Updated: Jan 21
Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit! Let me tell you the ancient story of how Rabbit got a year in the Chinese Zodiac…
Long ago the years of the Zodiac had no names - so one day the Jade Emperor organized a race between the animals to determine the names and characteristics of the years. It was declared that the first twelve animals to reach Jade Emperor would have a year of their own. The finish line where the Jade Emperor would wait lay across a fast and wide river.
The first animal to reach the river was the Rabbit, but the Rabbit was not a good swimmer, and was scared to enter the water. No other animals were there, and knowing he was very fast assumed he had a great lead and would carefully consider his options before crossing, but while thinking and worrying about how he would cross Rabbit’s eyes began to grow heavy and he dozed off. While Rabbit slept, the next three animals reached the banks of the great river, they were Cat, Rat, and Ox.
These three animals had worked together throughout the race, but they were nervous to enter the powerful waters. Ox eventually said, “I am a powerful swimmer, I will swim across and you two can ride on my back. But I will need your help, the waves will get water in my eyes, so one of you must tell me which way to go.” The Rat and the Cat both agreed and climbed onto Ox’s back. Cat stood in front and carefully shouted instructions to ox to keep them headed in the direction of the far bank. When they were nearly to the other side, Rat, wanting to be first, scurried up and pushed Cat into the churning waters. He was quickly washed away downriver and never finished the race! That is why, even to this day, cats hate rats!
Just as Ox was about to step onto the shore and win the race, Rat scurried forward onto Ox’s head, and jumped onto the shore to win the race. Even though rat had betrayed his friends, Jade Emperor kept his word and declared that Rat was the winner and that the first year of each zodiac cycle is named after the selfish Rat (2020). Hard working and powerful Ox, was named the second year of the zodiac (2021).
The next animal to arrive at the river was Tiger. He fearlessly jumped into the water believing his strength and determination would get him across. Tiger was a powerful swimmer but even he struggled against the powerful currents and tall waves of the river. Many times he was swept downstream and had to swim back upstream to reach the finish line. Eventually he clawed his way onto the shore, and used the last of his strength to let out a mighty victory roar as he collapsed, soaked, cold, and exhausted at the foot of the Jade Emperor. Fearless Tiger (2022) was declared the third year of the Zodiac.
Tiger’s loud roar finally woke Rabbit. “Oh no!” thought Rabbit, “Tiger has reached the other side and won the race. At least I can be second, if I can find a way across.”
He ran first downstream, and then upstream where he saw several stepping stones extending a good ways across the river. Rabbit carefully jumped from one to the other until he reached the end of the line. He considered jumping in the water but dismissed the idea knowing he would be swept away. Just then he saw a large log floating towards him and thought maybe he could float on it to the other side. He jumped skillfully onto it, but too late he realized that the log was floating downstream rather than across the river. He tried using his legs to kick it towards the shore but it didn’t change course. Just then he saw Dragon flying towards the river. Rabbit jumped up and down waving his arms and shouting to Dragon for help. Eventually Dragon noticed Rabbit. When Dragon realized that Rabbit was in danger of being washed away, he swooped down and used his powerful breath to blow Rabbit’s log across the river. When it crashed into the shore, Rabbit tumbled off the log and into Jade Emperor. The fourth year of the Zodiac was named for cautious, thoughtful Rabbit (2023), the fifth for helpful Dragon (2024).
Jade Emperor looked at Dragon curiously and said, “Dragon you are a powerful and fast flier, you could easily have finished first, why didn’t you?”
Dragon replied, “I am not concerned with being first. I don’t have anything to prove so I stopped many times to help people and animals that were in trouble.”
The Jade Emperor smiled at Dragon’s answer and said, “ Well Dragon you may not be first, but no one can doubt your power or your wisdom. And rabbit, your careful ways may have slowed you down, but they also helped you find your way halfway across. Though your wisest move was not being afraid to ask for help when you needed it. After all, compassion has two parts, the wisdom to ask for and receive help, and the wisdom to give it.”
The next animals to finish were Snake (2025) and Horse (2026), but that’s a story for another time.
I am struck by the accuracy of this story and how it neatly describes the last few years - 2020, the Year of the Rat, betrayed us all as it push us all into the river with the rise of COVID; 2021, the Year of the Ox, was the slow and steady, hard working, and under appreciated year of ongoing pandemic quarantines; 2022, the Year of the Tiger, was a confident and manic time of going back out into the world and trying to make up for lost time with adventures and purchases. On the cusp of 2023, the year of the Rabbit, the economic situation promises to make this a careful time of introspection, hopefully it will also be a time to slow down, think about what is happening, and to rebuild our community - all while not being too scared to take action. And I’m even more hopeful for 2024, the year of the Dragon - a year of power, confidence, and wisdom and most of all compassion towards others.
As we step into the Year of the Rabbit, it is a time to reflect and choose a more cautious path. But also to not be so scared to take action. In nature, rabbits and hares are a prey species so they know the value of caution. When anything approaches their first response is to freeze, and then to wait and observe, to see if they are in danger. More often than not, danger just passes them by. But if they think whatever disturbed them has seen them - perhaps it pauses, or changes direction, or approaches them - then they spring into action with all of their skill and will!
Rabbit’s wisdom is patience, consideration and to not be frozen in indecision. All too often people make mistakes due to hasty decisions or being too afraid to ask. But rabbit’s wisdom is to walk the middle road, some caution is good, too much is calamity. Likewise rabbits (unlike hares) are social and live in groups, they keep watch for each other and share resources. In the coming year, embrace this wisdom of Rabbits as well, do not be too proud to ask for or accept the help of others. We are safer and more successful together - even a great Dragon might be willing to lend us a hand if we are brave enough to ask.
I sketched this Rabbit way back at the end of 1999, the end of the Year of the Rabbit two Zodiac cycles ago. The Image and words were deeply inspired by some lovely “Medicine Cards” illustrated by Angela Werneke, and written by Jamie Sams and David Carson. I highly recommend this simple yet wise set of oracle cards, and sure hit if you are into such things.
Only now am I connecting these lessons with the Chinese Zodiac. Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit: What you resist will persist; What you fear most you may become.
Art by Christopher Packard
To support more posts like this one purchase my book: Mythical Creatures of Maine: Fantastic Beasts from Legend and Folklore (Down East Books, 2021)