Collecting stories about bunnies on an island where they’re taboo
兔 was a performance commission for b-side Festival, which took place on the Isle of Portland, Dorset in September 2014. The title– the Japanese variant of the Chinese character for rabbit, because it looks more like an actual rabbit– and its alternative (R*****) were both deliberately unpronounceable and unreadable to monolingual English speakers because local Portland lore maintains that to mention or name rabbits there is bad luck and therefore taboo. The usual rationalisation is that rabbits undermined the workings of the famous Portland stone quarries that have been mined for centuries, causing injuries and death to the quarrymen. Approved terms include “bunny”, “underground mutton” and “long ears.”
As a provocation to discussion throughout the festival I attended events and visited different parts of the island wearing a horrible rabbit mask that I made, plus a dinner suit and formal gloves, in reference to the weird penchant for formalwear exhibited by rabbits in popular culture. I collected stories from locals and visitors about the forbidden animal, why they thought it was forbidden, and what they thought this taboo meant or achieved; I then told these stories back to subsequent participants, thereby spreading them and propagating this folklore. I also presented a lecture about rabbits in film, television, and popular culture, which took place in the abandoned battery tunnels near the Verne Citadel on Portland.
When I first visited Portland, a local historian told an interesting story about a former (circa 1990s) student of hers who wrote an otherwise excellent essay in which she flatly refused to refer to the animals by their proper name, referring to them using the infantile “bunnies” throughout. Eventually the Exam Board was convinced that they should regard her bunny hangup as a genuine cultural difference and she shouldn’t be forced to use the word she abhored.
From the start I thought there was an interesting analogy between the verminous/bad luck aspect of rabbits on Portland and the similar way artists are often regarded by the ordinary populations of places upon which they sometimes descend for festivals, commissions and other “public art” events. Portland has also been much reduced and more or less hollowed out to build large parts of central London including Whitehall (so named for its Portland stone edifices), the British Museum and Buckingham Palace, which is also interesting in light of the common rural perception that artists are “London people” who occasionally just blunder around outside of their native habitat because they feel like it. Although nothing could be further from the intentions of many artists I know, it’s undeniable that some artists bring such loathing upon themselves with their insensitivity and solipsism.
Click through R***** and the other highlights of the festival here.
Georges & Jones, Folkloristics:
“Superstitions can be configured on the basis of the nature of the relationship between condition and result. Sometimes the relationship is temporal and noncausal… no causality is implied in these sign superstitions. The ring around the moon is not said or believed to actually cause subsequent rain, nor is someone supposed to die because a star falls. The signs merely portend what will come to pass; they are conditions from which results follow in time, but not because of a cause-and-effect relationship.”
“(Conversion superstitions) sometimes stipulate actions one can take to avoid negative results that follow from the appearance or accidental creation of signs. For instance, seeing a priest in the morning is bad luck. But one can avert that luck by going back home and starting out again, or by tying a knot in a handkerchief.”
James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922 edition:
“Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage* commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association,** but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person.”
* [Sic] This is Frazer’s Victorian upbringing speaking. I’m not suggesting that Portlanders are savages. In any case I agree with the contemporary anthropological consensus that taboos and magical thinking are most definitely not the sole preserves of “savages” or historical peoples anyway.
** Folk belief is therefore in direct contradiction or opposition to the development of semiotics and linguistics from the 19th century onwards. Saussure and his successors have emphasised that– with few exceptions– words are in an arbitrary relationship with the thing to which they refer, e.g. there is nothing inherently “dog” in the domestic mammal that English speakers refer to by that word, i.e. the Roman letters D O G placed in that particular order. In other languages it is a chien or hund. The same animal could be called a “fph” or a “sif” without changing our understanding of what the animal is or does.
Giant Greys (Robert)
We Are Watching You
“Folklore fulfills the important but often overlooked function of maintaining conformity to the accepted patterns of behavior. More than simply serving to validate or justify institutions, beliefs, and attitudes, some forms of folklore are important as a means of applying social pressure and exercising social control.”
William Bascomb, Four Functions of Folklore, 1954, quoted in Folkloristics.
Other rabbit beliefs
Superstitions about rabbits are surprisingly rare elsewhere in Britain. According to Steve Roud’s Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles, there are only two of any note. From Gloucestershire there is the old notion that you can remember a particular thing by tying a handkerchief, whispering “rabbits” three times into the knot as you do so. Obviously this is from the era when people regularly used handkerchiefs and is therefore probably not very current. Another belief is almost the opposite of the Portland one. Saying “rabbits” or “white rabbits” (either once or three times) on the first day of the month ensures a wish will come true, or that good luck will endure through the coming month. The lucky rabbit’s foot is an example of “fakelore”, a belief often assumed to be ancient and pagan but isn’t. There’s actually no evidence for it in the British Isles until after WWII, when American servicemen brought their lucky rabbit feet with them to Europe. Its origin in the United States is unknown.
7th January 2014: Bob’s Knob
Portlanders can no longer enjoy Bob’s knob. No relation to Robert the rabbit pictured previously on this the page. Somebody mentions the forbidden rabbits in the comments. Also a great if sardonic comment from a local that the opening of the prison in 1860 was the best thing to happen to the Portland gene pool since the Spanish Armada:
18th February 2014: A strange Japanese twin of Portland
Ōkunoshima is an island halfway along the southern Japanese coast, between Fukuyama and Hiroshima. The island is also known as Usagi Shima (Rabbit Island). Even after the Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons was signed by the Japanese government in 1925, it continued to make mustard gas there until after WWII. When the poison gas plant closed down, all its surviving lab rabbits were simply turned loose. Now the island is most famous for the hordes of rabbits that swarm everywhere. There’s a poison gas museum. The island can also boast of being home to Japan’s largest electricity pylon. How exciting.
Between the 1920s and 1945 what was going on at Ōkunoshima was top secret, and it was even removed from maps. Portland also has a history (and a present) of secrecy as a military base, with off limits areas and morally dodgy research probably still going on. In the 1960s and 1970s the Porton Down labs masterminded biological warfare experiments that were carried out on Portland and in Lyme Bay without the knowledge or consent of its inhabitants. Live E.coli and Bacillus globigii bacteria were sprayed from ships. The latter bacterium was probably intended as a simulant/stand-in for anthrax.
Interesting to learn that another relatively obscure island with a dark history also has a bit of an issue with rabbits. Read more about Ōkunoshima here. I didn’t know about this Japanese connection before I started using the rabbit kanji. It was initially just another way of writing or saying the word without actually saying or writing it, but I love it when a total lack of a plan comes together.
Images of Ōkunoshima are from Wikimedia.
June 2014: The mask and the damned
“The mask is actually an intercessor between the world of the living and supernatural forces, ferrying passengers between the two. The mask should be regarded as a sculpted device: one with the dual purpose of hiding the human who brings it to life and partially revealing the existence and presence of a supernatural being.”
“[Japanese Noh] actors go through a ritual preparation whereby they immerse themselves in the personality of the mask they are entering… in Vanuatu these can be moments of danger: ‘A number of ritual masks, rare and very powerful, can be dangerous to wear… These masks (that I will not name)* were used in the non-dancing phases of funeral rituals and had to be worn with great care.”
* My emphasis, with reference to the Portland rabbit-naming taboo. Both quotes are from the splendidly named Yves Le Fur in the book Masks: Masterpieces from the Musée du quai Branly.
Via freakscene-movie.tumblr.com, Joseph Losey’s dementedly random Hammer sci-horror biker gang apocalyptic youth-gone-wild on Portland film The Damned/These are the Damned, in which children are imprisoned and experimented upon in the hope of them succeeding the humans who will all be wiped out when World War III breaks out. Oliver Reed plays a 35 year old teenage delinquent and, as was his wont, he seems totally and staggeringly drunk throughout. It was filmed in Weymouth and Portland, and many of its locations can still be visited today. There are also real secret underground research facilities on Portland that you still can’t visit. It’s worth a watch if you’re into spooky kids with strange powers, wild n’ crazy beatnik artists procrastinating and angsting about their art, woefully unconvincing, overaged Dorset hoods who make the “kids” from West Side Story seem gangsta, and more non-sequitur dialogue than even the drunkest Oliver Reed could ever have conceived.
There was a screening of this film on Portland during September’s festival in 2014.
Édouard Manet’s 1881 painting was rejected by the Salon, mainly because his painting and Impressionism in general were not at all popular or succesful while he was alive. The painting is now at the National Museum in Cardiff. The dead rabbit thing was obviously dear to Manet’s heart, because he painted a similar one as early as 1866.
A rabbit virus, wabbit or fork bomb is a maliciously programmed computer process that replicates itself exponentionally and loops infinitely, tying up the system’s CPU and operating system resources until the machine slows down or crashes. Online it can take the form of a denial-of-service (DOS) attack that brings down a particular web site or server. These types of malware go back an extremely long way, at least in computer years. An attack program called RABBITS was deployed on a Burroughs 5500 computer in 1969.
It is named, obviously, for the proverbial fecundity of rabbits. “Wabbit” presumably originates from Elmer Fudd’s speech impediment in Bugs Bunny cartoons.