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The Dubious Value of Lucky Charms

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Many people attend games played by their favourite sports team with some sort of lucky charm in the belief it will affect the outcome. It won't, but that does not weaken the widespread faith many people put in their talismans.

Victories are ascribed to the presence of the lucky hat or lucky scarf; if the outcome is a loss it's because of crooked refereeing or some other malevolent force.

Can pure chance be influenced  by lucky charms?

Can pure chance be influenced by lucky charms?

The Rabbit's Foot

Incalculable numbers of bunnies have donated their feet to people who think such a charm will deliver a win of the night's big bingo pot. The faith that this works goes back, in some narratives, to African folklore, labelled hoodoo by white slavers.

A lot of hoodoo rituals involved human bones. When these weren't available, animal bones were substituted. Often, the rabbit was chosen for this task, because it is seen as being smart in usually getting its own way in a lot of Africa folk stories.

You can't have them; still needed by original owner.

You can't have them; still needed by original owner.

The rabbit's bone or foot would be used to soak up evil magic and in so doing would give good luck the advantage. If you carried a rabbit's foot that was loaded with nasty things, then evil would ignore you believing you were on its side.

The hoodoo belief in the power of the rabbit's foot crossed the Atlantic with the slave ships and passed from Black culture into popularity among white people.

However, we should keep in mind the words of R.E. Shay: “Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded the Rabbit Foot Blues in 1926. The song ties the tradition of the rabbit's foot to the bones of dead people.

Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded the Rabbit Foot Blues in 1926. The song ties the tradition of the rabbit's foot to the bones of dead people.

The Lucky Horseshoe

The only time a horseshoe can be deemed lucky without a doubt is when it's hidden inside a boxing glove. But, that only happens in cartoons. Which is not to say that foreign objects don't occasionally find their way into boxing gloves, although—sarcasm alert—that would never happen is such a well-regulated sport as prize fighting.

Long before fisticuffs emerged as a sport, the ancient tribes of Northern Europe believed in the existence of fairy folk. These goblins were not nice and were known to cast spells that made couples infertile and stopped chickens from laying eggs. But, the little rascals had a vulnerability; as Superman was weakened by Kryptonite so the fairy folk lost their power in the presence of iron.

Horseshoes were first used in about 400 BCE and discarded ones soon became popular as a way of warding off the evil spirits, hung over the front door of a dwelling.

The superstition has survived but there is a debate about the correct orientation of the horseshoe. Some say the open end should point upwards to collect good luck; others prefer the open end to point downwards so that good luck pours out onto the people passing underneath.

The Dangling Fuzzy Dice

Some people think it's a bit cheesy to have a pair of furry dice hanging from your rear view mirror. Some drivers put the dice there just to thumb their noses, metaphorically, at folks who consider themselves sophisticated.

Whatever your view on kitschy taste, the dangling of dice can be traced back to World War II. American air force pilots would place a pair of dice on their instrument panel before embarking on a mission. The dice were placed so that seven dots were facing the pilot (seven being considered a lucky number that the Ancient Greeks called “the perfect number” because of its mathematical properties).

The luck the dice conferred on aircrews cannot be said to have been very good. On some daylight raids, almost a quarter of the bombers and their crews were shot down.

It's suggested the survivors of these high-casualty sorties brought the dice superstition back with them when the war ended and they started to appear in all their plush glory on hot rods in the 1950s.

Soon, the trend migrated into the mainstream and that's when the authorities stepped in. Numerous traffic accidents and fatalities were attributed to the lucky dice obscuring the vision of drivers and causing collisions. The tokens of good fortune have been banned in several states.

It's said that hot rodders hung the ornament to challenge others to a street race, in effect saying "Are you ready to dice with death?"

It's said that hot rodders hung the ornament to challenge others to a street race, in effect saying "Are you ready to dice with death?"

Fingers Crossed

People who run lotteries in Oregon, Virginia, and the United Kingdom use crossed fingers in their logos, signifying luck will come your way if you buy a ticket. That's a bit disingenuous because we all know the chances of winning the jackpot are vastly against it happening to any one of us.

That aside, why do we cross our fingers in the hope it will bring about a favourable outcome? Nobody knows for sure, but there are some theories.

Pre-Christian pagans were inclined to the view that good spirits existed where crosses intersected. To have their desires come true, people would cross their index fingers with those of another person while they made their wish.

A more popular theory among historians places the origin of the practice at the time when Christianity was in its toddler stage. The faith was outlawed in many places so followers developed secret hand signals to identify fellow believers. One of these signs involved forming an “L” shape with thumb and forefinger and then crossing the forefinger with another person. This created a shape similar to the fish symbol that has deep meaning to the devotees of Christ.

Over the years, this changed into a solo gesture aimed at asking for God's favour. Today, all we need to do is say “fingers crossed,” which is a boon to elderly writers with arthritis.

The Lucky Penny

“Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck.”

The origin of this lucky charm goes back to the Middle Ages, the last time a penny was worth much. Metal was rare and expensive and nobody would carelessly discard it. So, if a small copper coin was found in the street it was believed to be a gift from God as a shield against evil.

The penny, of course, has two sides and the superstition developed that heads meant good luck and tails foretold of bad luck. So, if you find a penny on the sidewalk and it's tails up flip it over so the next person to see it will have good luck. You'll want to be extra vigilant on May 23rd because somewhere a brain trust in the United States decided that the date should be celebrated as National Lucky Penny Day.

As yet, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other revered seats of learning have remained silent on any possible connection between the finding of a penny and the bestowal of good fortune.

Here's a dilemma for the superstitious.

Here's a dilemma for the superstitious.

Bonus Factoids

  • General Mills introduced its Lucky Charms cereal in 1964. It consists of toasted oats and marshmallow shapes such as green clovers, pink hearts, and orange stars.
  • According to a YouGov Omnibus poll almost a quarter (24 percent) of all Americans carry a lucky charm from time to time.
  • The South West News Service in the United Kingdom says that for Brits rings are the most commonly owned lucky charms followed, in descending order, by bracelets, necklaces, coins, key rings, pictures of a loved one, T-shirts, watches, glasses/cups/mugs, and socks.
  • Only one clover stem in 10,000 has four leaves.

Sources

  • “Rabbit's Foot.” New World Encyclopedia, undated.
  • “Why Are Horseshoes Considered Lucky?” Remy Melina, livescience.com, March 15, 2011.
  • “The Surprising History of Fuzzy Dice.” Terri Lynn Coop, liveabout.com, May 24, 2019.
  • “Why Do We Cross Our Fingers for Luck and when Lying.” Emily Upton, todayifoundout.com, March 18, 2014.
  • “This Is Why People Believe Pennies Bring Good Luck.” Emily DiNuzzo, Reader's Digest, March 29, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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