Here at Urbo, we’re not superstitious, but we are a little stitious. Read enough stories of lottery winners who won multiple jackpots or park rangers who were struck by lightning seven times, and it’s hard not to believe in luck.
Granted, we’d rather be the woman who won the lottery than the guy people called “The Human Lightning Rod.” That’s where lucky charms come in—superstitious items and behaviors designed to change a person’s fortunes for the better.
Every culture has its share of lucky charms, but some seem…well, bizarre. We looked at a few examples, then spoke with a researcher to determine whether there’s any scientific benefit to superstition. Spoiler alert: not really.
1. The Fish Amulets of Egypt
In ancient Egypt, amulets served a variety of superstitious functions. They’ve been found in the tombs of mummies, placed along bandages to ensure health in the afterlife. While many of these amulets took the form of hieroglyphs or miniature deities, most were shaped like animals.
The almond-shaped Udjat fish is particularly important, as ancient Egyptians considered it a symbol of integrity. In one legend, a woman lost her fish-shaped jewel during a rowing trip, at which point a royal lecturer named Djadjaemankh magically parted the waters in order to let the woman retrieve it.
In other words, the ancient Egyptians took their fish amulets really, really seriously. Today, people throughout the Nubia region still call on the amulets for luck, according to the United Nations‘ Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Let’s say you find a solid mass of indigestible material in an animal’s digestive tract. Would you assume it’s lucky?
These stones—called bezoars—are carried as good-luck talismans in some parts of the world. They can be as large as a chicken egg and come in a variety of colors, which makes them fairly collectible. But remember, they’re formed in the gut of goats, deer, and other animals, so if you find yourself handling one, be sure to wash your hands before you eat anything.
For obvious reasons, bezoars are less popular in most of the Western world today than they were in the 16th century, but they’re still prized in certain countries.
3. Worry Dolls
At some point, a clever Guatemalan parent probably invented the worry doll to soothe a troubled toddler. Today, they’re found throughout the country, and they’re one of the few good luck charms that actually serve an important purpose.
Here’s how it works: Parents make a tiny figurine out of spare bits of cloth, yarn, and whatever else is laying around. The child is told to take the “worry doll” and tell it all their problems—everything from anxiety about school to difficult feelings about their loved ones. The child massages the doll’s tummy (to stop the worries from hurting it, and yes, we know it’s adorable).
The child can then tuck the doll under their pillow, and while they’re sleeping, the doll will take away all their worries. Neat, right?
Obviously, the doll doesn’t really do anything; by verbalizing their problems and (literally) sleeping on them, the child learns to address anxiety in a healthy way. Today, some psychologists celebrate the practice as an excellent example of emotion-positive therapy.
4. The Figa Charm
Shaped like a fist tightly balled around its thumb (picture the “I’ve got your nose” gesture), the figa charm can be found throughout South America, but especially in Brazil. The symbol is thought to ward off the evil eye, per a note in American Anthropologist.
A paper from Christopher Fennell of the University of Illinois (link opens a PDF) noted that the phallic symbol has a clear association with fertility, and some believe the inherent vulgarity of the “hand charm” is offensive enough to scare away the devil himself.
We know what you’re thinking—it’s not vulgar, it’s a fist—but for whatever reason, the figa remains extraordinarily popular as a good luck talisman.
5. Knocking on Wood
Lots of cultures—particularly in the Western world—have some sort of wood-knocking tradition, said to bring luck or at least keep the bad luck away. So what is it about rapping a piece of wood that makes us feel like we’ve avoided tempting fate?
Honestly, the jury’s still out. One leading theory is that ancient European pagans knocked on trees to wake the spirits who lived within. Once roused, the spirits would give protection.
In the Christian world, the faithful may associate wood with Christ’s cross. Touching the nearest bit of lumber acts as a stand-in for the religion’s most sacred artifact.
However it got started, touching wood is coded into lots of today’s cultures. Just remember: Particle board doesn’t count.
6. The Gris-Gris
You know how the bluesman Muddy Waters is always going on about “mojo“? He could just as well have been talking about gris-gris. The word refers to magical practices and talismans.
You can find these amulets in Louisiana, where they draw from the blended traditions of African tribal belief, indigenous Arawakian myth, and European Catholicism. Typically, the gris-gris object is a small bag filled with totemic items: carvings, herbs, bones, coins.
The purpose of the gris-gris depends on the spellcaster, but according to the African Vodun tradition, they’re typically used for luck. However, not everyone uses gris-gris for purely altruistic purposes. The gris-gris practitioner can also cast hexes on those who wrong them. So if you meet someone who, like Muddy Waters, goes “down to Louisiana to get … a mojo hand,” be polite. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the gris-gris.
7. Carp Scales
If you live in the States, you might have turkey or ham for Christmas dinner. In Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, though, they prefer carp. Not just any carp will do, either; traditionally, families purchase a big, living fish and throw it into the bathtub for a few days prior to the feast.
Children sometimes name the short-term pets, but come Christmas Eve, those kids probably wish they hadn’t. The carp always ends up breaded, fried, and served with cabbage soup and potato salad.
But there’s one last traditional surprise after the meal is done. Hosts hide carp scales under every plate. These scales are said to provide luck in the new year. People put them in their wallets, only to be replaced the following Christmas.
In other words, if you’re in Poland and you catch a whiff of fish coming from someone’s pockets, stay close to that one; they’ve got all the luck.
So do any of those lucky charms actually work?
Well, duh, of course they don’t work. Scientifically speaking, luck doesn’t exist—or at least, it’s not controllable. Otherwise, by definition, it wouldn’t be luck.
Still, some research indicates that lucky charms could make a person feel better. That counts for something.
“I think there are really well-documented benefits, but they’re mental,” Robert Calin-Jageman, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience program director at Dominican University, tells Urbo. “People feel better when they have a ritual, and they expect to do better at what they’re doing, and they have a better sense of control. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into actually doing better.”
Calin-Jageman led a 2014 study that attempted to determine whether superstitions can substantially improve performance on certain tasks. His group tried to replicate the results of a 2010 study, which seemed to show that lucky charms could improve participants’ golfing and logic puzzle scores.
“We repeated the experiment in a couple different ways, and we just could not get superstition to produce any real benefit in performance,” Calin-Jageman says.
“[The lucky charms] definitely made the people feel luckier. If you asked them, ‘Do you feel lucky right now?’ They’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m definitely feeling lucky.’ But [that feeling] just doesn’t translate into something physical.”
Calin-Jageman says that, for the most part, the science of luck is simple; superstitions can provide some mental benefits, but nothing tangible.
“There’s good and bad fortune, but you can’t really change it by wishing for it. You can just kind of feel better [and enjoy] a little better sense of control in your life.”
With that said, lucky charms could potentially improve performance in certain high-stress situations, which might explain why professional athletes tend to use them.
“If you’re a regular golfer, believing you have a lucky golf club is not going to turn you into Tiger Woods,” Calin-Jageman says. “However, if you’re under a stressful situation—a situation where you might choke—it might protect you from choking.”
In other words, if you feel that your [insert lucky charm here] really does help you with your golf swing (or your baseball game, or your marriage, or your TPS reports, for that matter), go ahead and use it. Just don’t expect a miracle.