How Br’er Rabbit Lost His Foot
The Rabbit in Magic and Folklore
By Matthew Venus
One of the most recognizable lucky curios to the average American, magically inclined or otherwise, is that of the Rabbit’s Foot. Though the usual response that “it wasn’t so lucky for the rabbit” holds true, we have to wonder how such an object became popularized as a good luck fetish within American and European society.
Perhaps to understand why the rabbit might sacrifice his foot that we may find good fortune it is best to first examine the role of the rabbit himself in popular folklore.
From the perspective of European history, the rabbit is a creature with strong ties to witchcraft and magic. Rabbits and hares were commonly considered to be favorite familiars of witches. Additionally throughout Wales, Ireland and Scotland it was often believed that witches would transform themselves into hares in order to travel about undetected. In the case of the witch or her familiar it was said that the only way to injure or kill the supernatural hare was with the aid of a silver bullet. Interestingly enough, and a concept with potential significance, some European traditions held that the devil himself would often take the form of a hare with only three legs. This inspires further thought when we note that one of the few claimed powers of the Rabbit’s Foot in Europe its ability to protect against witchcraft. The color of a rabbit was also of importance as some believed that to see a white rabbit was an omen of death, whilst black rabbits were often thought to be the reincarnated souls of ancestors (Pickering, 1995, p. 213).
Rabbits make an appearance in some of the folk remedies of Europe as well. As Pickering (1995) reports, the wearing of socks fashioned from rabbit skin was said to prevent pleurisy. And in Dorset, it was believed that to feed the brains of a rabbit to an irritable child would remedy their ill behavior (p. 214). However, the Rabbit’s Foot appears quite rarely in European written traditions before the 1930s and when it does it is usually mentioned as a cure for witchcraft, rheumatism, cramp, or more commonly colic.
According to Leland (1892) there are several spells which called for the removal of fur from a live rabbit in order to effect a cure. This would sometimes involve removing the ankle bone, or talus, of the rabbit who would then be sent on its way and believed to take the colic it as it left. Though this begs the question as to how the poor creature could hop away without the aid of its ankle bone, Leland does go on to posit that this may be the early origin of carrying the Rabbits Foot as a pocket piece (p 259-60). Indeed, it has been noted that during the mid to late sixteen hundreds Samuel Pepys, Member of Parliament and naval administrator, carried a Rabbit’s Foot as an amulet against colic (Simpson & Roud, 2000, p. 166).
Though the rabbit does make regular appearances throughout European folklore, it seems the Rabbit’s Foot was only of minor repute and predominantly employed as a protective amulet as opposed to a good luck piece. As Ellis (2002) noted in his exhaustive exploration of the subject, “The belief is not recorded as a common superstition in North America until the beginning of the twentieth century” (p. 59). It is not until Southern African American folk traditions add their charm and perspective to the Rabbit’s Foot that it begins to appear as a widespread, massed produced and highly touted lucky charm.
So why is it that the rabbit became a popularized symbol of good luck among African Americans? The answer to this question is most likely found in connection to a paradoxical and humorous trickster whom many of us know as Br’er Rabbit.
Br’er Rabbit in an anthropomorphic trickster character who figured prominently in the folktales of Southern African Americans. His most well known tale is one in which he is tricked by Br’er Fox into fighting with, and becoming stuck to, a baby made from tar. Though at times Br’er, or Brother, Rabbit finds himself the butt of a joke, he is more often the victor of the stories in which he appears. One of Br’er Rabbit’s defining characteristics is that, though he is usually pitted against creatures or challenges which are greater than himself, he uses his cunning, quick wits and trickery to challenge authority, surmount obstacles and ultimately prevail. In an era when African Americans were marginalized, discriminated against and denied basic human rights, Br’er Rabbit represented the plight of the downtrodden and their ability to overcome difficult situations.
The stories of Br’er Rabbit were largely popularized by a collection of writings from the late eighteen hundreds that were gathered and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris. In his tales Harris utilized the fictional character Uncle Remus, an aged slave who conveys the stories in Harris’s interpretation of a Southern dialect. The tales told through Uncle Remus were largely collected by Harris from his early experiences on Southern Plantations. Though in hindsight Harris’s works have been criticized by some as being racially insensitive, as Christian (1998) observes:
Harris broke ground with his novels by focusing on the issues of slavery, poverty, and racial identity at a time when the mainstream ignored these problems. Although the main character is a rabbit, the tales highlight the plight of African Americans and the trials of that period in U.S. History, and even though the stories are called “children’s tales” they often cross into adult themes dealing with social and moral issues. (p. 17)
Though Harris’s work made the tales of Br’er Rabbit accessible to a much larger audience, the stories themselves have a much earlier history.
Trickster tales are a common element in African folklore and to assume that their proliferation within African American society is only a response to oppressive conditions would be misguided. One notable example of the Trickster archetype, which is thought to be a potential prototype for Br’er Rabbit, is the spider trickster Anansi found in folktales throughout West Africa. Much like Br’er Rabbit, Anansi, though small in size, uses his cunning and wit to outsmart others and achieve victory. Additionally, though of debatable influence, there are a number of tales told amongst the Hausa people of West and Central Africa about the trickster Zomo who also appeared as a hare and achieved victory through his cunning (Christian, 1998, p. 245).
When African Slaves interacted with Native Americans they shared more than herbalism, they also shared their culture and folklore. And within Cherokee folktales the rabbit appears regularly as a trickster. One Cherokee tale relates how the other animals plotted to stop Rabbit from stealing water. As Bankhead (1996) tells it, “They snare him by forming a tar wolf and leaving it by the well. The rabbit challenged the tar wolf, and receiving no response, kicked it and was trapped” (para. 7). Though it is unknown if the story of the tar wolf predates the oral tradition of the Br’er Rabbit tales, it was first published in the 1845 edition of the Cherokee Advocate, which was a good three years before Joel Chandler Harris was born. Additionally, the Algonquian tell tales of a trickster rabbit known as Nanabozhoo who, amongst other things, was credited with creating animals and giving fire to mankind (Christian, 1998, p. 148-9).
It is largely believed that through the co-mingling of traditional African tales and those from Native American sources the popular Br’er Rabbit tales were born. It is not difficult to imagine why a character such a Br’er Rabbit became a meaningful addition to the stories passed between the dually marginalized Native Americans and African American populations.
It isn’t unlikely that common folktales would have influence on the popularity and reputation of magical curios. An excellent example of this process can be found in the tales of High John the Conqueror and the attachment of his name to the Ipomoea jalapa root. Through the familiarity of John the Conqueror’s tales of victory and cunning we have a better understanding of the reputed power associated with the curio. Like John the Conqueror, Br’er Rabbit is representative of the ability to rise above seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the use of cunning in the face of adversity and perhaps most importantly, through his tales of success and occasional failure Br’er Rabbit inspires laughter. Though expressed in the vernacular of his time B.A. Botkin (1944) makes the meaningful observation that:
The laughter of the Negro, like that of other minorities, is a solace and a source of courage; but it is on the attack rather than merely on the defensive, emphasizing the Br’er Rabbit resourcefulness of a highly adaptive and infinitely patient people. (p408)
With an understanding of the long history of the Rabbit’s association with witchcraft and folk remedies in Europe, coupled with the cunning and victorious characteristics he acquires through Native and African American tales we may now be better equipped to determine how the Rabbit’s Foot became so popularized in American culture.
Though their manufacture began centuries earlier, by the early nineteen hundreds Rabbit’s Foot charms had become largely popular curios, particularly in areas such as New Orleans, and were already being mass-produced and sold to a European market. Many of the early descriptions of how a Rabbit’s Foot should be collected contain bizarre and telling circumstances. As Simpson and Roud report:
Charms imported to England in 1908 were advertised as “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” (as cited by Ellis 2002 p. 60).
The multitude of liminal or nefarious implications within such a method of procurement may give some insight into the popular conception of the Rabbit’s Foot. In his writing Ellis goes on to note:
Such descriptions are catalogs of “backward” elements. A body part from the rear of the animal and on the left (or traditionally “sinister”) side implies an evil omen, reinforced if the person killing the rabbit was also left-handed. Persons with red hair and physical deformities such as crossed eyes and bowed legs were often thought to be unlucky or sinister (a persistent folk tradition holds that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, was a redhead). Likewise, an albino mule or horse was thought to be bad luck, though one could turn the luck to good by spitting. Bringing all of these unlucky elements together into a metonym of ritual murder marks the fetish as a powerful concrete representation of all these folk beliefs. (Ellis 2002 p.60)
It also said by some that the rabbit should be killed as close to the grave of a sinner or wicked person as possible. In fact, Grover Cleveland is said to have carried the foot of a rabbit that was killed on the grave of Jesse James during his Presidential race (Puckett 1926 p. 475). Other times the foot was to be taken from a live animal and the animal then released. Some further elements of interest are that many times it is required that rabbit should be shot with a silver bullet before removing its foot.
An intriguing parallel occurs when we note that the rabbit is commonly killed or maimed in a cemetery at midnight. These are often the prescribed time and place for collection of the famous Black Cat Bone, another charm associated with good luck and healing abilities. When we recognize the rabbit and black cat as two of the animals most frequently associated with witchcraft, and often believed to be witches themselves in human form, the similarity of these curios becomes even more apparent.
Though not a popular concept in modern magical practice, it is not an uncommon belief that to sacrifice or maim an animal associated with the witchcraft and the Devil was to claim power from that creature. This might be viewed as an appropriation of supernatural ability gained from a witch in the form of a black cat or rabbit, or by the allegorical punishment and conquering of evil in animal form. To then keep one of its bones or body parts as a talisman would be viewed as claiming a powerful fetish which acted as a link to the creature’s power. Though this particular symbolism might have been most visceral for those of European descent, it is almost certain that along with the enforcement of European religious concepts upon African slaves, many folk beliefs and superstitions were passed along and adopted as well.
The association of the rabbit with witchcraft, in conjunction with the popularized symbolism of the rabbit as a quick witted and cunning trickster with the ability to overcome adversaries, creates a mythos in which the possession of part of the creature would make for a powerfully significant fetish. With this held in mind, little mystery remains as to how the readily available Rabbit’s Foot charm found a willing market amongst Americans of both African and European descent. And though the popular ritual, mythos and deeper history behind the Rabbit’s Foot may be lost to some, it still maintains a meaningful place in American folklore and in many people’s pockets today.
Botkins, B.A. (Ed.). (1944). A Treasury of American folklore. Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press
Bankhead, S. (1996). Cherokee tales and Disney films explored. Watsonville Register-Pajaronian.
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Christian, K.A. (1998). Clowns and tricksters: An Encyclopedia of tradition and culture, S.Gill (Ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Ellis, B. (2002). Why is the lucky rabbit’s foot lucky? Body parts as fetishes. Journal of Folklore Research. 39(1), 51-84.
Leland, C.G. (1892). Etruscan Roman remains in popular tradition. New York, NY: C. Scribner’s sons, and London, T. F. Unwin
Pickering, D. (1995). Dictionary of superstitions. London: Cassel
Puckett N.N. (1926) Folk beliefs of the southern negro. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North
Simpson, J., & Roud, S. (2000). A Dictionary of English folklore. New York, NY: Oxford University Press