January 18, 2012 by The Editor
My essay on Jewish Amulets is available upon request.
It’s something that most people have, even if some would never admit to having one. For many others they are as commonplace as a driver’s license. I’ll give you three guesses: a million dollars? No. A boring friend? Well, maybe… Give up? Third time’s a charm! That’s right – charms, specifically good luck charms. Take 10 seconds and make a list of the types of charms you know. How many did you come up with? Rabbit’s foot, four leaf-clover, shamrock, dice, horseshoes, lucky sweater, lucky socks, lucky numbers, etc. It’s easy to come up with half a dozen while barely thinking about it.
Good luck charms are those small items, often used by habit, sometimes connected with special memories, that bring us luck, or so we hope. For one person, starting out the day without their special coffee cup means the rest of the day is not going to go as planned. For another, carrying their lucky coin is a sure way to stay out of trouble. How many students have taken exams wearing their lucky sweater just to be on the safe side? And what are your lucky lottery numbers?
Why is it that just carrying or touching something is enough to feel as though we are bringing good luck or warding off bad luck? My feeling is that good luck charms are a little like a prayer offered before setting out on a journey. It may or may not make the difference between a safe arrival and an accident, but it makes us feel better all the same. And if we feel better, maybe we’ll drive better and get there safely. That is not to say there is no cause and effect: I am a firm believer in the power of prayer as well as the power of good luck charms in making a real difference in how things turn out.
Even though they are often forbidden by religious belief as idols or superstition, most people, religious or not, will likely have one at some point, in some guise. My grandmother for instance, a devout, life-long Roman Catholic, had a little statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a St. Christopher medal in her car. Did it make her a better driver? What would have happened if she took it out?
Religious items often cross the line between official religion and ‘custom.’ For instance, many Jews who are not otherwise religious at all, have a mezuzah on the arch of their doorways. Some say it’s respect for tradition, others say outright that they see it as good luck. The hamsa, a hand-shaped decoration popular in Israel and Morocco, is an ancient symbol warding off bad luck. Today, they are frequently found inscribed with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayers and come blessed by sages and the pious.
A couple years ago I was studying ‘amulets’ and ‘talismans’ for a class I was taking. I discovered that at least 30% of people surveyed had some object that they identified as a good luck charm. Many of those people used religious items placed under pillows or near an ill person to ward off sickness or bring healing. And that’s just the number of people willing to admit it! For a more in-depth read on this, see my paper which is attached to this article.
The other day I visited an exhibit here in London at the Wellcome Collection called Charmed Life. On display was a selection of amulets from the collection of Edward Lovett, 1852-1933, an American folklorist who collected hundreds of amulets in his lifetime from around the world. Lovett’s collection was displayed with the artwork of Felicity Powell whose hand-worked wax images evoked magic and the supernatural.
The collection was filled with objects meant to cure, safeguard, and protect. Many were suggestive of an afflicted body part it was meant to heal. Others were tiny pieces of paper, inscribed with prayers. There were objects from nature, like acorns and small stones with natural holes, both used as good luck charms. It also included a wishbone tied with a ribbon! A wishbone is probably the thing that I first learned had something to do with ‘good luck.’
Good luck charms are tied to tradition and often just good fun. They are part of the fabric of our culture. They are part of what makes us who we are. So whether you have a shamrock or a hamsa, carry a rosary even if you don’t use it, whether it’s a horseshoe over your front door or a mezuzah on the doorpost, you’re taking part in a long and storied tradition of keeping good luck in and bad luck out. May it always be so!