The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The animal once most associated with European witchcraft wasn’t the cat, which for a long time was rare, but rabbits. Rabbits serve as witches’ familiars and messengers and are the form into which European witches once most frequently transformed.
Most rabbit and hare species graze at twilight. Little brown rabbits camouflage well; they suddenly appear and disappear, as if by magic. Rabbits’ defenses are limited to speed, brains, and fecundity. Rabbits survive and thrive because they can reproduce faster than they can be killed. No surprise, then, that the rabbit is the fertility animal extraordinaire. They are associated with sex, reproduction, and the moon. Classic tricksters, they represent success, survival and joy despite all odds, which, after all, is the primal stimulus for magic and witchcraft.
The gestation period of a rabbit is 28 days, one lunar month, akin to a woman’s menstrual cycle. The Egyptian word for “rabbit” translates as “the opener” and also indicated “period” in both the calendar and menstrual sense. Sacred rabbits, female and male, had dominion over women’s reproductive abilities. Vestiges of that pagan belief survive in the bunny that delivers eggs, emblematic of birth, at Easter, the Christian holiday that closely corresponds to the Vernal Equinox, the time of Earth’s rebirth. Easter bunnies are most frequently depicted as sweet, juvenile purveyors of candy eggs; the hares they’re based upon were understood as wild, raucous, very phallically empowered magical creatures. The consort of the pagan goddess Ostara, whose name is recalled in “Easter,” was a man-sized rabbit. (See CALENDAR: Easter; Ostara.)
Around the world, rabbits are associated with the moon, the celestial body ruling magic, romance, and reproduction. In many areas there’s a rabbit in the moon, not a man.
Throughout Central America, the moon was uniformly associated with rabbits. Classical Mayan imagery depicts a beautiful, youthful woman sitting on a crescent moon, cuddling a rabbit in her arms. The Yucatan goddess Ix Chel, lunar deity of women, magic, storms, and spinning has a consort who manifests in the form of a man-sized rabbit.
In China, rabbits are associated with witchcraft, sorcery, and alchemy. According to Chinese myth, a rabbit keeps the Moon Lady company in her lonely palace—not just any old rabbit though: the rabbit on the moon is an alchemist rabbit, seen pounding out the secret elixir of immortality with his mortar and pestle.
Rabbits are trickster spirits in Africa and now, via transplantation, in the United States as well, the classic examples being Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. They represent rabbits’ powers of rebirth and regeneration: no matter how much trouble Brer and Bugs get into, even when doom seems certain, they always miraculously slip out of trouble (or resurrect) to survive and thrive. They are magical creatures, too smart for their own good; their curiosity, quest for knowledge, and inability to mind their own business inevitably leads them into trouble, which they always then manage to remedy and survive. They are somewhat dangerous creatures, too, reminding us that tricksters aren’t just cuddly bunnies but typically also possess a sharper edge that can lead others into trouble, as well as extricating them again.
Historically, when English witches transformed into animals, it was most frequently a rabbit. Unlike on the European mainland where wolves were the most common form, there’s little British tradition of werewolves. Christina Hole, author of Witchcraft in England, suggests that this powerful identification with rabbits occurred when wolves were eradicated in the British Isles.
The British Isles are filled with tales of rabbits serving as witches’ alter egos:
According to legend, Anne Boleyn haunts her parish church in the form of a hare.
Isobel Gowdie, perhaps Scotland’s most famous witch (for reasons unknown, she volunteered her witchcraft confession), claimed that she traveled in the form of a hare.
On the Isle of Man, gorse was set on fire on May Day to flush out the witches, believed to take the form of hares on that day.
In Ireland, rabbits found amid cows on May Day were once summarily killed because they were believed to be shape-shifting witches with wicked designs on cattle, milk, and butter.
Even people with little knowledge or interest in magic spells are familiar with the concept of the lucky rabbit’s foot, typically carried as a gambling charm. “Lucky for whom?” asks the old joke. “It wasn’t lucky for the rabbit!” Indeed. This “charm’s” origins derive from magical witchhunting techniques similar to those advocating slaughtering rabbits on May Day.
The custom of carrying a rabbit’s foot charm is now associated with gambling luck but that wasn’t the original intent. The magical rabbit’s foot isn’t some ancient spell but is of relatively recent origin. Although popularly associated with African-American conjure traditions, the charm has British roots. Similar charms were used in nineteenth-century England to protect against witchcraft.
Not just any old rabbit’s foot would do. Slightly different versions of this spell exist, some more difficult than others, but to turn the trick, it originally had to be the left foot of a rabbit killed in a cemetery at midnight, sometimes on a Friday or a Friday the 13th; on a dark moon Friday or any dark moon. Some American versions specify that it must be an African-American cemetery, which may indicate something about the spell-casters beliefs about witchcraft. Other versions stipulate that the rabbit must be killed with a silver bullet. (Silver is the moon’s metal.)
There are various ways of understanding this spell:
The rabbit may be understood as a transformed witch, who is now destroyed and her power stolen for the killer’s personal use.
It may be understood as similar to traditions like nailing bats or owls to barn doors to scare away witches; an announcement that what can be done to the crucified witch can be done to others.
It’s possible that the spell-caster’s goal was to obtain a rabbit familiar or even spiritual possession of the witch in rabbit form.
The rabbit may also be understood as a revenant or powerful ghost; caught outside its grave, it’s now finally really dead and unable to rise and walk again.