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Lucky feet: The ancient lore of the rabbit's foot

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One of the oldest known good luck charms, the rabbit’s foot, just got a little older. In fact, with the discovery of a 53 million-year-old rabbit’s foot in West Central India, scholars are now rethinking the age of the entire species.

Whereas scientists previously placed rabbits’ and hares’ evolutionary split from their relatives – the mouse-like pikas – around 35 million years ago, it seems that the entire family existed almost 20 million years earlier.

As tokens of good luck, rabbit’s feet go back further than you might think, too.

Believed to be used all the way back in 600 B.C., the “lucky rabbit’s foot” stems from animist belief systems that bestow objects – such as a rabbit’s foot – with spiritual powers. Thus, it was believed that holding part of an animal would give the carrier that animal’s strengths, in this case the ability to run swiftly from danger or improve fertility. These skills were derived from the inherent powers of the speedy fertile rabbit.

Symbols of hope

Because rabbits enjoy abundant fertility, it is not surprising that the animals were viewed as symbols of hope, renewal, and prosperity. They were also believed to be just plain lucky in many cultures in Europe, and in North and South America. In China they were believed to bring prosperity. In other regions, people strongly believed they protected owners from evil spirits.

The American superstition surrounding the good luck of a rabbit’s foot can be traced back to African slaves who brought the tradition over to the New World. Associated with African voodoo ceremonies, rabbit’s feet could serve as totems of luck for those carrying “mojo bags.” According to African-American folk-magic termed hoodoo, there are many complicated requirements regarding the use of the rabbit’s foot for luck. Not only must the body part be the left hind foot of the animal, the rabbit itself must be obtained in a graveyard. Some sources claim the phase of the moon (either new or full) when the rabbit is captured as equally significant. What’s more, other legends hold that the rabbit must be shot with a silver bullet.

Modern use

Today, many people still purchase rabbit’s feet for their key chains (now on sale for less than 50 cents on E-bay) on their pens, or to be worn on necklaces. Many children are also drawn to the fluffy charms. And today, most rabbit’s feet are 100 percent synthetic.

Who else carries them? Actors, sports personalities, gamblers, and travelers hoping to tap into lady luck.

“I used to rub my lucky rabbit’s foot hoping for a little good luck right before getting into trouble from my parents. I just poured all of my anxieties into that fluffy little guy,” said Gina Davio, a preschool teacher in Lambertville, N.J.

Whereas the ancient lucky totems were once believed to bring speed and fertility, many modern carriers cling to the superstition that the foot will bring them material success, or maybe even a little protection.

Note: WebVet does not condone or encourage the sale or use of real rabbit feet. Synthetic rabbit feet are widely available for key chains and good luck charms.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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