Thursday Myths & Legends 101: The Jade Rabbit

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Okay, so you’ve heard of the Man in the Moon… have you ever heard of the Rabbit in the Moon? If you know your East Asian culture, you probably have.

There is an old Buddhist legend where a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit are all hoping to do a good deed on the Uposatha, or the Buddhist sabbath, believing a good deed will bring them great rewards.

An old man passes by them, begging for food, and so the monkey gathers fruit from the highest reaches of the trees, while the otter catches fish for the man, and the jackal—less honorably—steals him a lizard and some milk curds.

The rabbit only knows how to gather grass, though, which he knows can’t serve the man for food, and so he offers himself, throwing himself on the man’s fire. The rabbit does not burn, though, and the man reveals himself to be Śakra, the Jade Emperor, or the ruler of Heaven in Buddhist mythology. He is so touched by the rabbit’s selflessness, that he lifts the smoke from his fire to leave an impression on the moon of the rabbit, for generations to come.

Interestingly, there is a very similar legend involving Quetzalcoatl, an ancient Aztec deity, who was starving by a roadside and had a rabbit offer himself up to save him.

There is an opposite tale also in MesoAmerican legends, of a deity called Nanauatzin who offered himself freely as sacrifice to become the sun, while the wealthy god Tecciztecatl hesitated multiple times to light himself as the moon—and because of his resistance the moon was declared to never glow as brightly as the sun, and one of the gods threw a rabbit in the face of the moon as an insult, which remains there to this day.

As you can see in the picture, though, it doesn’t just look like a rabbit, but it looks as if the rabbit is doing… something. In Chinese legend, the Rabbit is a companion of the moon goddess Chang’e, and pounds the elixir of life for her. In Japanese or Korean legends, the rabbit is making mochi or tteok (both basically pounded rice), so while Americans will say the moon is made of cheese, in Japan it is made of mochi, or rice.

Lots of legends there, hm? Next time you’re out under a full moon (which should be the beginning of December) glance up and see if you can see the Jade Rabbit up there!

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About Lisa Asanuma

Lisa is a professional freelance writer and editor, along with a bookbinder and knitting obsessee. Lisa has a passion for YA literature (inside her passion for literature in general) and is currently working on her first novel. View all posts by Lisa Asanuma

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