Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Hare

Uranias Mirror 1825

Latin lepus, hare, refers to the leporids, the genus Leporidae consisting of rabbits, hares, and pikas. The scientific Latin term Leporidae is used for the genus or family, and the Greek term Lagomorpha is used for the order. The word leveret, a young hare, is from Latin lepus.

This constellation was Lagos among the Greeks. Greek lagos or Latin lagus, means hare, from where we get the word lagomorph, the order Lagomorpha, that includes rabbits, hares, pikas, and their fossil relatives, having fully furred feet and two pairs of upper incisors. Hares make shallow scrapes in the ground called 'forms'; the suffix '-morph' in lagomorph is cognate with the English word 'form'.

"Greek lago-, lag-, from lagos, 'hare', which stands for Greek lag(o)-o(us)-os, and literally means 'the animal with the flapping ears'. The first element of this compound is related to Greek lagaros, 'slack, hollow', and cognate with Latin languere, 'to faint, weary'. The second element is related to Greek ous, genitive otos, 'ear'" [Klein].

Greek lagos is from the Indo-European root *slég- 'To be slack, be languid'. Derivatives: slack¹ (loose, indolent, careless), slake (to satisfy a craving, quench thirst, to moderate), lax, lease, lessor, relax, release, relish, (these words from Latin laxus, loose, slack, laxare, 'loosen,' from laxus, 'loose'), laches (negligence or undue delay in asserting a legal right or privilege), languid, languish, languor, lush¹ (abundant, plentiful, 'soft and watery', these words from Latin languere, to be languid, Greek *(s)laeg-ousos `with drooping ears'), lagomorph (from Greek lagos, hare), algolagnia (from Greek algos + lagnos, lustful, pain, masochism, sexual gratification derived from inflicting or experiencing pain), catalectic (the lack of one syllable in the final foot of a line of verse, from Greek legein, to leave off, stop (the e of leg- is eta, not epsilon). [Pokorny (s)leg- 959. Watkins and Pokorny online]

The four bright stars of Lepus were in Arabic astronomy Al Nihal, "the Thirst-slaking Camels", in reference to the near-by celestial river (Eridanus) [Allen, Star Names].

The Greeks had a number of cognates of *lagos, 'hare' which meant 'to be lustful'. Hesychius laggeuai pheugai is translated "faint, languid, limp and to be undecided"; with the meaning `lustful', lagnos, `horny, lustful'; lagneuein, `be lustful'; lagneia, `lust, sensuality, voluptuousness'. From the same Indo-European *slég- root Middle-Dutch has lak also meaning `lustful' [from Pokorny online "Root / lemma: (s)lēg- : (s)lǝg- and (s)leg-"].

Rabbits and hares hop with a limping sort of gait, especially when not running; to hop is to walk with a limp. The *slég- root above also has the meaning of lameness and limping; related to Old Indian langa- `lame', Swedish slinka 'not fixed residences, shiver, limp', and also Old-High-German lenka `the left (hand side)' [from Pokorny online "Root / lemma: (s)lēg- : (s)lǝg- and (s)leg-"]. Pokorny under a different root on that page [Root / lemma: leb-, lob-, lab-, leb-] suggests a possible connection between lepus, lip, and limp.

The English word hare from Middle English hare, from Old English hara, Old Norse heri. These words literally denote the gray animal, and are related to Old English hasu, Old High German hasan, 'gray', German hase, and ultimately with Latin canus (for *cas-nos), 'gray, hoary, white', cascus, 'old' (originally 'gray', whence 'gray with age') [Klein]. Hare comes from the Indoeuropean root kas-, 'gray'. Cognates are canescent, 'growing grayish or white'. Haze and hazy are believed to be cognates which have the meaning of obscured or made foggy or misty, also the sense of 'vague', 'indefinite' 'uncertain'; "a gray area" might explain the sense. Haze2 'to persecute or harass with meaningless, difficult, or humiliating tasks, perhaps from obsolete haze, to frighten. Hazing has come to mean the initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him. 

 Hares and rabbits are very fertile symbols which are persecuted and forced to move from their homes, to spread out. The word harass means 'to torment,' or 'persistently annoy', 'to hound'. Harass apparently derives from an Old French hunting term, harer, it came from hare, a term for the cry used to urge dogs on. A harrier is a dog for hare-hunting, from French harasser, possibly from Old French harer, to set a dog on.

The legends of hares and rabbits, and the titles given to this constellation, implies this is the 'Man in the Moon', or the landscape figure on the face of the full Moon. The full Moon might, with a bit of imagination, contain the outline of a long-eared hare. The constellation Lepus has been associated with "the Hebrew sinner gathering sticks on the Sabbath" (referring to Numbers xv. 32-36). The sticks that the Hebrew sinner was gathering on the Sabbath is presumed to be for firewood. In European legends the man in the moon is usually seen as an old man carrying a bundle of sticks upon his back [1].

The constellation Lepus was also seen as "Cain driven from the face of the earth to the face of the Moon":

A medieval legend used to say that at the end, Cain arrived at the Moon where he eternally settled with a bundle of twigs. An example of this belief can be found in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (XX, 126) where the expression "Cain and the twigs" is used as a synonym of "moon" [2].

A variation of this legend as given by many writers is something like this:

A man travelling on Sunday with a bundle on his back was met by a fairy, who asked him why he worked on the Sabbath. He replied : "Sunday on earth or Monday in heaven, it is all one to me." "Then carry your bundle forever," she answered. "As you have no regard for Sunday on earth, take your perpetual Monday (Moon-day) in heaven and travel with the moon." So there he still remains [3].

In Africa and the Americas the hare was believed to be a trickster using its superior intellect as its defense [3]. Lepids are the favourite prey for many predators.

Lagomorphs display the characteristics of grinding their teeth, a reminder of Bugs Bunny's in his relaxed ('relax' from *slég-) nonchalant carrot-chewing stance. Their teeth grinding producing different types of whirring sounds; for when they are in pain, as an alarm call for warning, and as a sign of contentment. "The habit of this animal is to grind its teeth and move its jaw as if it actually chewed the cud" [11]. The grinding characteristics of the lagomorphs might be the basis of the association of hares or rabbits grinding in a mortar and pestle: In China, the Moon Hare holds a pestle and mortar and is grinding the elixir of immortality. In Japan, people who gaze up at the moon on a clear night see a rabbit or hare pounding mochi [12], i.e. glutinous rice pounded into paste.

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

To those born under this constellation nature all but gives wings and flight through the air, such will be the vigor of limbs which reflect the swiftness of the winds. One man will come off winner in the footrace before even receiving the signal to start; another by his quick movement can evade the hard boxing-glove and now lightly avoid, now land a blow; another can with a deft kick keep in the air a flying ball, exchanging hands for feet and employing in play the body's support, and execute with nimble arms a volley of rapid strokes; yet another can shower his limbs with a host of balls and create hands to spring up all over his body with the result that, without dropping any of the number, he plays against himself and causes the balls to fly about his person as though in answer to his command. Such a man devotes wakeful nights to his concerns, for his energy banishes sleepiness [translator's note: according to Aelian, the hare sleeps with its eyes open] whilst he spends happy workfree hours in games of divers kinds. [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.313, 315.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Lepus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
epsilon 10GEM40 12GEM03 075 50 09 -22 26 13 -44 58 12 3.29 K5
mu 14GEM01 15GEM24 077 40 15 -16 15 48 -39 03 22 3.30 A0
Nihal beta 18GEM17 19GEM40 081 31 32 -20 47 53 -43 55 12 2.96 G2
Arneb alpha 19GEM59 21GEM23 082 37 51 -17 51 24 -41 03 52 2.69 F0
gamma 23GEM28 24GEM51 085 35 41 -22 27 48 -45 49 11 3.80 F6
zeta 24GEM36 25GEM59 086 10 19 -14 50 21 -38 13 20 3.67 A2
delta 25GEM47 27GEM10 087 17 33 -20 52 55 -44 17 40 3.90 G7
eta 27GEM31 28GEM54 088 31 54 -14 10 32 -37 36 44 3.77 F2

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Behind him Sirius ever speeds as in pursuit, and rises after,

And eyes him as he sets.

-- Poste's Aratos.

The German Hase, the Portuguese lebre, the Italian Lepre, and the French Lievre, is located just below Orion and westward from his Hound (Canis Major).

It was Lagos among the Greeks —Lagoos in the Epic dialect, — Aratos characterizing its few and faint stars by the adjective glaukos. With the Greeks of Sicily, the country noted in early days for the great devastations by hares, the constellation was leporis (hare), whence came the fanciful story {Page 265} that our Hare was placed in the heavens to be close to its hunter, Orion. Riccioli enlarged upon this in his Almagestum Novum: "Quia Orion in gratiam Dianae, quae leporine sanguine gaudebat, plurimum venatu leporis gauderet."

Among the Romans it was simply Lepus, often qualified by the descriptive auritus, "eared"; dasypus, ''rough-footed"; levipes, "light-footed"; and velox, "swift."

The Arabians adopted the classical title in their Al Arnab, which degenerated into Alarnebet, Elarneb, and Harneb; and the Hebrews are said to have known it as Arnebeth; but the early Arabs designated the principal stars —  alpha, beta, gamma, and delta —  as Al Kursiyy al Jabbar and Al ‘Arsh al Jauzah, the Chair of the Giant (Orion) and the Throne of the Jauzah (Orion). Kazwini, repeating this, added, in Ideler's rendering, Gott weiss wie sonst noch, which Smyth assumed to be Ideler's comment thereon; but it was merely his translation of Kazwini's Arabic formula, God is the Omniscient, used when a writer did not wish to come to a decision. Smyth further wrote of it:

'Abdr rahman Sufi designates the throne — one of the many which the Arabs had in their heavens, although a squatting rather than a sitting people — al-muakhkherah, the succeeding, as following that formed by lambda, beta, psi Eridani and tau Orionis.

Al Sufi also cited the occasional Al Nihal, the Thirst-slaking Camels, for the four bright stars, in reference to the near-by celestial river (Eridanus).

It is in the space occupied by Lepus, or perhaps by Monoceros, that Hommel locates the Euphratean Udkagaba, the Smiting Sun Face, although Brown assigns this to Sagittarius, "the original Sagittary being the sun."

Hewitt says that in earliest Egyptian astronomy Lepus was the Boat of Osiris, the great god of that country, identified with Orion. The Chinese knew it as Tsih, a Shed.

Caesius made the constellation represent one of the hares prohibited to the Jews; but Julius Schiller substituted for it Gideons Fleece. The Denderah planisphere has in its place a Serpent apparently attacked by some bird of prey; and Persian zodiacs imitated this.

Gould catalogues in Lepus 103 stars down to the 7th magnitude.

Aelian, of our 2d century, in his Pepi Zoon idiotetos, referred to the early belief that the hare detested the voice of the raven, — a belief that has generally been put among the zoological fables of antiquity; but Thompson suggests for it an astronomical explanation, as "the constellation Lepus sets soon after the rising of Corvus"; and something similar may be said of Lepus in connection with Aquila, for the

{Page 266} eagle in combat with the hare is frequent on gems, and on coins of Agrigentum, Messana, Elis, etc. . . . the wide occurrence of this subject . . . indicates a lost mythological significance, in which one is tempted to recognize a Solar or Stellar symbol.

Brown writes of the often discussed comparative location of Lepus and Orion:

The problem which perplexed the ancients, why the Mighty-hunter and his Dog should pursue the most timid of creatures, is solved when we recognize that Orion was originally a solar type, and that the Hare is almost universally a lunar type;

and mentions the very singular connection between, this creature and the moon shown on Euphratean cylinders, Syrian agate seals, Chinese coins, the Moon-cakes of Central Asia, and in the legends of widely separated nations and savage tribes. Astronomical folk-lore has many allusions to this interesting association of animal with satellite, and indirectly with our constellation. The common idea that it is because all are nocturnal does not seem satisfactory; and there are others still less so, some being mentioned by Beaumont and Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherd.

A brief digression to some of these allusions may be allowed here. The Hindus called the moon Cacin, or Sasanka, Marked with the Hare, from the story told of Sakya muni (Buddha). This holy man, in an early stage of his existence, was a hare, and, when in company with an ape and a fox, was applied to by the god Indra, disguised as a beggar, who, wishing to test their hospitality, asked for food. All went in search of it, the hare alone returning unsuccessful; but, that he might not fall short in duty to his guest, had a fire built and cast himself into it for the latter's supper. In return, Indra rewarded him by a place in the moon where we now see him. Other Sanskrit and Cingalese tales mention the palace of the king of the hares on the face of the moon; the Aztecs saw there the rabbit thrown by one of their gods; and the Japanese, the Jeweled Hare pounding omochi, their rice dough, in a mortar. Even the Khoikhoin, the Hottentots of South Africa, and the Bantus associated the hare and moon in their worship, and connected them in story, asserting that the hare, ill treated by the moon, scratched her face and we still see the scratches. Eskimos think the moon a girl fleeing from her brother, the sun, because he had disfigured her face by ashes thrown at her; but in Greenland the sex of these luminaries is interchanged, and the moon pursues his sister, the sun, who daubs her sooty hands over his face. The Khasias of the Himalayas say that every month the moon falls in love with his mother-in-law, who very properly repulses his affection by throwing ashes at him.

Other ideas to account for the lunar marks are current among many {Page 267} nations. One from our North American Indians appears in Longfellow's Hiawatha:

Once a warrior very angry,

Seized his grandmother, and threw her

Up into the sky at midnight;

Right against the moon he threw her;

'Tis her body that you see there.

The Incas knew them as a beautiful maiden who fell in love with the moon and joined herself forever to him; the New Zealanders, as a woman pulling gnatuh; the Hervey Islanders, as the lovely Ina, an earthly maiden carried away to be our satellite's wife, and still visible with her pile of taro leaves and tongs of a split coconut branch; and the Samoans, as a woman with her child and the mallet with which she is pounding out sheets of the native paper cloth. So that all these people long ago anticipated pretty Selene, [This may be seen on the western half of the moon after the ninth day of lunation, the face slightly upturned toward the east. It seems to have been first described some years ago by Doctor James Thompson; and an opera-glass of low power makes the phenomenon very distinct. ] of whom Serviss tells us.

In southern Sweden a brewing-kettle is imagined on the moon's face; in northern Germany and Iceland, Hjuki and Bil with their mead burden, the originals of our Jack and Jill with their pail of water, the contents scattered or retained according to the lunar phases. In Frisia the marks were a man who had stolen cabbages, and whom, when discovered, his suffering neighbors wished in the moon, and so it turned out; or a sheep-stealer, with his dog, who enticed the animals to him by cabbages, and, when detected, was transported to the moon, where he is now seen, cabbages and all. But others said that he was caught with a bundle of osier willows that did not belong to him, and there he is on the moon's face with his plunder.

Danish folklore makes the moon a cheese formed from the milk that has run together out of the Milky Way; which recalls Rabelais' now familiar remark that some thought the moon made of green cheese.

Those biblically inclined saw here the Magdalen in tears; or Judas Iscariot; and, in the earlier record, the patriarch Jacob; Isaac with the wood for the sacrifice; the Hebrew sinner gathering sticks on the Sabbath; or Cain driven from the face of the earth to the face of the moon. This appeared even with Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, for the first had in the Paradise:

But tell me what the dusky spots may be

Upon this body, which below on earth

Make people tell that fabulous tale of Cain;

{Page 268} and in the Inferno:

Touches the ocean wave Cain and the thorns.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream Quince says:

Or else one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lanthorn and say, he comes to disfigure, or to present the person of moonshine;

and Chaucer described the figure as

Bearing a bush of thorns on his back

Which for his theft might clime so near the heaven;

although Milton, from a higher plane of thought, wrote that the sinful wandered

Not in the neighboring moon as some have dreamed.

The Salish Indians of our northwest coast tell of a toad which, pursued by a wolf, jumped to the moon to escape his unwelcome attentions.

At the present day the handsome face of Selene shows itself in profile to the favored few; while the Old Man in the Moon is seen by all. It would be interesting to know who originated this, or, as in Hudibras,

Who first found out the Man in the Moon,

That to the ancients was unknown.

Yet Shakespeare knew him well, for we find in The Tempest:

The man i' th' moon's too slow.

Ages before all this, however, the Egyptians had similar ideas; the Hindus called the moon Mriga, an Antelope; the Aethiopians saw that creature in it; while the Greeks knew it as the Gorgon's head, and Plutarch thought the phenomenon worthy a special treatise in his De Facie in Orbe Lunae. But perhaps too much attention has been paid to a probably very dead star;  —  let us return to those certainly alive, our more legitimate subject.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]