I’m honored to be starting a music commission from artist Michelle A M Miller, for her book installation, “Convergence”. We got to know each other’s work last year at the Atlantic Center residency, and she is a treat to work with. Her project centers her Nicaraguan Miskito mother’s voice, memories and cosmology, interwoven with bio and astronomical sciences. During one of our chats Michelle described an elusive conversation with her mother, who dropped clues about the importance of dreams and animals to the Miskito people. “Rabbits. Rabbits are liars”, her mother said. When asked why, she shrugged. “They just are”.
Indigenous people in different parts of the Americas and Africa have fabulous stories about rabbits and hares as liars, or more deeply stated, as tricksters. Tricksters tell the truth by taking you down a tortuous and humbling path. Brer Rabbit is a great example of an ultimate resistor to colonization and enslavement. To be a trickster is to acknowledge that while your soft body will always be vulnerable, your mind is strong and free, and can juggle with the tools from the master’s house.
I found this tale of the Hare of Inaba, a version from the Kojiki in 8thC Japan, which describes the beginnings of Japanese identity and statehood. It has all the elements I love. Sharks, rabbits, herbal remedies, trickery, justice and compassion.
A hare wants to travel from the Island of Oki to Cape Keta. So he challenges some sharks to see whose clan is larger – sharks vs. hares. The hare has the sharks lie in a row across the sea. He hops across them, counting them as he goes. Towards the end, the hare shouts that he has deceived the sharks in order to use them as a bridge. The last shark attacks the hare, ripping his fur from him.
Meanwhile Ōnamuchi-no-kami and his eighty nasty brothers (!) are traveling through the Inaba region to woo Princess Yakami of Inaba. The abused youngest brother, who was only brought along to carry the luggage, travels the slowest.
The large group of brothers eventually reach Cape Keta and see a fur-less hare. As a joke, they advise the hare to bathe in seawater, then stand on top of a high mountain to let the winds and sun dry him, saying this would help the hare recover quickly. The hare acts on their advice, but the winds and sun dry out and crack his skin, causing him even worse pain.
Ōnamuchi arrives some time after all his other brothers, as he is loaded down by luggage. He takes pity on the hare, and tells him to bathe in fresh water from the mouth of a river, and roll in cattail pollen. The hare’s body is healed, and after his recovery, he reveals his true form as a god. In gratitude, the hare tells Ōnamuchi, the lowest born in the family, that he will marry Princess Yakami.
Japanese scholars have traditionally interpreted the struggle between kind Ōnamuchi and his mean brothers as a symbolic representation of civilization and barbarism in the emergent Japanese state.