Tricksters and Moon Living: Rabbits in Folklore

Friday Folklore

Rabbits make appearances in folklore all over the world. In some tales, they are symbols of life. In others, they are tricksters who may or may not be benevolent. In today’s Friday Folklore, we’ll take a brief look at rabbits in folklore.

Rabbit and the Moon

"Two Rabbits, Pampas Grass, and Full Moon" by Japanese artist Hiroshige
“Two Rabbits, Pampas Grass, and Full Moon” by Japanese artist Hiroshige

In Aztec and East Asian lore, there is a rabbit on the moon using a mortar and pestle. I couldn’t find any sources indicating what Aztecs say the Moon Rabbit is making. However, in East Asian lore, the rabbit is making rice cakes or the elixir of life for the Goddess of the Moon1. Because rice is a staple of the Asian diet, to say the rabbit (sometimes referred to as the “jade rabbit”) is making rice cakes is saying he is making the essence of life2.

But how did the jade rabbit get in the moon in the first place? There are various stories, of course. In Korean folklore, it’s believed that the Emperor of Heaven asked the fox, monkey, and rabbit to bring him some food. The fox brought fish and the monkey brought fruit. But because rabbit could only gather grass, he built a fire and jumped in, offering himself. The Emperor was so impressed by this, he placed the rabbit in the moon, surrounded by white smoke to remind everyone of his great deed of self-sacrifice3. The tale varies but the result is always the same.

The story, though, doesn’t explain why jade rabbit is making something with mortar and pestle. That idea may have come out of China, where the rabbit is considered a pharmacist4. That idea passed to Japan but, instead of making medicine for the elixir of life, he’s making mochi, which is a sweet rice cake. To this day in Japan, you can buy rabbit-shaped confections to eat during the moon viewing season in autumn.

Trickster Rabbit

Br'er Rabbit and Tar Baby
Br’er Rabbit and Tar Baby

Rabbit as a trickster is a motif seen all over Western culture. Who didn’t grow up reading about Peter Rabbit? In American folklore, we have Brer Rabbit, whose source may be trickster rabbit stories brought by African slaves5. But the natives of North America had their own trickster rabbit stories.

In some Native American lore, the rabbit is credited with killing the sun (after going on a rampage of his own) through trickery but also for bringing fire to man (a gift some tribes credit to the raven, who is another trickster animal).

The following is a story about the trickster rabbit. It is a Cherokee tale, taken from American Indian Trickster Tales, selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. It’s called “Rabbit and Possum on the Prowl”.

The Rabbit and Possum each wanted a wife, but no one would marry either of them. They talked over the matter and the Rabbit said, “We can’t get wives here; let’s go to the next settlement. I’m the messenger for the council, and I’ll tell the people that I bring an order that everybody must take a mate at once, and then we’ll be sure to get our wives.”

The Possum thought this a fine plan, so they started off together for the next town. As the Rabbit traveled faster, he got there first and waited outside until the people noticed him and took him into their home. When the chief came to ask his business, the Rabbit said he brought an important order from the council that everybody must get married without delay. So the chief called the people together and told them the message from the council. Every animal took a mate at once, and the Rabbit got a wife.

The Possum traveled so slowly that he got there after all the animals had mated, leaving him still without a wife. The Rabbit pretended to feel sorry for him and said, “Never mind, I’ll carry the message to the people in the next settlement, and you hurry on as fast as you can, and this time you will get your wife.”

So he went on to the next town, and the Possum followed close after him. But when the Rabbit got to the town he sent out the word that, as there had been peace so long that everybody was getting lazy, the council had ordered that there must be war at once and they must begin right in the town. So they all began fighting, but the Rabbit made four great leaps and got away just as the Possum came in.

Everybody jumped on the Possum, who had not thought of bringing his weapons on a wedding trip and so could not defend himself. They had nearly beaten the life out of him when he fell over and pretended to be dead until he saw a good chance to jump up and get away. The Possum never got a wife, but he remembers the lesson, and ever since, he shuts his eyes and pretends to be dead when the hunter has him in a close corner.

This story about Possum and Rabbit brings to mind my own childhood. When I was growing up and my father wanted to tell us stories about trickster animals, we didn’t hear about a trickster rabbit. He made up stories about a trickster possum called Possum Brown. But that was my dad for you.

The Rabbit and Eostre

I can’t end a post about the rabbit in folklore without talking about Eostre and the supposed origins of Easter and the Easter bunny. I’ve looked into this and found so much conflicting information that I knew something was up. Then I came upon this blog run by a “pagan skeptic” who summed up beautifully everything I had been reading. Below are the points that relate directly to the subject of this blog post:

  1. Venerable Bede, an ancient historian, is the only source for Eostre (also referred to by some as Ostara), a British goddess associated with spring. He only gives information about the name and the time of her festivals. And that’s it. There are no symbols associated with Eostre because Bede doesn’t mention it. Academics are divided on whether Eostre ever existed or if good ol’ Bede was making it up.
  2. Jacob Grimm of the Brother’s Grimm is the one who came up with the idea of rabbits being associated with Eostre.
  3. Finally, most importantly for this post, rabbits are not indigenous to Great Britain. The Romans brought them. Therefore, it’s impossible for the rabbit to be the symbol of some ancient British fertility goddess.

(And, as a side note, the celebration of Easter existed long before it got to the British isles and was referred to as Pascha. It’s still called that in most places today. Just sayin’.) I highly recommend that blog post if you’re interested in reading more about Easter and Eostre.

Suggestions Appreciated

This post begins a long run of animals in folklore. Do you have any suggestions for future posts? Is there a particular animal you’d like to see discussed? Comment below!


1“Rabbit Stories, Tales and Folklore”, RabbitMatters.com, http://www.rabbitmatters.com/rabbit-stories.html

2“Korean Folklore–The Rabbit in the Moon”, Korea Blog, http://blog.korea.net/?p=13278

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4“Rabbits in the Moon”, Japan: The Official Guide, http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/cultural/kie/moon/kie_moon_06.html

5“Rabbit”, Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, vol. 2 pgs. 917-918

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