For today’s post, I’m looking at the folklore and magic surrounding one of the most ubiquitous pieces of conjure paraphernalia, the rabbit’s foot. There are plenty of theories about this particular luck charm, but not much that can be definitely put down regarding its origin or provenance. Rabbit foot charms have been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th century in North America, and likely predate the Civil War. They are used for general luck, gambling aids, love enhancers, and other areas where a bit of extra luck might help.
A quick word of warning, however. Many of the sources I’ll be citing in this post also date from earlier eras, and thus have a great deal of offensive material in them. There are words that appear here which would likely incite violence if used lightly today, so please understand that I present them here as a piece of the folklore to which they belong. Just as a smart modern magician finds a reasonable substitution for liquid quicksilver/mercury (and thus avoids madness and poisoning), a wise student of folklore and folk magic remembers that just because a sentiment appears in print doesn’t make it right or appropriate.
There, now let’s move on to some of the good stuff about rabbits’ feet.
Catherine Yronwode provides information on the rabbit’s foot on her Lucky W Amulet Archive, describing the foot as catalogue offerings from the early-to-mid twentieth century:
As for the foot itself, a circa-1940 mail order catalogue from the Standard O and B Supply Company, a Chicago-based distributor of African-American hoodoo material, offered undyed rabbit foot charms “made with a metal band and a link to attach on chain.” The Johnson-Smith Novelty Company offered identical charms in its 1941 catalogue. The advertisement shown here goes these one better and promises a free vial of Van Van oil with each rabbit’s foot; the formula is a Louisiana hoodoo favourite that “clears away that evil mess” and increases the strength of any good luck charm to which it is applied. Since none of the older catalogues or ads mention any colour when describing rabbit’s foot charms, it can be assumed that the items were undyed and came only in natural tan or white.
She goes on to talk about her uncertainty regarding why a rabbit’s foot might be so lucky:
Why is the rabbit foot lucky? I am not sure. Rabbits are swift and they reproduce prolifically, but the luck of the rabbit foot is monetary and sexual; as far as i know, it is not related to swiftness or fertility. There is considerable evidence that the lucky rabbit foot is a remnant of an African clan totem, an importation related somehow to Br’er Rabbit, the famous protagonist of an African trickster-god myth-cycle.
Yronwode points out that the rabbit’s foot appears in the famous Uncle Remus stories, written by Joel Chandler Harris in 1881. In a tale entitled “Brother Rabbit and his Famous Foot,” Uncle Remus describes the tricky Br’er (or Brother) Rabbit’s prosperity-drawing mojo bag (which he refers to as a money purse, or dialectically a “money-pus”):
Brer Wolf look at de money-pus, en see w’at in it. Hit ‘uz one er deze yer kinder money-pus wid tossle on de een’ en shiny rings in de middle. Brer Wolf look in afar fer ter see w’at he kin see. In one een’ dey wuz a piece er calamus-root en some collard-seeds, en in de tier een’ dey wuz a great big rabbit foot (Harris p. 223)
So even a rabbit carries a rabbit’s foot for luck and money. How’s that for strange? But why is it so lucky? In a 1973 thesis on conjuration in the works of African-American author (and somewhat accidental folklorist) Charles Chestnutt, Bettye Jo Crisler Carr uncovers some possible reasons behind this talisman:
One might have expected Chesnutt to refer to ghosts who haunt graves, to witches ‘riding’ their hapless victims by night, to conjurers tying bits of roots in tiny bags to ward off evil. But surely his reference to the efficacy of ‘de lef hin’ foot er a graveya’d rabbit, killt by a cross-eyed nigger on a da’k night in de full er de moon’—surely that is something Chesnutt (or Uncle Julius, who seems equally real) has made out of whole cloth.
An examination of folklore sources, however, justifies Chesnutt’s requirements for the rabbit-foot good-luck charm. An informant from Atlanta states that the talisman must, indeed, be the ‘left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit. Mary Owen, recording her collected tales prior to 1893, adds to the requirement that it must be ‘de lef hine-foot ob er grabe-yahd rabbit kilt in de dahk o’ de moon.’ A Memphis informant states further that the graveyard rabbit must have been killed by a cross-eyed person. Louise Pendleton, also writing before the publication of Chesnutt’s stories, comments that the use of the rabbit foot for good luck ‘may be traced to the fetishism, or worship of guardian spirits dwelling in inanimate objects, of their African ancestors.’ (Carr, “Charles Chestnutt & the Doctrine of Conjuration”)
So now we can see the process of making the charm has something to do with its luck associations. If a cross-eyed person could catch a rabbit in a graveyard in the dark, he would indeed have to be very lucky, and thus his luck might transfer to the animal’s foot (this is a bit of a stretch for a reason, in my opinion, but there certainly seems to be a specific tradition involved in collecting this talisman). Much of this lore is corroborated by Harry M. Hyatt in his five-volume compendium on African-American folk magic, Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork. Two prime examples are included here:
A RABBIT’S LEFT HIND LEG, TAKEN WHILE THE ANIMAL IS STILL WARM
AND SEWN INTO A BAG, SHOULD BE CARRIED WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES,
AND KEPT UNDER YOUR PILLOW AT NIGHT FOR LUCK.
If yo’ wanta go git a job agin, yo’ could use a rabit’s foot – yo’ use a rabbit’s left foot. Ketch a rabbit, if yo’ kin kill him; if yo’ can’t ketch it, kill it. Well, befo’ he gits cold, take de left laig of dis rabbit off. (Front or back?) De back laig. Take de back laig off while it’s warm an’ yo’ sew it up in some cloth an’ when yo’ go tuh bed at night, yo’ jes’ carry it an’ push it in yore pillah. If yo’ git up tuh go in de daytime, wear it in yore pocket or either yo’ could have it in yore stockin’. Put it in yore hat or shoe or anything an’ jes’ keep it wit chew all de time. Yo’ll have good luck wit de rabbit’s left hind laig. (When you are going out to get a job?) Yes sir.
[Savannah, GA; Madam Pauline; Informant #1274. C575:1-C586:10 = 2136-2167.]
A CHARM TO CARRY
BURY THE RIGHT FRONT FOOT OF A RABBIT IN THE CEMETERY.
AFTER NINE DAYS AND NINE NIGHTS, DISINTER IT.
WEAR IT ON A CHAIN OR FASHION IT INTO SOMETHING SIMILAR TO WEAR
AND CARRY IT WITH YOU.
You take off his right feet, yo’ bury it in de cemetery – let it stay dere fo’ nine days an’ nights. Yo’ go an’ git it out from under dere an’ make yo’ a chain an’ put it on yo’ fo’ a locket or either, yo’ know, yo’ kin jes’ have it made into somethin’ den – yo’ know, somethin’-like. Dat’s de rabbit foot. [She laughs.] Den y’ jis’
tote it wit yo’ or either place it fo’ a watch charm or anythin’ like dat – right feet, jes’ one, de front.
[Waycross, GA; Informant # 1125 (Contact man Edwards's landlady); Cylinder C235:4-C250: 1 = 1816-1831, and C384:1-C392: 5 = 1965-1973]
One of the common threads to the rabbit’s foot seems to be an intimacy with death or the dead. The rabbit must be freshly killed (or “warm”) or found in a cemetery. This may have something to do with its luck. The dead are able to provide luck to the living in some folkloric accounts, and a magical animal like a rabbit which becomes tied to the dead may well be “running” luck back and forth from them to you. If you are interested in more spells like the two immediately above, by the way, you can find many of Hyatt’s spells transcribed in the Hyatt Spells Yahoo! Group. If you manage to find actual text volumes of his work and you have an interest in folk magic, buy them. They will be worth it.
Finally, Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph records a couple of uses of the rabbit’s foot charm in his Ozark Magic & Folklore:
- Some healers claim to cure hiccoughs by rubbing a rabbit’s foot on the back of the patient’s neck unexpectedly.
- I recall a girl near Lanagan, Missouri, who wore a peach stone love-charm on one garter and a rabbit’s foot fastened to the other.
This particular lucky charm can be found throughout North America, often sold in roadside stores, children’s candy-and-prize machines, and even gas stations. It’s commonly rubbed to actually activate the luck, and “fed” with an oil like Fast Luck or Van Van on a regular basis. If you happen to have one of these in keychain or charm form, I’d love to hear your experiences with it. Have rabbit’s feet ever brought you extra luck? Or, as the joke is often made, is it just “unlucky for the rabbit”?
Thanks for reading (and reading and reading)!