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Sharing Ears: The Tinner’s Rabbit

May 31, 2011

Hares past a freckle

Image and Text found: Heritage-Key

The earliest known appearance of this motif is in the Mogao caves near Dunhuang, China dating from the Sui to Tang dynasties (581-907 AD). This motif can be found in several places along the Silk Road, and appears to have adopted by the different religions along the way.

The Dartmoor Tinners have always been a law unto themselves, at one time they had their own parliament and laws with the rights to virtually mine tin wherever they wanted. Recent legend tells of how they even had their own symbol or badge in the shape of three rabbits running in a circle.

Careful research has revealed that this is untrue and in fact the symbol has much older roots.  In her book ‘The Outline of Dartmoor’s Story’, Lady Sayer wrote (p.24): 

 “The Fifteenth century was a particularly prosperous time for Dartmoor tinners, and by way of a thank-offering they enlarged and rebuilt some of the moorland churches. Widecombe church is a fine example, and there you can see the tinners’ emblem carved on a roof-boss – three rabbits sharing ears…”

Three Hares ~ a Springtime pattern

Pattern available from Bustle and Sew Magazine

 This was probably the first serious mention that linked the symbol with the tinners. The connection between the symbol and the tinners may have arisen because the ‘Three Rabbits’ can be found in some of the Dartmoor churches which would have been in mining areas. If one accepts that the actual symbol shows hares and not rabbits then there is a deep hidden history to be found. 

Most of the old examples of the three hares are in churches. In Devon there are 28 in total of which 19 are of a possible medieval origin and of these 12 are on or very near Dartmoor. All are carved wooden bosses and are located in the roof. There are 2 examples which appear on plaster ceilings of private houses and a modern example of a stained glass window which is located in the door of the tinners bar at the Castle Inn in Lydford. 

Looking further a field there are instances of church bosses to be found in Corfe Mullen, Cotehele, Selby Abbey, St. David’s cathedral and Llawhaden. In Long Melford church the design can be seen in a medieval stained glass window and in Chester cathedral it appears in a floor tile. Scarborough can boast having the design set into a plaster ceiling. Although this is not a long list the distribution is far and wide.

Paderborn Cathedral

Image Credit: History Hunters International

When looking in a global context, there are examples to be found in France, Germany and Switzerland, Southern Russia, Iran, Nepal and China. The earliest known example is the Chinese one which dates to around AD600. The Nepalese examples have been dated to around AD1200 and the Afghanistan instance to AD1100. The earliest European examples date to around AD1200 with the English ones at around AD1300. It has been found in 13th century Mongol metal work, and on a copper coin, dated 1281 found in Iran.

Three Hares motif, Sataniv Jewish Cemetery

Image Credit: History Hunters International

But What Does It Mean?

The three hares motif was clearly revered in all the different contexts in which it is found, but, as yet, we have not come across a contemporary written record of its meaning. It may be expected that the motif would have had different meanings in different cultures but, as an archetype, perhaps there was an element of meaning common to all.

The hare is strongly represented in world mythology and from ancient times has had divine associations. Its elusiveness and unusual behaviour, particularly at night, have reinforced its reputation as a magical creature. The hare was believed to have mystical links to the female cycle and to the moon which governed it.

The theory of the Ancients that the hare was hermaphroditic and could procreate without a mate led to the belief that it could give birth to young without loss of virginity. In Christian contexts, the three hares may be associated with the Virgin Mary in her role in the redemption of mankind. This might explain why a three hares boss is often juxtaposed in western European churches with a boss of the Green Man, perhaps a representation of sinful humanity.

There is no evidence to support any link between the three hares motif and the tinners of Dartmoor. Its occasional description as the ‘Hunt of Venus’ seems to arise from a misunderstanding of an alchemical illustration published in a book by Basil Valentine c.1600 CE. Linking the motif with the Christian Trinity appears to be an association made long after the image was originally worked.

~ Text sourced from Three Hares Project, Christopher Chapman

Three Hare's Tor

Artist: Virginia Lee, Devon, United Kingdom

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating! I love rabbits and hares and of course, they are a powerful Goddess symbol. I’ve seen the three hares motif before, usually in a Celtic context. Thanks for all this additional info!


  2. I’ve never seen this motif before. The ears remind me of the Cathedral Window patchwork block and, curiously, also a motif in Japanese Sashiko embroidery. And then there’s the movie, “Gangs of New York” and Leo’s gang – The Dead Rabbits…..



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