The Hare and its Alter Ego in the Middle Ages
By Ilya Dines
Reinardus, Vol. 17 (2004)
Abstract: This article deals with the topic of hares and rabbits in Creation scenes and Naming of the beasts scenes in bestiaries and other medieval manuscripts. It has not been generally noticed that in these scenes the hare, which has negative connotations both in classical zoology and in biblical exegesis, is curiously shown in a ‘privileged’ position as one of the ‘first’ animals created. I suggest that this occurs because the hare has been confused with another animal, shafan sela, which is mistranslated as chyrogrilus and Lepusculus in the Septuagint and Jerome’s Vulgate, and which takes on a positive symbolism in the Scriptures and in exegetical texts.
Introduction: In the folklore of classical antiquity the hare was always perceived as the coward par excellence. There are scant data on hares and rabbits in classical zoological texts, which were one of the two main sources of the bestiaries; the most relevant passages in these texts are the following: Aristotle discussed the hare in Book 6 of his Historia Animalium and emphasized its great fertility. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described hares living in the Alps in Book 8 of his Naturalis Historia, and also noted Archelaus’ remark that a hare allegedly receives a new anus every year. Pliny was also the ﬁrst ancient writer to mention rabbits – cuniculi – which were abundant in Spain. Another Roman zoologist, Claudius Aelianus, mostly repeated Aristotle’s and Pliny’s descriptions in his De Natura Animalium.
Aside from hunting scenes, one may broadly divide ancient depictions of hares into two iconographical groups. In the ﬁrst group, the hare embodies the love of a man for a woman. On numerous Greek vases, for example, we see a depiction of Eros, the God of Love, with his two symbols, the lyre and the hare; other scenes show Eros pursuing a hare as a symbol of love, which, as we know from Book 1 of Philostrates’ Imagines, has been given a special gift: fertility.
In the second group of scenes, the hare expresses homosexual love. On many ancient vases we ﬁnd depictions of an adult male handing a hare to a young man, as a guarantee of their mutual aﬀection. This perception of the hare is also found in ancient literature. In Terence’s comedy Eunuchus 3.1.35–36,the character Thraso says to a young man from Rhodes: ‘Quid ais, inquam, homo impudens? Lepus tute es, et pulpamentum quaeris’ (What are you saying, impudent creature? You are surely a hare and you seek flesh). The grammarian Donatus explains this phrase in the context of a hare’s supposed homosexuality or hermaphrodotism – ‘modo mas, modo femina’ (sometimes male, sometimes female). Thus in classical antiquity the hare was a symbol of sexual promiscuity, be it heterosexual or homosexual. This fact per se did not impart any negative connotation to the hare. The ancient zoologists were not interested in the problems of ‘animal morality’, and the ancient Greeks and Romans, as is well-known, had no exaggerated scruples about diﬀerent manifestations of love.