Around the world, people believe certain activities bring good luck and others bring bad luck. In Russia, you shouldn’t whistle indoors because it will bring down financial ruin on the house. (My mother told me it made the Blessed Mother cry!) In Hawaii, you shouldn’t whistle at night because it angers Pele, the god of fire. In France, people tack horseshoes on the barn door with the opening facing down. I was taught that made the good luck run out.
We think of ourselves as rational people, yet tradition and custom whisper that specific practices can and do influence the course of events. Even those who claim they are not superstitious may cling to certain rituals before a big event, like playing a favorite song, repeating a certain phrase, carrying a photo of a loved one, wearing a “lucky” piece of clothing, getting dressed all left side first, or carrying an object infused with personal or religious meaning.
Certain objects became easily recognizable good luck charms, including a four-leaf clover, a horseshoe, and a rabbit’s foot. The rabbit’s foot, usually the left hind foot, was attached to a metal collar and fitted with a chain. Later versions were often dyed bright colors. Today, carrying around part of a dead animal is considered more creepy than lucky, so the charm is less popular. But the rabbit’s foot has a fascinating history.
Historians debate the origin of the rabbit’s foot charm. Some claim it’s related to the rabbit/hare myths from Europe, China, and Latin America. It’s true that rabbits were very important in these cultures’ stories. (I’m using rabbit and hare as equivalents in this post although I understand they are different species in the same family. For purposes of myth, they’re very similar.)
In antiquity, the rabbit was widely seen as a symbol of fertility and abundance because rabbits breed, well, like rabbits. A female rabbit can have forty babies a year.
The Germanic/Celtic goddess Ostara or Eostre (pictured) represented spring and dawn. Her feast was celebrated at the Vernal Equinox, the first light of spring. Her symbols were the rabbit and the egg, as well as various flowers. Today we have the Easter Bunny, who leaves brightly colored eggs and candies, clearly a combination of ancient symbols: the egg and the rabbit, representing new and abundant life. All of these have now been subsumed into our Easter celebration, held on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox.
In ancient Greek and Roman art, the rabbit was associated with Aphrodite/Venus and considered the gift of lovers.
The rabbit in the moon
Around the world, many people see the form of a rabbit in the surface of the moon, rather than the face of The Man in the Moon. Shown in
the picture is the Japanese moon rabbit stirring the elixir of immortality.
For the ancient Maya and Chinese, the rabbit was the companion of the moon goddess, known as Ixchel (shown with her large rabbit companion) and Chang’e (shown sitting on the crescent
moon) respectively, associated with fertility and beauty.
In Celtic myths, the hare, the sacred animal of the Earth Mother, could be a shapeshifter. According to one story, a hunter wounded a hare in the leg, forcing it to hide in a clump of bushes. When the hunter followed, he found a door in the ground leading to a large subterranean hall, where he found a beautiful young woman bleeding from a wound in her leg.
With the advent of Christianity, many of the old spirits were dismissed or demoted to demons. However, the rabbit was spared that fate when the black cat was substituted as the familiar of witches, a belief that continues, unfortunately, to this day. The rabbit was re-branded as a Christian symbol.
A woodcut by Albrecht Durer, published in 1497, shows the Holy Family with three hares. Titian’s painting “Mary and Infant Jesus with a rabbit,” shows Mary stroking a white rabbit with one hand and holding the baby Jesus in the other. Later, the three hares symbol, probably originating in the Middle East, became very popular in European Catholic churches, especially the three running hares with connected ears forming a triangle symbolizing the Holy Trinity.
Clearly, the rabbit was an important symbol of fertility, abundance, rebirth, vitality, and spirit power. However, all of these involve the whole rabbit, not just the foot.
Folklorist Bill Ellis claims the first mention of the rabbit’s foot charm in America was in the 1800’s, when it was described as a fetish popular with African slaves in the south, especially around New Orleans.
The rabbit’s foot charm is actually an anti-charm, a protective talisman typical of West African folk magic known as hoodoo.
It’s like the evil eye charm (pictured) so prevalent in the Mediterranean region, a blue eye charm pinned to a baby’s clothes or blanket to ward off the evil eye – bad thoughts/wishes from others. It takes the form of the evil it wishes to dispel. The rabbit’s foot is, traditionally, the left hind foot of a cross-eyed rabbit killed in a cemetery under a new moon. The use of the left foot (sinister) and the grave dirt combine to protect the wearer from ill fortune because it embodies ill fortune.
The rabbit’s foot often became part of a “hand,” “toby,” or “mojo,” a bag of powerful charms, often with a hand pictured on the outside. You can still find them for sale on line (including the one pictured). Some include a rabbit’s foot, a bone, a lodestone, lavender or other herbs, John the Conqueror root, or other powerful items, plus oil the user needs to rub on them to “activate” them. These “hands” can be configured to suit many different purposes, including love, reconciliation, revenge, vision, safe travel, uncrossing of evil conditions or hexes, luck in gambling, wisdom, and sexual attraction. Each purpose would require a separate “hand” or “mojo.”
This is the “mojo” referenced in the blues songs like “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” made famous by Muddy Waters (pictured). Two nice YouTube videos of it are listed in the sources. In the song, the speaker says
“I’m goin’ down to Louisiana, get me a mojo hand
I’m gonna have all you women under my command.”
But the chorus indicates the magic isn’t working on the woman he wants.
“I got my mojo working
But it just won’t work on you.”
Unfortunately, “mojo” was sometimes misinterpreted as male sexual performance (as in Jim Morrison’s “L.A. Woman/Mojo Risin’”), but mojo was a term used by both male and female blues singers, referring to a collection of powerful charms. Interestingly, “I Got My Mojo Working’” was recorded by Ann Cole in 1957, before Muddy Waters claimed it as one of his signature songs. A recording of her version is also included in the sources.
So a rabbit’s foot was a form of mojo, a protective charm against bad luck, brought to America with the slave trade and later combined with both American Indian and European influences.
The Appeal of Magic
Oddly, though, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the rabbit’s foot charm was appropriated by the white community. It was part of a general fascination with magic/voodoo/spells, potions, fetishes, and charms that showed up in popular culture. In 1951, the English Witchcraft Act of 1735 was revised, making witchcraft legal as long as it was considered entertainment. That seemed to reflect the thinking in the U.S. as well.
Although Cole Porter recorded “You Do Something to Me” in 1929, with the famous line “the voodoo that you do so well,” the song wasn’t widely popular until the 1950’s when it was recorded by Bing Crosby for his radio show (1955), then Doris Day (1957) and Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin (1962) as well as many others. Other popular songs of the time included “Witchcraft,” also popularized by Sinatra (1957), “Casting My Spell on You” sung by Johnny Otis ((1958), and “The Witch Doctor” (1958), which invokes witchcraft but also mocks it (Ooo-eee, ooo-ah ah, Ting Tang, walla walla bing bang).
In 1961, Elvis Presley recorded “Good Luck Charm,” in which he compares his love to a four-leaf clover, a horse shoe, a silver dollar, a rabbit’s foot on a string, and a lucky penny, and concludes she’s worth more – as a lucky charm on his arm.
“Don’t want a silver dollar
Rabbit’s foot on a string
The happiness in your warm caress
No rabbit’s foot could bring”
“Love Potion Number 9,” which tells of a man seeking help from a “gypsy with a gold-capped tooth” and her magic potion to improve his love life, was recorded by The Clovers in 1959, then by the The Searchers, a white group, in 1964, when it reached number 3 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
Witchcraft was clearly fascinating, though most appealing when filtered through a white lens, just as ten years later, Black American R&B would become wildly successful when delivered by The Rolling Stones.
So the rabbit’s foot was caught in the middle of all this history. It was a charm made up of bad luck elements that combine to defend the wearer from bad luck. It also referenced the Trickster Rabbit of West African and American Indian folklore, the one who is smaller and less powerful than his enemies but winds up out-smarting them through his skill and courage – and dumb luck. Yet it became most popular in the white community during the segregated post-WWII era, divorced from its African past except in a sort of mocking nod to witchcraft, which seemed to be fascinating mostly because it was alien. So, like jazz and the blues, it entered mainstream white culture through the back door, as something different and edgy. The rabbit’s foot that dangled from the keychain, though stripped of its cultural underpinnings, retained some of its powers, at least as a statement of 1950’s cool.
Sources and interesting reading:
“5 Famous Lucky Charms That Get More Baffling With Research,” Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-bizarre-origin-stories-famous-good-luck-charms/
Backer, William H. and Cecelia Sinclair. West African Folk Tales. Loyal Books.com. www.loyalbooks.com/book/west-african-folk-tales-by-Willaim-H-Backer
“Chang’e,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chang%27e
Cole, Ann, recording of “Got My Mojo Working” from 1957 YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lY9XvUc6xWE
D’Costa, Krystal, “What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky?” Anthropology in Practice blog, Scientific American Blog Network, 26 October 2011, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/what-makes-a rabbits-foot-lucky/
Dembicki, Matt (ed.). Trickster: Native American Tales. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Books, 2010.
Devi, Debra, “Language of the Blues: MOJO” American Blues Scene, 8 July 2015, https://www.americanbluesscene.com/language-of-the-blues-mojo/
Durer, Albrecht, “The Holy Family with Three Hares” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359765
“Good Luck Charm,” written by Clarence Satchell, Ralph Middlebrooks, James L. Williams, and others, sung by Elvis Presley, AZlyrics.com https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/elvispresley/goodluckcharm.html
“L.A. Woman” lyrics, The Doors Lyrics, AZ Lyrics, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/doors/lawoman.html
Locke, Tony. “Superstitions and Folklore of the Rabbit and Hare,” Irish Abroad blog, 29 March 2013, http://www.irishabroad.com/blogs/Post?View.aspx?pid=4325
“Love Potion No. 9 (song),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Potion_No._9_(song)
“Lucky Rabbit Foot Shadowbox,” available on Etsy, https://www.etsy.com/listing/585526587/lucky-rabbit-foot-shadowbox?ga/
Mama Zogbe Chief-Hounon Amergansie, “Hoodoo – a New World Name of an Ancient African Magical Tradition,” http://www.mamiwata.com/hoodoo/hoodoo.html
“Mojo Hand, Mojo Bag, Toby, Conjure Bag, Wanga, Gris-Gris, What it is,” Lucky Mojo, http://www.luckymojo.com/mojo.html
“The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture,” Owlcation, 11 January 2018, https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/moon-rabbit
“Ostara, herald of springtime,” http.//www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/Ostara/about.html
“Maya whistle in the form of the moon goddess and her rabbit consort,”(photo) Princeton University Art Museum.
“Mojo,” definition by Merriam Webster diction,
“Mojo (African-American culture)” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mojo_(African-American_culture)
Nosowitz, Dan, “Why Is The Rabbit’s Foot Considered A Good Luck Charm?” Modern Farmer, 20 March 2017, https://modernfarmer.com/2017/03/rabbits-foot-considered-good-luck-charm/
Panati, Charles. Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.
“Rabbits and Hares in Art,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbits_and_Hares_in_art
“Rabbit’s Foot,” RationalWiki, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Rabbit%27s_foot
“Rabbit’s Foot,” New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rabbit%27s_foot
“Rabbit’s Foot,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit%27s_foot
Sifferlin, Alexandra, “What’s the Origin of the Easter Bunny?” Time magazine, 1 April 2015, http://time.com/3767518/easter-bunny-origins-history/
“Three Hares,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.wiki/Three_Hares
Windling, Terri, “Into the Woods” series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares, 18 December 2014, http://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2014/12/the-folklore-of-rabbits-and-hares.html
“You Do Something to Me,” song written by Cole Porter, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Do_Something_to_Me
Yronwode, Catherine, “Rabbit Foot in Hoodoo Folk Magic, Spell-Craft, and Occultism,” Herb Magic, http.www.herbmagic.com/rabbit-foot-html