Rabbit as Symbol: The Significance of Rabbits in Dreams and Art

Rabbits are more than companion animals to many of us in the House Rabbit Society-they are also living symbols of a life style, a philosophy and a value system. Many people who live with a house bunny have chosen a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, for example. In America we usually define animals as “pets” or “food” more succinctly than people from other countries do. A Frenchmen may be as comfortable riding a horse from their stable, as eating horse at a restaurant and likewise, dogs and cats are seen as food in some Asian societies. People who live with rabbits may be more acutely aware of this dichotomy than are people with other companion animals, because rabbits are seen as either food or companions here (while dogs, cats and horses are strictly companions.)

The point is that people who live with companion rabbits have often made other choices for other ethical principles in their lives as well. Perhaps, like our bunnies, we are more sensitive, both figuratively and literally, than others.

Last summer, as I was reading Stories Rabbits Tell, by Susan Davis and Margo DeMello, I was struck by the sheer complexity of our images of  “Rabbit.” One could even delve deeper into the mystical and ethereal symbolic meanings of Rabbit and the significance of Rabbit in dreams and in art.

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst in the early 1900’s who recognized that all humans connected on a level that superseded religion, culture and race. He is well-known for many concepts, particularly that of the Collective Unconscious, the Anima and Animus (the male and female principles within all) and the parallels of ancient energies (gods and goddesses) with current personality types. He made extensive use of primeval symbolism in understanding humanity. Jung defined certain patterns of personality as “archetypes.”

These symbolic archetypes are useful for understanding Rabbit in dreams and art. If one dreams of a rabbit, for instance, does that not have more meaning than the frightened “Thumper” of Disneyworld? Having lived with Rabbit for nearly fifteen years, I am most positive that is so.

To me, one of the most important archetypes is that of the Psychopomp. A Psychopomp is a god or goddess (energy form) that acts as a liaison, and guide, between the three worlds-the physical earthly level that we dwell upon, the Underworld and the Heavens. In classical mythology, the Roman God Mercury was a Psychopomp, for example. He guided the ancient heroes to and through the Underworld, and he also brought messages from above to the mere mortals here on Earth.

Rabbit is a symbolic representation of that same energy. Rabbit is well at home here on the earthly plane, of course. But he is also an Adept, comfortable in the Netherworld of underground tunnels and dark passages. His acute perception makes him sensitive to vibrations and energies that we often cannot comprehend. But in the “Underworld,” those sensitivities are even more pronounced as sight is reduced to nil.

Jungian psychology and the dream world both make prolific use of language puns. Symbolically, Rabbit in the Underworld is therefore representative of using one’s intuition: knowing how to get around “in the dark” and being comfortable traveling in “unmarked territory.” By default, it can also denote having or developing trust in the “Inner Light.” Rabbit does not need an outside source to illuminate his way. His connection to the Collective Energy maintains his pathway.

Rabbit is also an Earth symbol, by virtue of the fact that he is so close to the ground, and lives partially in the ground itself. He could convey, symbolically, a need to center oneself more, for instance. He could also imply stodginess, for that matter, a sort of “stuck in the rut” kind of energy that happens to us all at times. The context of the dream or imagery will define the meaning more clearly. That earthy quality also suggests the Zen-like ability to maintain focus even whilst all about is chaos. And as an animal that can become one with the earth in a camouflaged way, this symbol can also be translated into several different phases. It can mean that one is non-threatening, complacent, is unrecognized (invisible to others), hidden and/or totally safe and secure. The meanings vary according to the context of the imagery.

Rabbit, as Davis and DeMello indicated, is also a symbol of the archetypal “Trickster” in world mythologies. Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster, for example, as is the rabbit Manabozho in Native American myths. We all know Bugs Bunny, of course, in popular American cartoons. The idea is that Rabbit can stay one step ahead of the enemies, literally from without or figuratively from within. We know that ‘real’ rabbits zigzag in complex patterns to escape predators; the symbol evoked is that one is more intelligent and quicker than those in pursuit.

Rabbit is also a Shape Shifter, to use the Native American Shamanic term. One moment he is benignly hidden in the grass, an innocuous little bunny rabbit…and the next he is a ferocious Monty-Pythonesque fracas of razor-sharp teeth, and splayed claws, spewing growls of anger. House rabbits especially, can represent Bravery as they defend their territory against the others, be it dog, cat or human. This is a symbolic allusion to “facing fears”, not simply thumping in fear as Disney would have us believe. “Know thyself,” the Greek philosophers taught. Rabbit always knows “where he is,” at any moment, on any issue, in any arena. As a prey animal, is it absolutely necessary to know where the escape routes are located, who and where the predators are, and to remain in command of one’s senses. Rabbit in this instance would bring to mind that we often need to do the same, especially in some environments. Rabbit always has contingency plans for everything.

Realistically, rabbits are prey animals: symbolically Rabbit is a “Pray” animal, because dreams and imagery use the meanings interchangeably. Rabbit also “sacrifices” his life for the predator, whether coyote or fox. Rabbit in that sense could be interpreted as “service to others”. And of course, we see bunnies “pray” every time they bring their paws together in front of their faces to wash.

To me, Rabbit as companion also has specific meanings that can be translated symbolically. For instance, they teach us Unconditional Love, and Compassion for Life, by virtue of eliciting those things within us. If we watch them, they teach us to meditate every day. (Some writers have referred to the tucked-in, self-composed position rabbits assume sometimes as the “meatloaf” position; I prefer to call this asana the “Bunny Buddha.”)

Rabbit teaches us that you are what you perceive yourself to be; some of the rabbits that have lived with me have been physically challenged, but have never seen themselves as such. And some of our smallest rabbits have been likened to little Napoleons as they perceive themselves to be the head of the Warren. They teach us to assume self-worth as well.

And one important symbolical meaning that Rabbit should elicit in us is that of playfulness and joy. Their nonsense displays of happiness are part of the Dance of Life–which is nothing more than a Cosmic Binkie.

Sandy Koi

House Rabbit Journal Summer 2005: Volume IV, Number 11