The ultimate good luck charm (the famous foot) and a symbol of unbridled sexuality, the cult of the rabbit has flourished for millennia in cultures the world over. From Ancient Egypt, through India and China, and even as far as the psychedelic California of Jefferson Airplane (and a cameo appearance in sci-fi at the turn of the century in Matrix), this furry little beast stands for a lot more than just Easter. Let’s have a look at what and why…
There are all manner of stories about this creature. In one folk tale, its tasty meat is reputed to contain an elixir of beauty, another claim is that it contains the insomnia gene in its DNA. And then psychologists see rabbits as representing a sort of boundless sexuality symbolising new love or a favourable event in our lives. In the folklore of many peoples, the rabbit is believed to be in direct communication with the Moon, through which it unites with Mother Earth in a neverending cycle of rebirth. Which means it is a short step to the parallel with the the inexplicable myth of life after death, as well as a suggestion of playful and seemingly endless fertility.
But let’s take a step back into the mists of time… The ancient Egyptians saw the rabbit as a creature with a profound understanding of the mysteries of life. In Greek and Roman mythology, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, loved both rabbit and hares, and the author Pliny the Younger (23-79 A.D.) wrote about how the meat of this animal helped barren women. The Celts saw this animal as a goddess of Victory and the Hunt on an equal with Athena or Diana. The rabbit had far more celestial associations for the Aztecs, the ancestral people of Mexico, who saw the marks on the moon as the tracks of a (space) rabbit, exiled to the moon by a jealous terrestrial divinity. Rabbit XVIII was a much-loved Maya king who, it so happens, was renowned for his boundless fertility (his offspring were literally numberless). The Maya also believed that the hare was responsible for the sacred art of writing as well as dance.
Now let’s pay a visit to America, India and China. In Native American mythology, the rabbit was considered one of the most intelligent and shrewd of all animals. It was smarter than the owl, the alligator and the bear and on the same level as the cult of the coyote. In India, there was a story that Buddha stamped the image of a rabbit onto the moon to thank him for his great generosity. Seeing the Chosen One starving, the rabbit had promptly roasted his own flesh on a bonfire to offer himself up as food. In China, rabbits are seen as a symbol of longevity and procreation. The white hare is divine and immortal, the red hare a bringer of good luck and the black hare rhymes with success in life. The hare is seen in general as a protector of all wild animals and the Chinese continue to hold this animal in great esteem and venerate it to this day.
Which brings us up to the present day where the rabbit is everywhere in our collective imagination (the White Rabbit made famous in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) as a metaphor for an unexpected event that reveal some superior reality. The white rabbit disturbs the status quo, all the certainties in our monotonous lives. And Jeffereson Airplane – one of the key groups in Californian psychedelia at the end of the ’60s – were thinking about the white rabbit when they came out with Surrealistic Pillow, one of their best albums, in February 1967. One of the tracks on this album was the manifesto song White Rabbit which charismatic singer Grace Slick brought with her from her previous group Great Society (the group that came up with the first version of Somebody to Love).
In 1999 (thirty-two years after the song first came out) we find the ethereal notes of White Rabbit in a key scene of the dreamy sci-fi classic which brought the last century to a close. In the Wachowski brothers’ masterpiece, Matrix, the main character Neo (a superb Keanu Reeves) is urged by his own p.c. to “follow the white rabbit” moments before a mysterious girl knocks on his door. At that point in the story, Neo/Reeves comes up against a terrible dilemma: either remain imprisoned within his banal everyday existence or experience a true spiritual awakening and face the unknown. And we all know what Neo chooses. But we also know another far from minor detail: the girl who shows up at his door (and turns his life upside down) has a lovely tattoo. Of what? A white rabbit, of course.