Pareidolia is the new swamp gas. Back in the hoary heydays of Project Blue Book’s search for signs of intelligent life in rural America, the esteemed Dr. Josef Allen Hynek, consultant to the Air Force on all things UFO from roughly 1947-1969, suggested that a plausible explanation for some UFO sightings (in particular he was talking about a 1966 mass sighting in Michigan involving at least 100 witnesses), was the mistaken identification of “swamp gas” for unidentified flying objects. What is swamp gas? I’m glad you asked. Swamp gas is the nasty smelling gas produced when organic matter rots, consisting mostly of methane. Very few people regarded this as an adequate explanation and it was filed with the other crazy things the government sometimes says that defy all reason (e.g. ketchup is a vegetable), but it certainly added an increased element of wackiness to an already wacky field of UFO research. Now Dr. Hynek was a well-respected astronomer, so no doubt had a perfectly sane rationale for equating some sightings with the presence of swamp gas, but the press seized on the opportunity to heap further derision on the idea that the Earth was being visited by aliens. These days aliens have had a certain resurgence in popularity, if the proportion of cable television shows on UFOS and aliens vs. meercats and Nazis is any measure, but we’re still, as a species, a little disconcerted by the notion that strange craft are flitting about in our skies mutilating cattle, drawing crop circles, abducting rednecks, confusing air traffic controllers, and drawing faces on Mars, so UFOs are still solidly maintained as a figure of fun. We certainly have a plethora of apocalyptic invasion fiction, but this is more likely due to our little apocalyptic fantasies than it has to do with belief in stealthy invaders from space. We’ve also become a little more sensitive to automatically identifying people as “batshit crazy”. When we want to demonstrate our empathy with the reality challenged, we turn to psychology, which happily provided a catch-all explanation for sightings of UFOs, monsters, and a variety of paranormal phenomena with the invention of pareidolia. Pareidolia is a hypothesized psychological phenomenon involving the attribution of significance to vague and random stimulus (a subcategory of apophenia, “seeing patterns in random data”). You can see how nicely it explains most anything a person might see that someone believes they didn’t see, and does it politely. You didn’t see anything unexplainable. You’re not a raving loon. You’re simply mistaken. This is equivalent to your wife assuring you are not an idiot. Just misinformed. We all know she means you’re an idiot, but for the sake of getting along, we’ll all just pretend. Pareidolia is the explanation immediately trotted out by experts to explain the presence of lunar lagomorphs, or more colloquially, “the moon rabbit”, noted in East Asian, Buddhist, Mesoamerican, and Cree folklore. This is definitely a more comfortable illusion than frankly admitting that perhaps we weren’t the first mammal on the moon.
Now, to the best of our knowledge rabbits do not currently, nor have they ever had a formal space program. But there are a lot of them, which suggests an adequate tax base to support a healthy research agenda. This is neither here nor there, since rabbits have a notoriously low susceptibility to high G-forces. Okay, I made that last part up, but let’s face facts – they are big squishy bundles of fur, which I presume would look much like a pancake after riding atop a rocket travelling at escape velocity. Plus, those unruly, floppy ears are not well suited to weightlessness, were they fortunate enough to make it to orbit. As it turns out, rabbit astronautics are less concerned with strapping a hare to a gigantic explosive and lofting it skyward. Apparently, rabbits have simplified their method of moon shots by getting mythological gods to pick them up and hurl them at the moon, for one reason or another. NASA disapproves of this technique. The Aztecs noted the discernible outline of a rabbit already on the moon (see picture above), and explained it thusly.
The gods were gathered from time immemorial in a place called Teotiuacan. They asked: “Who shall govern and direct the world? Who will be Sun?” Tecuciztecatl (“Cockle-Shell House”) and the pox-afflicted Nanauatzin volunteered. They were dressed in ceremonial garments and fasted for four days; and then the gods ranged themselves about a sacrificial fire, which the candi-dates were asked to enter. Tecuciztecatl recoiled from the intense heat until encouraged by the example of Nanauatzin, who plunged into it; and because of this Nanauatzin became the Sun, while Tecuciztecatl assumed second place as Moon. The gods now ranged themselves to await the appearance of the Sun, but not knowing where to expect it, and gazing in various directions, some of them, including Quetzalcoatl, turned their faces toward the east, where the Sun finally manifested himself, close-followed by the Moon. Their light being then equal, was so bright that none might endure it, and the deities accordingly asked one another, “How can this be? Is it good that they should shine with equal light?” One of them ran and threw a rabbit into the face of Tecuciztecatl, which thenceforth shone as does now the moon; but since the sun and the moon rested upon the earth, without rising, the gods saw that they must immolate themselves to give motion to the orbs of light (Gray, 1916, p88-89).
The Jatakas, among the earliest Buddhist literature (4th Century B.C.) provide a wealth of detail about the previous lives of the Buddha, particularly his animal forms, mention how the rabbits got to the moon as well. The cliff notes version is that a monkey, jackal, otter, and rabbit were hanging out in the jungle when Sakka, lord of the Devas decided to test their virtue. Sakka pretends to be an old man and begs for food from the four furry friends. The otter offered fish, the monkey fruit, and the jackal a stolen lizard and some cheese. The rabbit only ate grass, so all he could offer was himself, saying “Nor sesame, nor beans, nor rice have I as food to give/But roast with fire my flesh I yield, if thou with us wouldst live”, which he did happily, being a die-hard Buddhist, and liable to be reincarnated as something at least bipedal anyway. Sakka, touched by this act, slung him up on the moon, so all would know the depth of devotion of the rabbit for all eternity.
Sakka, on hearing what he said, by his miraculous power caused a heap of burning coals to appear, and came and told the Bodhisatta. Rising from his bed of kuga grass and coming to the place, he thrice shook himself that if there were any insects within his coat, they might escape death. Then offering his whole body as a free gift he sprang up, and like a royal swan, alighting on a cluster of lotuses, in an ecstasy of joy he fell on the heap of live coals. But the flame failed even to heat the pores of the hair on the body of the Bodhisatta, and it was as if he had entered a region of frost. Then he addressed Sakka in these words: “Brahmin, the fire you have kindled is icy-cold: it fails to heat even the pores of the hair on my body. What is the meaning of this?”. ”Wise sir,” he replied, “I am no brahmin. I am Sakka, and I have come to put your virtue to the test.” The Bodhisatta said, “If not only thou, Sakka, but all the inhabitants of the world were to try me in this matter of almsgiving, they would not find in me any unwillingness to give,” and with this the Bodhisatta uttered a cry of exultation like a lion roaring. Then said Sakka to the Bodhisatta, “O wise hare, be thy virtue known throughout a whole seen.” And squeezing the mountain, with the essence thus extracted, he daubed the sign of a hare on the orb of the moon (Jataka 316, trans. Cowell, 1895, p37).
Not only have rabbits outpaced our moon shots by at least a thousand years, they quickly set about the sort of industrial exploitation of the moon that we still have on the drawing boards. According to Chinese tradition, the moon rabbit is busy grinding elixirs of immortality with a mortar and pestle, although closely related Japanese and Korean descriptions cover up this potentially lucrative lunar business by suggesting that he is merely grinding the ingredients for rice cakes. The earliest mentions of the moon rabbit as well as his pounding the elixir of immortality are believed to date from the Western Han Dynasty (around 200 B.C.), but the traditional tale evokes the moon rabbit (or “Jade Rabbit” as he is sometimes referred to) as the companion of Cheng’e (sometimes Cheng-O, Heng-O), the lunar goddess, who has her own interesting backstory.
Heng-0, during her husband’s absence, saw a white light which seemed to issue from a beam in the roof, while a most delicious odour filled every room. By the aid of a ladder she reached up to the spot whence the light came, found the pill of immortality, and ate it. She suddenly felt that she was freed from the operation of the laws of gravity and as if she had wings, and was just essaying her first flight when Shen I returned. He went to look for his pill, and, not finding it, asked Heng-0 what had happened. The young wife, seized with fear, opened the window and flew out. Shen I took his bow and pursued her. The moon was full, the night clear, and he saw his wife flying rapidly in front of him, only about the size of a toad. Just when he was redoubling his pace to catch her up a blast of wind struck him to the ground like a dead leaf. Heng-0 continued her flight until she reached a luminous sphere, shining like glass, of enormous size, and very cold. The only vegetation consisted of cinnamon-trees. No living being was to be seen. All of a sudden she began to cough, and vomited the covering of the pill of immortality, which was changed into a rabbit as white as the purest jade. This was the ancestor of the spirituality of the yin, or female, principle. Heng-0 noticed a bitter taste in her mouth, drank some dew, and, feeling hungry, ate some cinnamon. She took up her abode in this sphere (Werner, 1922, p184-185).
Not to get all tin-foil hat and conspiracy minded, but NASA has long been aware of the rabbit space program, evidenced by the transcript of the conversation between Houston Command and the Apollo 11 astronauts. I consider this very suspicious.
Houston: Roger. 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.
Apollo 11 (Buzz Aldrin): Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.
(Apollo 11, TAGVT, NASA, 1969, p181).
One of the endearing qualities of Homo sapiens is our advanced capacity for pattern recognition. Physicist Brian Greene observed, “Intelligence is the ability to take in information from the world and to find patterns in that information that allow you to organize your perceptions and understand the external world”. The moon has long been an object of mystery and awe, which is what drove us there in the first place, but we’ve been staring at it since the first monkey raised his eyes to the night sky. Is it any wonder we notice odd prominences (such as the outline of a rabbit)? Need the awareness of such patterns, be they on the moon, in the mist, in the sky, in the cornfield, or encoded in our myths be interpreted as pathological pareidolia, or is the universe trying to tell us something, for as another physicist, Richard P. Feynman remarked, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” Needless to say, the first words of the moon rabbit upon arrival were no doubt, “One small hop for rabbit-kind…”.
Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, p. 181
Cowell, Edward B. 1826-1903, W. H. D. 1863-1950 Rouse, Henry Thomas Francis, and Robert Alexander Neil. The Jātaka: Or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. Cambridge: University Press, 1895.
Gray, Louis H. 1875-1955, George Foot Moore, J. A. 1868-1950 MacCulloch, and Alice Werner. The Mythology of All Races v11. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1916.
Werner, E. T. C. 1864-1954. Myths & Legends of China. London [etc.]: G. G. Harrap & co., ltd, 1922.
What an excellent article