The Paradox of the Lucky Rabbit's Foot: Using Bad Omens to Create Good Luck
A woman kissing her lucky rabbit's foot, circa 1955. (Photo by Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images)
In the list of traditional lucky charms or tokens, the rabbit foot ranks up there with four-leaf clovers and horseshoes, but it's considerably more macabre. Why did people start carrying severed rabbit limbs around in the first place? The answer is much more complicated than one would think. While rabbits have long been cherished by cultures around the world, the rabbit's foot talisman comes to us via African-American slaves in the 19th-century American South. According to folklore, as many bad luck symbols as possible must align to make the rabbit's foot a powerful token of good luck.
Rabbits Are Everywhere
Thanks to their impressive reproductive powers, rabbits can be found pretty much everywhere on the planet. They are quick, attentive, nimble, and evasive—all admirable qualities unless you're using them to rob someone. Rabbits show up in myths, legends, and folklore all around the world, and they often exhibit these traits. Then there is the association with fertility. Since rabbits breed quickly and produce an abundance of offspring, the animal is most often linked to reproduction and is a symbol of fertility.
The Trickster Rabbit of Africa
Rabbits are prey animals, and as such, they are often hunted and pursued by predators. Many of the cultures of Africa have noticed that rabbits have some impressive escape skills and tricks that can help them elude capture. Because of this, the rabbit is viewed as a clever and elusive trickster in African folklore.
Coming to America
Captured Africans who were taken to the Americas as part of the slave trade brought with them their traditions and folklore. Many of these beliefs were chronicled during the 1800s and afterward. These included the belief that a rabbit's foot could bring good luck. It is easy to see that Africans held in slavery would admire the traits of the rabbit. If the slaves were to escape their situation, they would have to possess the same characteristics—speed, resourcefulness, bravery, determination, and cleverness.
One of the aspects that makes the lucky rabbit's foot so intriguing is that, according to folklore, as many bad luck devices need to be used as possible in order for the rabbit's foot to become a amulet of good luck and positive vibes. In fact, it is thought that the more symbols of bad luck that are used proportionally increases the rabbit's foot's good luck.
Harnessing Bad Omens
Ideally, the legends say, the rabbit should be captured in a cemetery on Friday the 13th during a full moon. The rabbit will be more charmed if it is caught on the grave of a wicked person, like a murderer or thief. The person who catches the rabbit, ideally, should be a redheaded, cross-eyed, left-handed person. Since all of these factors are considered bad luck, they combine to make the rabbit's foot a token of good luck, and a person with vision problems stumbling through a graveyard at night is certainly going to need it.
Just the Foot, Ma'am
Of course, it's a pretty big hassle to carry around an entire rabbit for good luck, but why the foot? Using only the rabbit's foot for good luck is part of the backward logic of the rabbit's foot charm. Not just any foot will do. To get the maximum effect, the foot should be the rabbit's left hind foot. Traditionally, the right side of the body was the good side, and the left side was the evil or cursed side. (This is where the prejudice against left-handed people originated.) This would mean that the left side of the rabbit was the unlucky side. The hind legs were also seen as more unlucky than the animal's front legs. When you combine it all, you see that the rear left foot of the rabbit was the unluckiest appendage of them all, therefore it made the best good luck charm, because of reasons.
A Gift Shop Staple
From as early at the 1880s, rabbit's foot charms were being sold in novelty shops along with other trinkets. As we moved into recent decades, PETA and other animal rights groups protested the slaughter of helpless rabbits for their lucky feet. The lucky rabbit's feet charms that you find today are especially lucky for the rabbits since they are made with man-made materials like plastic and faux fur. If you're worried that these plastic rabbit's feet replicas might lack the power of good luck, we have bad news: The real ones probably don't, either. If a rabbit's foot really had the power to bring about good luck, then rabbits would rule the world.
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