The origins of superstitions and lucky charms
Worn for good fortune
The ancient Egyptians wore lucky charms or amulets as a protection against death and evil spirits. One of the oldest was the ‘eye’ of Horus, a sky god who took the shape of a falcon. His right eye represents a falcon’s, including the ‘teardrop’ sometimes seen below it. Horus was called on by his mother Isis to destroy her wicked brother Set, and lost his eye after a series of battles with Set. When the eye was restored it was believed to have special powers. The eye symbol was also known as a ‘wadjet’, a deity with links to the Sun. Representations of the eye were made of precious metal and endowed its wearer with the strength of the life-giving Sun. Babies, and even valuable livestock, were given amulets for protection. Today’s christening gifts are a remnant of this practice.
Amulets or talismans, worn as bracelets, necklaces, rings or even belts, are usually made of gold or silver, jewels or semi-precious stones. The five-pointed ‘wizard’s star’ was popular in medieval times. It was emblematic of the mysteries of the universe and believed to strengthen the soul. For the traveller, wearing an image of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, is lucky. According to legend, the saint once offered to carry a child, who then became heavier than any other burden. He later revealed himself as Jesus.
Talismans for the home
To propitiate spirits that protect the household, the skull of a human or animal – especially a horse – would be embedded in the walls when a house was built. Many ancient cultures believed it would ward off evil or illness, and its resistance to decay reflected a hope that the home would endure. Grotesque faces, still used in African countries and in Mexico, are also believed to ward off evil spirits.
The ‘weak point’ in a house is the keyhole, through which evil can enter or fairies steal a newborn baby, so keeping a key in the door is a safety precaution. This also explains why breaking or dropping a key is meant to be unlucky. Windows or ‘wind eyes’ are also vulnerable points. A multi-coloured glass ball might be hung up in a window to distract the evil gaze of a witch and absorb the impact of any venom that she might spit.
The ancient art of geomancy, or feng shui, decrees that, to avoid ill luck, the items within a home must be optimally placed relative to the lines of energy crossing the landscape.
This derives from the links between ancient feng shui and astronomy. The Chinese used the study of astronomy to link humans with the universe and the pole stars, while the position in relation to the celestial poles determined the north-south axis of settlements.
Using these rules, a home should ideally be set with hills or tall trees to the north or back, and water flowing to the south or front, so that the favourable aspects of cosmic breath, or chi, are perfectly balanced with the unfavourable ones. Inside, screens will help to keep positive energy flowing out of the doors. A mirror should never be placed on the wall facing a bed because the spirit leaves the body at night and may be disturbed by its own reflection.
All kinds of actions are supposed to influence luck. Crossing the fingers to avert bad luck or to induce a lucky event is thought to relate to the Crucifixion, as is the older and, for gamblers, even luckier action of crossing the legs. From Roman times, holding the thumb with the fingers of the same hand has been a way of keeping away ghosts. The same action was a medieval way of keeping a witch from seeing you. Touching or knocking on wood for luck probably dates back to the ancient belief in tree spirits. But not just any wood will do. The ash and yew, trees of immortality, are luckiest while hornbeam was favoured as the wood of the sorcerer’s wand. At sea, men believe that touching iron will confer the best protection against evil if someone should blaspheme.
Avoidance can be as important as action. Fear of walking under a ladder dates back to the old practice of hanging criminals after making them climb a ladder to their execution. Opening an umbrella indoors could bring ill fortune or even be an omen of death, particularly to the Chinese, who saw it as an insult to the Sun, their warmth-bringing deity.
The animals and people who cross your path may also affect your fortunes. In Africa and Ancient Egypt, hares were symbols of both good and bad luck, symbolising mortality and renewal. They had many roles in Native American culture but in the most all-encompassing form represented the life-giving power of the Sun. More recently they were thought to resemble covens of witches and were deemed unlucky. Cats, too, are both lucky and unlucky. They were revered as gods in Ancient Egypt but burned for their perceived links to witches in the Middle Ages and later. Their colour is significant. In Britain, black cats are lucky, but in most other places, white cats fill this role, in some instances bringing wealth. Sheep are lucky if you encounter them in a flock, but it is unlucky to count them – they, or you, may die as a result.