Did you know that the Mid-Autumn harvest festivals around the world have folklore attributed to the moon? In Korea, when you look up at the full moon, you may see the image of a rabbit making rice cakes. But what’s the rabbit doing up there?
This legend originates from Buddhist lore and its retelling differs slightly between countries. The story as it pertains to Chuseok goes like this - A fox, monkey, and rabbit are devoted students of Buddhism. One day, they have their faith tested by the Emperor of the Heavens. The Emperor disguises himself as a beggar and asks the animals for something to eat. Each animal goes on its own to gather food, with the fox bringing back fish, the monkey bringing back fruit, and the rabbit bringing back some grass. Because of the rabbit’s feeble offering, it decides to light that grass on fire and jump in to offer itself to the beggar. The Emperor was so moved by this he appointed the rabbit as the guardian of the moon.
There are important symbols in the moon rabbit’s image - fertility, longevity, and harvest. The rabbit is a sign of fertility, which complements Chuseok’s celebration for bountiful harvests. In the Korean retelling, the rabbit is said to be standing beneath a gyesu tree. The tree is a sign of longevity due to the medicinal applications of the cinnamon in its bark. The rice cakes it makes is a staple of the Korean harvest and they symbolize an appreciation of the Mid-Autumn harvest, along with good wishes and dreams.