It's those 17 rabbits again!

Back in January, I wrote about the Renaissance belief in spontaneous generation and "giving birth to hairy worms'.  The worms, incidentally, will be making a welcome return at Swanwick Writers' Summer School in August, in my workshop on "Prince Lindworm."  But you may also remember Mary Taft, who gave birth to 17 rabbits in 1726.  Recently, I read a wonderful article by Terri Windling on the symbolism of rabbits and hares [read it here ] that brought me back to those rabbits once again.

Terri mentioned a couple of things in this long and fascinating article that leapt straight out at me.  (Like a bounding hare, dare I say?)  On the first page of the blog, she says:

In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders—not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. 

I think I had heard this before, but forgotten.  Like Marie Germain (aka Germaine Garnier) who supposedly changed from a woman to a man when she leapt over a ditch while chasing a pig, the hare is fluid in its gender.  Up to this point, I have seen the hare as a somewhat creepy animal (the hare sculptures at Yorkshire Sculpture Park really freak me out).  But, as a symbol of androgyny, I may have to look on him/ her more kindly in future.

On the next page of her article, Terri also has this to say about rabbits:

Despite this suspicious view of rabbits and their association with fertility and sexuality, Renaissance painters used the symbol of a white rabbit to convey a different meaning altogether: one of chastity and purity. 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 of the Madonna and Child. The gentle timidity of rabbits also represented unquestioning faith in Christ’s Holy Church in paintings such as Titian’s Madonna with Rabbit (1530).
Madonna with Rabbit, by Titian

"Madonna with Rabbit" by Titian

I find this even more fascinating.  Virginal rabbits capable of spontaneous generation!  Is it significant that it was rabbits that Mary Taft was said to have given birth to?  A sexless birth of animals themselves associated with sexless birth.  Is it significant that she was called Mary??  Whatever the case, doctors and citizens believed her claim.  Also, I wonder, is it significant that, over 100 years later, it was a white rabbit who acted as a guide to the innocent young Alice in Lewis Carroll's famous fantasy?
By the way, look out for those 17 rabbits in my forthcoming novel, Cage of Nightingales.   They'll be back!


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