by Anthony Murisco, Public Engagement Librarian
This past Sunday, January 22, brought in the celebration of Lunar New Year. It marked the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit.
The lobby of the New York Academy of Medicine features artwork of animals that have contributed to the advancement of the science of medicine, close to Aesclepius, the Greek god of healing. This brass image of a rabbit nibbling an herb is found in the floor, and the pair of rabbits is in the ceiling. Rabbits were said to be beloved by Venus, the Goddess of Love. Due to their aptitude for procreation and abundant litter, their presence was believed to be a remedy for sexual dysfunction. This may be the earliest usage of their symbolic fertile nature.
Let’s look at the Year of the Rabbit in Asian cultures.
The traditional story tells of the Jade Emperor who wants to find a way to measure time. The animals line up and race for a spot in this measurement. Along the way, there is a bit of trickery and double-crossing that some of these animals engage in to ensure they end up at the finish line. For others, it was kismet that brought them to the end.
As the story goes, the rabbit came in fourth place thanks to their resourcefulness with a little bit of empathy from an overhead friend. The dragon had seen the rabbit struggling on a log in the middle of the water and decided to give a little wind to bring them ashore.
Although the story originated in China, variations of the tale are found throughout Asia featuring animals native to those regions. In Vietnam, for example, the cat takes the place of the rabbit. In different countries, different creatures represent this year.
The Year of the Rabbit is said to be more subdued than the previous one, the Year of the Tiger. In Chinese mythology, the rabbit was one of the smaller animals vying for a place with the Emperor. Only careful planning on their part let them make it to the end. So the year is one of caution and playing it close!
While the rabbit waited for the log to move, it was a gust of wind above from the Dragon that luckily brought them to the finish line. The Year of the Rabbit is also said to be one of luck.
Turning to the Western world, we also link rabbits and luck with the rabbit’s foot, which is lucky for us and unlucky for them!
A long-held tradition in Western culture is saying “Rabbit rabbit rabbit,” or some variation, on the first day of each month. Some say this must be done first thing in the morning, while others are a little lenient as long as it is said sometime during the day. Fortunes that it may provide include luck, good health, and accruement of wealth.
Maybe it is no coincidence that the year of the rabbit and the year of the cat are one. Rabbits were seen as familiars (or assistants) to witches as often as felines! Legends involving Witch Rabbits casting spells also provide ways to negate bad luck, by turning the pockets of a cursed clothing item inside out or kissing the sleeve of the accursed animal. Witches were also known to moonlight as rabbits to spy on townsfolk.
Due to the timid and small nature of the creature, rabbits were used to emasculate soldiers. Just as rabbits burrow away to escape, so too did cowards. Medieval art used the animal to showcase traitors and those who had fled battle. The art above showcases two of these rabbit/soldiers who are paying for their cowardice.
Other medieval artists, perhaps early humorists, took it upon themselves to subvert the rabbit trope and instead showcased the creatures as killing machines. Perhaps this is where Monty Python’s killer rabbits came from!
The story of the rabbit’s quest to the zodiac as well as its place in various cultures showcase the multitude of tales that we never consider when looking at the creature. Or maybe we are just content, as this young girl is, with cuddling up to the furry animal.
May your Year of the Rabbit (rabbit rabbit) be fruitful!
Brown, Mabel Webster. “Art and Architecture of the Academy of Medicine’s New Home” Medical Journal & Record. 1st December 1926, 729-734.
Jackson, Eleanor (16 June 2021). “Medieval killer rabbits: when bunnies strike back” Medieval manuscripts blog. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2021/06/killer-rabbits.html, accessed 23 January 2023.
Hand, Wayland D. (ed.). The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Volume VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.
Rowland, Beryl. Animals with Human Faces. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1975.
Runeberg, Arne. Witches, Demons and Fertility Magic; Analysis of their Significance and Mutual Relations in West-European Folk Religion. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1947.
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