A 25-year quest to find the meaning of the dancing hare motif has culminated in a new book. Martin Hesp reports.
Stories of dancing hares have featured in Westcountry folklore for centuries – and the ancient motif that sees three of the creatures running in a circle is known in countries worldwide.
Now three Dartmoor-based authors have turned their attention to the curious symbol and have written the seminal work that sets out to discover what the ancient design could mean.
Between them it’s taken Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman more than a quarter of a century in individual researches to be able to make contributions to the new book called The Three Hares – a Curiosity Worth Regarding.
From 15th-century rural churches located in deepest Devon, to 6th century cave temples on the edge of the Gobi desert in China, the book follows the trail of a mysterious medieval motif which features three hares running in a circle while sharing three ears which form a triangle at the centre of the design.
“It is a paradox,” say the authors. “For although only three ears are depicted, each beast has two.”
The book uncovers a modern Devon myth and also looks at the importance of the Three Hares in the art of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. The trail of the three enigmatic creatures even strays into the Islamic world and the great Mongol Empire.
Photographer Chris Chapman said: “The creative spirit which gave form to the Three Hares in the medieval period – and which survived conflict and conquest – manifests itself in modern times and the inspirational work of contemporary craftspeople is presented.”
The book is illustrated with photographs of people and places, and of exquisite, rare and precious artefacts held in private collections. Peter Beacham, former heritage protection director for English Heritage, has called the book a “revelation”.
“What begins as a personal quest of the three authors to discover more about a curious motif found in the medieval roofs of some modest Devon churches, develops into an unexpected odyssey – sustained over decades – which takes them across continents and into many different cultures and faiths,” he says.
“Exploring beyond ever widening horizons as they pursue the extraordinarily diverse manifestations of this humble yet haunting image, their tale is rich in human encounter and cultural discovery, diligently researched, thoughtfully and engagingly told, and beautifully illustrated.”
Former Dartmoor National Park archaeologist Dr Greeves told the WMN: “Hares are not that common on Dartmoor, but I have been fortunate to see them on several occasions, late at night in lanes, or out on the open moor in daylight, sometimes nearly treading on their form.”
He said that as a student his PhD researches at Exeter University focusing on the region’s tin industry had helped first alert him to the mysterious motif.
“In all my reading of documents and conversations, never once did I come across mention of the ‘tinners’ rabbits’. This alerted me to the need to investigate further the symbol we now know as the Three Hares, which I did from the late 1980s onwards.”
Mr Chapman added that the three hares project had also been an important part of his life.
“Photographing the Three Hares motif became a spiritual adventure, one that I always looked forward to. Each example drew us into a hushed environment where for a short time we could forget the bustle of our modern lives.”
The photographer recently revisited the Kloster Haina in Germany, which has an ancient bell famed for its Three Hares motif – and while capturing images of the object Mr Chpman said he’d experienced some kind of spiritual revelation while staring down into “the vastness of the nave”.
“I had no fear, no giddiness, but an uplifting sense of awe at such a wondrous sight,” recalls Mr Chapman. “Through the Three Hares I’ve experienced that sensation again and again in all of the religious houses we have visited. It has been a remarkable journey.”
Sue Andrew explained how she’d been caught up in the enigmatic motif: “In 1991 I saw an image which, although I did not know it then, was to change the course of my life. The image, a black and white photograph of the three hares roof boss at Throwleigh church, by Chris Chapman, stayed with me.
“When I came across a drawing of the same motif while browsing in a bookshop years later, I was reminded of the photograph and wondered if Tom Greeves, whose article Chris’s photograph had illustrated, knew of this particular example.
“By the time I wrote to Tom, I had discovered other examples in Britain – and Tom replied that he was worried that we might find more examples outside Devon than in the county. By now intrigued with the design, I began to explore, through books and articles, occurrences of the three hares in Britain, Continental Europe and the Islamic World,” said Sue.
“Sharing information with Tom, the archive grew until in the year 2000 Tom suggested that, together with Chris Chapman, we should form The Three Hares Project to document and record photographically, where possible, all known examples.”
The book will be launched at Chagford on Friday, April 8, as a run-up event to the Dartmoor Literary Festival 2017 – there will be an illustrated talk by the authors. Tickets £5, to a include a glass of wine. Call 01647 432215 for more details.