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11/17/2005 Archived Entry: "Rabbits"
A curious story about the superstitions surrounding rabbits recently emerged in the national press. Posters announcing the hit film "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit" have been banned from the Isle of Portland, just off the Dorset coast. It seems the local people object to the word "rabbit" on the grounds that it brings bad fortune to the district. For centuries, the local people have never used the word "rabbit", always referring to these creatures as underground mutton or furry things. It seems rabbits are not welcome on Portland which is the source of the famous Portland stone. Light brown and rough textured, it was used to build St Paul's Cathedral and since that time has featured in many prestigious buildings.
Unfortunately, the burrowing of rabbits near the quarries has caused many landslips and just over a century ago, a crane operator was killed. The ground beneath his crane collapsed due to the burrowing activities of rabbits and so the superstition was reinforced. Afterwards, if some workers merely saw a rabbit, they would stop work and go home and another factor was that sailors in the area were also superstitiously afraid of rabbits, being fearful of seeing one before going to sea. If they did see one, they believed harm would befall them and so they refused to set sail that day.
This belief was not restricted to the Portland sailors. All around Britain, rabbits must not be mentioned by name at sea, or in any gathering of sea-faring folk either on land or at sea. For years, any fisherman operating along the north-east coast would not go to sea if he encountered a rabbit on his way to the boat and even people who were not associated with the sea would consider it unfortunate to meet one.
In the countryside wild white rabbits were once thought to be witches and so they were left alone and not shot under any circumstances because of fears of the revenge which might follow.
Probably the most common of all rabbit superstitions is the carrying of a rabbit's foot. I've known people, even in our modern society, insist on carrying a rabbit's foot at all times, both of a means of preventing bad luck, but also for ensuring good fortune when travelling, going to work, taking an exam or undertaking some special task. Children have been known to carry rabbits' feet when sitting exams and actors would carry them before and during an important performance.
Mothers would place them in their children's prams as a form of protection and in some areas; mothers would brush their new-born babies with the fur of a rabbit's foot to ensure luck throughout life. It seems the left hind foot was preferred. This belief in the power of the foot of a rabbit is not restricted to Britain; it is a world-wide superstition and especially strong in America. Many rabbit superstitions apply also to hares, and these beliefs might have their origins in the fact that baby hares are born with their eyes open, and thus able to avoid evil from their first moments of life. A modern equivalent can sometimes be seen in cars and lorries where drivers carry mascots shaped like rabbits, this being regarded as a safeguard against accidents. Gardeners are also known to hang rabbits' feet among their fruit trees to ensure a good crop, and I've heard of poachers who carry a rabbit's foot in the belief it will protect them against capture!
It is perhaps odd that in some areas, like Portland, rabbits are considered to bring bad-luck while in others, they bring good fortune.