In the Apollo 11 Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription between the Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas and the Apollo 11 crew before the first moon landing in 1969, the center said, “Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.” To this, astronaut Buzz Aldrin replied, “Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”
Of course, no one saw the “bunny girl”. However, even after the first moon landing decades ago, we still see the moon as a somewhat mysterious place with a wide-ranging variety of beings living in it – from aliens, gods and goddesses to rabbits. Many of the most well-known mythology feature moon goddesses, such as the Greek goddesses Selene and Artemis as well as, of course, China’s Chang’e. Evidently, the moon is not an exclusively female domain as there also exist moon gods which include Ibis and Chonsu of Thebes. A particular animal also plays a large part in the lunar mythology and its symbolism. The animal is a rabbit, and its association with the moon is not as simple as we think.
In Egyptian mythology, hares were closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Therefore, hares were believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the goddess is believed to be Unut, while the god is most likely a representation of Osiris who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare. This belief continued up to the 18th century European folklores.
In the Aztec story of the creation of the sun and moon, Tecuciztecatl, the future moon, threw himself into the fire following the newly transformed sun. In his depictions, Tecuciztecatl wore the xicolli (sleeveless jacket) of a priest, which indicates a masculine role. However, a parallel creation legend in the Leyenda de los Soles brings out a female quality in the description of the moon god who sings and dances Iike a woman. The moon rabbit is an insignia of both male and female lunar deities in the Classic Maya period.
The association between rabbits and the lunar cycle, fertility and longevity did not confine itself within the Egyptian mythology. Their representation of purity leads to further legends of divine rabbits such as the legend that female rabbits do not need to be impregnated by the male as they conceive through the touch of the full moon’s light. However, rabbits are also contradictory creatures. They are symbols of androgyny, of both cleverness and foolishness, of both courage and cowardice, of both virginal purity and rampant sexuality. It is not surprising, therefore, that the “Rabbit on the Moon” is a familiar symbol in many societies.
From India, the Jataka (“Birth History”) tell the tales of Buddha Shakyamuni’s 34 previous lives before being reborn as Siddhartha Gautama and attaining enlightenment. In his sixth incarnation, Buddha was reborn as a white rabbit. The three animal that became his closest students were an otter, a jackal, and a monkey. One day, there was a full moon and a holy day, where the friends decided that any beggars who needed aid should immediately be given food.
The god Shakra, the Lord of All Gods, heard this noble intention. He then descended to earth and appeared in front of the animals as a hungry beggar. The animals rushed to give him food. The otter brought fish, the jackal brought a lizard and a pot of milk, and the monkey brought mangoes. But the rabbit had nothing to offer. So he built a fire with the help of the other animals. As soon as the fire was blazing, the rabbit jumped on top of it and burned himself so the hungry beggar could eat his meat. Shakra was greatly moved. To honor his sacrifice, Shakra carved the rabbit’s image onto the moon so that people across the world would forever have a symbol of piety and sacrifice to look up to. A version of this story can also be found in the Japanese anthology Konjaku Monogatari (“Anthology of Tales from the Past”). The legend is popular throughout Asia and gave rise to the Mid-Autumn Festival of China and Vietnam, Tsukimi of Japan and Chuseok of Korea – all of which celebrate the legend of the moon rabbit.
In China, an early mention of a rabbit on the moon appears in the Chu Ci (“Verses of Chu”), a Western Han anthology of Chinese poems from the Warring States period (c. 475-221 BCE) which tells of a rabbit on the moon that pounds herbs to make an elixir for the immortals. This depiction is supported by later texts, including the Taiping Yulan (“Taiping Imperial Reader”) from the Song era (960 – 1279 CE).
Similar legends occur in Mexican folklore, where people also identified the markings on the Moon as a rabbit. According to an Aztec legend, when he was living on earth as a man, the god Quetzalcoatl started on a journey. After walking for a long time, Quetzalcoatl became tired and hungry. When Quetzalcoatl could not find any food or water nearby and that he was about to die, a rabbit grazing nearby offered himself as food to save his life. Quetzalcoatl, moved by the rabbit’s noble offering, elevated him to the moon and told him, “Everyone will remember you; there is your image in light, for all people and for all times.”
As Buddhism was exported from India to China, it took root and assimilated with the existing culture. One example of this assimilation is the Daoist story about a young woman named Chang’e who later became the moon goddess. Due to her and her husband Houyi’s pious natures, the Queen Mother of the West gave them a magic pill of immortality. Although the Queen Mother of the West warned them that they each only need to eat one half of the pill, Chang’e was too eager and swallowed the entire pill herself. She rose further and further upward into the sky as her husband looked onward, unable to do anything but cry. She kept rising up until she landed on the moon. Luckily she was not alone as a rabbit lived there as well. His job was to make immortality elixirs in his pot.
In Greco-Roman mythology, hares were associated with the Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and newborn hares were to be left to her protection. Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as they had abundant “gift of Aphrodite” (fertility). Therefore, the gift of a rabbit was a common love token in ancient Greece from a man to his lover and, in Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive. Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In Celtic mythology, the goddess Eostre is also associated with the moon. She was also a shape shifter – taking the shape of a hare at each full moon. Like Greek’s Artemis, all hares were sacred to Eostre, making rabbits and hares taboo foods to the Celtic tribes.
In Teutonic myth, the sky goddess Holda, leader of the wild hunt, was followed by a procession of hares bearing torches. Freyja, the Norse goddess of love, sensuality, and women’s mysteries, was also served by hare attendants. Kaltes, the shape–shifting moon goddess of western Siberia, roams the hills in the form of a hare, and was sometimes depicted in human shape wearing a headdress with hare’s ears. In Anglo-Saxon mythology, Ostara, the goddess of the moon, fertility and spring was often depicted with a hare’s head or ears – with a white rabbit standing in attendance. This white rabbit laid brightly colored eggs which were given out to children during spring fertility festivals — a tradition that survives to this day in the form of the Easter Bunny.
Renaissance painters expanded on the depiction of rabbits in the Anglo-Saxon mythology, as well as the ancient belief that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey chastity and purity. Thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures of the Madonna and Child. The gentle nature of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Madonna with Rabbit (1530).
Far away as the gods, goddesses and rabbits may be on the moon, the fact that they originally comes from earth gives them a special connection with people, which explains the enduring tradition of worshipping them. Societies believe, even to this say, that they will return to earth when mankind needs them. A popular Chinese legend says that the moon rabbit was once sent by the Chang’e to Beijing to save people from a deadly plague. When the rabbit arrived on earth, it transformed into a young woman and visited every corner of the city to give people medicine. When the plague was driven away, she returned to the Moon. To commemorate her, people from Beijing started to create and worship clay rabbit figurines on every Mid-Autumn Festival.