You know, simply put, the markings on the moon that look like a rabbit pounding in a pestle? This is what is known in science as a ‘pareidolia’, an image or sound that appears to be something significant.
The Moon: how many poems and legends has inspired with its pale, romantic glow. Of these legends one expecially strikes in particular for its ancient and poignant beauty. Originally of oriental culture, the legend of the “rabbit on the moon” is little known in the West. His protagonist is a bunny, who is special, and for his generosity was rewarded by the goddess of the moon, Chang’e, with a very memorable gift: his shape was in fact impressed as a coat of arms, an indelible mark placed on the jagged surface of our satellite.
In China, for examples, stories about the moon rabbit date as far back as the Warring States period (about 475-221 BCE). According to legend, the moon rabbit is a companion to the moon goddess Chang’e and pounds the elixir of life for her in its pestle. It lives in the moon with the toad and can be seen every year in full view on Mid-Autumn Day, or August 15th. In one legend told in and around Beijing, a deadly plague came to the city some 500 years ago and started killing lot of people. The only thing that could save the city was the Moon Rabbit. So, Chang’e sent the Moon Rabbit to earth to visit each family and cure them of this plague. It did just that and asked for nothing in return except some clothes and often changed from man to woman. After curing the city of this plague, it returned to the moon.
In December 2013, China launched its first unmanned moon probe to explore a region of the moon known as Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows. This moon probe was named Jade Rabbit, but sadly enough, it suffered some malfunctions on the moon’s surface and completely down before the mission was complete.
A number of Native American people in the US, Canada, and Mexico have stories about the moon rabbit as well. The Aztecs believe that once the god Quetzalcoatl lived on the earth as a man. He started on a journey and after traveling on foot for some time, became tired and hungry. But there was nothing to drink and no food around, and he thought he would die. While the rabbit was grazing, found the man and offered himself as food to save his life. Quetzalcoatl, humbled by the rabbit’s offer to sacrifice himself for his well-being, then took the rabbit to the moon and brought her back to Earth, telling her “You are just a rabbit, but you will be remembered by everyone. Your image is in the light of the moon for all people of all times.”
In China, Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan every year, in the autumn full moon (the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month in the Chinese calendar), in honor of this anniversary, people celebrate the “Mid-Autumn Festival” also called “Festival of the Moon or the Harvest “. For the occasion, families gather to observe the sky eating fruit and sweets, but also to thank for the good year.
This legend has also enshrined the spread of the figure of the rabbit in the Japanese collective imagination: manga and anime have repeated innumerable versions, for example in some aspects in the best known “Dragon Ball” (in the clash between Goku and the enemy from the features of a rabbit that he must send back to the moon), in “The Knights of the Zodiac”, but above all in the renowned Pretty Guardian saga: Sailor Moon, where the moon is recounted, where the legendary Tsukino Usagi, a name similar to tsuki no usagi, is the protagonist “Rabbit of the moon”. In fact, the moon rabbit is also popular in Japan, where he is known as “Tsuki no Usagi”. A famous story about him in Japan says that many years ago, the Old Man of the Moon decided to visit the Earth. He disguised himself as a beggar and asked Fox (Kitsune), Monkey (Saru), and Rabbit (Usagi) for some food. Monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit. Fox went to a stream, caught a fish, and brought it back to him. But Rabbit had nothing to offer him but some grass. So he asked the beggar to build a fire. After the beggar started the fire, Rabbit jumped into it and offered himself as a meal for the beggar to eat. Quickly the beggar changed back into the Old Man of the Moon and pulled Rabbit from the fire. He said “You are most kind, Rabbit, but don’t do anything to harm yourself. Since you were the kindest of all to me, I’ll take you back to the moon to live with me.” The Old Man carried Rabbit in his arms back to the moon and he is still there to this very day exactly where the Old Man left him. Just look at the moon in the night sky and the rabbit is there!”. This story is said to originate from the Buddhist Śaśajâtaka, where Śakra is the Old Man of the Moon and the monkey, otter, and jackal are the rabbit’s companions. Also in Japan is the mid-autumn, or Jugo-ya, festival. As in other world countries, people gather to watch the full moon and children sing a song about the moon rabbit called “Usagi”, or “Rabbit”.
It is also curious how this legend was made historic mention in the dialogue that took place shortly before the historic Apollo 11 landing. Believe it or not, the moon rabbit (as well as the moon goddess Chang’e) were topics of discussion between the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the mission controllers in Houston just before the space capsule landed on the moon. This is a part of the Apollo 11 transcripts of their conversation:
Houston: “Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported“.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin: “Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl“. (A phrase since then anchored in the memory of the historic day.)
Legend? Optical illusion?
Yet he seems to really appear up there, in those deep depressions, in those patches perfectly inserted into the drawing of his figure.
The nuances of this legend meander through often changing details, but the heart of its moral is always the same: the sacrifice that contains and sublimates in all its manifestations the rarest and most honorable virtues.
It is said that if you look up at the moon, you can see an outline of the Moon Rabbit pounding with a pestle. More than just cute, fluffy, and white, the Jade Rabbit is a sign of selflessness, piety, and sacrifice. Maybe that’s why the Moon Rabbit is on the moon, so that no matter where we are on Earth, we always have the ethics of righteousness and self-sacrifice to look up to. So, the next time you look up at the moon, remember the Moon Rabbit who has nothing to give but himself, for others…….
The Italian songwriter Angelo Branduardi (source: our collaborator Ivan, you are as usual the number one…thanks a lot!) has dedicated one of his songs to the legend: