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High up and Almost Hidden

June 3, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Trinity Sunday


The wind blew. I walked through the uncared for headstones to the porch of the little old church. The door squeaked as I entered. The sagging sign said to keep it closed so the sheep wouldn’t get in. The church was in Dartmoor, Devon, and old, being a very relative word in England, was the late 1400s.


The medieval nave was dark and wooden, inviting mystery and intrigue. Sitting down I lazily leant my head back and searched the ceiling. Vaulted wooden beams rose above me, the rib cage of the ancestors, the crafting of a former age. The intersection of interior timber is called a boss and can be augmented with a particular design or motif. High up and almost hidden from view, I found what I was looking for: the Three Hares.


Three hares in a circle. Three ears cleverly arrayed so that each hare looks like it has two. Three entities individually incomplete but finding their completeness in each other. The hares are a holy symbol, found in holy places, like on the Dart Moor.


It is not hard to find Trinitarian associations with the hares. The Trinity has traditionally been thought of as three personae [faces] of the one God. The first ‘face’ is called ‘God the Father’. I prefer the name Te Matapuna: the wellspring, source of life. Te Matapuna is less personal than Father but escapes the male-in-the-sky imagery that too many people take literally.


The second ‘face’ is traditionally called ‘God the Son’. Again the title lends itself to a literal belief that the man Jesus is part of a holy triumvirate ruling from the heavens. Rather it is more accurate to say that the earthed essence of the Jesus life is integral to God’s ‘life’. The tears, the love, the passion, the justice of Jesus… are woven into the core of godness. This ‘earthed essence’ is not anthropomorphic. It’s not Jesus sitting in the clouds. It’s not male or female, though with artistic license it can be depicted as either.


The third ‘face’ is called God the Spirit, or Holy Ghost. I like the Spirit metaphor of uncontrollable wind, blowing where she wills. Another Spirit metaphor is weaver and wool – the Spirit weaving her vibrant threads of love and anarchy throughout the creation.


Each ‘face’ of God is, like the hares, of the same divine substance. The Source, the essence of Jesus, and the uncontainable Spirit are one in being three. They are inexplicably connected, and flowing into each other.


So, in this darkened Dartmoor roof boss the hares, while looking like three separate beings, on closer inspection are not. Without one another they would be deformed and incomplete.


The Celtic carvers liked symbols with a strong earth connection. The hare is a grounded animal. It has a long symbolic association with fertility, regeneration, and new life. The so-called Easter bunny is really the Goddess Eostre’s hare.


The hare was also considered to be a trickster. In the study of religion and mythology a trickster is a god/goddess or human who breaks the rules of the gods or nature, ultimately with positive results. Often, the rule-breaking takes the form of tricks. Think of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to give to humans. Or Maui who slowed the sun.


In West African folk tales the hare is a trickster. These tales emigrated to America and form the basis of the Brer Rabbit stories . Brer Rabbit represents the Black slave who uses his wits to overcome circumstances and even to enact playful revenge on his adversaries, representing the White slave-owners. Though not always successful, his subversive efforts made him both a folk hero and friendly comic figure. Note too that Bugs Bunny is actually a jackrabbit, a species of hare.

The trickster brought about reversals, unexpected outcomes, and unpredictable endings. The trickster tricked us into believing, into hoping [hopping?] for a different future. One lens through which we can view Jesus is that of the trickster.


The Celtic crafters were probably not aware of all the religious associations with the hare. Sometimes symbols are bigger than those who use them. Chipping away, high up and almost hidden in the rafters, I wonder how much they did know. Were they aware the Three Hares can be found on the ceilings of Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, China, dating from 589 CE? The Hares, like Easter, were not originally, or exclusively, Christian. Were they aware that the “Silk Road”, a result of the Pax Mongolica , which ran through Dunhuang, connecting West and East, was probably the route travelled by the Three Hares as they hopped from country to country, religion to religion? They popped out in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism. Would those Devonshire artists be surprised to learn that the Three Hares are today also found in Wales, France, Germany, on a 12th century Iranian brass tray, and on a coin bearing the face of Kublai Khan?


With my neck starting to hurt I continued to lean back in wonder at the Hares. High up and almost hidden from view they had survived the zeal of Christian reformers. Like Cromwell and his gang who in the name of piety destroyed so much beautiful art. If those misguided iconoclasts had only known of the Buddhist connection… heaven help us – they probably would have burnt the church down!


Frankly I tire of Trinitarian theology and metaphors.


Three-in-one, one-in-three,

Whatever else, it is non-sense to me;

Latin, Greek, Councils and creeds,

How is it relevant to our needs?


I have heard countless sermons on water, steam and ice. In recent years it’s been talk of God-in-community, a happy little heavenly band. I heard the other day of a preacher likening the Trinity to a three-person cycling pursuit team. Athanasius would squirm.


Personally I prefer the ambiguity of a medieval Devonshire roof boss. No one really knows what the Three Hares symbol means – just as no one really knows God. We can make some good guesses, but that’s all they are. High up and almost hidden the symbol is mysterious. Like God. It invites speculation but defies specification. Like God. It is hard to explain. It is known, yet remains unknown. Like God. The Three Hares are not the property of any one religion, church, or culture. They just are. Like God. When you lean back looking at them too long, believe me, you get a sore neck and sore head. Just like with the Trinity.



i. The translation of Latin and Greek words in connection with the Trinity is problematic. Personae have been translated as ‘persons’. But this, due to the enlightenment, is now too closely associated with individuality and separateness. ‘Faces’ is probably too weak on individuality, leaning to the view that personae are masks that God wears interchangeably [Sabellianism]. In Greek the word is hypostases, which leans towards individuality.


ii. Although all these ‘faces’ of God transcend gender, Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek has always been feminine.


iii. I refer to the Uncle Remus books by Joel Chandler Harris.


iv. This is the name given to the period of history, beginning in the 13th century CE, when the Mongol Empire stretched from China to Poland.


v. Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria in the mid 300s. He would see this metaphor as advocating three gods.

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