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The Mystery of the Three Hares
Ancient imagery appeared in China and then medieval Europe
Eric Shackle (shack)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-11-28 11:44 (KST)   
Paderborn cathedral hares

Twenty years ago, one of our sons sent us a photograph of a puzzling design he had seen on a stained glass window of an ancient cathedral in Paderborn, Germany. It shows three hares and three ears, but by clever draughtsmanship, each animal seems to have two ears.

When we first saw it, we thought a German cleric or a local artist might have designed it as a joke when the cathedral was built in the medieval period. We placed the photo in a family album, and forgot about it until last week, when we showed it to one of our grand-daughters.

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"I've seen something like that somewhere else, but I can't remember where," she said. "Perhaps it was on TV."

Next day, we decided to see if the Internet could tell us anything about it. Indeed it could.

We discovered intriguing stories about a mysterious emblem that was known 1,500 years ago, has been found in many parts of the world in Christian, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. And no one knows its origin or meaning.

Three British researchers, art historian Sue Andrew, documentary photographer Chris Chapman, and archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, launched the Three Hares Project, a non-profit organization, in 2000.

They plan to record and research all known occurrences of the three hares motif. They have found, photographed and filmed the emblem in many parts of Britain, and in France, Germany and China. It has also been found in Afghanistan.

Their official Web site says that Tom Greeves first studied the symbol in the late 1980s. In 1991 he reported in a magazine article that the design had been found in continental Europe and in Buddhist cave temples near Dunhuang, China. The Web site also gives details of the other researchers:
"Sue Andrew's extensive research began in the mid-1990s. Her studies focused on the motif in Islamic and Buddhist contexts and on the possible transmission of the design from east to west through the medium of textiles.

"Chris Chapman's images are essential to the Project, for it is only through the medium of photography and through the skill of the photographer that the detail and craftsmanship of many of the more inaccessible examples of the hares can be fully appreciated."
Not surprisingly, the plan to solve the age-old mystery has attracted media attention, particularly in Britain. The BBC Radio 4 Web site reports:
"In search of a connection, they find the symbol being used in many different places. It accompanies images of Buddha, can be found decorating a casket that once contained the bones of St Lazarus and in central Europe, surrounds the image of the pagan character the Green Man. It is even chimed daily on a 13th-century bell in a German monastery."
The researchers discovered that the earliest known appearance of the three hares motif is in the Mogao caves near Dunhuang China, and it was created between 581-907 AD, long before the Paderborn cathedral hares.

Hare images can be found along the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road. The meaning and style of the images change depending on the culture and religion of the crafts people who made them.

Recently researchers have begun seeking to answer these questions:

- What is the meaning of the three hares motif?
- Where did the motif originate?
- How did it spread?

It would be very interesting to know whether OhmyNews readers know of three hare images in their own countries.

- The Mystery of the Three Hares by Eric Shackle (Read by Claire George) 

Pictures of the three hares by photograper Chris Chapman can be seen on his Web site.
Find out more about the three hares in China at this Web site.
Click here to listen to the BBC Radio 4 program about the three hares.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Eric Shackle

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