Raccoon penis bones. Vulture heads. Lucky pennies. A vast and eclectic array of amulets, talismans, and charms meant to bring good fortune to their owners have been put to use as long as humans have walked the planet. To the ancient Egyptians, images of the scarab beetle helped ward off evil. The Romans favored winged phalluses. Go to Turkey and you’ll find the ‘evil eye’ goggling protectively at you from shop windows, front doors, dashboards, bracelets, you name it. Christians the world over wear crucifixes. Gamblers and athletes are notorious for placing their faith in almost any object or act they feel is imbued with propitious mojo. The desire for divine or mystical protection against the host of harms out there spans all cultures and all times. But why a rabbit’s foot? Why not the leg of a frog or the spleen of a porcupine?
In Europe, the tradition of carrying the foot of a rabbit probably stems from ancient totemic beliefs that humans descended from animals, and particular tribes had their origins in specific species. A tribe worshiped its animal ancestor, and carried parts of that animal as protective totems.
The Celts, by around 600 B.C., are known to have associated rabbits with good fortune- the whole rabbit, not just the foot. According to Celtic folklore, the fact that rabbits lived in burrows deep underground meant that they were in direct communication with the gods and spirits of the underworld.
From here, it isn’t clear whether this contributed to the very modern practice of the lucky rabbit’s foot that popped up around the turn of the twentieth century in America. These Celtic beliefs did evolve somewhat, carrying over into certain other European cultures. For instance, in the 16th century, there is a work by Reginald Scot that mentions that a good way to ease the pain of arthritis was to carry around a rabbit’s foot.
It’s possible this was then blended with aspects of African American folk magic. Or, it may be that the specific lucky rabbit’s foot tradition simply came from traditions in the African folk magic that were unrelated to the European traditions associated with the rabbit. We just don’t have the hard documented evidence to be able to discern the exact lineage. But, in either case, it is generally thought that African folk magic played a role in the modern tradition, and possibly is the most direct ancestor to the superstition.
In hoodoo (note: not voodoo), which was an American mash-up of African folk spirituality and certain European traditions, a rabbit’s foot came to be a common item used for various things. Probably from this, around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rabbit’s feet started being associated among the wider populace more exclusively with luck. Not just any foot would do, however. In an example of counterintuitive magic, what folklorist Bill Ellis terms “reverse elements,” the more inauspicious the circumstances surrounding the origins of the foot, the better. The left rear foot was favored, left being the ‘evil’ side. (Our word “sinister” derives from the Latin “sinistra,” meaning “left”. It was also once believed that left handedness was the result of the Devil and that lefties were predisposed to evil behaviors.)
Ellis quotes an early advertisement that takes these reverse elements to the level of the absurd, purporting that the owner was selling,
“…the left hind foot of a rabbit killed in a country churchyard at midnight, during the dark of the moon, on Friday the 13th of the month, by a cross-eyed, left handed, red-headed, bow-legged Negro riding a white horse.”
All of these elements, of course, were considered ominous if not downright evil, but they made the rabbit’s foot even more potent as an agent of good.
Another characteristic of the rabbit that probably made it such a widespread symbol of luck is its well-known and prodigious breeding habits. Indeed, there are references to rabbits feet being carried around to aid in fertility before they were associated so strongly with luck.
And before you start smugly thinking the rabbit’s foot is just yet another example of superstitious mumbo-jumbo given credence to by our silly ancestors, remember that even today many buildings skip a 13th floor (or 4th in some East Asian cultures), many airlines don’t have a row 13 on their aircraft, and, if possible, a surprising amount of people avoid holding important meetings, events, or trips on Friday the 13th. We’re more superstitious than we’d like to admit even today, and that, knock on wood, is unlikely to change any time soon… Humans, right?
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
- Why Black Cats are Considered Bad Luck
- The Origin of Friday the 13th as an Unlucky Day
- The Fascinating Origin of the Word “Abracadabra”
- The Man Who Died, Came Back to Life and Won the Lotto Twice- the Second Time When Reenacting the First Win for the Media
- The Man Who Cheated Death Seven Times, Then Won the Lottery
- If you’re wondering why rabbits are considered such prolific breeders, it has less to do with them getting it on more than many other animals, necessarily, and more to do with the time frames involved in the process of producing new rabbits. A baby rabbit becomes sexually mature in an average of just about 5-6 months, and sometimes even sooner. They can potentially live up to around 10 years. Further, it takes only around a month from the point of getting pregnant for a female rabbit to give birth. Their litters can include as many as a dozen rabbits! What makes this even more astounding is that the female rabbit can get pregnant as soon as the next day after giving birth. Rabbits are induced ovulators, so the females are pretty much ready to get pregnant anytime they mate (assuming they aren’t already pregnant), with the mating triggering the ovulation. Needless to say, even just a single female can give birth to several dozen baby rabbits per year. Given this, combined with the fact that the babies are ready to make babies at the stage when most human offspring are still mostly just poop and drool factories, you can see how rabbits got this reputation.
Expand for References
- What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky?
- The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati, William Morrow Paperbacks (1989)
- Rabbits Foot
- Rabbit Foot
- Why are Rabbits Feet Considered Lucky?
- The Rabbit’s Foot and Luck
- Why is a Rabbit’s Foot Considered Lucky?
- Are Rabbit’s Really Big Breeders?