Knock on Wood: The Things People Do for Luck
I am not and have never been a superstitious person but I am intrigued that so many people are. But I do believe in luck, even though it is a difficult thing to influence. So I decided to research the ways people seek luck out by traditional methods. And ways to avoid bad luck too, which is just as important, when you think about it. I then realized that there are an awful lot of ways we think about luck and I diagnosed them here too. In addition to good luck and bad luck there is dumb luck, hard luck, tough luck and many others. You’ll find the keys to all kinds of luck here. Good luck!
A Push/Pull/Press book from JSA Publications, Inc. 1998. © JSA Publications, Inc.
Luck. Either you have it or you don’t. Some folks have good luck. Some have bad luck. Others have dumb luck. But if you’re like most of us, the only luck you have is tough luck. This handy collection of luck-bringing beliefs and charms will hopefully change all that. Starting today. But let’s talk about luck first, in a general sort of way. You see, you have to be able to recognize luck when it comes to you.
Both good luck and bad.
Probably not long after the beginning of time, people (or what passed for people in that age) have wondered about the nature of the world around them. Human instinct teaches us to question and probe the things that happen. The result is understanding and explanation. Not that these conclusions are correct. But they are “our” conclusions and so we stick with them until a better explanation
arises. Consequently, a vast body of beliefs and practices developed over time to aid our search for meaning.
But some things just seem to defy explanation, even to us moderns. The superstitions and omens of the past appear as helpful as ever to us as we seek answers to new questions. Indeed, they are even more prized in our desire to conjure harbingers of hope for the future. Good fortune. Bad luck. How do you get one and avoid the other? Our quest to address these two poles of human experience has caused us to develop and adopt some of the wackiest customs imaginable. This book is a collection of these customs collected from hundreds of sources over a period of ten years and many miles.
One of the earliest known and most widely practiced form of human reasoning is to observe two successive events and conclude the first caused the second. Following this method, a person who steps in dog doo-doo and is suddenly conked on the head by a falling branch might conclude that the bump on his head was caused by the dog doo (or his failure to avoid it). Consequently, stepping in dog poop is not only yucky, it becomes a bad omen. Erroneous deductions like this created the folk beliefs and superstitions we still recognize today.
Almost every aspect of human interest has superstitions associated with it. Working, playing, eating, sleeping, falling in love, and dealing with death are subjects rife with spurious beliefs and practices. Topics of wide concern are naturally laden with the most folk beliefs and practices. Anthropologists who’ve studied superstitions and human behavior find that they reveal much about the origin of culture and the structure of society from which they emanate.
Like other forms of folklore, folk beliefs were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. They’ve changed and evolved over time and distance. Many have disappeared, and others have been re-invented by people of differing traditions. One thing is certain considering the widespread adoption of folk beliefs: over the centuries, the conclusions drawn from simple observations have evolved into a vast array of varying customs in different places
throughout the world.
Some folk beliefs contain a grain of truth, such as the belief that there will be a flood if animals move their young to higher ground. Animals do have keen senses, this is known and understood today. But in earlier times, the behavior of animals, the color of the sky, the shape of plants or a myriad of other natural occurrences led to highly imaginative conclusions. Not surprisingly, these conclusions reflected the culture or the hopes of the peoples who believed them. For example, the nomadic tribes of southern Arabia believed a sneeze was a sign of a female camel would be born before the next full moon. Considering the value of a productive female camel, it’s clear sneezing was a sign of good luck. Conversely, the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico believed a sneeze was a sign of bad luck. A person who sneezed often was thought to be cursed with poor eyesight. How the connection between sneezing and eyesight was made is inexplicable today.
In our day, many common practices seek to hail good luck. A few of the more commons ways are well-known to all: crossing our fingers, making the Sign of the Cross, carrying a four-leaf clover, and of course, knocking on wood. Can you think of others?
We also do the reverse. We try to ward off bad luck. We carry lucky charms, we avoid walking beneath ladders or crossing the path of a black cat, and we handle mirrors with care. Inuits native to northern Canada used to be wary of round fish. Once caught, they are immediately thrown back to repel a cruel wintry hex. Children everywhere are taught to avoid stepping on the cracks of sidewalks or risk breaking their mothers’ backs. Go figure.
I can’t end this brief discussion without admonishing the reader to refrain from hanging on luck with false hope. We all know how lucky the passengers of the Titanic felt when they secured a berth for her maiden voyage. We all know how unlucky our lucky numbers are after lottery draws. How many divorcees wore something borrowed and something blue? It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte never
appointed a battlefield commander without first inquiring, “Yes, but has he luck?” Bob Hope reportedly never went on stage without his lucky St. Christopher’s Medal around his neck. Score one for serendipity!
The following anecdotes are explained with as much information as I have handy. I believe it would be unlucky for me to research them too thoroughly and thus make a serious work out of what really should be an amusing one. But let’s begin with the obvious. Almost everyone today is in fact superstitious to a degree, whether they admit it or not. When we make a wager, get married, find a new job or move into a new home, the temptation to tip our hats to superstition is commonplace. Even to the least credulous among us, the thought if often muttered, “It can’t hurt, can it?” Judge for yourself.
Signs of Good Luck
Luck doesn’t mean “good luck,” at least not any longer, especially since “bad luck” came into its own as a separate and distinct kind of luck. While nobody can agree when this may have actually happened, everybody agrees good luck is better to have than bad luck. Accordingly, all kinds of methods were devised to summon good luck. We practice many of them today. Others are no longer practiced or have become lost to us. Let’s make a short list of the more common ways we seek to hail good fortune:
* Crossing your fingers
* Making the Sign of the Cross
* Knocking on wood
* Carrying a four-leaf clover Wishing on a falling (or shooting) star
* Catching an airborne cotton blossom between the thumb and
* Catching a snowflake on the tongue
* Petting a rabbit’s foot
* Hanging a horseshoe above a door
* Smashing an empty “toasting” glass into a fireplace
* Wearing a shark’s tooth around the neck
* Tossing back the first caught fish
Thankfully, many other good luck-bringing beliefs and practices exist. The following brief bits summarize some of the less well-known methods, many of which are still observed in some part of the world today.
When building a new house, use several bricks or some wood from an old house and it’ll be a happy home. By planting an oak tree and rubbing it daily, your home will always be a safe one. If a strange dog follows you home, good fortune awaits you inside. Good fortune can also be yours if you keep a bowl of uncirculated pennies in the kitchen.
It’s good luck to sneeze at the exact same time as another; good luck for both sneezers.
To ward off stormy weather, pirate ships hoisted a skull and crossed bones flag atop their forecastles. Pirates, being a superstitious lot, also wearing blue beads and carved demonic icons for good luck, which in most cases, meant finding another well-laden ship to plunder. Tattoos, contrary to common belief were not born of superstitious origins. They just looked cool.
If a white cat walks across your path on a Friday the 13th, you’ll enjoy good fortune all the days of your life. However, if a black cat passes your path after sundown, you better watch out for accidents. This is a traditional sign of impending disaster.
Brides who place an old coin in their right shoe will always enjoy youthful love. By sewing salt into her hem or bringing a cat to the
wedding, a bride can assure herself a happy marriage. And by wearing something borrowed, something blue, something old and something new, millions of brides says their “I do’s” with the confidence they’ll enjoy good luck in their marriages.
Be thankful if a bee flies into and out of your house without stinging anybody. Start praying if it dies in your house instead. But if you carry a woodpecker’s beak in your pocket bees will leave you in peace irrespective where you are.
In parts of central Africa, the passing of a newborn through the branches of a maple tree will assure the baby leads a long, healthy and prosperous life. If pepper was sprinkled on the expectant womb, the pain of labor was thought to be measurably eased.
In many cultures the number 7 has been mysteriously but consistently linked to good fortune. In European folklore it was believed a seventh son would become a healer and a seventh daughter would become possessed of second–sight. In China, a pea pod with seven peas is a good luck charm. Lucky 7 has been a feature of dice games for centuries.
Bringing home a handful of graveside dirt from a cemetery was thought to keep death at bay, as was the wearing of hats at funerals. A pocketful of caraway seeds will conquer fears of death. Whistling while walking through a graveyard was believed to keep the ghosts of uneasy “sleepers” away. Any day a ghost fails to materialize is a lucky day, to be sure.
Folks on farms and in rural communities have all kinds of beliefs. In the American South, pulling a pig’s tail is considered unlucky. But somehow, when this belief traveled westward, pulling a pig’s tail became a thing to be done for good luck. This seems to be a little less illogical since why else would one want to do it? One can assure good fortune by walking around a pig sty every three days. In another version of this superstition, good luck can be achieved by walking around a pig sty three times every day. Go figure.
Actors do all sorts of things to bring good luck, especially for their performances. For example, to always leave the dressing room left foot first, is an old acting superstition. Spitting on both sides of your fellow actors is another way to wish them well in Russia. If one is performing solo, he or she must spit in their own shoes before putting them on. And never wish an actor good luck before for a performance because this is bad luck in theatrical circles. Whistling back stage is too. And if you’ve ever noticed, Broadway plays never open on Fridays. To do so would be to tempt the gods of (box office) misfortune.
It’s a lucky day if you find a black button, a new penny or an acorn far from an oak tree. But you can enjoy good luck every day if you carry a horse chestnut in your pocket.
Good luck charms are so popular that nearly three out of four Americans have at least one good- luck charm. Some even feel that a good-luck charm is a way of asking fate for a favor.
Gemstones were worn as good luck charms long before they became precious stones. Wear the following:
* Amethyst for peace of mind
* Aquamarine to cure laziness
* Diamond to marry a forgiving spouse
* Emerald to improve your memory
* Onyx for happy dreams
* Opal to maintain your hair
* Ruby to ward off evil spirits
* Sapphire to prevent evil thoughts
* Topaz to find a lost object
* Lapis Lazuli if you are looking for love.
Making wishes come true, or at least helping them along, is a subject that has understandably received much attention. Over time, certain occasions were thought most opportune to make wishes. Blowing
out all the candles on your birthday cake or pulling apart a turkey wishbone and coming out with the larger part are the two most widely practiced wish-making customs in America. But in northern Canada, one is supposed to make a wish the first time he or she (or they) sleeps beneath anew blanket (or animal skin). In France, it is customary to make a wish prior to picking the first fruit of the season.
In Ireland, one is taught to make a wish immediately after accidentally rhyming while speaking. Back in the US., it is customary to make a wish prior to driving through a covered bridge or crossing a railroad track.
A common good luck charm in Japan is the daruma doll. It’s named after a sixth-century A.D. Buddhist monk who, according to legend, sat so long in meditation that his arms and legs disappeared! That’s what this doll looks like—an egg-shaped fellow with a rounded, heavy bottom. When you knock him over, he pops back up again. Because he recovers from every blow, he’s a perfect symbol for good luck and success.
Wishing over the gender of a newborn (prior to the birth) is a great pastime in the wish department. If you want a girl, you are taught in Spain to place a frying pan beneath the delivery bed. To assure a boy, a knife should be placed there. In Vietnam, dried spiders are utilized as wishing dice. A good “throw” as determined by an interpretive seer will guarantee a son; a bad throw summons forth a daughter.
Ovid, a first-century philosopher, once said, “Luck affects everything. Let your hook always be cast in the stream. When you least expect it, there will be a fish.”
To expand on the idea of “crossing your fingers,” some feel you’re supposed to keep your fingers crossed whenever passing by a graveyard as a protection against evil spirits. And children still cross fingers while lying to “cross out” the lie.
Said actor Kirk Douglas: “Everything that happened to me happened by mistake. I don’t believe in fate. It’s luck, timing, and accident.”
Said writer Stephen King: “You can have all the talent in the world, but without luck you go nowhere.”
According to an old tradition, if you find your initials in a spider’s web, you’ll have good luck forever.
Many believe in a guiding star for each and every person, which appears when we are born and disappears after our life is over. It waxes and wanes, rises and falls, directing our lot in life.
Falling stars are especially lucky for lovers, provided they wish together when they see one. Shooting stars are lucky, as well, for sick people (they’ll regain their health within thirty days) and travelers (it’s an omen of a successful trip).
The hole-in-one is the instant when good luck meets the game of golf. It is usually viewed as a combination of luck and skill.
Beware of Bad Luck
S igns of bad luck are everywhere. Open an umbrella in the house while in the company of others and see for yourself. Walk beneath a ladder or witness a black cat cross your path and you’re as good as hexed. Break a mirror and you’re hexed for seven years. Expect three days of bad luck in you break a bird’s nest and five years of it if you let a black ace fall to the ground while playing cards.
If you move into a new house in China, don’t take your cat(s) with you or else you’ll be cursing the house and all who live there. You’ll be cursing yourself if you mend a round hole with anything other than a square patch. Among some native American tribes, it was considered bad luck to spit in a fire pit or howl like a wolf. It was also thought to be reckless to burn the wood of a tree downed by lightning.
In Sweden it is considered bad luck to marry a person with the same initials as yourself. In Mexico it is considered unlucky to count the mourners at a funeral. If they trip over a gravestone in a cemetery, most Mexicans will fear their own demise within a year. In Russia it is believed that the middle person in a three–person photograph will be the first among them to die. So it must be bad luck to be caught in that position? In Thailand it is bad luck to dry one’s hands in a towel that has not been unfolded by the user. And in Japan, if you leave your home and realize you’ve forgotten something, it is unlucky to retrieve it without first circling your home before re-entering.
In early American folklore it was believed one should never put their left shoe on before the right, or that one should never step out of bed left foot first. Both would bring unwelcome surprises, as would wearing a new hat into the house. As a consequence of such beliefs, explanations and justifications of misfortune, almost philosophically, crept into the American idiom with expressions like: “getting up on the wrong side of the bed:” “getting off to a bad start:” “when it rains it pours;” “from bad to worse;” “fickle finger of fate;” and my personal favorite, “I can’t win for losing!”
Bad omens are similarly omnipresent. A bad omen can be anything that is thought to be a harbinger of ill tidings. For example, 19th century miners in southern Africa believed a circling dove portended a cave-in. Impending danger is certain to Andean natives if a chain of beads around ones’ neck breaks during its removal. Among the Inuits, the spotting of brownish (as opposed to yellowish) seal pubs are a sign that the hunting season will be a poor one. In Belgium it is unwise to sneeze three times in a row. This is thought to summon an unwelcome visitor. In France, it is a curse on the marriage to sell a wedding gown. They are lent instead. In much of South America a bride may only wear the same wedding dress once or she is cursing her new marriage.
Bidding good riddance to bad luck is a natural enough desire. And like most desires it is expressed in numerous ways. Spinning around
backwards three times will change bad luck to good luck. So too will turning your pockets inside out. In Italy, some people believe they can convert bad luck to good luck by pricking their fingers and letting a single drop of blood fall onto a holy relic. In Japan, you can kiss someone you don’t like and transfer your bad luck to him or her. And in England, you can end your promised seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror if your bury the pieces before the next sundown. If you spill champagne in Germany or France, you’re in for a bout of misfortune, unless, of course, you immediately rub three drops of it behind your left ear.
The number “13” has its own lode of bad luck stories. Superstitions regarding 13 are as old as history itself. Both Asian and Meso-American ancients held the number in fearful regard, as did the Europeans as early as the first century AD. Exactly why 13 has been thus burdened unknown, but the weight of its superstitious spell can be felt even today. In the first half of the 20th century most American skyscrapers skipped floor number 13. Nobody would want to live or rent an office on such a 13th floor, was the belief. The utter absurdity of such thinking was hardly questioned, probably because to do so would also be bad luck. Not surprisingly, in 1974 the Council of American Witches (Wiccans) published its list of guiding principles, and yes, there are 13 of them!
Spells and Charms
Speaking of witches, it seems probable they were saddled with the weight of infamy because of the prevalence of “If…then” thinking by early American settlers of the Puritanical mode. If “A” happened than “X” was sure to follow. As practiced by a society of faithful believers, it is not unreasonable to presume they believed in all kinds of things in addition to their Christianity. Let’s take a look at what these pseudo-dogmatic believes were…and in some cases, continue to be.
If you let you dog out at the stroke of midnight, a devil will possess it.
If you name a horse once, and subsequently change its name, the horse will never be friendly again.
If you stumble over a barrel, someone will ask you to lend money.
If a cat jumps over a corpse, the corpse will become a vampire. If a cat licks its tail continuously, it’ll soon rain heavily. Never kick a cow or you’ll be afflicted by rheumatism. If you smear butter on the hoofs of your donkey, it’ll never stray. Plucking a first feather from a turkey will bring yourself an unexpected gift. When you hear an owl hooting, someone close to you is saying good-bye and will soon die. Kill a wren and you’ll soon break a bone.
If you run into a spider’s web you’ll soon gain a new friend. If you squash a firefly, a star in the universe will die. If a butterfly flutters around your head you’ll soon be married. If you see a flock of birds flying west on your wedding day, you’ll have many children. Never step exactly in the footsteps of a friend or the friendship will end. If a baby’s hands are tightly fisted at birth, the baby will enjoy a long life. Never stir cake batter in more than one direction or the cake will not rise. If you bring back from flowers from a funeral somebody you love will soon die. If you say goodbye to someone while standing on a bridge, you’ll never see that person again. If you bury a lump of coal next to the base of a fruit tree, it’ll bear plentifully. If you cut your hair during a new moon, your hair will grow back thicker. If you dream of stars on three successive nights, success lies ahead.
Charms are similar to spells except they include the possession of a material object to make the spell complete. The nature and character of charm objects has historically been determined by the society that gives them credence. A rabbit’s foot was the favorite charm of westward-ho-ing pioneers in early American life. The Plains Indians whom they frequently encountered along the way used eagle beaks and shiny stones as charms. Pacific Islanders wore shark’s teeth
around their necks for good luck. The list of objects that have been endowed with charm-like powers is endless. In large parts of the Middle East gold coins have been prized far more for prestige than for the monetary value they represent. Keepsake coins were incorporated into jewelry, headdresses and clothing as symbols of stature, not wealth. Oddly, a house with a hidden gold coin was deemed “protected” from thieves.
Walk the Dogma
Not far apart from magical or mystical beliefs dwells a virtual cornucopia of foolishness. I’ve grouped these beliefs together here under the general classification of erroneous conceptions. As you might guess, many of them are inexplicable. For example, from the Ukraine comes, “A dog will have a sunny disposition if you name it after a villain.” And from the Philippines, “Owners of white cats have many lovers.” Here is a list of some of the more inventive conceptions:
* A snake will never bite a person wearing red beads. But a snake will cast a spell on you if you stare into its eyes.
* You’ll meet a long lost friend if you accidentally walk into a spider’s web. If you kill a spider you’ll be killing a reincarnated soul also. And if you kill a beetle you must be prepared to face three years of bad luck. In the Caribbean islands it was believed the destruction of an ant colony would cause rain. One can imagine is years past a regular ant-holocaust in times of draught.
* A mule won’t cross a bridge if it is unsafe. And it’ll never stray if you feed it garlic.
For over two centuries, bored farm girls learned to pull a hair from their prize horse’s tail and wrap it around their ring fingers if they wanted to be married. Alternately or perhaps additionally, they were taught to blow three kisses to the wind on their birthdays to receive a
visit from the man they loved. Yet, they understood distinctly, not to cook their own wedding meal for fear of fermenting a gloomy matrimony. And if things turn for the worse, a woman can win back the heart of her love by serving him toad soup.
* If two sisters are in love with the same man, it is best that neither wins him because he is inappropriate for both.
* People with moles know how to keep secrets. If you let a tree come between you and your spouse while walking, the union will soon end. Tickling a male baby under the chin will cause him to stammer.
* Cover your household mirrors while a body is laid out prior to burial or the deceased’s reflection will appear instead of your own.
* Never leave a neighbor’s house by a door you did not enter.
* If you drop a fork, a man will visit. If you drop a knife, a woman will visit. (No word on who might be stopping by if you drop a spoon.)
* Hanging holly over the mantle brings fertility to the household. Placing a green tomato on the mantle will assure prosperity.
* Buying a statute of St. Joseph will hasten the sale of your house.
* Cornbread should be broken in pieces by hand and never cut with a knife or you’ll never eat cornbread again.
* A sprig of rosemary beneath your pillow will prevent nightmares. Carry a piece of parsley in your pocket and an enemy will become a friend.
* Throw salt over your shoulder when you tell a lie and it’ll not be counted against your soul. And if you ever accidentally spill salt, throw some over your shoulder and you’ll not one day go hungry.
* You’ll double your harvest if you sow your seeds on Palm Sunday. Sniffing buttercups will cause sudden lunacy. Lost souls hear children weeping in the night as the penalty for their sins. You’ll double the money you find if you put it in your shoe fora day.
* You’ll never be poor if you save every other penny you touch.
You’ll be wealthy if you save every other dollar you touch. If you have to borrow money, do it from people with big ears only, as they are more generous and forgiving.
* It’s unlucky to wash a baseball uniform during a winning streak. And its worse luck to wear anything new during a championship game.
* At New Year’s Eve you can do all kinds of things to assure a prosperous new year: Eat herring; carry fish scales; pay all your debts; kiss an ugly woman; keep a resolution?
* A terrible dress rehearsal will mean a great opening night.
* Eating carrots improves one’s vision.
* A man who loses all his hair gains sexual prowess.
* A woman with a widow’s peak will marry more than once. (Perhaps that’s how it was labeled a “widow’s peak?)
* Masturbation causes blindness. Brunettes are more trustworthy than blondes. Each time an eyelash falls out you are gaining a year of life. A wife with blue eyes will be faithful; a husband with blues will be a flirt. Put a warm raisin in your ear to stop a nose bleed. Sneezing is a sign of good health.
* Breaking an egg over your stomach will cure constipation. A woman who ties a red sash over her waist will not suffer from cramps. Daisy wine cures headaches. Acorn tea cures weakness of the back and legs. And of course, how can we forget: An apple a day helps keep the doctor away!
* If your stockings fall around your feet, somebody dear is thinking of you. A full moon brings out the madness in people.
* It is certain to rain if: a dog suddenly starts eating grass; fish swim near the surface of a stream; church bells appear louder than usual; flowers remain open all night.
* Plant holly around your house to protect it from tornadoes. The best place to met the devil is at a crossroads at midnight. A witch can recite the Lord’s Prayer backward. If you wish for beauty, the beauty you already possess will be lost. Never ridicule a dwarf or you’ll parent a dwarf yourself. And my all time favorite: Give a woman an inch and she’ll take a mile.