Rabbits in Art and Storytelling

1950 Stevan Dohanos


Mountain Hare (winter) Archibald Thorburn for ‘British Mammals, Vol. 2.’ ~ 1921
Mountain Hare (winter) Archibald Thorburn for ‘British Mammals, Vol. 2.’ ~ 1921

Rabbits and hares look very similar but rabbits are related to rodents and hares are related to dogs. Hares are bigger and their fur changes colour according to the season. Their ears and back legs are also longer. Rabbits live in burrows underground. Hares make nests above ground, like wild dogs.

Easter Rabbits from Jerry Griswold

Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts from Open Culture

Before I begin, I feel the need to acknowledge that rabbits and hares, despite looking similar, are not at all closely related in evolutionary terms. In fiction, however, it’s useful to consider them more closely, as furry little creatures of nature, with floppy ears, who can also inflict a lot of damage upon a local environment if left to breed in safe conditions.

Battle Bunny by Jon Sciezka and Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Matthew Myers


Readers on the cusp of adolescence will have seen enough of picture books and toddler-paraphernalia to know that rabbits (especially when referred to by the cutesy name of ‘bunnies’) are synonymous with innocence and light. This is why rabbits Scieszke and Barnett ‘turned off their brains’ (in their own words) and came up with the inane ‘Birthday Bunny’ before turning it into a story far more attractive to young readers. Apparently they started out by writing the sappiest, least interesting children’s book they could. They chose rabbits as star.


AZTEC: Gods known as Centzon Totochtin (‘Four Hundred Rabbits’), led by Ometotchtli (‘Two Rabbit’) represent fertility, parties and drunkenness (much like Bacchus).

EAST ASIA: From East Asia, the moon at night looks a bit like a rabbit is standing on tippy toes pounding on a mortar.

IRELAND: Oisin wounded a hare. He chased it into undergrowth where he found a door leading to an underground hall. Seated on a throne was a woman with an injured leg…

JUDAISM: rabbits (shfanim) are associated with cowardice. (In English we tend to use the word ‘chicken’.)

OJIBWE: (Native American) Nanabozho, is an important god associated with the creation of the world. Nanabozho sometimes appears in the shape of a rabbit. In his trickster rabbit form he is called Mishaabooz (‘Great Rabbit’ or ‘Hare’).

ZAMBIA:  “Kalulu” the rabbit, in known in rabbit stories, similar to the trickster Brer Rabbit


“BRER RABBIT”; “BRER FOX”; “BRER BEAR”- These characters from Joel Chandler Harris’s “Tales of Uncle Remus” (1888) were once mainstays of American folklore
Harry Rountree, Brer Rabbit

Trickster Heroes have bred like rabbits in the folktales and fairy tales of the world. Indeed, some of the most popular Tricksters are rabbit heroes: The B’rer Rabbit of the American South, the Hare of African tales, the many rabbit heroes from Southeast Asia, Persia, India, etc. These stories pit the defenseless but quick-thinking rabbit against much larger and more dangerous enemies: folktale Shadow figures like wolves, hunters, tigers and bears. Somehow the tiny rabbit always manages to outwit his hungry opponent, who usually suffers painfully from dealing with a Trickster Hero.

The Writer’s Journey, Vogler


Bugs Bunny Too Many Carrots

The modern version of the rabbit Trickster is of course Bugs Bunny. The Warner Brothers animators made use of folktale plots to pit Bugs against hunters and predators who didn’t stand a chance against his quick wits…

The Writer’s Journey, Vogler


… Once in awhile it’s fun to turn the tables and show that Tricksters themselves can be outwitted. Sometimes a Trickster like the Hare will try to take advantage of a weaker, slower animal like Mr. Tortoise. In folktales and fables such as “The Tortoise and the Hare”, the slowest outwits the fastest by dogged persistence or by cooperating with others of its kind to outwit the faster animal.

The Writer’s Journey, Vogler
Tomodachi dekita yo (I Made A Friend)
Tomodachi dekita yo (I Made A Friend)
Leonard Weisgard; 1916-2000 rabbit fox
1950 Stevan Dohanos
Illustration from Beatrix Potter’s first published work, written by Frederick Weatherly. A Happy Pair. Illustrated by H. B. P. London Hildesheimer & Faulkner, New York George C. Whitney, [1890]
Illustration from Beatrix Potter’s first published work, written by Frederick Weatherly. A Happy Pair. Illustrated by H. B. P. London Hildesheimer & Faulkner, New York George C. Whitney, [1890]


Header illustration: Millicent Sowerby (English, 1878-1967) Alice in Wonderland

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