Three Hares

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The floor tile from Chester Cathedral.

A floor tile at Chester Cathedral bears the image of three hares arranged in a circular manner. The tile was found during excavations in the nave in 1996.

Essentially the motif consists of three hares, or rabbits, chasing each other the same way around a circle. There is a threefold rotational symmetry with each of the three ears being shared by two hares. The ears form a triangle that appears at the centre of the circle, where, instead of there being six ears visible, there are only three, even though individually the hares all show two. The historical puzzle here is just how this symbol came to be used in Chester.

Apart from a concentration in Devon the symbol is relatively rare in Britain, there are instances of church bosses to be found in Corfe Mullen (St Hubert - apparently dating from the reign of Edward IV (1461-83)), Cotehele (1480's), Selby Abbey (roof of nave), St. David’s cathedral (medieval boss in the lady chapel) and Llawhaden. In Long Melford church the design can be seen in a medieval stained glass window believed to date from the mid- to the late-15th century. Scarborough has the design set into a plaster ceiling. Outside of the UK there are examples to be found in France, Germany and Switzerland, Southern Russia, Iran, Nepal and China. Many of the continental examples can be dated to the 13th Century. The earliest known example is a Chinese one which dates to around AD600. The Nepalese examples have been dated to around AD1200 and the Afghanistan instance to AD1100. The earliest European examples date to around AD1200 with the English ones appearing in the 14th Century. The tile in Chester has been dated to about 1400. There is no clearly apparent connection between the locations outside of Devon.

Tinner's Rabbits

In the county of Devon and other parts of the south west England the motif is sometimes known as the Tinner’s Rabbits. This refers to the trade of tin mining that was once an important industry in the area. There are around seventeen churches on Dartmoor and in Devon where this symbol is found in a total of twenty-nine instances, but it is quite rare elsewhere in England. Notably, when the symbol is used as a ceiling boss it is most often prominently placed on the central boss of the roof, a position of some importance. This has led some to suggest that the symbol was one adopted by and prehaps even created by a local group, the most likely one being the tin-miners. An alternative suggestion is that it was a form of "mason's mark".

A Three Hares roof boss from Chagford in Devon.

There is some doubt as to when the three hares symbol became associated with the Devon miners. In her book "The Outline of Dartmoor’s Story", Sylvia Sayer (6 March 1904 – 4 January 2000) wrote(p.24):

  • "The Fifteenth century was a particularly prosperous time for Dartmoor tinners, and by way of a thank-offering they enlarged and rebuilt some of the moorland churches. Widecombe church is a fine example, and there you can see the tinners’ emblem carved on a roof-boss – three rabbits sharing ears…"

Curiously, the symbol is not found in Cornwall, which is also known for its tin industry. The oldest Three Hares in Devon appear to date from 1450, which places them later than the Chester tile. There is a local "mining" connection between Chester and Devon: the first written record of lead mining at Minera dates back to 1296, when Edward I hired miners from the site to work in his new mines in Devon. The mines at Minera appear to have later become dormant until they flourished when exploited under the Owen Jones charity. As the symbol appears in Chester before it appears in Devon it is tempting to suggest that there is a connection but none can be shown given the dates involved.

Buddhist Origins ?

According to one therory the "Three Hares" motif seems to have spread from the Far East westwards between 600 AD and 1500 AD. The earliest known examples comes from the Sui Dynasty of China where it was found in sacred caves at Mogao used for temples from the 6th to 7th century. During the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, three-hares images were painted on the center of the ceilings of at least seventeen caves. Typically, the circle of hares is surrounded by large lotus petals and forms the focal point of a painted canopy covering the entire ceiling. Obviously, while this has an "underground" connection there is nothing to suggest any connection between the tin-miners of Devon and the caver-dwellers of China.

Three legs on a silver drachma from Sicily, minted during the reign of Agathocles (361–289 BC), Greek tyrant of Syracuse (317–289 BC) and king of Sicily (304–289 BC).

It is possible that the symbol migrated along the "Silk Road" with traders, or it may have been derived independently in Europe. In China it appears to be a lunar symbol. The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over — ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the "Man in the Moon," the "Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon" is a more familiar symbol in other societies. In China, for example, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese folklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare's fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin. In a more general sense the Three Hares as used in Chinese symbolism to represent cyclical development, something which has also been associated with the moon.

The "Silk-Road" theory suggests that the symbol may have migrated westwards in two ways: through usage as a religious icon and as a decorative motif applied to perhaps high-value goods (for example on tableware). There is also at least one site in present-day Tibet with puzzling images of hares sharing ears. Images of four hares sharing four ears can be found in the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Guge, which thrived from the mid-tenth century until its defeat in 1630. Other Buddhist images of three and four hares occur in Ladakh, within the present Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Examples have been found in Iranian art. The symbol is a clever optical illusion which can find several philosophical or religious usages as a symbol of uninity or trinity depending of the nature of its cultural adoption. This migration/trade theory would fit with the order in which the examples arise, with the earliest being in China and the most recent in Britain.

Neolithic ?

Another possible explanation is independent invention in the west or adaption with an existing western form of symbolism with three-fold symmetry. Symbol systems based on the number three were known in the west long before any contact with China might be expected. The related triple spiral symbol, or three spiral volute, appears in many early western cultures, the first in Malta (4400–3600 BCE) and in the astronomical calendar at the megalithic tomb of Newgrange in Ireland built around 3200 BCE, as well as on Mycenaean vessels.

The legs of Man marker on the Millennium festival trail.
The reversed legs of Man on the Bishop Lloyd's House.

The triskeles proper, composed of three human legs, is younger than the triple spiral, found in decorations on Greek pottery especially as a design shown on hoplite shields, and later also minted on Greek and Anatolian coinage. A related symbol is the Triquetra which appears in much "celtic art" and on crosses made at or associated with the stone cross workshop at St Johns in Chester.

The Manx triskelion (a "backwards" example of which can be seen on Bishop Lloyd's House in Chester}, which dates back with certainty to the late 13th century, is of uncertain origin and it has been suggested that its origin lies in Sicily (a theory first put forward by the historian Camden in 1607). In 1885 John Newton proposed that it was in 1255/6 when the young Prince Edmund Crouchback was promised the throne of Sicily and King Alexander III of Scotland who was visiting London adapted the device for his newly acquired Isle of Man. The device is on the Sicilian flag but was only adopted as such in relatively recent times.

The "Legs of Man" association with Chester dates back to the Stanleys (see Stanley Palace). In 1405 Henry IV, King of England granted the Isle of Man to John Stanley (c. 1350–1414), KG (whose eventual successor in 1485 was created Earl of Derby for his services to Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth), for the feudal tenure of grand serjeanty, namely of providing to him a pair of peregrine falcons, also to be provided to every future English king on his coronation. The Stanley family, Earls of Derby, still display the arms of Man today, quartered by their paternal arms. There was also a Chester inn bearing this sign associated with the Minstrel Court. Chester Chronicle's "Police Report" of Saturday 12th April 1851 told of the licencee of the Forester's Arms, "better known as the Man, in Shoemaker's Row", being charged with "harbouring females of bad character there on Saturday night last". The story of the Minstrel Court is associated with Ranulf de Blondeville, who also has a curious link with Sicily. In 1191 Richard I was in Sicily when he officially proclaimed his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, as his heir. Arthur had recently become Ranulf's step-son, but was never to become king, due to his murder by King John. Ranulf is associated with another Earl of Derby his relative William de Ferrers, 4th Earl of Derby (no relation to the Stanleys).

Medieval Mistranslation

A third route suggested for the migration of the symbol from the Middle East to Europe is through the Jewish diaspora.

The Hebrew word for the rock hyrax, a small, furry mammal who may resemble a guinea pig but whose closest relatives are the elephant and manatees, is shafan. It is mentioned in the Bible, once in relation to kashrut laws (it isn’t kosher according to Leviticus) and also in an allegory in the Book of Proverbs: “The conies are not mighty, yet make they their homes in rocks.” (30:26). This may be one reason why the symbol was adopted by the tin miners, but "coney" is a mistranslation of the original "shafan sela" ( שפן סלע) - and the rock hyrax has very small ears. Luther also mistranslated shafan in Psalm 104,18 "the rocks a shelter for the shafan sela" as "rabbit".

The window of the song-school at Chester Cathedral re-uses the "trefoil knot" found in Celtic art, especially around the Irish Sea.

Despite the hare being non-kosher the symbol of the three hares (or rabbits) turns up in all of the few surviving wooden synagogues in the Ashknaz region of Germany dating from the 17th and 18th century. It is often prominently placed. Just why it was adopted in this religious setting is not clear as Judaism has no equivalent of the Christian trinity although the 16th century German scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, saw the rabbits as a symbol of the Jewish diaspora.

The use in Germany was not restricted to the Jewish community. An old german riddle also reads:

  • "Three hares sharing three ears, Yet every one of them has two."

In Germany, the symbol is also found on churches: Paderborn has adopted it as its logo and Three Hares like the one at Paderborn can also be seen in the abbey churches at Haina, Hardehausen and Münster Cathedral. It appears in the arms of the city of Hasloch in Bavaria. The "diaspora" theory does seem to be a little late for the adoption by Devon miners and its use in the Cathedral at Chester, although there is a single example in a 1309 Jewish manuscript.

Arrival in Britain

The earliest example in Britain of the Three Hares appears to be in a 14th Century tile located just below the altar step at St Mary's Long Crendon. This is remarkably similar to that found at Chester including the surrounding trefoil vegetation, and the dates are close. Despite extensive investigations no final conclusion has been provided for how the symbol came to Britain and why it was used in the ways that it was.

One likely theory is possibly that the "Celtic Knot" trefoil symbol was already in use in Britain, especially on the borders of the Irish Sea, where it was adopted from pre-christian usage as a symbol frequently used to decorate stone crosses. It was then combined with the three hares (or rabbits) and adopted by churches as a decorative feature for tiles, such as at Chester.

Related Pages

Owen Jones: a lead-based charity;

The Grosvenor Mine Scam;


Milwr Tunnel;

Sources and Links