Rabbit! Rabbit!

A European rabbit. A new report debunked the long-held scientific tale that rabbits were domesticated in 600 A.D. because a pope declared their fetal meat to be like fish and therefore O.K. to eat during Lent.

According to longstanding folklore, Pope Gregory the Great gave monks in France permission to consider rabbits-in-utero to be “fish” rather than meat and so elgible to be eaten during Lent. What apparently really happened was that a different Gregory, St. Gregory of Tours, simply described how someone he knew ate rabbit during Lent. But the story got slightly jumbled and the jumbled version lasted for hundreds of years. You can read about what happened here.

Rabbits are featured in folklore around the world. Although the English-speaking world is familiar with the man-in-the-moon, in Asia and among the Aztecs it is a rabbit-in-the-moon who looks down at the earth from the night sky. The rabbit-in-the-moon is there as a reward for an act of charity to a hungry old man. According to the story, a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon, believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward. When an old man begged for food, the monkey gathered fruits from the trees and the otter collected fish, while the jackal wrongfully pilfered a lizard and a pot of milk-curd. The rabbit, who knew only how to gather grass, instead offered its own body, throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit, however, was not burnt but rose to the sky with the smoke from the fire. The likeness of the rabbit is still there on the moon for all to see.

In many places, rabbits were symbols of women, femininity, female deities, and female magic which was associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. Rabbits are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgyny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.

Japanese Folklore

Oiwa was a woman given poison by her unfaithful husband. It disfigured her but did not kill her. She prayed to become a demon to kill her husband, his new girlfriend, and their families.

February 11, 660 BC is celebrated as the birthday of Japan as the first emperor, Jimmu, was enthroned on that day. Less gloriously, February 19, 1942 marked the beginning of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in the United States. Over 110,000 people living along the Pacific coast lost their businesses and property when they were moved to “relocation centers” inland.

Japan is the home of tremendous folklore and mythology, much of it unknown to Americans or Western Europeans. Japanese mythology is a complex system of beliefs that also embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculture-based folk religion. Oni (demons) and yurei (ghosts) have played a role in Japanese culture for thousands of years, and stories of new spirits continue to be told today. Many stories are about hannya, which in Noh theater are women whose rage and jealousy turned them into oni while still alive.

One story about such a woman tells how Kiyohime was a young woman scorned by her lover, a monk named Anchin, who grew cold and lost interest in her. Realizing he had left her, Kiyohime followed him to a river and transformed into a serpent while swimming after his boat. Terrified by her monstrous form, Anchin sought refuge in a temple, where monks hid him beneath a bell. Not to be evaded, Kiyohime found him by his scent, coiled around the bell, and banged loudly on it with her tail. She then breathed fire onto the bell, melting it and killing Anchin.

Yuki Onna is a terrible ghost who haunts the snowy forests looking for victims. She is a kind of ghost-vampire who lives by sucking the vital energy of the human body. She extracts the soul by first freezing her victims to death, then sucking their souls out through their mouths. Some stories about Yuki Onna say that she particularly prefers the souls of children.

Click here or here to read more about Japanese folklore.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Kelpie, or water kelpie, is the Scots name given to a shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. It has usually been described as appearing as a horse, but is able to adopt human form.

Mary Stuart, commonly known as “Mary, Queen of Scots” was beheaded on February 8, 1587 at the order of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary (a Roman Catholic) had become caught up in complicated plots and counterplots surrounding Elizabeth, a Protestant queen, on the throne of England. Although Mary was kept a prisoner in England for 19 years and was finally beheaded for her role in a plot to have Elizabeth killed, Mary and Elizabeth never met. But the other great queens of the Scots were the goddesses known as the “hag”, the Cailleach, and the Giantess.

The folklore of Scotland is not nearly as well known as the folklore of Ireland or England, except perhaps for the monster said to live in Loch Ness. The first reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was in the River Ness in 565 AD. The Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he came across the locals burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man had been swimming the river when he was attacked by a “water beast” that had mauled him and dragged him under. They tried to rescue him in a boat, but were able only to drag up his corpse. Hearing this, Columba stunned the Picts by sending his follower Luigne moccu Min to swim across the river. The beast came after him, but Columba made the sign of the cross and commanded: “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” The beast immediately halted as if it had been “pulled back with ropes” and fled in terror, and both Columba’s men and the pagan Picts praised God for the miracle. Many modern people think the monster is a lone survivor of the otherwise extinct plesiosaurs.

Brownies–not the youngest division of Girl Scouts!–are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around houses in Scotland, like getting rid of spiders. However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts of food. Among food, they especially enjoy porridge, honey, butter, and cream. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if the owners of the house misuse them. Brownies make their homes in an unused part of the house, often in attics and holes in walls.

You can read more about Scottish mythology here. Or find lots of fairy tales from Scotland here.