Sunday, November 13, 2011

They're always after me Lucky Charms!

It’s like thunder and lightning,
the way you love me is frightening.
You better knock, knock on wood, baby
--Knock on Wood, Amii Stewart.
They're magically delicious.
Lucky charms, not including the pseudo-marshmallow goodness of the cereal variety, are objects culturally invested with magical properties.  People have described countless talismans as "lucky."  Many of those symbols have wound up in our every day lives.  Stars, keys, runes, medals, and crystals are part of our wardrobe and even are incorporated in the brands we buy.  One of the earliest ads for good luck jewelry ran in Art and Beauty magazine in 1926.

Today on Sunday mythbusters, I look at the history of a few of our good luck charms.

The Horseshoe
One of the most recognizable symbols of good luck is the horseshoe.  My house has one embedded in the corner of the entryway, in homage to the belief that a horseshoe placed at the right corner of the front door will bring all who enter good luck.  Some attribute this myth to Irish superstition that iron kept evil Fae away.  Others cite a story about St. Dunstan, who along with his more sacred talents was a skilled farrier.  The Devil approached St. Dunstan, presumably because he needed a little touch up in the hoof department.  St. Dunstan recognized the red one, hammering his hooves to the wall and filing like a demented manicurist until the Devil screamed for mercy.  St. Dunstan released him only when the Devil promised to avoid houses protected by a horseshoe over the door.  Lore says that the shoe should be points up, lest all that good luck spill out.
St. Dunstan gives the Devil a shoeing from Hell.
The Four-Leaf Clover
Veering back to the realm of the leprechaun, the four leaf clover has to be included in a discussion of good luck charms.  Legend says a four leaf clover was the only thing Eve was allowed to take with her from the Garden of Eden.  In Irish tradition, the three leaf clover is felt to be a representation of the Holy Trinity.  When the fourth leaf appears, it represents God’s grace.  A more secular view has the leaves symbolizing faith, hope, love, and luck.  To those who have pagan beliefs, the bearer of a four leaf clover is granted the ability to see spirits and fairies.  

If you want the odds of picking out a naturally occurring good luck charm, for every 1 four-leafer, there are 10,000 three leafers.  However, researchers from the University of Georgia found the four-leaf gene in 2010, making it now possible for breeders to genetically engineer luck.

Knock on Wood
Humans often tempt fate, and one way to avoid the consequences is to knock on wood--or if you furnish with IKEA, wood veneer.  This goes back to the pagan belief that every living thing had a spiritual connection.  Knocking on wood paid tribute to the spirits and asked for their blessings.  In Greek mythology, knocking on an oak was a way to ask for the blessing and justice of Zeus as the tree was one of his symbols.  In a Biblical theory, wood symbolizes the cross on which Christ was crucified and is a show of faith.  Other claim the saying got its popularity during the Spanish Inquisition, when an elaborate code of knocks became a secret form of communication for those sought out by authorities.

The Hand of Fatima (or Miriam, or Mary)
The hand is often seen as good luck.  Egyptian civilization believed the hands received spiritual energy and could also direct it.  In Islam, the Hand of Fatima is a good luck charm, named for Muhammad's daughter.  The fingers represent faith, prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and fasting.  Judaism embraced this symbol as well, although it was called the hand of Miriam to honor Moses's sister.  Christians in the area also adopted the symbol as the hand of Mary, although Emperor Charles V banned the use of the emblem in 1526, believing it was too closely associated with other religions.  

No matter what faith, the hand is a symbol of the grace of God, blessing the wearer with good fortune and protection against the evil eye.  Gypsies often would hold their hand up to a person with bad spiritual energy, shielding themselves from the negative vibes.
And now I know where that came from.
The Rabbit's Foot
My final charm is a little magical and a little macabre, which is probably why it is my favorite.  The rabbit’s foot has been a good luck charm since around 600 B.C. 
It wasn't very lucky for the rabbit, now was it?
There are possibly two origins for why a dismembering a bunny is considered lucky.  Pre-Celtic hunter tribes believed hunting and killing a rabbit was a rite of passage for their male children.  Once he achieved this milestone, the boy received the hind foot of his kill during a ceremony to celebrate his manhood.  The descendants of these hunter tribes saw the rabbit as a more revered creature.  To the Celts, rabbits and hares were animals capable of channeling the human spirit, and thus represented man’s connection to the Earth goddess.  They embodied fertility of both body and mind.  Rabbits may have been kept as pets, and their feet removed at death as a blessed talisman.  
I hope the Earth goddess has a sense of humor about Hef's use of the bunny.
In an alternate theory, African tribes had a tradition of carrying the foot of a swift animal, believing it would help them escape if faced with danger.  The belief was brought overseas with African slaves, and then Hoodoo folk magic took it a bit further.  The rabbit became a familiar for witches and spirit work, much like the maligned black cat.  To own a rabbit's foot was to have a connection to witchcraft--and possibly to have part of the witch herself.  
Don't even think about taking my foot.

Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish woman tried for witchcraft in 1662, gave a detailed confession (which some believed was the result of psychosis) about the relationship of witches with animal familiars, specifically the hare.  This is her shapeshifting incantation, although I read it several times and I'm still human.  I am having a strange craving for carrots.

I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Ay while I come home again.

If you can't find a shape shifted witch-hare to get your foot from, Hoodoo followers offer a different method, although it's a bit more time intensive.  To reap the full benefit of serendipity, the foot must be from the left hind leg of a rabbit caught in a cemetery on the full moon, preferably on a Friday--the thirteenth if possible.  Some folklore even goes as far as to say the rabbit should be killed with a silver bullet by a cross-eyed red haired man riding a white horse.  Somehow I doubt those dyed creations in the prize bins at your local carnival were harvested in such a manner. 

In folk magic, animal bones are often used to represent human bones.  This type of magic, called sympathetic magic, uses poppets and imitations of humans to control them--such as with voodoo dolls.  For the ultimate in rabbit foot fetishests, killing the rabbit on the grave of a powerful spirit would give the talisman incredible potency.  It was reported in Scientific American that President Grover Cleveland kept a rabbit’s foot from an animal killed on Jesse James’ grave.
The Supernatural boys dealt with a cursed rabbit's foot in one episode.

I carry an arsenal of good luck charms, and some days I even don lucky undies.  However, I believe that luck is mainly determined by mindset.  What you think has a tremendous effect on your perceptions of life.  A mind full of negative thoughts enhances beliefs of being plagued by “bad” luck.  I leave you with a proverb from Seneca, the Roman philosopher, and a bit of The Rabbit's Foot Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

         Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.  


  1. Lucky "undies"? You didn't really think you were going to slip that one by did you? Pray tell...what was that memorable event that raised them to LUCKY status? :)

  2. Genetically engineered 4 leaf clovers takes all the fun out of it. I once found a five-leafed clover. What does that mean?

    I still knock on wood. With all the plastic veneer around I end up knocking on the closest piece of paper I can find. Pathetic, right???

    And I used to buy rabbit's feet all the time as a child. When they're rainbow dyed, you kind of forget about the rest of the hasenpfeffer.

    Great post!

  3. 'In Greek mythology, knocking on an oak was a way to ask for the blessing and justice of Zeus as the tree was one of his symbols.'

    I like this, and remember imbuing my male protagonist in 'Madame Thunderbolt' with oak-like properties. Thunderbolts, Zeus-- being an acronym of my own name-- and trees hold particular meaning for me.

    My brother used to hunt with our youth pastor when he was in his late teens, early twenties. He saved the feet of the rabbits they took out on the desert flatland and had one in his apartment. After catching the first twenty or so minutes of 'I Know What You Did Last Summer,' he exited the theatre, rushed home and threw out the rabbit's foot. He didn't want any 'remnant of death' in his house.

    People are interesting.

    Another great post, Jules.

    Incidentally, I love both Lucky Charms cereals and that excellent Amii Stewart song.

  4. I love that quote. I've never been much of one for lucky charms but find the stories behind them fascinating. Great post Julie.

  5. Glad I never had to kill a rabbit to become a man.
    And I heard that the horseshoe must be posted with the circular part down or all the luck runs out.

  6. I've got a lucky Cornish Piskie on my fridge - not a real one, that would be cruel - he seems to be working well for us.

    The rabbit's foot has always just made me shudder.

  7. I'm a little disappointed to learn they've figured out how to genetically engineer lucky clovers. Next they'll be cloning rabbit's feet and leprechauns and selling them for $1.99 at WalMart. Where does it end?

    Another fine myth-buster post. :)

  8. I guess from your description of how a lucky rabbit's foot should be acquired, this means that no-one actually owns one as what are the chances of catching a rabbit in a graveyard on a Friday 13th, which happens to coincide with a full moon accomanied by a cross-eyed red haired man riding a white horse who just happens to be toting a silver bullet filled revolver. Oh, hang on a minute, reminds me of when I lost my virginity!!

  9. I love when people put up pics from SUPERNATURAL. drool! ;)

    I love your posts about this kind of stuff. And I love saying 'talk to the hand', hehe.

  10. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," is definitely something I will pass along to my boys. I will be clutching my rabbit's foot in the hope that they will be listening. Julie

  11. Great post! Really enjoyed reading it.

  12. I didn't know the rabbit thing had such a history. I carried my share of rabbit's feet before got old enough to say, "Aww, poor little bunny." That put a stop to that. I remember we had a horseshoe above our door when I was a kid too. And since I'm a 1/4 Irish the four leaf clover was cool. I still knock on wood. But you're right, luck is all in the mind. It's like believing in voodoo. Have a great day! :)

  13. I still do the Knock on Wood thing. Though it's harder to find wood around. My head usually does the trick. =)

  14. We have a horseshoe above the door that leads to the house from the garage. I better see if it's down or up. And we probably put it in the wrong spot.
    Though I have to say I"m not terribly superstitious so I don't really use lucky charms.

  15. Wow, I always learn so much here. Chances are (I mean were) 1/10,000 for a four-leaf clover? I'm surprised--we used to find them a lot. And I LOVE that thing about 'talk to the hand.' I never connected the phrase and the lucky hand legend before. (I'm with the Celts on rabbit feet. Love those Celts.)

  16. Whoa! I thought the old football coach for the University of Tennessee said "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

    I am so crushed by that. Crushed.

  17. Well, I ain’t sure what all that had to do with ‘Cap’n Crunch’, but I do know that YOU GOT LUCKY when I found your blog.

    Incidentally . . . you sure don’t need me as a “Blues mentor” if your knowledge has already graduated to the BLIND LEMON PYE level.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    ‘Loyal American Underpants’, I mean, ‘UNDERGROUND’!
    [See whatcha did to my mind’s mental thinkin’?!]

  18. I don't knock on wood, carry charms, or recite spells to ward off evil.

    ...maybe I should start.

  19. Wow, so many ways to attain good luck. I'd forgotten about so many of them. I guess I was more superstitious when I was young. I remember being thrilled when I found an old horseshoe. I also had a wonderful pendant, it was shaped like a moon with a crystal hanging in the center of it.

  20. I knock on wood or my forehead (same difference) a lot but never knew why. I really enjoyed this enlightening post. And I'm surprised at the odds of finding a non-genetically engineered 4-leaf clover. I'm thinking the odds that I'm wearing lucky underwear are about the same.

  21. Interesting look at how people around the world view good luck. Me, I just work hard and good things just follow.

  22. I remember that supernatural one. Hey if I open your post inside on a rainy day is that bad luck?

  23. This is really interesting, although I'm not superstitious (usually) and generally neither lucky or unlucky. Maybe this would change I had a four leaf clover. : )

  24. About that four leaf clover and "now possible for breeders to genetically engineer luck." That's just messing with fate :)


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