“Luck,” the playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote, “is believing you’re lucky.” That may be true, but people around the world have always tried to boost their good fortunes with talismans, symbols and trinkets—including a few that may seem bizarre today.
From phallic charms to chimney sweeps, discover eight of the most unusual good luck charms from history.
ORIGIN: Ancient Rome
The ancient Romans were staunch believers in the powers of amulets, pendants and other good luck charms, but few talismans are as unusual as the tintinnabulum. Ostensibly a wind chime, the tintinnabulum typically featured a collection of bells surrounding a bronze carving of a winged phallus. When hung from a doorway or window and rustled by the breeze, the tintinnabulum would create a jingling sound that was believed to ward off bad spirits and bring good fortune to the household.
The tintinnabulum wasn’t the only Roman trinket to feature a winged phallus, or “fascinus.” The design was a recurring motif in Roman art, thought to offer protection against the “evil eye.” According to the ancient writer Marcus Terentius Varro, Roman boys were even known to wear fascinus amulets around their necks to prevent harm from coming to them.
2. Chimney Sweeps
ORIGIN: 18th Century
In the British Isles and other parts of Europe, there is a long-held belief that chimney sweeps are bringers of good luck. Though the origins of the superstition are somewhat murky, one version tells of an intrepid sweep rescuing King George III from a runaway horse, while another holds that a soot-covered laborer once slipped off a roof and ended up dangling from a ledge, only to be saved by a woman who later became his wife.
According to legend, shaking a chimney sweep’s hand or passing one on the street is a harbinger of good fortune. The tradition is most famously associated with weddings, as it’s believed to be particularly auspicious for couples to encounter chimney sweeps immediately after leaving the church. Even today, some couples hire a chimney sweep—complete with brush, top hat and a soot-smeared face—to give the bride a lucky kiss.
3. Hangman’s Ropes
ORIGIN: Medieval Era
During the days of public executions in Europe and the United States, it was not uncommon for spectators to hunt down artifacts associated with the condemned. One of the most sought-after of these morbid souvenirs was the hangman’s noose, which was widely believed to hold special powers. “This ill-omened cord seems to have possessed a great reputation in different times and countries for rare occult and beneficent qualities,” a British magazine noted in 1882.
Sick people would wrap the ropes around their heads as a cure for headaches and fevers, but the talisman was most popular among gamblers and cardsharps, many of whom believed that owning a piece of a noose would keep them in good standing with Lady Luck. The ropes were so valuable that hangmen were even known to cut them into pieces for sale as good luck charms.
4. Birth Cauls
ORIGIN: Ancient Rome
A caul—the name comes from the Latin for “helmeted head”—refers to a piece of amniotic membrane that sometimes covers the face of newborn babies. The condition is relatively harmless, but its extreme rarity led to a number of age-old superstitions. In ancient Rome, it was widely believed that a caul was a lucky omen, and possession of a one would bring its owner good fortune. The Emperor Diadumenianus, for example, got his name from being born with a caul that resembled a “diadem,” or crown.
In subsequent eras, cauls were variously thought to confer eloquence, good health and financial success, and they were so prized that midwives were known to steal them from newborn babies. The belief that cauls were lucky totems prevailed in Europe as recently as the 19th century when preserved membranes were advertised for sale in newspapers. They were particularly sought after by sailors and ship captains, many of whom believed that owning a caul would protect them against drowning.
ORIGIN: Late 19th century
First arising as a fad in the late 19th century in Britain, Australia and the United States, “Fumsups” were tiny charms featuring a cherub-faced doll giving the lucky thumbs-up gesture with both hands. The trinkets had bodies made of metal, and a wooden head that allowed their owner to “touch wood” or “knock on wood” for good fortune. “Behold in me, the birth of luck,” read a poem that accompanied one advertisement, “two charms combined—touchwood-fumsup.” Fumsups were at their most popular during World War I, when they were often given to soldiers to serve as lucky talismans on the battlefront. Some versions also featured a four-leaf clover painted on the doll’s head to give their owners an extra dose of good fortune.
The ancient swastika, which translates roughly to “wellbeing” in Sanskrit, has long been a sacred sign in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Starting in the 19th century, new archaeological discoveries saw the bent cross emerge as a good luck symbol in the West, and by the early 20th century, it appeared on everything from Coca-Cola advertisements to Boy Scout merit badges, food packaging, airplanes and jewelry—even the uniforms of Canadian hockey teams.
The swastika’s meaning began to shift in the 1920s and 1930s when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party appropriated it as a symbol of their belief in an ancient Aryan race. The association transformed the swastika into a hated emblem of fascism following World War II—it was even banned outright in postwar Germany—but it continues to function as a religious symbol to many around the globe.
ORIGIN: Ancient Greece
Belief in the lucky hunchback dates back to the ancient world, where people with spinal curvature or other physical ailments were often cruelly viewed as being comical. Both the Greeks and Romans depicted hunchbacked figures in their art and sculpture, and it was widely thought that rubbing an afflicted person’s hump would bring good fortune.
According to historian Barbara Hughes Fowler, author of The Hellenistic Aesthetic, hunchbacks may have also been thought to divert the “evil eye” curse “because of their sheer ugliness, or because they provoke laughter, which would in itself dispel the dark powers, or because they somehow anticipated the worst that the eye could do.” The superstition is most closely associated with the Mediterranean—a hunchback charm known as a “Gobbo” can still be found in Italy today—but it also existed in the United States, where, in the early 20th century, professional baseball clubs often enlisted hunchbacks as lucky team mascots.
ORIGIN: Middle Ages
Bezoars are hardened, pearl-like clumps of indigestible matter that sometimes form in the stomach lining of animals such as goats, llamas, deer and sheep. Middle Eastern physicians first mentioned the stones sometime around 1000 A.D., and the stones became known as mystical good luck charms throughout Europe and Asia. Bezoar stones were often mounted in elaborate gold settings or worn as protective amulets, but they were also prized for their supposed curative powers.
Since certain animals ate venomous snakes, it was believed that the bezoars from their bellies contained a small remnant of toxin that could serve as an antidote to poisons. The stones were also believed to counteract a host of other ailments including epilepsy, dysentery and even the plague. During the ravages of the Black Death in the 14th century, the stones were laid on the bodies of bubonic plague victims in the hope of curing their sores.