Rabbit's foot

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Gather 'round the campfire
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Urban legends

Among the mysteries of magical lore, budding adepts learn that a rabbit's foot is the foot of a rabbit. In American folklore, a rabbit's foot is carried as an amulet believed to bring good luck.

The left hind foot of a rabbit[edit]

The belief originates in the system of African-American folk magic known as hoodoo. It is not attested anywhere prior to the nineteenth century, and appears first in the United States, where in the beginning it was associated with African-Americans.[1] Some sources, based on older and more speculative research, have claimed ancient Celtic roots[2] for the belief; these claims, as usual, founder on the fact that nobody really knows what prehistoric Celts believed about rabbits. It remains the case that the superstition appears first in recorded sources in North America.

A number of strictures attached to the charm that are now observed mostly in the breach:

  • First, not any old foot from a rabbit will do: it is the left hind foot of a rabbit that is useful as a charm.
  • Second, not any left hind foot of a rabbit will do; the rabbit must have been shot or otherwise captured in a cemetery.
  • Third, at least according to some sources, not any left hind foot of a rabbit shot in a cemetery will do: the phase of the moon is also important. Some authorities say that the rabbit must be taken in the full moon, while others hold instead that the rabbit must be taken in the new moon. Some sources say instead that the rabbit must be taken on a Friday, or a rainy Friday, or Friday the thirteenth. Some sources say that the rabbit should be shot with a silver bullet, while others say that the foot must be cut off while the rabbit is still alive.

Experiments to determine which of these several criteria are correct have so far been inconclusive.

A substitute for bones from a human corpse?[edit]

I sall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I sall go in the Divell's name,
Ay while I come hame again.
—Isobel Gowdie

The various rituals suggested by the sources, though they widely differ one from another, share a common element of the uncanny, and the reverse of what is considered good-omened and auspicious. A rabbit is an animal that shapeshifting witches such as Isobel Gowdie claimed to be able to transmogrify themselves into. Witches were said to be active at the times of the full and new moon. Silver bullets, of course, are reputed to be sovereign against uncanny creatures such as werewolves.

Got a black cat bone, got a mojo too.

These widely varying circumstances may share a common thread of suggestion that the true lucky rabbit's foot is actually cut from a shapeshifted witch. The suggestion that the rabbit's foot is a substitute for a body part from a witch's body is corroborated by other folklore from hoodoo. Willie Dixon's song Hoochie Coochie Man mentions a "black cat bone" along with his mojo and his John the Conqueror root: all are artifacts in hoodoo magic. Given the traditional association between black cats and witchcraft, a black cat bone is also potentially a substitute for a human bone from a witch. Hoodoo lore also uses graveyard dust, soil from a cemetery, for various magical purposes. Dust from a good person's grave keeps away evil; dust from a sinner's grave is used for more nefarious magic. The use of graveyard dust may also be a symbolic appropriation of the parts of a corpse as a relic, and a form of sympathetic magic.[3][4]

A widely available charm[edit]

In any case, the rabbit's foot is dried out and preserved, and carried around by gamblers and other people who hope it will bring them luck. Rabbit's feet, either authentic or imitation, are frequently sold by curio shops and vending machines. Often, these rabbit's feet have been dyed various colours, and they are often turned into keychains. Few of these rabbit's feet carry any warranty concerning their provenance, or any evidence that the preparers even tried to comply with the rituals held to be de rigeur by the original tradition. Some may be confected from fake fur and latex "bones." As such, these rabbit's feet cannot be guaranteed to function as advertised.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that he had been given a gold-mounted rabbit's foot by John L. Sullivan as well as a penholder made by Bob Fitzsimmons out of a horseshoe. An anecdote also tells that Booker T. Washington and the ambassador from Austria got their overcoats confused when they were both in the White House to speak with President Roosevelt; the ambassador noticed that the coat he had taken was not his when he went to the pockets searching for his gloves, and instead found "the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, killed in the dark of the moon."[5] Other newspaper stories reported the incident but omitted the detail about the rabbit's foot.

In addition to being mentioned in blues lyrics, the rabbit's foot is mentioned in the American folk song There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town TonightWikipedia, once popular in minstrel shows; one line goes:

"And you've got a rabbit's foot To keep away de hoo-doo."

Humorist R. E. Shay is credited with the witticism, "Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." [6]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]