stone sundial above the former front door shows the date 1622. One of the earliest documented references to the property is an advertisement for the sale of a dwelling in the Northampton Mercury in September 1738. The 1777 Militia List also refers to the 'Thre Coneys'".
Among hunters, a collection of three hares ("a brace and a half" or tierce)--or three creatures of any kind, especially greyhounds, foxes, bucks--is called "a leash".
^In Hebrew, the rock hyrax is called (shafan sela), meaning rock "shafan", where the meaning of shafan is obscure, but is colloquially used as a synonym for rabbit in modern Hebrew. Slifkin, Nosson (1 March 2004). "6"(PDF). Shafan-The Hyrax. The camel, the hare & the hyrax: a study of the laws of animals with one kosher sign in light of modern zoology. Southfield, MI; Nanuet, NY: Zoo Torah in association with Targum/Feldheim Distributed by Feldheim. pp. 99-135. ISBN1-56871-312-6. Archived from the original(PDF) on 16 June 2012. Retrieved 2012. ISBN978-1-56871-312-0.
^Arms Family Pinoteau: Rietstap gives: Quarterly, 1st silver, a lion sable armed and langued reds; to 2e gules, a silver sword adorned with gold and 3e gules, a sword of gold band and a rifle gold bars, in saltire; to 4e Silver, a chevron azure, with three rabbits sand stream.
Borel Hauterive gives, in the Yearbook of the nobility of France and the royal houses of Europe, T. 21, Paris, 1865: Quarterly, 1st silver, a lion sable armed and langued reds; to 2e gules a sword high silver barons fair district military-3e gules, a sword and a rifle gold necklace set with (weapons of honor) to 4e Silver, a chevron azure, three rabbits with sand, which is Brumauld.
^ abcChapman, Chris; Wei, Zhang; Rasmussen, Peter (August 2004). "The Three Rabbits in China". Adapted from a presentation at the International Conference on Grottoes Research. Dunhuang China. Retrieved 2012.
Simpson, Geoffrey (6 February 2018). The Three Hares: Bloodline. Three Hares Series. 1 (Illustrated ed.). Canton, Georgia: thewordverve Incorporated. ISBN978-1948225182.
Ueckermann, Erhard: Das Hasensymbol am Dom zu Paderborn, im Kloster Hardehausen, in der Kathedralkirche St. Paulus in Münster und der Klosterkirche Haina. In: Zeitschrift für Jagdwissenschaft 41 (1995), S. 285-29.
Tan Chung, Editor. (1994) Dunhuang Art: Through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications. ISBN81-7017-313-2.