Legends about the Rabbit in the Moon
Many cultures of the East not only see the rabbit in the moon as a fun figure to point out to children, but actually see the rabbit in the moon as a sort of iconic image which storytellers in a number of countries have woven into the fabric of tradition through national folklore. These legends can be found in Japan, China, India, Korea, Ceylon, Mongolia and—closer to home—even Aztec mythology and Cree legends.
The stories vary, along with the other characters that play a part, but a common thread that runs through most of these legends is that the rabbit got in the moon through his heroic act of sacrificing himself for another.
In Japan, the rabbit in the moon has caused rabbits and moons to be common motifs found on traditional sweets during the autumn moon-viewing season. The Japanese infatuation with rabbits and moons spills over into popular culture where the moon rabbit can be found in animation, comics, video games, and more. (1) One common story that pervades the culture is that the rabbit on the moon is pounding mocha (sweet rice cakes.) The legend about how that rabbit got into the moon is one that children grow up hearing.
Once upon a time long ago, a monkey, a rabbit, and a fox lived together as friends. During the day they frolicked on the mountain; at night they went back to the forest. This went on for some years. The Lord of Heaven heard about it and wanted to see if it were really true. He went to them disguised as an old wanderer. “I have traveled through mountains and valleys and I am tired out. Could you give me something to eat?” said he, laying down his staff in order to rest. The monkey went off at once to gather nuts that he presented; the fox brought an offering from his fish trap in the river. The rabbit ran through the fields in every direction but came back with nothing. . . The little rabbit was so discouraged that he asked the monkey to gather some thistles and the fox to set fire to them. When they did so, the little rabbit said to the old man, “Please eat me,” and threw himself into the flames. The pilgrim was pierced to the heart by this sacrifice, and wept, saying, “Each one deserves praise; there are neither winners nor losers. But the little rabbit has given an exceptional proof of love.” So saying, he restored the rabbit to his original form and took the little body to heaven to be buried in the palace of the moon.” ( From Ichiro Okumura, OCD), (2)
But in other renditions, the rabbit is saved from the fire and either goes to live on the moon or simply has his image drawn in the moon. Such is the case in a homespun interpretation by twelve 9 and 10 year old children who created an animated video to depict the story.
In China, the idea of the rabbit in the moon is so steeped in their tradition that when China sent a lunar rover to the moon for exploration, it was referred to as the Jade Rabbit or “Yutu” in Chinese. In Chinese folklore, the rabbit on the moon is seen as pounding out medicine with a beautiful young lady named Jutho, also referred to as Ch’ang-e. On the evening of the Mid-Autumn festival in China, pastries in the shape of rabbits and rabbit-themed paintings are common. In northwestern China, buns shaped like rabbits and fish are popular at weddings.
The legend in China differs somewhat from the one in Japan. Here it is told that a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon. When an old man begged for food, the monkey gathered fruits from the trees, the otter gathered dead fish from the river bank, and the jackal took a lizard and a pot of milk-curd from somebody’s house. The rabbit wanted to offer something for the man to eat as well, but only knew how to gather grass. As a result, he offered his own body and threw himself into a fire that the man built. But the rabbit didn’t burn for the old man revealed himself to be the ruler of the Heavens, and touched by the rabbit’s virtue, he drew a picture of the rabbit on the moon where all could see it. The smoke-like substance surrounding the lunar image is said to be the smoke that rose when the rabbit cast himself into the fire. (3)
Many historians believe the legends actually originated from India, where the markings of the rabbit in the moon are so integrated into the moon itself that the very name for moon “Sasin or Sasanka” [means] “hare mark or spot.” In Sanskrit the moon is called Sasanka, i.e. “having the marks of a hare,” the black marks in the moon being taken for the likeness of the hare.” (From Max Muller) (4)
“In former days, a hare, a monkey, a coot, and a fox, became hermits, and lived in a wilderness together, after having sworn not to kill any living thing. The god Sakkria having seen this through his divine p. 61 power, thought to try their faith, and accordingly took upon him the form of a brahmin, and appearing before the monkey begged of him alms, who immediately brought to him a bunch of mangoes, and presented it to him. The pretended brahmin, having left the monkey, went to the coot and made the same request, who presented him a row of fish which he had just found on the bank of a river, evidently forgotten by a fisherman. The brahmin then went to the fox, who immediately went in search of food, and soon returned with a pot of milk and a dried liguan, which he had found in a plain, where apparently they had been left by a herdsman. The brahmin at last went to the hare and begged alms of him. The hare said, ‘Friend, I eat nothing but grass, which I think is of no use to you.’ Then the pretended brahmin replied, ‘Why, friend, if you are a true hermit, you can give me your own flesh in hope of future happiness.’ The hare directly consented to it, and said to the supposed brahmin, ‘I have granted your request, and you may do whatever you please with me.’ The brahmin then replied, ‘Since you are willing to grant my request, I will kindle a fire at the foot of the rock, from which you may jump into the fire, which will save me the trouble of killing you and dressing your flesh.’ The hare readily agreed to it, and jumped from the top of the rock into the fire which the supposed brahmin had kindled; but before he reached the fire, it was extinguished; and the brahmin appearing in his natural shape of the god Sakkria, took p. 62 the hare in his arms and immediately drew its figure in the moon, in order that every living thing of every part of the world might see it.” 77Moon Lore, by Timothy Harley, , at sacred-texts. (5)
Again, in Korea anytime a person talks about the full moon, the rabbit comes immediately to mind as well. In the Korean legend, a rabbit, a fox, and a monkey resided together in a village. They were very devoted to their religion. One day, the Emperor of the Heavens looked upon them and to test their faith, told them to bring him something to eat. The three set off to fulfill his wish. Consequently, the fox returned with fish, the monkey with fruit, and the rabbit, who could do nothing but gather grass, lit a fire with it and jumped in, offering his own self. His commitment earned the approval of the Emperor and he was placed in the moon as its guardian, with “smoke” surrounding him as a reminder of his endeavor. (6)
In a version from Ceylon, the rabbit was alone when he encountered a hermit who had been lost in the woods for quite a long time. When the rabbit urged the hermit to let him guide him out of the wilderness, the hermit, who was actually Budha in disguise, thanked him but said, “I am poor and hungry and unable to repay thy kindness.” The rabbit replied, “If thou art hungry, light a fire and kill, roast, and eat me.” When the hermit made the fire, the rabbit immediately jumped into it, but Budha quickly snatched the rabbit out of the flames and set him in the moon, where he may be seen to this day. (From Francis Douce, the antiquary) (7
Some of the oldest representations of the rabbit in the moon are found in paintings and fables of artists and storytellers of the far East, where artists painted the moon with rabbits racing across its face. (8)
Aztec Legend of Mexico
In the Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl was on a long journey and became hungry and tired. There was no food or water anywhere around, and since he was living on the earth as a man at the time, he thought he would die. A rabbit who saw him offered herself as food to save his life. Moved by the rabbit’s noble offering, Quetzalcoatl “elevated her to the Moon, then lowered her back to Earth and told her, ‘You may be just a rabbit, but everyone will remember you; there is your image in light for all people and for all times.’” (9)
Again and again, this legend, with its theme of self-sacrifice for another’s need, resonates throughout many cultures of the world. It is a beautiful concept that great religions of the world embrace and celebrate. This eternal truth has spanned cultures, nations, and centuries, “There is no greater love than this than a man lays down his life for his friend.” (John 15:13) (10)
Indeed, the theme of self sacrifice as the highest form of worship coalesces beautifully with Jesus’ teachings about love being the greatest of God’s commandments. And when Jesus proclaims to his followers that that there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, (1 Corinthians 13:13) (11) he foreshadows what he is about to do for all mankind. His words of love and sacrifice culminate in his own actions on the cross where he died to save men and women into eternal life. (12)
But a few of the legends about the rabbit in the moon, diverge from those mentioned above. More notably is the one from the Cree Indians of North America.
Native American Cree Legend
The Cree Indians of Canada and some parts of the United States saw the rabbit riding the moon, but the legend they told about how he got there was quite different and involved a crane. In this story, a young rabbit wanted to ride the moon, but only the crane was willing to take him there. As the rabbit hung to the crane’s legs, his weight caused them to lengthen, which is the reason for the crane having such long legs. Also, gripping the crane’s legs so tightly caused the rabbit’s paw to bleed, and when he touched the crane’s head, it left a red mark, which cranes still have. (10)
The image of the rabbit in the moon, while well-known throughout much of the world, is unfamiliar to most people in the West. Not until The Bunny Side of Easter have children’s books for Easter picked up on the shadowy shape on the moon that looks like a rabbit. As U.S. parents, teachers, and libraries add The Bunny Side of Easter to their collections of Easter bunny children books, this delightful little picture book now offers an opportunity for children of the U.S. to discover and embrace the lunar spectacle that has intrigued and fascinated the Eastern hemisphere for centuries.
© Linda Rooks, The Bunny Side of Easter, 2014, http://www.bunnysideofeaster.com
(2) http://www.ourgardenofcarmel.org/rabbit.html, From the book: Awakening to Prayer – Ichiro Okumura, OCD, Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. http://www.icspublications.com/
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rabbit, and Varma. C.B. “The Hare on the Moon”. The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha. 2002. Retrieved on July 25, 2007 http://ignca.nic.in/jatak003.htm
(4) Moon Lore, by Timothy Harley, , BiblioLife (April 30, 2009), http://www.sacred-texts.com/astro/ml/ml08.htmMoon Lore, by Timothy Harley, , BiblioLife (April 30, 2009), http://www.sacred-texts.com/astro/ml/ml08.htm
(5) The Korea Blog—Blogging Korea, Sharing Experiences, by Suzy Chung, September 28, 2012 in Lifestyle, http://blog.korea.net/?p=13278
(6) Moon Lore, by Timothy Harley, , BiblioLife (April 30, 2009), http://www.sacred-texts.com/astro/ml/ml08.htm
(8) A Short History of Easter by Ron Westmon, Based on the Easter Hare by Katharine Hillard, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1890, http://www.rabbit.org/journal/1/history-of-easter.html
(9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rabbit and Wood, Douglas – “Rabbit and the Moon
(10) The Bible, John 15:13, Revised Standard Version, =Rhttps://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=greatest+of+these+is+love&qs_versionSV
(11) The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:13, Revised Standard Version https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=greatest+of+these+is+love&qs_version=RSV
(12) The Bible, John 3:16, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3%3A16&version=RSV
(13) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rabbit, and Wood, Douglas – “Rabbit and the Moon
© Linda Rooks, The Bunny Side of Easter, 2014, http://www.bunnysideofeaster.com