Friday, February 20

Rabbits: A Natural and Cultural History

Lagomorphs; A Natural and Cultural History.
By Guest Blogger Alexis Lynch.

Rabbits are remarkable and fascinating creatures that deserve appreciation, so I think a bit of an overview is in order:

Rabbits (Sylvilagus) and Hares (Lepus) of North America belong to the Order and Family Lagomorpha Leporidae, and in total there are 29 species of rabbits and 32 species of hares.

So what’s the difference between a rabbit and a hare? 
Rabbits are altricial; meaning they are born in an undeveloped state and require care and feeding by the parents. Rabbits are born naked and blind into fur-lined nests in burrows below ground. They stay in the nest tended to by their mother for a couple of weeks.

Hares are precocial; meaning they are born in an advanced state and able to feed themselves almost immediately. Hares are born above ground, furry and open-eyed,   and cared for in the open. Less than five minutes after birth they are able to hop and can leave the nest almost immediately. Hares on average grow larger than rabbits and have longer legs, feet, and ears.


When danger is afoot, rabbits will hide whereas hares will flee. Rabbits are more social and tend to live in groups, whereas hares enjoy their solitude with the exception of mating.
All rabbits and hares, or Lagomorphs, can see nearly 360 degrees, with their blind spot at the bridge of the nose, and they can sleep with their eyes open.

Lagomorphs are believed to have existed at least 53 million years ago; the modern rabbit families developing around 35 million years ago, although little is known about rabbits in prehistoric times. Lagomorphs are located on every continent except Antarctica, and are a vital part of nature’s food chain; being eaten by a vast majority of predators across the globe; mammal, avian, and reptilian alike.
Cave paintings in Le Gavbillou, France includes rabbits

Rabbits have been involved with humans from an early stage; initially and primarily as a food source, and then developing as a part of our artistic and theological culture. Archaeologists have evidence of people hunting rabbits in the South of France 120,000 years ago, and a famous cave painting of rabbits in Le Gabillou, France dates to 25,000 B.C.E.  
Ice age and rabbit diet

A recent study has shown that during the last ice age (40,000-10,000 years ago), early modern humans and the last of the Neanderthals may have survived on diets made up largely of rabbit.

The Tinner's Rabbits
A symbol known as The Three Hares, or “The Tinner’s Rabbits” in Ireland, shows three hares chasing each other in an unbroken circle. Each of the ears is shared by two hares, so that only three ears are shown. Like the triskelion, the symbol of the three hares has a threefold rotational symmetry.

Although its meaning is unknown, it is thought to have symbolic or mystical associations. It appears in diverse locations across Europe and some believe its meaning is tied to fertility, rebirth and the lunar cycle. When used in Christian churches, it is presumed to be a symbol of the Trinity. 

The earliest occurrences appear to be in Buddhist cave temples in China, dated to the 6th / 7th centuries. The Three Hares also appears on 13th century Mongol metalwork, as well as a copper coin found in Iran, dated to 1281.

Goddess Eostre/Oestre
The Celtic/Saxon/ Germanic:  
Festivals celebrating the Goddess Eostre/Oestre, took place at the Spring Equinox.  She is often depicted with a hare’s head or ears and with her favorite white hare standing by her side. This hare laid colored eggs. All hares were sacred to her, and were her messengers. It is also believed she could change into a hare on a full moon.  Eostre represented birth, renewal, love, fertility, the sunrise, redemption, and renewal of life.
Her followers would make offerings of milk and honey, as well as colored eggs, which were given to children 
These ancient pagan tradition survived and are continued today in the modern secular form as the Easter bunny.

The Celts:  Rabbits and hares were used for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries. It was generally believed that female rabbits could conceive and give birth without contact with the male of the species, and thus virginal white rabbits appear in biblical pictures. 
“The Madonna with the rabbit”; a painting done by Titian in 1530 shows the Virgin Mary holding a pure white rabbit.
Painting of Madonna with virginal white rabbit

Boudicca the Celtic warrior queen was said to have released a hare as a good omen before each battle and to divine the outcome of battle by the hare's movements. She took a hare into battle with her to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak. 

Boudicca, The Celtic Warrior Queen

Americas Mythology:   In Aztec Mythology the Centzon Totochtin ("Four-hundred Rabbits") was a group of deities who acted collectively as the “Dionysus of Mexico”, the divine little gods of drink and drunkenness.  In the folklore of some Southeastern American Indian tribes (like the Cherokee), it was the trickster Rabbit Jistu, who stole fire and brought it to the people.

Ancient Chinese Lore; Jade Rabbit, maker of medicine for the Chinese gods, lives on the moon and is often depicted with a mortar and pestle. 

Greece:  Hares were also associated with Artemis the Greek goddess of wild places and the hunt, and newborn hares were not to be killed but left to her protection.  Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and marriage—for rabbits had “the gift of Aphrodite” (fertility) in great abundance.
The gift of a rabbit was a common love token from a man to his male or female lover. In Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive.  Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the transformative cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders up until the 18th century. 

Egyptians:  Coincidentally; in Egyptian myth, hares were closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning.  A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is the goddess Unut and the male is representation of Osiris, who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare. In ancient Egypt the hare was used as a Hieroglyph for the word denoting existence.

Roman hare hunting mosaic, Roman Art Civic Museum, Italy

Romans:  More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans systematically exported European rabbits too many countries, through a vast trade network; the Silk Road. They were the first to set up large operations for the production of breeding and raising of rabbits, done in large stretches of enclosed acres, called “warrens”-what I like to call a “free-for-all”. 
The Romans caught, sold, traded and ate them, but they were not responsible for the deliberate domestication of rabbits. 

Catholic Monks:  The domestication of rabbits is credited to medieval French monks, dating to the beginning of the 6th century, 500-1000 CE.  Living in the Champagne region of France developed the earliest standard domestic breed; a Silver aptly called the “Champagne D’Argent” in 1500. (A breed I am currently raising)  Then rabbit meat gained even more popularity; the Catholic Empire deemed rabbit fit for consumption during Lent, in the same way fish was. Comparatively; Caesar recorded that rabbits were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes.

Rabbits as Pets:
It is thought that around the Middle ages is when noblewomen first started keeping rabbits as pets, but it was not until the Victorian era that rabbits as pets really took hold.
And by the 1800’s, the domestic keeping and breeding of rabbits for meat and furs was done by all social levels of people and was no longer solely dominated by the rich or the royals.
In more modern times, Neapolitan, Beatrix Potter and even Clint Eastwood had pet rabbits. 

My previous rabbit blog post:  How I Got Started Breeding Rabbits

In my life, I have had a general understanding of rabbits as pets and as an animal in general, but upon more research, I found that rabbits were far more deeply seeded and intertwined with humans and cultures all around the world than I realized. I am of Irish and German descent and a little Cherokee Indian, so my very own ancestors probably worshiped Gods who were strongly associated with rabbits. I love my rabbits, but now I have a profound respect for them.

My next blog post: Breeds I Chose and Why; My Rabbit Journal

Want more information about what we're doing on the farm?
Check out these links:

Life on the Farm

Canning and Cooking at the farm

Farm DIY Projects

Alexis Elizabeth Lynch

Writer. Naturalist. Bee Keeper, Rabbit Breeder, 
Aries. Bookworm. D&D and Xbox gamer. 
House Ravenclaw. Betrothed.

Contact Info:


Anonymous said...

Didn't know anything about rabbit history. Pretty interesting and hit home since I have rabbits too. Thanks for info.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent and informative history of rabbits and hares. I have a few rabbits and thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

Alexis Elizabeth L said...

thank you all so much for your kind words1

Anonymous said...

cool history. Blair Laird

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Good job. Phyllis Christy

Anonymous said...

Very good how did she do on it. Karen Ryker

Anonymous said...

Nice! Joanna McMichael Wilson

Anonymous said...

Good job! Darren N Jessie Brown

Anonymous said...

Nice! Rob Green

Anonymous said...

Well done! Nancy Rector

Anonymous said...

I know you can eat them both. Robert Benefield

Anonymous said...

Great read; I enjoyed reading it and learning the historical information.. Sharon Booth

Elizabeth Ohiothoughts said...

Anyone know what the going rate for rabbit meat is by the pound live weight? Chris Scoville

Anonymous said...

My NY meat buyer that just came to my gamy said it was 65 cents a pound so she only paid me 1.25. Chris Scoville

Anonymous said...

Here in NJ grocery store rabbit processed and dressed is going for an average of $7 a lb...
I sell 8 week old meat mixes for bout $20 live (average of $4/lb) to do as they wish. $25 if they want pedigree info for breeding purposes (i keep peds even on my meat mixes)

Cant say about ny but sounds like someone took you for a ride... .65 a lb live woudlnt even cover feed cost to fully weaned. Gemma Martin

Anonymous said...

Well not for a ride. Here we have to take it to get it processed and stamped by the state. I butcher for friends and family. She sells to restaurants and at farmers markets. Loves my rabbits as I do not use antibiotics and they are basically organic. Chris Scoville

Anonymous said...

wow she did a great job. Brian Davis

Anonymous said...

well obviouly if your selling to resturaunts and such it a little different but .65/lb still seems VERY low to me...
i dont sell processed, people buy live and what they do form there is their business...(nj ha strict rules about selling anything that the state hant taken its fee for first lol)
if i were to sell processed i would take to a usda processor myelf and then charge market price for the finnished product of around $6.50 a lb (still les than the grocery store but a better procudt for the consumer...) (missing out the middle man means more money in my feed account! Gemma Martin

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I will be checking into taking to get state processed myself and sell on my own. I got rid of 55 today and most were over 6 pounds. Chris Scoville

Anonymous said...

I do all my own butchering. It's going to be an up and coming article in the series I'm doing. This cultural background one is #2 in the series. Alexis Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

I also keep track of live and fully dressed weights for each one I butcher. .65 cents a pound isn't worth my time, money, nor the effort I put in daily caring for the critters.
February 22 at 10:33pm · Like
Here's the FB page for my rabbitry, just got it up and running. More updates to follow. Alexis Elizabeth