Moon Rabbit – October 2015, oil on aluminum, 4.25″ x 3.25″
The man in the moon is often referred to in the West, but in many other places in the world, it’s a rabbit people see.
As I paint the rabbits in this series of Monthly Miniatures, I am also researching rabbits’ historical role in artwork and mythology. I am especially captivated with the many stories that connect the rabbit with the moon. I wanted to explore and pay homage to this fascinating, cross-cultural body of mythology, so this month marks a departure from previous rabbit monthly miniatures.
Rather than feature my rabbit in her ‘natural environment’ (i.e. the painting studio), this month Eleanor dashes into a romantic, otherworldly nighttime scene inspired by German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. I am studying his work for a series of (human) portraits, and his dramatic, misty cliffs made a home first in my imagination, and now in this latest miniature, taking Ellie out of my backyard garden and into the wild!
It is remarkable how many cultures have seen the outline of a rabbit bending over with a pot (or tree stump) at his feet.
Rabbits do like to keep occupied. Mine busy themselves remodeling their cardboard condos. But cultures around the world have had different ideas about what the rabbit in the moon might be up to. A Japanese story written during the late Heian period (794-1185) has him pounding mochi for rice cakes (you can find the story in the anthology Konjaku Monogatarishū). In a Chinese story, he is mixing the elixir of life for the moon goddess Chang’e.
The root of those and other Asian myths is the Buddhist story from Jataka tales (Tale 316),
circa 4th century BCE. It tells how the rabbit is brought to the moon to shine down and share the good example of his virtue. The tale opens with the deity Brahmā (Hindu god of creation), coming to the Earth in disguise as an old man. When he begs for food, four animals offer to help: a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit. The monkey brings fruits, the otter fish, the jackal steals a lizard and a milk-curd for him, but the rabbit only has grass to offer. Knowing that the old man can’t eat the grass, he instead offers himself and jumps into the old man’s fire. The deity then reveals himself and quenches the fire before the rabbit is burnt. He is so touched by the virtue and self-sacrifice of the rabbit that he carries him to the heavens, leaving his likeness upon the moon to remind us of his noble example.
From the opposite side of the globe, a similar Aztec myth features the god Quetzalcoatl, who makes a journey on the earth as a man and finds himself unable to find food or water after walking a long way. Just when he thinks death is certain, a nearby rabbit offers herself as food to save his life. Moved by the rabbit’s offer, Quetzalcoatl elevates her to the moon, then lowers her back down. Her shadow remains in the moon for those of us below to remember her and how a little rabbit touched the heart of a god with her generosity.
And other various myths connect the rabbit with the moon as well. Native American (Cree) myth describes the rabbit as an adventurer that visits the moon with help of a friendly crane. In Chinese folklore, the rabbit is so prolific that they can conceive with just the touch of moonlight.
My Ellie has been fixed so she won’t be doing any reproducing, moonlight or not. I also have my doubts that she’d impress the gods with shows of selfless generosity. She’s known to steal treats and eat them on the run, finishing them up before her brother can catch her and get a taste. In this painting, though, she is my Moon Rabbit, running wild and free, and who knows how far she can go!