Earlier this year while looking up information about the Earth’s moon for January’s blog post, I came across the myth of the moon rabbit and couldn’t resist looking closer into some of the mythology surrounding the moon. Wow! I found out the world is full of moon myths—much too much for a single blog post—but I will tell you more about that mythical moon rabbit.
As you may have guessed, many cultures’ folklore mentions a rabbit living on the moon. From what I could gather, it seems legend of the moon rabbit travelled from India to China before hopping on over to Korea and Japan.
The Indian tale of the moon rabbit myth says that one day Buddha decided to test three friends—monkey, fox, and hare (or rabbit)—and so disguised himself as a hungry old man. The monkey brought him mangoes and the fox brought him fish, but poor rabbit ate only grass, so had nothing to offer the man but himself. Thus, the rabbit had the monkey and the fox help him build a fire, promising to give his cooked flesh to the old man to eat. However, before the rabbit could leap into the fire, Buddha revealed himself, having been impressed by rabbit’s generosity. To remind everyone of the hare’s magnanimity, Buddha took rabbit to the moon to shine brightly forever.
In China, the story has the Jade Emperor—not Buddha—disguising himself as a beggar to find a worthy animal to help prepare the elixir of life for the immortals. In this Chinese tale of the Jade Rabbit, the hare actually does jump into the fire to sacrifice himself as food for the beggar, but is immediately saved by the Jade Emperor, who then carries the rabbit to the moon to create the elixir of life. In the myth of the Jade Rabbit, the Jade Emperor is so impressed with the rabbit that he turns the lapin’s fur a dazzling white. Those looking for the Jade Rabbit will find his outline on the moon with his pestle and mortar, mixing the divine elixir to this day.
In the Japanese version, it is the Old Man of the Moon that decides to take the rabbit back to the moon to live with him because of the rabbit’s great kindness. According to this myth, the image seen on the surface of the moon (best viewed in mid-Autumn during the Tsukimi festival, which is basically a moon-viewing party) is of a rabbit pounding out mochi rice cakes (not the elixir of life) on his pestle.
The Vietnamese version has a white rabbit (called Tho Trang) throwing a party with his friends to welcome the bright moon when they hear a scream. While they go to find who screamed (turns out to be an old man fainting from hunger), the fox steals all the food laying out for the party. Tho Trang and his friends search for more food to feed the old man but find nothing. In this take of the tale, the old man turns out to be a fairy who is so impressed with the rabbit’s self-sacrifice that he takes Tho Trang with him to the moon.
Moving across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas, more mythological stories connecting the rabbit to the moon can be found. The tale of Quetzalcoatl putting the rabbit’s image on the surface of the moon is perhaps the most similar to some of the Asian myths.
In this Latin American tale, the rabbit offers to share his food with a tired and hungry Quetzalcoatl. When Quetzalcoatl tells the rabbit he doesn’t eat vegetables, the rabbit then offers himself as food. Moved by the rabbit’s altruism, Quetzalcoatl embeds the rabbit’s image on the moon so that the entire world will remember him.
The Aztec myth of Tecciztecatl tells a different version of how a rabbit came to be on the moon. Tecciztacatl and another Aztec god vied to become a new sun after the previous one died. The other god jumped into the fire first, before being followed by Tecciztecatl. Angry, the other Aztec gods threw a rabbit at him, which left an impression and paled Tecciztecatl’s illumination so that he could only be seen in the night sky.
In a Native American Cree legend, it is the rabbit himself attempting to go to the moon. He convinces a whooping crane to fly him to the moon, but along the way stretches the crane’s legs as he hangs on tightly. So tight the rabbit’s paws are bloody by the time they arrive at the moon, and when he places his paw on crane’s head, the crane’s crown turns red from the blood.
The Micmac myth, Rabbit and the Moon Man, says the marks we see on the moon are left behind from clay mudballs that the rabbit threw at the moon man while he had him tied to the earth, not necessarily the shape of a rabbit at all—although, technically, a rabbit is still responsible…
What do you see when you gaze at the full moon? A man in the moon? The moon rabbit? Something else entirely?