Why Is a Rabbit’s Foot Considered Lucky?

By: Laurie L. Dove & Sascha Bos  | 
Purple rabbit's foot with a keychain attachment
Why do some believe that a rabbit's foot is lucky? This good luck charm dates back to ancient Rome. Thankfully, most of these trinkets are made of synthetic fur (and feet) these days. Jupiterimages / Getty Images

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of superstitions worldwide, but none are more important than the one you subscribe to. And if you believe in lagomorphs of fortune, losing a lucky rabbit's foot signals bad luck as surely as carrying it promises to bring good luck.


A Brief History of the Lucky Rabbit's Foot

The practice of cutting off the feet of Leporidae (the Latin name for rabbits and hares) has existed since at least ancient Roman times. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder claimed that carrying around a hare's foot — "cut off from the animal alive" — could cure gout [source: Pliny].

In the 16th through 19th centuries, Europeans carried hand-cut paws from hares, rabbits, and even moles, to protect against various ailments, including cramps, rheumatism and toothaches [source: Opie]. The lucky rabbit’s foot, however, really hit its stride in the United States of America.


Why Is a Rabbit's Foot Lucky?

By the early 20th century, the Brits imported this European good luck charm from the U.S., where the rabbit’s foot had come to encompass a variety of Anglo-American and African American superstitions [source: Wright]. According to folklore researcher and Professor Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University Bill Ellis:

"Possessing a fetish that embodies the essence of a dangerous Other — whether trickster, badman or witch — and using it for one's own purposes effectively neutralizes the threat represented by that Other. In short: We do unto Others as they would do unto us. And that's why a lucky rabbit's foot is lucky." [source: Ellis]


The Lucky Rabbit’s Foot in the United States

An essential contribution to the luckiness of the rabbit's foot in 20th-century African American culture was the object's association with a dark event. In 1925, sociologist Niles Newbell Puckett observed:

"In New Orleans these rabbit-foot charms, mounted in silver or gold, are conspicuously displayed in the windows of prominent jewelry shops up and down Canal Street. The managers of these stores assure me that the sales are enormous. The one I purchased had with it a printed slip containing a graphic illustration of the rabbit in the act of being shot and the following inscription: ‘This little luckie is the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit killed in the full of the moon.’” [source: Puckett]


Which grave the rabbit was killed on matters too. Puckett explained that former President Grover Cleveland received a foot taken from a rabbit killed on the grave of Jesse James because "the more wicked the person who is dead the more effective the charms associated with his remains."

Similarly, the more uncanny details associated with the rabbit’s foot, the luckier it was. For example, the left hind foot was the luckiest (the Latin word for "left" is "sinister"). Better still was the left rear foot of a rabbit killed in a cemetery at midnight, on a rainy Friday, or Friday the 13th.


What Does a Rabbit’s Foot Symbolize?

In both European and African traditions, body parts like hair and bones took on powerful symbolism. Europeans believed witches could transform into animals, including rabbits, so a rabbit's foot could represent a dead witch [source: Ellis].

Another European superstition is the Hand of Glory, a hand cut from a dead man and pickled, then turned into a candle. Thieves could light the hand of glory while committing crimes, preventing the people in the house from waking up [source: Simpson].


The graveyard rabbit’s feet sold in New Orleans likely stood in for the more dangerous (and taboo) practice of using human body parts as potent talismans. Placing the rabbit’s foot in a bag with dirt from a "sinner's grave” was another way to give the foot power [source: Ellis].

The rabbit's foot was a counterculture talisman, able to take the worst kinds of evil and subvert them by its very existence. While people still carry rabbit's feet (often as a keychain), many nowadays are made from synthetic fur, which is certainly good luck for rabbits.


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