In last week’s column about Lepus, the Hare, I promised to tell you how the rabbit got in the sky, and I will, eventually. However, most of the major bunny connections in the nighttime sky are located elsewhere.
It comes as a surprise to most Americans that many places around the world see a rabbit in the dark markings on the moon. Most of us are trained to see the “Man,” but most cultures associate Luna with her female qualities. The moon, after all, mirrors a woman’s monthly cycle in its almost 30-day sets of phases.
In fact, some cultures imagine that the monthly cycle of lunar phases mimics pregnancy. After a day of no moon at all, the moon reappears as a thin crescent. Her belly swells with the new life within her. After the full moon, she begins a protracted, two-week period of labor. (My wife tells me that the period of labor feels like it lasts more than two weeks, but never mind.)
After the moon has contracted to a thin crescent, another day passes with no moon. The old moon has died in childbirth, a result that was, sadly, quite common among humans in ancient times. But the next day, the lunar child appears as a thin crescent, and the cycle of birth and death begins again.
Luna thus becomes the nurturer and procreator. What better symbol of those “female” aspects is there than the amazingly procreative and delicious bunny?
We see the nurturing aspect of the lunar rabbit in stories as far flung as those of ancient India.
The god Indra ruled natural forces like lightning, thunder, and rain. He could reward the inhabitants of Earth with his power or punish them as our behavior dictated.
One day, he decided to wander on the planet disguised as a human beggar to test our adherence to the code of hospitality. The code dictated that strangers must at all costs be given food and shelter.
Indra came upon an ape, a fox, and a rabbit, who all went in search of food. Only the rabbit returned empty pawed. Such was the desire of the nurturing rabbit to fulfill the dictates of hospitality that she threw herself on the fire so that she herself might become a meal.
Indra spared her life and rewarded her by placing her on the moon, where we all gaze upon her to this very day and perhaps may learn from her willingness to sacrifice herself for the welfare of another.
In western culture, the lunar bunny has its origin about the goddess of the East, Ostara, who represents the rebirth of life in the springtime. She changes a bird into a bunny, and to protect the rabbit from harm, decrees that it must live for most of its days on the moon.
On one day of the year near the first day of spring, it may become a bird again and lay its eggs. On the next day, now a bunny again, it delivers those eggs to all the children of the world.
The Romans called Ostara Eostre. When Roman Christianity moved into England, its adherents adopted the old Celtic practice of delivering eggs on Easter. Yes, that’s right. The bunny in the moon is none other than the Eostre Bunny. However, the practice traces its origins back to a pagan goddess and her beloved rabbit.
The connection is an apt one. Both the egg and the springtime are emblems of the new life and rebirth that Christianity holds so dear. And as my daughter pointed out long ago, doesn’t the moon look like a glowing egg in the sky?
The constellation Lepus, the Hare, follows pretty much the same pattern. It was natural for the Romans to convert the gentle rabbit to the more vigorous and, to them, masculine Hare, but its procreative aspect remains.
Gentle Lepus as stands in sharp contrast to the macho warrior and hunter Orion to its north. Look for it underneath Orion’s rectangular-shaped outline.
Orion is thus standing on Lepus. In his all his manly manhood, he seems to celebrate his victory over the fluffy denizen of the night. What a guy!
Seriously, to the ancients, the bunny’s reproductive capabilities could be dangerous in their own way, as the story associated with Lepus suggests.
The island of Leros, off the southwest coast of Turkey, had no hares, or so the story goes. They were considered very tasty, so somebody got the bright idea of bringing in a pregnant female. Well, we all know what these long-eared rascals like to do.
It didn’t take long for the island, which is only 20 or so square miles in size, to be crawling with Thumper’s cousins. They ate everything, including the entire agriculture output of the island. The Lerosians were reduced to starvation.
They began the onerous yet tedious task of bunny liquidation. If you’ve every tried to chase down a rabbit, you’ll know what I mean. In at least one version of the story, the inhabitants sought the help of the mighty hunter Orion.
Of course, Orion was not averse to bunny slaughter. He once boasted that he had killed every kind of animal on Earth. What were a million or so delectable rodents, more or less?
In any case, the Lerosians finally killed all the hares or drove them into the sea. The gods put Lepus in the sky to remind them (and us) to avoid wretched excess. Orion is standing on the hare to make sure it stays put.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.