Ed note: As Halloween rapidly approaches in the US, AiP will be exploring superstitions, beliefs, and the things that go bump in the night. [Evil laugh.]
At some point, most of us have likely had a token that we believed would protect us or bring us luck. It could have been a baseball cap, a pair of socks, a key chain, a piece of jewelry, a rock or some other otherwise ordinary object that held deeper meaning for us or offered comfort when we needed it most. I've had a variety of tokens, including a Cat's Eye marble a two-dollar bill and a black stone with the word "Ahoy" engraved on it. The stone is my most recent token—a gift from a friend, it typically finds its way into my pocket or on my person to help me face things that make me nervous.
I've never had a rabbit's foot, though. And while I am willing to accept that carrying one is no stranger than carrying a rock to help things go smoothly, there's something slightly creepy—to me—about carrying a dead animal's body part around for luck. Even if it’s artificial. (Though, if it's not the real thing, is it still lucky? It didn't go through the "fortune-making" process, after all.)
Do You Have a Fetish?
Lucky charms are in essence fetishes: objects culturally invested with magical properties. But they are also constructed to carry social power as well. Why does one carry a lucky token? Because one believes that fortune is needed in some way. But it might also suggest that the owner of the token is unlucky, or lacks confidence—which is perhaps why our lucky tokens are often small, discrete objects. This is in keeping with the general belief that the owner falsely or overly values such items; they are childish and trivial items that can be readily dismissed by others.[i]
Despite this undercurrent, the behavior persists. So where do lucky tokens get their power from?
Folklorist Bill Ellis traces the lore of the rabbit’s foot to an interesting thread of subversion evident in the ways these tokens were certified—the process by which they were created determined the effectiveness of the charms. For example, one advertisement read, “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.”[ii]
Ellis labels these descriptive terms as “backward elements”—that is, they run counter to positive, fortuitous signs: the rear and left side is the “sinister side,” red hair and physical deformities were regarded as unlucky, the dark of the moon and Friday the 13th are both regarded as sinister times, and albino mules or horses were regarded as unlucky.
While some online sources suggest that the fecund nature of rabbits translates into a proliferation of good fortune for the bearer, Ellis notes that rabbits were also familiars.[iii] There are countless tales of witches being identified when animals are marked or maimed (with a silver bullet) while conducting mischief and similarly placed wounds appear on a local woman. We know how such stories go: There’s a farmer whose crops are disappearing overnight, so he sets up a watch and winds up shooting a white rabbit. Though he searches, he can’t find the rabbit, but the next day he learns that a local village woman—who has a reputation for being strange—has died from a mysterious wound in approximately the same area where he shot the rabbit. [Cue spooky music.]
Even more curious, for the rabbit’s foot to be a powerful token, the animal must be killed on a grave—and the more wicked the person buried beneath, the better. President Cleveland allegedly had a rabbit’s foot from a rabbit killed on the grave of Jesse James.[iv] Yes, that Jesse James—though in all fairness, I don’t know how the claims were verified.
Does it seem strange to anyone else that an item that is supposed to be lucky has such an ominous weight to it?
Dead Out of Luck?
Carrying tokens from the dead is actually not at all a new practice. The veneration of relics is a manifestation of the power that body parts can hold for some people. It was also fairly common to keep a lock of hair in the mid 19th-century as a keepsake of the departed—there were even lockets marketed specifically for the purpose.[v] Thus, the properly slain rabbit could serve as a substitute for the deceased—a rabbit’s foot standing in for Jesse James’ little finger, for example.
Mixing all of these sinister signs transfers power to the owner of the token. If the preparatory ritual is followed correctly, the rabbit’s foot can take on elements of the deceased. Possession of such an item allows the owner to counteract the negativity that surrounds it. There is social power in being able to take an object of this nature:
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 thread represented by that Other.”[vi]
The owner of such a token manipulates existing ideology to empower himself. Ellis links the rabbit’s foot lore to African American magical traditions—where the rabbit is a familiar in Anglo traditions, the rabbit is a clever creature in the African tradition of B’rer Rabbit, who consistently employed wit, creativity, and intelligence to manage conflicts:
(T)he law was one area in which Black impotence was particularly visible. White policemen and sheriffs frequently enforced regulations against such victimless crimes as gambling and moonshining, and they often did it in a way that upheld White interests. For this reason, figures such as B’rer Rabbit (and later badman heroes such as Stagolee and Railroad Bill) were seen as heroic precisely because they resisted a legal code that the Black community saw as intrinsically corrupt … the fetish-makers saw the tradition as a way of empowering individuals to saw “Yo’ know ah’m de law” and imitate the badman’s wy of making “things go mah way.”[vii]
The rabbit’s foot is thus not a token of luck solely because it may provide parallels to fecundity, but because it reminds the bearer of courage in adverse situations.
The power of the rabbit’s foot stems from the ritual process of creation. However, the market has been flooded by artificial creations. Do these fake feet have the same power? Yes, because it’s been allowed to take on a life of its own, liberating it from human control.[viii] The belief in the power of the artifact transcends the actual power of the artifact, which allows the owner to overlook the technicalities of creation—and permits the item to draw on a history as a source for its power.
The personal relationship to these items can’t be forgotten—perhaps a beloved relative owned a rabbit’s foot, or one was gifted to the owner at a momentous occasion. The positive associations we tie to these items also imbue them with a power that may be meaningful only to the individual, but is meaningful all the same.
Whatever your lucky token, I hope it brings you much good fortune.
Referenced: Bill Ellis (2002). Why Is a Lucky Rabbit's Foot Lucky? Body Parts as Fetishes. Journal of Folklore Research, 39 (1), 51-84