Four-leaf clovers in Ireland. Painted dala horses in Sweden. Chinese golden toads, Egyptian scarabs. Whether you grasp such good luck charms in your palm, wear them around your neck, or mount one near your front door these talismans or amulets are meant to provide a shortcut to a better future, a warding off of evil spirits or bad forces.
Of course, there’s no proof any such tokens, which travellers commonly pick up as souvenirs, actually work. But these cultural symbols both educate and enchant us.
Some totemic objects stem from faith (Buddhas in Southeast Asia), others from tradition (colourful, geometric hex charms hung on barns in U.S. Amish country). But all seem both unique to their birthplaces and universal to human nature. “The fact that they come up in every culture through time shows how much luck and superstition is embedded in our DNA,” says Richard Wiseman, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and author of The Luck Factor.
In times of trouble or doubt, many of us reach for a good luck charm. “People become superstitious when they have to face uncertainty in performance, such as athletes and actors,” says Wiseman. “We are living through very uncertain times,” he adds. When things get dire, people look for anything that signals better days ahead. Rabbit feet were popular during the Depression; World War II fighter pilots often flew with fuzzy dice.
Scan the global news, and you’ll find these bits of hope in urgent use during the coronavirus crisis. In parts of Indonesia, people are making tetek melek, traditional homemade masks crafted from coconut palm fronds, hung above doorways to ward off danger. Mexican President Andréa Manuel López Obrador even brandished several of his own amulets during a spring press conference addressing the pandemic.
Throughout Mexico and Central America, people have long sought solace with milagros (miracles). The tiny metal charms show up in churches and souvenir shops alike, often depicting body parts or creatures in need of healing or divine intervention. Their meanings veer between literal and figurative: A milagro of an arm might be used to banish tennis elbow or gain strength; a dog charm could keep your perro healthy.
The little shiny things are often plastered on a small wooden or metal sacred heart (corazón). Widespread symbols of both Catholic faith and romantic love, corazones are also rumoured to shield users against heartbreak and heart disease. In central Mexico’s colonial San Miguel de Allende, the corazón is both a city symbol and a ubiquitous souvenir meant to hang on your wall, sold milagro-covered, découpaged with Frida Kahlo’s face or stamped out of tin.
Apotropaic objects, symbols that banish bad spirits, have been with humans for thousands of years. Among the oldest are evil eyes, those blue and white circles and orbs piled up in bazaars and souks in Mediterranean and Arabian regions. They’re supposed to avert a destructive glance, also known as the evil eye, a concept that dates back some 5,000 years to the Sumerians of the Euphrates Valley.
In Turkey and in other parts of the Islamic world, the unblinking eyeballs are everywhere, staring out from bowls, bracelets, and even doormats. Decades ago in Istanbul, I recall purchasing a porcelain blue evil-eye (nazar boncuğu) pendant. I saw it as beautiful trinket and didn’t realise its full meaning at the time. But perhaps my journey was safer because of it?
Another age-old Silk Road amulet: hand-shaped hamsas, plentiful in markets from Morocco to Israel. The graceful palms—which Jews call Hands of Miriam and Muslims know as Hands of Fatima—are rendered in brass, tin, enamel, and other materials. They’re available to go on necklaces, wall hangings, door knockers, coffee mugs, and what are surely meant to be protective candles.
“A lot of these traditions and beliefs are more universal than just Moroccan or Muslim or Arab. They follow the trader paths—so people were sharing culture,” says Maryam Montague, an Iranian-American collector/entrepreneur in Marrakesh, Morocco. Speaking on Zoom from Peacock Pavilions, the hotel she operates there, she shows me an array of amulets from Mali, Morocco, Afghanistan, and beyond. Some are incorporated into her property’s boho interiors, others are personal.
Charms can also be abstracted or spun out into less-recognisable forms—evil eyes represented by triangular patterns in a carpet or rounded mirrors on a tapestry. Or, says Montague, one might see a hamsa not as a full hand but as some grouping representing five fingers: five dots on a glazed platter, five cowry shells studding a leather amulet. Montague helped me realise that a scarf I bought in Afghanistan years ago, covered with sequins, might have had more meaning than I knew.
Dive into a country’s folk art and artifacts, Montague says, and you’ll find “there are just layers and layers of magic” around you.
People believe in providence-bringing creatures throughout the world—lucky elephants in Thailand (exportable as souvenir bag charms, necklaces or T-shirts), the protective torito de pucará (ceramic bulls) that grace many rooftops in rural Peru and Bolivia.
Someday, if I’m lucky enough to visit Japan, perhaps one of those little waving cats, the maneki-neko, will greet me at the entrance of a restaurant or shop. They’re meant to attract customers and bring wealth and luck. The figurines appear to me to be waving their paws goodbye, but the movement, in Japanese culture, is apparently a beckoning one. They’re easy to find as souvenirs, but serious cat lovers can take a deep dive into the maneki-neko verse with feline-shaped cookies, cups, wind chimes, and key chains. Instead, I’ll buy some omamori, small brocade silk pouches holding written prayers, sold in Japan’s Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
In many countries, ritualistic actions are believed to impact luck. In England, some people say the word “rabbit” the first morning of each month when they wake up. Serbs might spill water behind someone going on a journey or job interview. On New Year’s Eve, Spaniards wear red underwear and eat a dozen grapes as the bell tolls at midnight, supposedly to usher in 12 months of good fortune. Spanish friends of mine recount inventive strategies to get those grapes down in a flash: removing seeds ahead of time, pre peeling the skins.
I lived in Russia for years, and its protective habits rubbed off on me a little. I sometimes knock on wood or pretend to spit over my shoulder.
Whatever action or amulet a culture has to summon good and repel evil, their power appears to lie in the mind of the beholder. “In a series of experiments, researchers have asked people to solve anagrams, carry out golf putts, et cetera, both with and without their favourite charms,” says Wiseman. “People obtained higher scores when they had their charm with them. The idea is that the charms reduce anxiety and that, in turn, helps performance.”
Does Wiseman keep a lucky token with him? His answer seems a bit superstitious: “Alas, I really don’t,” he says. “The downside of having a lucky charm is that you can become anxious when you lose the object.”
But a talisman can also be a tangible reminder of a culture visited, of a trip dreamed of before, during, and long after it happens.
In Morocco, shortly before the coronavirus hit, Montague went to the seaside city of Essaouria, where she picked up an antique Berber ring for her college-age son. It was made of a silver coin grasped by two tiny metal hands. Though it was more interesting than lovely—carved, heavy, nicked, and quite worn—the merchant who sold it to her insisted it would bring good fortune.
“I think the problem is we buy things purely for their beauty rather than their purpose or meaning,” she says. Her son, by the way, is wearing the ring and thriving. “He got straight A’s on his exams!”